Let Them Fight: Godzilla and Mythic Symbolism

I grew up on Godzilla movies. Well, I grew up on a lot of TV, but those too. As a kid, I often didn’t understand them — some of the plots are pretty outrageous — but I was mesmerized by the imagery, so much so that I put a battle between a giant monster and its robot doppelganger at the end of my first book, Fantasmagoria.

That was more than rabid fandom. (Everything I do in my books I do for a reason.) Godzilla is not just another Cold War-era cinematic monstrosity, like The Blob or Them! or The Thing. He is the latest in a long line of elemental giant beasts from the depths, including Cthulhu, King Kong, the Kraken, the Leviathan of the Bible, and so on, going all the way back to Tiamat, if you know your Sumerian mythology.

“Depths,” by the way, doesn’t have to be the ocean, or even deep space. It can also be the subconscious, a lost island (or planet), the Negative Zone, or any extra-human void. They are the unknowable chaos — marked “Here Be Dragons” on any old map — that exist outside our ken and which must be tamed for human society to flourish, but to whose essential vitality we must forever return to balance the excesses of civilization.

You have to remember that in the old days, we were only ever one drought away from starvation. A swarm of locusts could descend at any time. Or a new plague. Or barbarians. Indeed, for most of civilization’s history, it was the exception rather than the rule, and our best chance of survival was to turn forest into field. Man over nature. Thus, in the earliest recorded creation myth, Marduk the sky-god (the order of the cosmos) slays the monster-from-the-depths Tiamat (the chaos from the void), a story the Sumerians retold and honored as part of every annual cycle.

In our era, where civilization isn’t quite so tenuous, this same symbolism manifests in the Lovecraftian mythos — where the Old Ones threaten to return from the void and destroy mankind — as the personal battle between sanity and insanity, and you see echoes of it in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on which Stan Lee based the Hulk. And what does Dr. Frankenstein do if not summon his monster from the unknown, like a sorcerer summoning a demon or Poseidon summoning the Kraken? And the beast consumes him.

The 1998 Hollywood production of Godzilla, whatever else you might say about it, was not actually a Godzilla movie because it ignored the fantastical, mythical elements, which have been the core of the character from the beginning, in favor of a veneer of realism. No depth, mind you. Just a spray-on tan. The creature of that movie is a mutated iguana. No more. No less. It doesn’t breathe nuclear fire. It has no motivation save survival and reproduction. And it’s destroyed by a couple F-16s.

Uhhhh… Okay.

In his sixty-plus-year history, the big guy has been both friend and foe, but the best movies, in my opinion, portray him as neither hero nor villain — merely a force of nature and just as unpredictable. A hurricane isn’t evil. It isn’t out to get you. But it is violent and destructive and it may take everything from you, including your life. And no matter how hard you may try, you can’t beat it. You can only endure.

Fanboys like me frost our shorts in foam when Godzilla — not good, not evil, just indomitable — is turned against a force that is evil… such as aliens trying to conquer the earth or some mad scientist’s experiment gone awry. Humanity may marvel at our ingenuity when we lure Godzilla into a volcano and bury him, but we’re kicking ourselves a few months later when the flying saucer drops King Ghidorah from its belly.

Three-headed space dragon. Aw, fuck.

Lucky for us, not even a volcano can hold back a god, the unconquerable and capricious force of nature manifest on two legs. And breathing nuclear fire.

Alien, meet Mother Nature’s bodyguard.

But I did not return from my first trip to Japan with a Ghidorah toy. Or Rodan. Or Mothra. I came back with Godzilla and his nemesis, his true opposite: MechaGodzilla. The machine — the logical invention — is the perfect symbolic counterpart to the monster, like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or Bruce Banner and the Hulk, or even the Batman and the Joker. Their battles are ours, individual and society.

In the original Toho movie arc from the 70s, MechaGodzilla was built by a race of invading aliens specifically to kill the king of the monsters, who is the only creature that can stop them from taking over the earth. Here we see anxieties about the fascist power of technology to turn us all into numbers, slaves, and we are rescued by our invigorating animal soul, uncontrollable though it is.

In the 90s-era reboots, at the dawn of the internet and all its promise (before it took away our privacy and became a tool of mass-shaming), “MechaG” was built by the human race to combat the big guy after he destroyed Moguera, our first attempt at a robotic counterthreat. And while the machine can’t kill Godzilla — because he is us, you see — it is successful in driving him back to the depths, just as Gilgamesh cannot beat (but rather tames) the wild-man Enkidu.

And so it is some of the most patently juvenile stories — Star Wars, Harry Potter, Godzilla — have the deepest mythologies.

And now I will go back to playing with my toys.

RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWR!!!!!

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Matt Frank

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posing with the missus

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we want the funk. give us the funk.

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the big guy about to lay it down on the smog monster

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you heard me! i said you can suck it!

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pardon me. do you have any grey poupon?

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