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 to his more menacing persona -- and the films took up timely issues such as rising nationalism and the question of remilitarization, all while remaining generally wholesome, free of nudity, profanity, and graphic violence.

The first American attempt to capitalize on the Godzilla franchise came in 1998, when TriStar Pictures and the blockbuster director Roland Emmerich, together with the producer Dean Devlin, created a movie that brought the King of the Monsters to New York City. Emmerich and Devlin tried hard to divorce their monster from its Japanese inspiration: Japan barely features in the picture at all, and the creature bears little resemblance to its predecessors. (Godzilla is portrayed as a relatively sleek, feral animal, devoid of personality and his trademark radioactive breath.) And the film did not make any pretense of engaging with larger social issues. The soulless 1998 Godzilla was a marvel of computer-generated special effects, but was a critical flop. The much-hyped film failed to capture the imagination of the American moviegoing public, and plans for Hollywood sequels were soon scrapped. 

Sixteen years after Tristar’s dud -- although only a decade removed from the release of the last Japanese feature, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) -- the Hollywood studio Legendary Pictures has tried once more to bring Godzilla across the Pacific. The special effects are, yet again, state-of-the-art. But this time around, Hollywood has succeeded at creating a Godzilla invested with personality and metaphorical meaning. In the hands of British director Gareth Edwards, this latest reboot brings to the screen a Godzilla that remains true to the spirit of the Japanese series while creating a very American, very twenty-first-century monster.

This latest Godzilla, for example, depicts gluttony for food and sex in ways that were never a feature of Japanese productions. Godzilla has a husky build, thick around the neck and broad in the beam, to match his newfound appetites. His adversaries, the bat-like MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), snack compulsively on nuclear reactors -- eating is, in fact, the only thing that seems to distract them from mating. The humans in the new film are also notably frisky: there are far more overt displays of affection in the first 15 minutes of the 2014 Godzilla than in the entire Japanese franchise, which totaled one very chaste kiss over 50 years.

In good Hollywood fashion, the new Godzilla movie is also exceedingly violent. In the vast majority of the Japanese movies, the violence was minimal and highly stylized: seldom were viewers shown anything more vicious than two actors in rubber suits playfully wrestling. After the original 1954 Gojira, which was more frank in its portrayals of the physical and human costs of monstrous rampages, depictions of casualties were rare. And even in the more recent Japanese films, Godzilla and his foes generally did not gush blood or visibly lose limbs, tails, or claws (although King Ghidorah, a frequent Godzilla adversary with an abundance of heads, is decapitated on occasion). The carnage of the latest Godzilla -- from the irradiation of a team of engineers in the movie’s opening moments to the spectacular demise of the female MUTO -- is a departure from Japanese precedent, but a concession to the formula for a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.

To the extent that this latest Godzilla is a heroic figure, he is reminiscent of the Japanese Godzilla of the 1960s and 1970s, a protective creature who repeatedly and dependably saved Japan and the world from an onslaught of alien monsters. But there are crucial differences. Unlike its predecessors, the latest Godzilla is not entirely anthropomorphized. Any urge to defend humankind is an accidental byproduct of the instincts he developed to survive in some distant primordial ecosystem -- or at least so we are informed by Dr. Serizawa, a Japanese scientist of uncertain specialization who dishes out orientalized aphorisms that gloss the monster’s behavior and apparent motivations. Godzilla’s pursuit of the MUTOs, Serizawa assures viewers, is less heroic bravado than deep genetic programming, an explanation that rings true to contemporary audiences well attuned to environmental science and genetics. As a predator, the top of the prehistoric food chain, the monster is compelled to hunt down and kill his ancient parasitic prey.

The most marked shift between the Japanese films and the new Hollywood version is in the monster’s ostensible national identity. In the 28 films made by Toho, Godzilla is unmistakably identified as one of wareware Nihonjin (we Japanese): a monster that goes out of his way to protect and defend his adopted home islands. But things are very different in the 2014 version: as Godzilla turns for the sea at the end of the new movie, we briefly see a 24-hour news network feed declaring him “King of the Monsters -- Savior of Our City.” After liberating San Francisco from the spawning MUTOs, Godzilla is thus crowned as a defender of the United States. Japan is little more than a scenic backdrop in the 2014 Godzilla, a place through which the story must pass on the way to the real action in the United States. Japan, in Edwards’ universe, is depicted as a fanciful, storybook locale, depicted in crudely stereotypical Oriental style, with Mount Fuji towering over every shot. And although all of the U.S. cities destroyed in the movie are real, the Japanese city ravaged by the earlier stirrings of the MUTOs, the awkwardly named Janjira, is pure fiction.

