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Op-Ed: The Westernization of Godzilla

It is practically impossible to cross paths with a soul who has never heard of the King of Monsters. Or, love him for being the earth’s greatest defender? Or, fear him for being the ultimate outcome of humanity’s sins?  Whatever the feeling, it does not change what is already clear: Godzilla is here to stay. He is more than a movie monster, Godzilla is globally cemented as one of the most iconic fictional beings birthed from Japan. With a history spanning over 30 films across nearly 65 years, it comes to no surprise why he is crowned the King.

However, thanks to recent Hollywood feats, Godzilla is now perhaps the greatest example of foreign cinematic royalty that bears riches too dense for the West.

Godzilla in Warner Bros’s 2019 Godzilla: King of Monsters (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

With such renown eastern iconography, it was only a matter of time until Hollywood would lure Godzilla into its clutches. Before TriStar Pictures released the first original western take of Godzilla in 1998, the character already had two distinct eras of films under his belt back home. The Toho Company (creators of the franchise) established the Showa era, running from 1954- 1989 and then the Heisei era running from 1984-1995. Both of these branches follow their own canon and coincide with the rulings and transition of Japanese Emperor Hirohito to Emperor Akihito.

Toho planned to retire Godzilla in the east for a decade to let TriStar thrive with a trilogy starting with Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. It gained infamy for being one of the worst films in the character’s history, canceling all hopes for sequels, and inspired Toho to get Godzilla out of retirement with a proper new iteration just two years later. The studio would continue the newly dubbed Millenium era with a few heavily favored entries until Godzilla’s 50th anniversary in 2004. The character then went on a proper hiatus for 12 years. When he returned to Japan in 2016’s Shin Godzilla, he was met with roaring applause that signaled Toho still having what it takes to make a great Godzilla movie.

History often repeats itself in Hollywood. Records are always being broken and films are always being remade. Toho would not let the west secure the rights to their title character until their deal with Legendary and Warner Bros. in 2010. The box office success of their first entry, once again simply titled Godzilla (2014), teased the potential of a cinematic universe. Even after the enormous praise of Shin Godzilla two years later, Toho settled on not releasing a new film of their own until 2021 in order to let Hollywood’s new “Monsterverse” thrive. The east once again graciously putting their acclaimed work on hold to give the west a chance at glory.

Godzilla in 1954’s Godzilla (Courtesy of Toho)

Those who have been following the Monsterverse know that it has been anything but glorious. Godzilla: King of the Monsters just released to poor reception from critics and a sizeable number of fans. The entry before that, Kong: Skull Island, brought more people to theaters, but even then received mixed reactions. Their best performing film is still the 2014 movie, thus making it seem like it has only been going downhill ever since. Even though it is still their biggest success, viewers today are still divided on the merits of that film. With more than a decade to recollect on what went wrong the first time, one would think that Hollywood would have had the Monsterverse bulletproof. Instead, Legendary and Warner Bros. produced another franchise that is currently bleeding out its last potential for life.

With no plans announced after next year’s Godzilla Vs. Kong, this franchise might already have come to an end. The Monsterverse was once advertised as the next big cinematic universe to conquer theaters – how did this lose so much steam in roughly six years? Many will say that it does not seem like Hollywood really learned much from the downfalls of the 1998 Godzilla. In truth, western filmmaking has not done a complete disservice to Godzilla like they did then. However, this side of the world has still not tapped into the full potential of what Godzilla can invoke on screen.

This has nothing to do with the amount of action or monster screentime in the Monsterverse. The idea of there needing to be an exact amount of these things in order to justify the films being good is silly. People condemned the 2014 Godzilla and the latest entry for either featuring too much monster action, or not enough. This criticism is westernized thought and is almost absent in the east. The majority of action-packed multi-million dollar blockbusters that get worldwide distribution come from Hollywood and have made Western viewers accustomed to seeing these big (often bloated) set pieces. So, when a Godzilla film does not necessarily focus on that, it comes across as a failure.

Godzilla in 1984’s The Return of Godzilla (Courtesy of Toho)

Toho, for the most part, has always focused on telling a good story first. Fitting in monsters and set pieces comes naturally when a focused narrative is a priority. To this day, Godzilla has rarely clocked in over twenty minutes of screen time in a feature out of his entire filmography. He is not even on screen for ten complete minutes in his debut in 1954 and that film is still regarded as one of the best of all time. The top Godzilla films are not well regarded just for their spectacle, it is the messages they tell that carry them through the years.

