American Cinematic Imperialism: A scholarly paper about Godzilla.
April 9, 2005
American Cinematic Imperialism:
Appropriating the Rhetoric of Godzilla
In the wake of the nuclear bomb, the cinema industry went wild with revisions of Frankenstein’s creation. They saw the destructive power of this new warfare as exceeding man’s humanity and repeatedly showed how it could inadvertently create an insurmountable being with even more consistent destructive power than a nuclear weapon and its fallout. The world was quickly populated by giant radioactive monsters of all sorts, symbolizing the bomb-implied path of man to find increasingly powerful scientific ways to kill each other. These “B-movies” had different tactics and messages in their narrative to address the issue, but most, if not all, commonly tried to resolve the fear by giving it shape and then “killing” it.
In his essay, Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is U.S., Chon Noriega argues that this strategy is dependent on the perspective of the origin country. He says that in the American versions of these films,
The monsters are hated, feared, and eventually destroyed through force, often a variation of the technology that created them. The film’s apparent self-examination –‘look at what we’ve accidentally created’ – lasts until the monster’s autonomy and threat shifts responsibility from American science onto the monster itself. The films effectively destroy any causal relationship…[and]…the Americans in the film, freed from implication in the monster’s threat, can now use nuclear or other force to destroy it.
Because America is the creator of this particular Frankenstein, American depiction of nuclear science in the fifties, when these films were popular, was usually centered on justifying further pursuit and, retroactively, its use. Oppositely when the Japanese tackled the subject, their perspective of the same Frankenstein was necessarily going to be different because of their role as the victim of its destructive force, therefore when they created an equivalent radioactive monster, Godzilla (or Gojira in Japan), its portrayal was deeply symbolic of the scars left from Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Even though it was originally planned as a single stand-alone film, Godzilla’s popularity has spanned twenty-seven sequels, fifty years of history, and one Hollywood interpretation. The enduring image of Godzilla as an icon is testament to something beyond “cheesy” special-effects and poor dubbing. Whatever the fan-base may be interested in, the legacy of Godzilla began with an underlying message which was, and is currently, largely missed by Western audiences because it has been reconstructed in a way that softens criticism of American ideals of scientific pursuit and is even employed to support those ideals.
Through a “close-reading” of the two versions of the original Godzilla film and the 1998 Hollywood version, I’ll attempt to bring attention to the deeper issues that the Godzilla films confront and look at how those issues have been actively obscured and ignored in America’s appropriation of the icon. By focusing on the implied rhetoric of the films, I will attempt to explicate the original meaning of the icon to trace American treatment of it. This meaning has a rhetorical function because, as Patrick Mannix says, “despite one old movie mogul’s supposed comment that messages should be sent by Western Union rather than by 20th Century Fox or MGM, theatrical films […] have recurrently attempted to make serious statements about contemporary social problems” (27). The subject-matter of the original Japanese version was exclusively “contemporary social problems,” so it follows that the American re-edit would also be, at least by relationship to the original. And while most would say that the Hollywood Godzilla, a Summer Blockbuster by all accounts, does little rhetorically in this manner, I would remind them that Summer Blockbusters are the most heavily cross-marketed and product-laden of an entire year’s worth of movies. Obviously someone thinks they have the power to convince, at the very least in the same way as a commercial.
The Original Godzilla (1950’s)
The release of Gojira (1954) and subsequently the same film re-edited as Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956) in America is a tricky one to follow. Originally intended to have deep allegorical meaning, the film was changed so substantially that the American version bears little resemblance to the Japanese film. This obviously presents a problem when attempting to examine the rhetorical function of the film, which may have been part of the initial motivation to change it. Regardless, we have two versions of the same film, one where the Japanese directly allude to unconscientious scientific pursuits, through the gateway of nuclear testing, as the cause of further destruction and death, seeing its continuation as evidence that society has not learned from its past atrocities. On the other hand, the American version downplays this dynamic by excluding particular film elements which hammer the message home and instead present a vision more in line with the Western view that these pursuits were the path to peace. Specifically, the connection between Godzilla and the H-bomb, the depiction of science, and an optimistic ending have the collective effect of shifting the narrative away from its serious subject matter to make the film a footnote among the multitude of radioactive monster movies of the day.
