Tuesday, January 9, 2018

My Godzilla conundrum

Since the age of six, I have been an avid viewer of foreign film.

Granted, these films were mostly Japanese and almost every one of them involved men in rubbery monster suits slugging it out with one another while reducing a major metropolitan area to rubble, but I wouldn't call it uncultured really. Well, I'm getting to relive them all.

On Christmas Day, the El Rey network ran a marathon of Godzilla films and all this month that god among mortals, Svengoolie, will be showing the King of Monsters every Saturday night as part of the marvelous Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night line up on MeTV, which you can almost always find me live-tweeting.

Watching the movies now as someone...well, far older than six, unfortunately...I find I'm having a new, unexpected reaction. It is not one of delight, but rather uneasy suspiration.

A standard trope of the giant monster movie or the "daikaiju" film as aficionados know them, is when the Japanese military rolls onto the scene and blasts the gargantuan creature with all manner of ordinance. Heck when my brother and I would play out these films as kids, one of our very favorite parts was to line up all our plastic, green army men plus their heavy equipment and have an explosive battle that the army would ultimately lose. All great fun. Except that's not my response now when I see rockets and bombs hit the monster.

Now I think I'm just watching an animal get hurt.

I have analyzed this reaction and made a few determinations.

First, yes...I do realize it's just a man in a suit. Indeed when said actors in the suits break into wrestling moves with another, I still laugh quite heartily.

Second, there is a practical aspect at work. If such a giant monster did actually threaten a city, I would expect there would be little other course of action than to deploy force in order to save lives.

Third, this reaction may all be due to my being a "dog dad" for 12 years and that while I've always been sensitive about animals and animal rights, I now see my fellow self-aware beings in an entirely new light.

Fourth, written narratives of slaying beasts are at least as old as Gilgamesh. It seems part of the human condition and in keeping with the basic theme of "man versus nature."

And yet...and yet...I think there is something else at work and it all has to do with writing.

Of course, I would say that.

It's because I first noticed these feelings percolating as I watched the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong. While loaded with cheese, that adaptation was written in order to evoke an empathetic response. Kong and the inhabitants of Skull Island have a pretty good thing going until a greedy oil corporation shows up and steals Kong for a marketing gimmick. Of course there are broader statements on the environment happening here, but it is also the story of a thinking, feeling animal taken by force from his habitat, resulting in death and destruction. I still can't watch the end. For these reasons I was reluctant to see Kong of Skull Island last year, but was pleasantly surprised.

Could the harm befalling these giant monsters be in line with these themes?

I'm not sure, but I have started to see a paradox in myself. I'll weep for Kong, but not one of the obscure scaly, tentacled beasts of the Toho menagerie? Is it because Kong has fur?

If I could not bear to see rockets and artillery blast into a giant version of this...

Why would I accept the same with this...

Is my compassion reserved only for the cute or anthropomorphic? Please don't hurt that bear cub, but I have no problem with you gassing that hornet's nest. It's a philosophy akin to opposing the consumption of horses while going for a bucket of fried chicken. But I digress...

Perhaps it's the way Kong and Godzilla are written...and yes indeed they are most assuredly written just as any human character would be. In later films, each has a distinct personality and even a code of conduct. Indeed in films such as Destroy All Monsters (my favorite movie second only to Star Wars as a kid), Godzilla is seen convincing his fellow denizens of Monster Island that they need to band together and fight to save Earth. While there is of course no dialogue, I prefer to believe that Godzilla is arguing Kant's "categorical imperative" and the concept of "duty" to his fellow monsters.

Point being, these rubber-suited behemoths aren't portrayed as blind forces of nature. They don't come off as bland and mindless, mere furniture to provide a plot, such as the thing in Cloverfield. The Toho films create a sense of empathy and attachment with what is, in reality, a guy in a foamy, rubber suit. So for that and many reasons, yeah...I sort of cringe when I see them with wounds or worse.

In the case of Godzilla, I feel I can take solace in one of the mythos' greatest themes. Godzilla has his origin in the atomic bomb testing that took place in the Pacific. War, in a sense, created him. Therefore, the implements of war can do nothing to harm him.

Besides, in the denouement, there is almost always the impression of his survival.

"Godzilla will return in..."

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