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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

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Looking on Godzilla’s filmographic history

Nathan Rich

For nearly 70 years, Godzilla films have entertained, horrified and fascinated us. Though the destructive spectacle of this franchise may be entertaining, Godzilla is far more than a monster: he holds much deeper socio-political significance — the profundity of which has resonated with audiences for generations.

Godzilla made his first appearance in the eponymous 1954 sci-fi horror film “Gojira.” Japanese filmmaker Ishirō Honda presented Godzilla as a prehistoric reptile irradiated and mutated by a U.S. nuclear test in the Pacific. Seeking revenge against humanity for his disfigurement, Godzilla directs his rage toward Tokyo, laying waste to the city until his defeat by way of a fictional chemical weapon known as the Oxygen Destroyer.

The original film portrays Godzilla as an allegory for the dangers of nuclear weapons, often regarded as a metaphor for the U.S. use of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Created by the same technology used to mercilessly wipe out hundreds of thousands of people and injure countless more, Godzilla’s original incarnation not only represented the existential threat of atomic warfare but also the fear that these weapons of mass destruction could be used again.

A film series starring the tragic titan throughout the Shōwa era followed “Gojira”’s box office success. Like the original 1954 film, Godzilla’s role remained that of an antagonist in movies like 1955’s “Godzilla Raids Again” and 1964’s “Mothra vs. Godzilla.”

As the Shōwa era progressed, Godzilla became something of an antihero. He became a protector — albeit not necessarily for altruistic reasons. In the 1964 film ‘Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster,’ Godzilla faces the three-headed King Ghidorah to counter his goal of destroying Earth. In their first battle, Godzilla fights primarily because Earth is his home territory, rather than out of a desire to defend humans.

In the later years of the Shōwa era, Godzilla’s character grew to take on a range of themes as diverse as the monsters he fought. In many ways, his presentation remained true to his past appearances, defending our world from extraterrestrial threats in movies like 1968’s “Destroy All Monsters.” However, Godzilla introduced environmentalist commentary in films like 1971’s “Godzilla vs. Hedorah.”

As the Heisei era began, Toho filmmakers took Godzilla in an interesting direction, emphasizing the high-concept campiness of his filmography in movies like ‘Godzilla vs. Biollante’ and ‘Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla.’ This era reiterates Godzilla’s moral greyness, pitting him against classic foes such as Ghidorah, Destoroyah and Mechagodzilla in destructive battles for dominance and survival. Unlike the Shōwa incarnations, the Heisei era occasionally emphasized the heroic aspect of Godzilla’s antiheroism in movies like the 1995 film “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.”

Godzilla’s clash with Destoroyah showcased his role as Earth’s unlikely defender and offered insight into his character development. Godzilla was a tragic victim of atomic testing, but the same weapon used to kill Godzilla in 1954 created the villainous Destoroyah. In this sense, the face-off between these two creatures represents a deep reflection on the original allegory of Godzilla, proving that he is far more than the circumstances of his creation. Godzilla actively chooses to fight for the planet and reclaim the nuclear power that he was subjected to, demonstrating a key reason why the Heisei era of Godzilla films is so beloved.

Whereas the Millennium era of Godzilla films harkened back to his early Shōwa days of wanton destruction and borderline villainy, the ongoing Reiwa era would usher in his most diverse range of characterizations to date. The 2016 film ‘Shin Godzilla’ kicked off this new age by modernizing Godzilla’s original allegory, establishing his radioactive origins in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident and satirizing the bureaucratic response to the real-world incident.

Drawing upon themes of cosmic horror, this film portrays Godzilla both as a sympathetic victim of scientific hubris and an unstoppable consequence thereof, the embodiment of both his powerlessness and that of humanity in its losing battle against him.

Parallel to the Reiwa-era Godzilla films is the MonsterVerse, an ongoing cinematic universe created by Legendary Pictures. Launched with the 2014 film ‘Godzilla,’ this franchise pays homage to Godzilla’s rich legacy and his original nuclear metaphor while taking him in a new, interesting direction. It presents Godzilla as a force of balance juxtaposed with humanity’s powerlessness against nature, introducing a different kind of reflection on the weaponization of the atom and its global ramifications.

More recently, the Oscar-winning 2023 film ‘Godzilla Minus One’ took time to flesh out Godzilla’s political themes. In this incarnation, Godzilla’s vengeful rampage through post-war Tokyo symbolizes the grim socio-political state of Japan in the late 1940s, as well as the nationwide feeling of helplessness following the use of nuclear weapons on its cities. Interweaving an intricate story of survivor’s guilt with the horrifying threat posed by its eponymous antagonist, ‘Godzilla Minus One’ stands as one of the greatest Godzilla films ever made.

Over his decades-long filmography, Godzilla has persisted as an everchanging message about nuclear weapons and their global impact — and because of the versatile ways in which this allegory has been presented, Godzilla remains just as fresh, intriguing and complex as he was in 1954. With ‘Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire’ coming out later this month, I am excited to see how the allegory of Godzilla will tell new stories.

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