Recognizing these changes illustrates the film’s rhetorical intention even better than the original film could have done alone. Because it needed to be changed in order to spare American audiences a critical self-examination, it is precisely that objective which the film’s rhetoric is aimed at accomplishing. Even if it wasn’t obvious at the time, we can look back now and see that Godzilla does not represent America’s troubled relations with Japan, as Noriega proposes, but humanity’s push for scientific progress irregardless of the consequences. In the midst of the Red Scare, Americans were so afraid of the communist threat (whether caused by government influence, media influence, or simply mass-hysteria) that they simply saw no other way to peace. Embassy Pictures re-edited the Japanese Gojira for distribution in America to fit with those perceptions, and while doing so undermined the rhetorical objective right from the beginning.
Godzilla movies, and really any films, are regarded as a speaker in relation to the American audience, and as Patrick Mannix says when examining the ethical appeal of works of fiction,
If the writing is good enough, the characters in the novel [or film] will come alive in the reader’s imagination and will consequently wield their own ethical appeal – an appeal that may be even more effective than that of the author [writer/director] since the character’s personality is more vividly and more constantly present in the reader’s [or viewer’s] mind. (42)
In this way, the fiction medium advances a rhetorical purpose, but what happens to that purpose when the dialogue is either taken out of the character’s mouth and communicated through a “translator” character, or dubbed over completely with new dialogue? In fact, this was the American solution to subtitling the original film. Raymond Burr is cleverly edited into existing footage (most of which involves an equivalent Japanese reporter) and he’s consistently accompanied by some handy Japanese official to translate any remaining Japanese dialogue. As a result, the editors are able to manipulate the film’s original intention and the medium adopts a completely new rhetorical aim that reflects these changes. But the changes don’t stop with dubbing and rearrangement, the film’s content is significantly altered to reflect this new rhetorical aim as well.
In the opening sequence of Gojira, fishermen are relaxing in the middle of the ocean when a bright flash of light destroys their ship. This event is closely related to an incident that occurred that same year, the American H-bomb test on Bikini Atoll. Noriega summarizes the historical event saying,
…in March 1954, the United States exploded a fifteen-megaton H-bomb that unexpectedly sent substantial fallout across a seven-thousand-square-mile area. Twenty-eight military personnel and 239 Marshall Islanders at a presumably ‘safe’ distance were exposed to high radiation. The United States attempted to downplay the incident until it was discovered that a Japanese tuna boat, the Fukuryû Maru or ‘Lucky Dragon,’ had also been hit by fallout. The entire crew developed radiation sickness, and one member soon died.
Thus Godzilla’s origin coincides directly with the American tests to advance its nuclear weapons and therefore embodies that specific pursuit and the destruction it entails will be played out through the rest of the film. In fact, it is revealed in later films that Godzilla was resurrected by that particular historical incident, so the relationship is concrete.
Beyond this one scene connecting the film to a criticism of American ‘nuclearism,’ the Japanese version of the film includes direct references to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. A woman aboard a train says she is a survivor of Nagasaki and scenes of overfilled hospitals and city-wide fires recall the same after the bombings. This along with visual references to the similar destruction of Godzilla and nuclear weapons both make clear the perspective of the only country to feel the horrors of nuclear warfare; we cannot make the same mistake again.
The American re-edit has the exact scene in which the fishermen’s boat is destroyed, but without the emphasis of a nuclear connection it is reduced to being the first example of Godzilla’s destruction. The incident is described in the film as a “blinding flash of fire” which is close to idea of the original, but is never connected to a nuclear weapon in any concrete way, so in the minds of the audience it is the work of the only visually present destructive force in the film, Godzilla. While it is explained later in Godzilla: King of the Monsters that Godzilla was awakened by nuclear testing, no responsibility is placed on that scientific discovery or on similar scientific pursuits, freeing Western audiences of any blame associated with them. In fact, when Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) reveals the relationship of Godzilla and nuclear testing to the parliament of the American version, they immediately grow angry and seem to be yelling at him before he drops his eyes in what appears in the context to be shame. This clever editing has the effect of making it appear as though the audience listening to Yamane in the film is berating him and their government for conducting nuclear tests (again, shifting the blame from the United States) and they, in turn, are expressing a sign of responsibility for bringing this monster to life. What is actually happening in Gojira is a debate about whether to go public with Godzilla’s radioactivity or to keep it secret for fear of widespread panic.
