The beast is born in fire. Once a prehistoric denizen of the deeps, it comes ashore on a tsunami tide, tall as a thunderhead, shrugging off artillery as it bellows a foghorn scream. It stomps. It breathes atomic fire. And its name is Godzilla.
Constructed out of Japan’s postwar atomic-bomb trauma, the King of the Monsters has proven a remarkably malleable character, playing environmental protector or atomic avenger with equal aplomb. But these days, nuclear fire is only part of the Godzilla universe.
In recent films, Godzilla often functions as a reminder of the unseen debts we owe nature—and what happens when they come due. In an era facing both a reborn nuclear threat and global climate catastrophe, the granddaddy of movie monsters still has a lot to tell humanity.
November 3 is Godzilla’s birthday, the day of the first Godzilla movie in 1954. 1954’s Gojira, was an instant classic, building on the vague anxieties of its predecessor, (1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) in bleak, culturally specific ways.
Like the pre nuclear fears that spawned Godzilla, like the nuclear fears that came next and the climate change issue now prevalent, Godzilla has been the longest running continuous movie franchise made, the latest to come out in December.
But Godzilla is no mere monster. He represents. And what he represents reflects is not just threat but also warning; not just foretelling, but also protection.
(The various Godzillas from 1954-2016)
Says Scientific American,
“There’s a phase of acute radiation exposure sometimes called the walking ghost phase. Receive a lethal dose, and your body initially seems not to notice. But a threshold has been passed, and your very cells are melting at the seams. You’re effectively dead by the time the symptoms start; your body just hasn’t registered it yet.
Can an entire society have a walking ghost phase? In a funny and devastating climate essay from 2021, writer Sarah Miller describes a conversation with an editor: “I felt like all I did every day was try to act normal while watching the world end,” she wrote. “What kind of awareness quotient are we looking for? What more about climate change does anyone need to know? What else is there to say?”
SA continues its analysis:
“We now understand, more clearly than in the 1950s, that the consequences of human action on a global scale are rather like Godzilla: huge, unknowable, motiveless and not easily stopped. . . . .
Godzilla is thus an apocalyptic figure, in the strictest sense of the word: a thing of unmasking, of revelation. The revelation is this: We have woken monsters, and they are coming ashore. Perhaps if we’re lucky, their impacts can be mitigated, managed, adapted to. But they have arrived. You will listen to the destruction on the radio, watch it on the television or Internet, until it’s your turn.” See more in: Scientific American.