What drove Japanese film in the 1950s was a national shame at having blindly followed the ruling class into a decade of war and social disrepair. Yes, Godzilla was a manifestation of the fear of atomic weaponry and the lasting repercussions it would have, but he also represented a sort of angry god.
America in the ’50s made monster movies so that we could demonstrate how capable we were at overcoming anything and everything (hint, hint Russia). It was patriotic jingoism and boasting. Japan, on the other hand, has a longstanding tradition of creating monsters that reflect its cultural fears and demons. I think it comes from having so much Animist tradition that made it into their current religion (sort of like Mexican Catholicism’s treatment of spirits and ghosts). In the ’50s, Japan translated that tradition into oversize, culture-wide vengeance demons.
A new American Godzilla comes out on May 16. It’s directed by Gareth Edwards, a bold choice by Legendary Pictures. His only previous feature film cost $400,000 to make; this Godzilla cost $160 million. Early trailers look and sound phenomenal, exciting, artistic…but can he adapt that core spirit of Godzilla (at least in his initial outing) that is so difficult to communicate to Western audiences?
Yes, Godzilla looks a certain way and roars a certain way, but to achieve what the monster initially meant in Japan, he has to be a judgment against our cultural transgressions. He’s not just a monster; he’s corporal punishment on a nationwide scale. Being big and eating trains and making noise didn’t make him terrifying. There was an underlying, creeping sense that no one in particular had earned his wrath, and so no one in particular could beat him. An entire culture had earned him through the hubris of imperialism and turning a blind eye to the actions of their own country. An entire culture could only avoid his wrath again by changing its values.
It’s a unique point in time for the American psyche to have a monster that reflects that. How you translate that sense of fear and responsibility for Godzilla…that’s achievable. How you translate that national sense of shame…well, we’re not a culture that considers shame a valuable emotion. The most overwhelming component of Japanese film in the ’50s was a shame so deep that penance was more often an unattainable pursuit than an achievable goal. When it was reached, it could only be measured in lifetimes (a theme constantly revisited in Akira Kurosawa films like Stray Dog and The Silent Duel, and explored repeatedly by the Zatoichi blind swordsman movies).
If you can get that sense across to a Western audience in a blockbuster film, let alone a Western monster movie, then you’ve stayed true to the original 1954 film. That may be a tall order, but I’d rather see a failed attempt at one of the most impossible cultural translations in cinema than just another monster vs. military ordeal with no real terror to it. I guess we’ll find out soon.
Good luck, Godzilla. We could use you at a time like this.