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Galaxy Brains: Godzilla is a metaphor for everything in 2021

Godzilla vs. the World author Steve Ryfle dives into what Godzilla symbolizes in the 21st century

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Godzilla stands in front of a city in Godzilla vs Kong Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source image: Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures

For some, the sight of an irradiated bipedal lizard and an ape the size of the Empire State Building is enough to set the neurons ablaze with glee. These folks are the truly blessed among us. They can just luxuriate in the spectacle of a movie like Godzilla vs. Kong. But not I! No, sir. I am the sweaty fool attempting to attach greater meaning to a movie where King Kong takes a shower. I simply must justify my film-watching with an overwrought theory or two.

But there is some precedent for my mania. Godzilla has never just been a fun monster fable. The first film, directed by Ishiro Honda and released by Toho in 1954, was a dark allegory for the persistent scars of the American nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Atomic anxiety was omnipresent in the world of the mid-20th century, but more so in Japan, where the tragic consequences of nuclear weapons were made very, very real. Godzilla was an avatar for all of that, birthed by humanity’s blasted hubris and penchant for self-destruction.

I’m not making any of this stuff up! This is in the movie! Go watch it!

That’s the legacy of Godzilla — real terror processed through art. The Japanese Godzilla films that came after the first one either chased that original masterpiece or went the total opposite direction into camp thrills. On the other hand, the American Godzilla films, of which Godzilla vs. Kong is the fourth, seem like they want to try to merge the serious and the silly of Godzilla to make the character our own. American Godzilla can fight robots, mutos, and monsters in increasingly absurd scenarios, but he also has to carry resonance at the same time. So, what does this new Godzilla represent in Godzilla vs. Kong? Are the filmmakers trying to make the American Godzilla into its own allegory for today’s various cultural anxieties?

In a new episode of Polygon’s Galaxy Brains podcast, my co-host Jonah Ray and I ask the author of Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film and the upcoming book Godzilla vs. The World, Steve Ryfle, to answer that question and more. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation (edited for clarity):

Steve: Both Kong and Godzilla started out as these really meaningful avatars of the culture and the time in which they were created. Kong is this great metaphor for nature and man’s exploitation of the environment. And Godzilla is very specifically something rooted in the war and the aftermath of the war and the nuclear arms race. But yeah, today, I mean, what do these films mean? They mean that they cost about 10 or 20 times what the Japanese films cost.

Dave: That’s what it means, baby — it’s about money. Yeah.

Steve: And so these things are — I mean, these movies were always commercial films. And no doubt about that. It’s really, I think, kind of fascinating, because I think people must sit in story meetings and say, “OK, you know what, what metaphor are we going to attach to Godzilla this time?” Whereas the first movie, the metaphor was organic, due to the experience of the filmmaker Ishiro Honda and members of his team. Honda had fought in World War II and had been a prisoner of war. But these films are, like I said, it’s kind of up to the whims of the day. And Godzilla vs. Kong, what is Godzilla? I mean, what is known in these films? You could say that these monsters represent nature, but the really baseline element of these films is the monsters smashing each other and smashing the city.

Jonah: Well, as a kid watching these movies, I wasn’t smart enough to be watching a Godzilla movie and saying, “This is about Hiroshima.” No. Like, you know, I was just a kid watching monsters. And there’s something to this new one that really brought that back for me, where it was a lot of fun. As a kid, I really loved Godzilla because that’s kind of how I felt growing up. I grew up in Hawaii. I was taller by a foot than everybody, starting in the third grade. And I was clumsy and I broke stuff and I knocked stuff over. My elbow would go into my friend’s face because that’s where we were height-wise. And I would see Godzilla, like, just trying to make his way across an island. And he’s just, like, knocking over buildings and getting in trouble.

Dave: So you’re saying Godzilla is kind of a clumsy oaf.

For an even deeper dive into Godzilla vs. Kong, check out the new episode of Galaxy Brains, out now wherever you get your podcasts.

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