In the Shadow of the Beast: The Cross-Cultural Impact of Godzilla, by Kate Voss
On the surface, it’s not hard to understand the enduring appeal of the Gojira franchise: an enormous lizard-like life-form lays waste to an urban landscape (occasionally with the help of other, equally rubber-suited, reptilian pals) and has radioactive fire-breath to boot. Yet it was Godzilla’s unexpected humility that allowed him to make the leap from a scaly sociopolitical supervillain to Saturday morning cartoon superstar, a feat rarely, if ever, seen in popular culture. Not just any old reptile monster could sustain sixty years of films, television shows and video games. His capacity to be seen as a multidimensional character, as something more than just an irritated dinosaur, captivated audiences when the film was exported to America. While the fantastical appeal of a lizard creature that can stomp buildings beneath its feet is undeniable, Godzilla’s greatest achievement lies in his remarkable ability to transcend film genres and language barriers, securing his place as one of the first “soft power” success stories.
In the final moments of the original 1954 film, archeologist Kyohei Yamane predicts the return of Godzilla, suggesting his immortality: “If we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again!” And appear again he has, in many different incarnations worldwide. One of the first Japanese imports to impact American entertainment produced during the postwar period, the enormous irradiated reptile started a pop-culture chain reaction that has yet to slow down. To this day, most of his films are still available to viewers via Netflix, Hulu, and occasionally as DTV specials, or on demand. Godzilla’s footprints were only the beginning of a dissemination and circulation of Japanese popular culture that continues to influence contemporary America.
Facilitating play-acting and fantasy, Godzilla fulfills desires associated with mythical, romantic creatures. He embodies, on some levels, the destructive power of the creatures in Jurassic Park, while retaining some of the cute and endearing qualities that draw us to Disney characters. His success on the big screen showed that there was more to Japan than Geishas and Samurai, and with the popularity of his films other Japanese characters were allowed some time in the spotlight.
Japanese cartoons, like Astro Boy and Speed Racer, rode in on Godzilla’s coattails and found themselves embraced by American children eager for a new style of animation. In the 1990’s, the Japanese series Super Sentai was repackaged and released as The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, a wildly successful children’s television program. It was only a matter of time before other sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel monsters appeared, and soon the wave of Pokemon and (non-monster) Hello Kitty arrived on our shores. Lastly, in an unexpected turn, Godzilla’s influence could be seen on the American cartoon Rugrats, in the character “Reptar”, a green dinosaur monster modeled after the original radioactive terror.
Yet much is still lost in translation.”Probably the most difficult aspect for Westerners to understand is that at the heart Godzilla is considered a force of nature by Japanese, and not an oversize radioactive lizard,” says Norman England, director of the kaiju documentary Bringing Godzilla Down to Size.
While most viewers are aware that Godzilla is a Japanese creation, many miss or misunderstand the elements of him that are uniquely Japanese. But imaginations piqued by the complexity and strangeness of an alternative (non-American) world can at the very least respect the power that this cross-cultural icon holds. As series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka said, “As long as the arrogance of human beings exists, Godzilla will survive.”