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Film Review: Godzilla

How the decades-old Godzilla franchise has gradually encountered environmental themes

by Alberto Sclaverano for Citiplat

Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) is one of the most famous Japanese movies ever made. It has created the “kaijū eiga” sub-genre (films featuring giant monsters) and introduced one of the most enduring pop-culture icons of the second half of the XX century. Since 1954 Godzilla, the giant atomic dinosaur, has appeared in thirty-eight movies, of whom one is releasing this month (Godzilla Minus One/Gojira Mainasu Wan) and another will arrive in April 2024, and is more successful than ever, being now at the center of two series produced simultaneously, the classical Japanese franchise and a new American one. So, it is interesting to reflect on the allegorical and social themes of the Godzilla series and verify if it has dealt with environmental themes during its decades-long run. The answer is yes, but not since the beginning. Godzilla was first and foremost a way by which the Japanese people indirectly criticized the use of the atomic bomb in 1945, and denounced the dangers of the nuclear era. Godzilla is an ancient survivor dinosaur mutated by the H bomb nuclear tests. The original film has nothing to do with the colorful and silly elements of the Shōwa era (1954-1975) sequels, which consist mainly of movies aimed at kids. It is instead a dark and sad film, in which Godzilla is not Japan’s protector as in the sequels, but instead a malevolent creature that brings terrible misery and destruction to Tokyo and Japan, and that becomes an allegory of the horrors of the war and nuclear attacks.

In the sequels, some environmental elements started to appear at least since Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Gojira tai Hedora, 1971) in which Godzilla fought an alien monster that fed on pollution, and threatened Japan due to its great production of toxic waste. This weird Shōwa era film mirrored the rise of environmental conscience in developed societies, where pollution and industrial waste disposal started to be perceived as serious problems. Many movies followed in the Heisei era (1984-1995), the Millenium era (1999-2004), and the Reiwa era (which started in 2016 with Shin Godzilla/Shin Gojira). After a first failed attempt by Roland Emmerich (Godzilla, 1998), the giant monster has also become the protagonist of a successful American series: Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse”, launched after a deal with Japanese original production company Toho.

In Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla (2014), the titular monster is no more a mutated dinosaur. It is instead the last survival of an ancient species of giant creatures that developed the capacity to feed and use radiation. It is neither good nor evil and acts mainly as a force of nature, forced to come out from the Oceans to eliminate two other giant insect-like monsters that threaten Earth’s ecosystem. So, Godzilla and its enemies become a metaphor for the failure of mankind in dealing with nature and establishing a positive relationship with the Earth. The degradation of the environment due to intensive land use and resource exploitation are alluded to in the story as a cause for ancient beasts’ return, but the ecological themes become even more explicit in the sequel, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). This time a disenchanted scientist played by Vera Farmiga released the giant monsters Rodan, Mothra, and the evil dragon King Ghidorah (all classical creatures of the 1960s Japanese movies) to stop humankind’s devastation of the environment and restore an equilibrium on the Earth. Of course, Godzilla will be forced to act to save the world from Ghidorah. The “MonsterVerse” has since continued by putting Godzilla alongside King Kong (Godzilla vs. Kong, 2021, and upcoming Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire).

The American series is heavily focused on special effects and disaster scenes, but what is fascinating is how Godzilla has modified its allegorical meanings through the decades. It is no more a metaphor for the nuclear apocalypse and Cold War era dreads. Now the end of the world is associated with the environmental crisis and man-related climate change. Giant monsters have always been a way to exorcise and materialize our deepest fears. The incoming risk of the Earth’s ecosystem collapse due to the failed attempt to tackle the climate crisis is undoubtedly today’s biggest collective nightmare, and Godzilla will continue for a long time to be a symbol of our fears, including climate change-related ones.


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