This debate adds to the subtle formula of the film as antinuclear rhetoric, but the changes to the American version go beyond that unambiguous rhetoric and re-paint a wider, more general stroke over its view of scientific pursuits. The film is blatantly about scientific pursuit that begets a destructive force which is unconscionable, but it does not demonize science as a whole, rather through the depiction of Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) it provides a role-model as a foil for the unseen American scientists which have unleashed this particular force. In the original version this issue is tackled seriously with Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer, which will eventually be the end of Godzilla. This invention dissolves living matter by disintegrating oxygen in water and was discovered in the process of his research on oxygen. He desperately wants to keep it a secret until he can find a way to benefit humanity with its use instead of simply causing destruction, and he only relents after seeing Godzilla’s destructive power on a television newscast. When he decides to release the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla, he says, “I never thought I would reveal it like this,” before sacrificing himself to keep forever the secret of his discovery. In this way the film advocates scientific conscientiousness, by having Serizawa take into consideration how it would be utilized and going as far as death to keep it from being used to the detriment of mankind.
Not surprisingly this scientific conscientiousness is almost completely absent from the American version. While Serizawa is still unwilling to unleash the Oxygen Destroyer into a world which would readily make use of it as a weapon, a pivotal argument about the use of his discovery is cut completely and deemphasizes the message. Serizawa says in Gojira, “If the Oxygen Destroyer is used even once, politicians from around the world will see it. Of course they’ll use it as a weapon. Atom bomb versus Atom bomb, H-bomb versus H-bomb, and now a new super-weapon to throw upon us all. As a scientist, no, as a human being, I cannot allow that to happen.” Whereas in Gojira he sacrifices himself to keep this from happening, in Godzilla: King of the Monsters it is implied that he does so out of a broken heart. Serizawa tells his rival to have a happy life with the promised bride he knows doesn’t love him and cuts the line tying him to the boat, losing the meaning that his sacrifice carries in the original version.
The final change which shifts the rhetorical intention of Gojira is the altered ending. The original has an ambiguously gloomy ending, one fitting the subject-matter which is dealt with in the film. Dr. Yamane says after Godzilla has been killed, “I can’t believe Godzilla is the only survivor of its species. If we continue to test H-bombs, another Godzilla will appear again somewhere in the world.” And as William Tsutsui describes it in his book, Godzilla on My Mind,
As the film ends, all on the ship come to attention, remove their hats and pay their silent respects. But are they saluting Serizawa or the monster? Are they mourning the dead and lamenting their loss of innocence, humankind’s short-sightedness, and the inevitable horrors of the future? Is the final shot, with the sun dancing over the water, a hopeful dawn for Japan or an ominous sunset for the world? (p. 31)
This ambiguity gives the audience an opportunity to leave the theater and reflect upon the meaning of what they just saw. Clearly the filmmakers wanted to lead their audience to a new contemplation of scientific pursuit and the events of the past which it has brought upon mankind, and this ending sets up that contemplation as the next logical step. The film has taught and pleased, yet has an ending which implies a need for contemplation followed closely by a move to action. Therefore, the final scene completes Cicero’s rhetorical system.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters changes this aspect of the film to the same purpose as the other alterations, in order to obscure the original rhetoric and deposit a new one in its place. The American film ends quickly after Dr. Serizawa’s sacrifice with Raymond Burr saying, “…the whole world could wake up and live again” over the shot of the sun dancing on the water. This gives the film an “up” ending, suggesting that everything will be fine now, now that scientific discovery has been used to destroy a threat to humanity and balance is restored. This American ending obviously echoes and supports the use of nuclear weapons to end the war in the Pacific, and also implicitly the continued search for new weapons and technologies in case they are needed.
