Godzilla is almost certainly Japan’s most popular and enduring cultural export. The star of 28 pictures made by the Japanese studio Toho from 1954 to 2004, Godzilla evolved out of Japan’s specific experiences with war, nuclear fear, and economic reconstruction. (Although the giant radioactive reptile was also originally inspired by American cinematic monsters, especially King Kong and the raging rhedosaurus that headlined the 1953 movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.)
With the release this month of a glossy, fast-paced, and heavily marketed new blockbuster directed by Gareth Edwards, Hollywood is attempting (for the second time) to appropriate Godzilla for the United States -- and the effort very well may succeed. In one sense, that is par for the course: Godzilla has remained relevant because of his uncanny ability to reflect the shifting obsessions, anxieties, and expectations of moviegoers across decades, national boundaries, and wide cultural divides. And yet, in Americanizing Godzilla, we risk losing something important.
The Godzilla of the inaugural 1954 feature Gojira was dark and vengeful. Born of American nuclear testing in the South Pacific, the monster was a visceral reminder of the horrors of war for a nation less than a decade removed from Hiroshima and unconditional surrender aboard the USS Missouri. By the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of the series, as memories of the war faded and Japan prospered economically, Godzilla was transformed. In that more confident and optimistic time, he was recast from an avenging radioactive threat into a defender and champion of Japan -- a goofy, good-natured, reptilian Superman who protected the nation from a host of alien monsters. The movies still addressed political issues relevant to Japanese audiences -- government corruption, rampant consumerism, industrial pollution -- but generally in superficial, often lighthearted, ways.
In his later incarnations, from the 1980s through 2004, Godzilla returned to the screen as a much larger creature (reflecting the growth in the Tokyo skyline), enhanced with better special-effects technology and sporting more swagger and attitude. At a time of rising political and economic instability in Japan, Godzilla reverted
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