A mighty monster stomps across the skyline, scaled and unstoppable, leaving destruction in his wake. Bridges, skyscrapers, electrical towers: Nothing can withstand his might. Every step produces a shock wave, every breath a firestorm. He swats away missiles and artillery shells like so many gnats. Civilians race before him through the streets, necks craned upward in terror.
Godzilla was hardly the first movie monster, but he is undeniably the king. Across almost 40 feature films, the aquatic kaiju has gone from inscrutable menace to heroic savior and back again. Even the casual movie viewer can picture the formula: rubber-suited men wrestling above miniature model cities while puny humans look on with horror and begrudging respect. These rampages have become quaint and kitschy, safe enough to be parodied by Austin Powers and Pee-wee Herman.
Yet for the Japanese audiences who saw Ishiro Honda’s “Gojira” in 1954, the sight of annihilated cityscapes would have been quite familiar. Just after midnight on March 10, 1945, a fleet of American B-29 bombers firebombed Tokyo, targeting the city’s wood-built low-income neighborhoods with napalm. The firestorm rapidly spread, and over the following hours at least 100,000 people died, “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” in the words of the operation’s mastermind, Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay of the Air Force. Survivors recalled rolling banks of fire. Temperatures so high that metal melted and human bodies burst spontaneously into flame. By Aug. 15, this strategy had expanded to 67 cities and included the dropping of two atomic bombs. It’s been estimated that 400,000 Japanese civilians were killed and that nearly nine million more were made homeless.
Honda’s film directly calls up these events. His Godzilla is a prehistoric beast, a dinosaur awoken from a subterranean chasm by underwater hydrogen-bomb testing. The monster acts with the implacable, impregnable logic of a natural disaster. His destruction of a village on remote Odo Island resembles a typhoon or a tsunami. When he finally reaches Tokyo, humans can do nothing as he rages, torching streets and crushing train cars in his teeth. Shooting in stark black and white, Honda frames the monster against a horizon of fire, like the annihilated cityscapes of the very recent past.
Godzilla would go on to fight a giant moth, a three-headed dragon from outer space and King Kong. But the same traumatic kernel has always remained at the core of his appearances. At the start of Takashi Yamazaki’s “Godzilla Minus One,” released this fall, Tokyo has already been destroyed — by Allied firebombing. It is 1946, and the kamikaze pilot Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) has returned home to a leveled landscape. His parents are dead. So are the children of his neighbor and the families of just about everyone he meets, including the plucky thief Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and Akiko, a baby orphaned by the bombing. As it happens, Koichi had a run-in with Godzilla in the last days of the war, but he is less concerned with monsters than he is with finding warm clothing and food for Akiko, who is malnourished — and with his guilt over surviving his suicide mission. He cannot make peace with the world or with himself. As he tells Noriko, “My war isn’t over.”
Yamazaki’s film resembles, at first, many postwar melodramas, depicting a generation of men so traumatized by their experiences that they do not know how to move on with their lives and a society struggling to shake off a wartime culture of death. Koichi takes a dangerous job clearing mines left behind by both U.S. and Japanese forces, a lethal embodiment of the war lingering long into peacetime. It is this work that reunites Koichi with the monster of his nightmares. In this film, Godzilla is a deep-sea beast given powers of regeneration and destruction by the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests. These powers embolden and enrage the animal; even launching its catastrophic heat ray seems to scorch the creature from the inside, making each attack a mutually destructive act. Godzilla’s assault on Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood recalls the 1923 Kanto earthquake, with each step splitting the earth and even the brushing of his tail causing buildings to crumble, crushing hundreds beneath the wreckage.
Yet this is all prelude. When the army finally arrives to drive Godzilla back, the creature charges up its fiery breath, letting loose a thermonuclear blast that flattens the city, murdering thousands in an instant. The creature roars, and Yamazaki’s camera pans up to reveal a mushroom cloud blooming in the skies over Tokyo.
It is an immensely discomfiting moment, and something about it reveals why Hollywood’s numerous attempts to bring the monster to America have never creatively succeeded. Beginning with Roland Emmerich’s 1998 “Godzilla,” the monster has flattened New York, San Francisco and Boston, to increasingly dull effect. Emmerich’s bombastic approach to destruction renders the action glib and meaningless. Honda shows us a cross-section of Tokyo society to underline all the life about to be lost; Emmerich’s misanthropic disaster epics, from “The Day After Tomorrow” to “2012,” marshal large casts in order to gleefully pick them off.
So many Hollywood blockbusters these days end with a beam of colored light shooting into the sky and the whole world in peril. Thanks to teams of overworked effects artists, it is easier than ever to snap your fingers and annihilate entire cities, to make the deaths of thousands, even millions, seem banal. No American city has ever directly experienced the catastrophe of modern warfare, and you feel filmmakers grasping at the same examples over and over again. Zach Snyder invokes Sept. 11; “The Batman,” from 2022, ends by blowing Gotham’s levees, as if the city were New Orleans. Yet all this imagery feels cheap, deployed as a backdrop to the superheroic deeds at center stage.
Tokyo really was destroyed, a reality the best Godzilla stories have always taken seriously. “Minus One” stays with the human victims as they race through the streets, horrified that their home is being destroyed, again, and so soon. Where Emmerich’s film exults in the carnage of laying waste to a city, Yamazaki’s insists on the damage, the destruction that recurs, returns, revictimizes. And he grounds it in very real terror; for all the seat-shaking power of Godzilla’s roar, there is no sound more unsettling than an air-raid siren.
The writer W.G. Sebald once argued that the destruction of German cities from the air was so extensive that it left almost no imprint upon the popular consciousness. The bombing could be captured in statistics and generalizations but never as “an experience capable of public decipherment.” Faced with such mass destruction, the individual experience shrinks, until even those who live through war choose not to recall it.
A similar thing could be said of our cinematic depictions. When a city is annihilated with a deadening wipe of one digital hand, it implies something foregone, even natural about the process. Indeed, LeMay’s forces modeled their firestorm on the one caused by the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and in the testimony of survivors the conflagration takes on a life of its own, a ferocious beast attacking from all sides.
But there is nothing natural about the destruction of cities in wartime. Such devastation must be planned, ordered and executed, conscripting thousands to kill many thousands more. Someone has to build the bombs, and someone else to drop them from on high. There are homes below, schools and parks and hospitals, the topography of an entire life, buried under the rubble. When these images appear on our screens, it’s worth remembering: For some, this is spectacular fantasy; but for others, the horror is entirely too real.
Source photographs for above: Toho Co. Ltd./Prod DB/Alamy Stock Photo.
Robert Rubsam is a freelance writer and critic.