The stark contrast between Western Kaiju movies and traditional kaiju movies is that in the west the human is the main character and the Kaiju are supporting. Godzilla 2014 made this abundantly clear. That movie is about a family and how their lives are ripped apart by kaiju. And it was filmed so that you always felt that the view was realistic, it was always from an angle that a regular person in the screaming masses could’ve actually seen. The main appeal of traditional kaiju films are the gigantic battles filmed like a sporting event (sumo wrestling specifically).
Pacific Rim has both these qualities. The awesome struggle between giants but still the film is really about several human characters. And in many ways it has more in common with alien invasion movies like Independence Day (and remember the dudes who made that movie made their own Godzilla film). The kaiju are soldiers in Pacific Rim, not characters.
But Godzilla, Gamera, Mothra, etc are characters. They are the main antagonists or protagonists in their films. Gamera and Mothra are always protagonists and Godzilla switches. King Kong might be the father of all this wonderful kaiju nonsense. And if he is he clearly falls under the traditional vein at least as much as the western one. It seems a bit obvious when you simply look at the titles. The first Kong film, and the same basic premise that keeps getting remade, is really the story of a few characters and their adventure. But without Kong and his island there’s no adventure to go on, and really Kong is the showpiece. He is the reason we are watching.
I don’t know why I felt the need to pen these thoughts, I was watching Godzilla 1984 for the first time and it just became abundantly clear to me how different the cultural lens are that have produced these kaiju movies. If the Jurassic Park films count then they also figure perfectly within the western frame.
And I think Godzilla is especially interesting as a cultural artifact. In some ways he represents the Asian ideal of natural balance. Godzilla changes from film to film in what he symbolizes. As I mentioned above sometimes he’s a hero and sometimes he’s a villain. When he’s a villain he often represents either the natural backlash against Japan’s rise leading to WWII or the shame and fear experienced by the Japanese in their failure during WWII, the penultimate moment being of course the atomic bomb. When he’s a hero it seems as if he represents the inverse natural principle: the hope of the balancing of nature. All this should make clear why Japanese Godzilla films are about Godzilla and why western versions are about people. The Japanese view themselves as a people, a community within a natural construct. Westerners deny both the community and the construct. As a Christian I see problems and virtues with both.
But take a step back and look at how amazingly appropriate Godzilla is as a Cold War Icon of Japan. First take a further step back and think of another film that needs be discussed.
Seven Samurai is like Casablanca switched places with The Third Man…in Japan. What I mean by this is that Casablanca is in many ways about the United States gaining honor amongst the nations of the world for the first time. Not an honor of power or victory: an honor of moral dignity, of radical altruism. The third man is like the cynical inverse (a truly unfair one given how much money and work the US put into rebuilding war torn Europe) where we see the United States bumbling about in post war profiteering of the worst sort. In other words it halts the optimism of America’s place in the post war world.
Seven Samurai is like this in reverse. It takes a fallen disgraced people and personifies them as honorable peasants and Ronin. This is why the title is so telling. It isn’t called the seven Ronin, it’s called the seven samurai. This is like a film about 7 mafios or mercenaries in the west being called the seven Knights. Japan lost her sense of self after WWII. She had been shamed. She had gone from Samurai to Ronin. Yet according to Kurosawa she still had the soul of a glorious samurai. She wore the clothes of a Ronin but needed to reclaim the bearing of a Samurai.
The trouble is that practically speaking this was essentially existential optimism. Every other country had been left in the dust by the rise of the Soviet Union and the United States: two countries made of little countries. It’s no surprise when you consider the science of success as to why these two giants had arisen from the bones of WWII. They were big. Big means diverse. And diverse means more chance of success.
But this shows us why Godzilla is just as important as Seven Samurai to understand the soul of Japan. Gojira unsurprisingly came out the same year as Shichinin No Samurai and from the same studio. But what we see in the Kaiju genre is the Cold War writ large from a third party perspective. Two titans duking it out. When one looks carefully at the situation surrounding the nuclear bombing of Japan it is apparent that the strategy had little to do with conquering Japan and much to do with the Soviet Union. In a way the Cold War started on V E day. This means that Godzilla simply is the atomic bomb: a burning, crushing, apocalyotic monster indifferent to Japan. Japan was simply a playground now for the rising world Giants. Maybe they deserved this disgrace and maybe they didn’t, it didn’t matter: the world had become a kaiju and the Japanese felt like it was coming for them.