These slight changes had a devastating effect on the overall intention of the film, shifting its message to support American ideology of the time. Unfortunately, this appropriation did not stop after the original Godzilla film and therefore cannot simply be attributed to perceptions of nuclear weapons and an American fear of communism in the fifties. In fact, forty-two years later, Tristar would annex the iconic figure again and reinvent it to similar ends.
For whatever reason decisions of this kind are made, Tristar Pictures produced a totally American, special-effects laden, thrill-a-minute, Summer Blockbuster version of Godzilla in 1998. There was a strong fan-base by this time, whole generations who had grown-up watching the Japanese icon through the 60’s and 70’s. And while the films that followed Gojira were less inspiring rhetorically than the original; they had a certain charm which was separate from the serious message of the contemplative 1954 film and had acquired a following on those merits. In true Hollywood fashion, this “built-in” audience and name recognition were probably enough to convince studio executives to back the project.
While there were some avid fans that went out of their way to acquire a copy of Gojira, few were aware that Godzilla had an entirely different beginning that was separate from those 60’s and 70’s films where Godzilla often had a son and all sorts of ridiculous monster fights were the main attraction. But when Hollywood took the reigns, they went to new lengths to distance Godzilla from his origins and the American audience from its past. What results is “eye candy” with no substance, that really only works rhetorically to push away any American contemplation in order to make room for enjoyment of the “eye candy.”
The opening credits of the film are shown over images of the Tristar Godzilla’s (hereafter referred to as Fraudzilla for simplicity) beginnings as a large iguana-like creature on an island near French Polynesia where a nuclear test is being conducted. The filmmakers take the first available opportunity to make sure the audience knows there will be no challenge to their cultural history. This reassurance continues in the film when we, the audience, meet the main character, a scientist (Matthew Broderick) who studies the effects of radiation on DNA near Chernobyl in the old Soviet Union. Obviously from the French Polynesian origins and the only other direct nuclear connection in the film, his studies at Chernobyl (significantly an accident, not man-inflicted destruction), Americans are greatly distanced from their own nuclear connections, those that were the origin of Gojira in 1954.
By the time a French character tells our protagonist why he is pursuing Fraudzilla, the American audience already feels the, thus far, implied distance from any connection to the icon’s nuclear legacy, but the filmmakers take one last swift blow to sever any connection that may remain. The French character (Jean Reno) says, “It is my job to protect my country. Sometimes I must even protect it from itself…from mistakes we’ve made. Mistakes we don’t want the world to know about.” To which our scientist protagonist replies, “The nuclear tests in the Pacific?” “Yes. This testing done by my country left a terrible mess. We’re here to clean it up.” So apparently, if we follow the film’s rhetoric, Americans are the victim in this case and France is the unseen perpetrator, too distant to attract much audience malice. The audience easily dismisses serious nuclear implications for their own country because all the examples provided for its destructive power are from without.
While there’s a rhetorical objective to distance the American audience from these nuclear implications, the film also effaces Godzilla’s legacy by shifting its symbolic meaning to a more naturalistic view of the creature as a giant beast. As William Tsutsui explains,
Indeed, the so-called Godzilla of the Tristar feature does not even seem to be a monster, not a godlike being of legend, not a score-settling, conscience-rattling phantom of the imagination. Fraudzilla is just a huge, overgrown animal, a pumped-up reptile that, for reasons never fully articulated, believes New York City is a great place to raise a family. […] The monster is not a message or a symbol, but simply a pest, an unwanted, annoying intruder that needs to be exterminated like a termite in the foundation or a cockroach in the cupboard. (p. 202)
The film’s rhetoric actually goes a long way to push us in that naturalistic perspective. For instance, when our scientist protagonist first learns of Fraudzilla he is surprised and excited about this new scientific discovery, he is not filled with awe and dread befitting a grave situation. He reacts as if Fraudzilla is his Holy Grail of scientific research and since our entry-point into the fiction (the characters) don’t feel the weight of any underlying issue, neither do we as we watch. The audience knows from this point forward that they can watch the events that unfold vicariously through those same eyes, detached and simply excited about each new wonder to behold as if it were a safari and the guide were promising visions of animals never seen before.