As a result of Godzilla’s reworked identity, two of the defining themes of the Japanese series were lost, no doubt intentionally. The Toho franchise was characterized by an enduring (if often subtle) current of anti-Americanism and a restrained (though undeniably celebratory) strain of Japanese nationalism. The 1954 Gojira was very much a morality play, with America’s callous use of the atomic bombs and reckless nuclear testing program contrasted starkly with the film’s portrayal of Japan and its scientists as humane, principled, and self-sacrificing. As is now widely known, when Gojira was released in America in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, all of the Japanese original’s implicit and explicit criticisms of the United States were cut out. The popular 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla was marketed on both sides of the Pacific as a showdown between the Hollywood ape and Japan’s giant reptile, the movie closing with a face-saving draw for both combatants. In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), the filmmakers went so far as to suggest that Godzilla had fought on the Japanese side during World War II, rescuing an Imperial Army garrison and driving U.S. Marines off of his native island in the South Seas. Indeed, from the very first movie (and especially in the pictures from the 1990s and the new millennium), the series has showcased and applauded the Japanese military. Despite an antiwar constitution and a generally pacifist Japanese public, the Godzilla films regularly portrayed Japan’s Self Defense Forces as committed and courageous (even if generally ineffective) protectors of the nation against unrelenting kaiju attacks.

Significantly, the new Godzilla rewrites the foundational mythology of the series, absolving the United States of responsibility for creating the monster. The original Godzilla film, Gojira, established that Godzilla was a survivor from the Jurassic era, rendered huge and hostile by the U.S. government’s H-bomb test on Bikini Atoll in March 1954. Although the 2014 film may not be quite as cynical or as simplistic as the earlier TriStar version, which posited Godzilla’s genesis in French nuclear blasts in Polynesia, it still rescues the United States from any culpability. Edwards’ creation story casts the United States in a positive, even noble, light. Godzilla, we are assured, was a giant monster that crawled spontaneously from the earth sometime after World War II. The United States’ Cold War nuclear tests in the South Pacific are presented as a desperate (and ultimately futile) effort to rid the world of a towering reptilian scourge, rather than a chilling instance of Cold War gamesmanship.

In other words, Hollywood has managed to make Godzilla completely, and effectively, reflect its own prejudices: Japan is invisible, the United States is pure and innocent, and the monster (despite, technically, being an undocumented alien) is symbolically transformed into an American patriot. In a more general sense, the film depicts the entire globe as the United States’ proper stage. The U.S. Navy is omnipresent, from the coasts of Japan to the Golden Gate Bridge, and skies everywhere seem to be choked with Blackhawk helicopters. American scientists run Japan’s nuclear facilities and command the sprawling hush-hush operations to contain deadly radiation (and even deadlier monsters) on Japanese soil. The 2014 Godzilla reinforces political assumptions common in the United States today -- that the United States is the only global power, that Europe (here in the persona of NATO) barely rates passing mention, and that the developing world, including China, would still do best to submit to U.S. military might.

Fortunately, there is a subtler and more interesting message in this latest film, which astute viewers would be wise to look out for. The new Godzilla traces the same emotional trajectory that Gojira did decades ago. For Japanese audiences in 1954 -- who remained haunted by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the wartime firebombing of their cities, and the humiliation of surrender -- watching the rampages of a cinematic monster in Tokyo was a cathartic experience, with many people reportedly leaving the theaters in tears. The 2014 Godzilla is hardly so compelling, yet its relentless catalogue of visual references to familiar natural disasters -- including the San Francisco earthquake, the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and the evacuation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina -- is nonetheless meaningful, even haunting, for contemporary viewers.

Both films end with narrative closure and reassurance for traumatized audiences: in Gojira the creature is killed by a fearsome new Japanese superweapon and in Godzilla the threat of monster spawn overwhelming the West Coast is averted. The people of Japan and America, six decades apart, can breathe collective sighs of relief and celebrate moments of patriotic triumph. But the filmmakers similarly leave us wondering how long the illusion of security and the blush of nationalist elation can last. In the final scene of Gojira, one character muses ominously, “If we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.” And, of course, at the fade-out of Godzilla in 2014, the saurian giant heads back to the sea. The message is clear. For Godzilla, for movie studios, and for those of us in the back rows of darkened theaters, there is no end in sight: the monster and the sequels will return.

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  • WILLIAM M. TSUTSUI is president of Hendrix College and author of Godzilla of My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (2004).
  • More By William M. Tsutsui