Hollywood has proven to at least acknowledge this notion with their recent efforts. The Monsterverse recognizes two key elements to the character: Godzilla is an ever-changing allegory and is inherently Japanese. These points were barely if not at all touched upon in 1998, consequently making that iteration of Godzilla only in name. Even though Warner Bros. latest feature these elements, they still do not have a solid grasp of them. Albeit one can argue that a loose understanding is better than no understanding at all.

Godzilla in TriStar’s 1998 Godzilla (Courtesy of TriStar)

What started as an allegory for nuclear warfare has evolved through many interpretations in Japan. Toho always retained Godzilla’s symbolism of the tragic Japanese events of WWII, but they also realized that they could not repeatedly retell the same story in a series. Throughout the decades, Godzilla films evolved as allegories to accompany Japanese culture and society. Past films have served as a representation of other futuristic fears, disregard for Japanese heritage, and obsolete political leadership. Given the character’s roots, trying to create a Godzilla story absent of a relevant moral would be nothing more but a hollow attempt.

The less regarded Toho films feature this trait of hollowness. Thankfully, 14′ and KOTM knew better by focusing on allegories worthy of Hollywood exposure. 14′ gives homage to the original 54′ film by highlighting world power’s threatening relationship with nuclear weapons and the inability to run from repercussions born in the past. KOTM uses monsters as a metaphor for coexistence with nature and climate change. It raises the question of humanities’ place in the natural world and what would happen if the earth decides to tip the scales. The cast of monsters each having some type of visual connection to natural forces: volcanoes, storms, and waterfalls for example.

Unfortunately for the Monsterverse, having an allegory present is only have the job. These films do have something to say, but they fail in providing a channel for these messages to resonate with viewers. This is referring to the lack of engaging lead characters. Not only are leads lacking or uninteresting, but they hold back their entire stories by being disconnected from the moral. Godzilla and his foes do not count because they only move with the story, they do not drive it. In both 14′ and KOTM, the narrative’s message is either not fully learned by the leads or not shared through them. The characters instead respond to their monster-level threats through generic motivations, not because they learned anything of themselves if they chose not to respond. Even the less regarded Toho films are rewatchable because characters learn and share a moral above their film’s other failings. The worthy allegories in the Monsterverse are more generalized with the leads written to act instead of react. This is not to shame the actors involved, some really try their best, but there is not enough depth for them on paper.

Godzilla in Warner Bros. 2014 Godzilla (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Perhaps another reason why these leads fail to resonate with viewers lies within a huge Hollywood practice- whitewashing. Hollywood loves to take eastern titles and adapt them under a white lens; Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Netflix’s Death Note being recent examples. Whitewashing is present in these and in the recent Godzilla films, but it is not exactly the same. Although there are no Asian Toho characters turned white in 14′ and KOTM, those movies are still spearheaded by white characters, their white stories, and white creatives such as directors and writers. Nothing screams Hollywood more when one realizes that the last two Godzilla movies both focused on white estranged families working in the government.

This becomes more jarring when one realizes how few Japanese characters exist in these films. Ken Watanabe and Ziyi Zhang portray the only prominent Asian characters in the series and are both written to have closer connections to Godzilla. Even though this may first seem upright because of their background, it later comes off as cheap when they are sidelined only to be brought up when exposition or expendable characters are needed. This is why the Monsterverse has a half-understanding of Godzilla being inherently Japanese. The series acknowledges and tries to give homage to his Japanese roots, but none of that is honestly echoed in the stories it is telling.

For any eastern property to be a western iteration should not mean deprivation of eastern characters, symbolism, and identity. Hollywood is slowly learning this, but time is running out for the Monsterverse. Technically, for something to be considered a Hollywood feat only depends on the funding of a Hollywood studio. Audiences are currently proving their crave for diverse content, Legendary and Warner Bros. should consider hiring Asian and other diverse talents if they want to get rid of their Godzilla’s stale taste. Of course, this is only half of their current uphill battle. It would not be surprising if their current loose understanding were to suddenly tighten up with the inclusion of more concrete narratives lead by new voices.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is currently in theaters.

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