The naturalistic perspective of the monster, besides being contrary to the history of the icon, makes us feel as though there is a certain logic to nature and helps us lift any blame from the monster for its destructive actions. This Fraudzilla is lured about by piles of fish, emphasizing biological instinct as its major motivator, and only destroys an evacuated city as it runs away from the military in self-preservation. It is nature that drives it, we say to ourselves, not an inexplicable need for destruction. There is little question about what the monster wants, and it has nothing to do with radioactivity or man’s darker side.
Oddly enough, when Toho revived their Godzilla efforts after a 4-year lapse, it was largely provoked by the 1998 American version. Their film, entitled Godzilla 2000: Millennium, was a mixture of Godzilla’s serious past and the monster-battle films of the 60’s and 70’s. The plot involved Godzilla’s attempt to destroy sources of man-made power; he is interrupted by an alien life-form which tries to become Godzilla by ingesting him. This mirrors the ‘ingestion’ of the icon that American filmmakers went through to produce their version. And in the final moments of the film, the Japanese reclaim their treasured symbol by reasserting the definition of it. A scientist (Shirô Sano) says, “Science progressing the wrong way produced Godzilla” and another (Takehiro Murata) responds insightfully, “Godzilla is in ourselves, in everybody’s mind.” Obviously the filmmakers wanted to reassert the Japanese vision of Godzilla as the ever-present dark side of the human condition to counter the American film.
Godzilla’s legacy has grown far beyond its beginnings as a serious rhetorical message about the evils of man and how they can be played out in many arenas including scientific ones. But the fact that those beginnings were purposely obscured in the American version speaks directly to its potential power as rhetoric. In fact, that power was still potent enough 40 years later for filmmakers to wipe an entire treasured history aside in order to actively avoid casting a critical eye on American conduct and scientific ideology.
The reasoning behind these changes may be similar to those Patrick Mannix describes when discussing the disadvantages of certain emotional appeals in fiction. He says,
An American confronted with images of Hiroshima victims may begin to fell guilty that his nation had caused such suffering. In itself, of course, such guilt could be as effective as pity in generating revulsion for nuclear weapons. But when we get beyond the immediate reaction to the realm where our emotions are mediated by thought, we may want to resist the guilt. In the present instance, that resistance could spawn a reactive justification of the bombing. The American reader [or viewer], even while admitting that the suffering he sees is pitiable, may be inclined to salve his sense of guilt by citing the bombing of Pearl Harbor as justification for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Mannix 123)
Thus the distribution company importing the original film may have felt that audiences in America would simply dismiss the rhetoric and internally justify the bombings and bomb testing which the film constantly refers to. Regardless, the original filmmakers had an artistic and rhetorical intention which is turned upside-down in order to avoid this critical look and support their own rhetorical intention all the way through to the 1998 Godzilla.
The perception of the icon’s power as rhetoric is implicit in its American treatment, and the specific changes that were made in the films discussed show how they were tailored to perform a function separate from the filmmakers’ intention. For if we agree with Mannix that “if the fiction is to succeed as a rhetorical act, we must be encouraged to transfer the emotions we feel for the work to the real world problem that the work is portraying” (128), then we must recognize that the American appropriation of Godzilla’s rhetoric works very hard against this.
Works Cited / Consulted
Godzilla. Dir. Roland Emmerich. Perf. Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno. Tristar Pictures, 1998.
Godzilla 2000: Millennium. Dir. Takao Okawara. Perf. Takehiro Murata, Shirô Sano and Naomi Nishida. Toho, 1999.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Dir. Terrell O. Morse. Perf. Raymond Burr and Frank Iwanaga. Embassy, 1956.
Gojira. Dir. Ishiro Honda. Perf. Takashi Shimura and Akihiko Hirata. Toho, 1954.
Mannix, Patrick. The Rhetoric of Antinuclear Fiction: Persuasive Strategies in Novels and Films. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses Inc., 1992.
Noriega, Chon A. “Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is U.S.” Hibakusha Cinema. Ed. Mick Broderick. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996. pp. 54-74.
Tsutsui, William. Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.