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, Grendel, 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 cave, 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 not destroyed, for they represent the essential vitality to which we must forever return.

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 as the psyche in stories like Frankenstein. What does the eponymous doctor do if not summon his monster from the literal unknown, like a sorcerer? Or Poseidon summoning the Kraken? And the beast consumes him. In the Lovecraftian mythos, which challenges our very sanity, the Old Ones are never more than one wrong turn of a key from returning from the void to destroy us.

Whatever else you might say about the 1998 Hollywood production of Godzilla, it was not actually a Godzilla movie, not because it didn’t feature a giant lizard stomping on a major city but because it ignored the fantastical, mythical elements in favor of a veneer of realism. The creature of that movie is a mutated iguana. No more. No less. It doesn’t breathe nuclear fire. It has no motivation save the mechanical urges of survival and reproduction. And it’s destroyed by a couple F-16s. A tornado would’ve been a bigger threat.

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. An earthquake or tsunami isn’t evil. It isn’t out to get you. But it is violent and destructive as it erupts from the depths and it may take everything from you, including your life. No matter how hard you try, you can’t beat it. You can only endure.

Fanboys like me frost our shorts 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 a 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. 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, Beowulf and Grendel, Bruce Banner and the Hulk, or even 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 was the only creature that could stop them from taking over the earth. Here we see anxieties about the enslaving power of technology, which turns us all into numbers, wage slaves, interchangeable parts. We are rescued by our invigorating animal soul.

In the 90s-era reboots, at the dawn of the internet and all its promise (before it became the Eye of Sauron), “MechaG” was built by the human race to resist Godzilla after he destroyed Moguera, our first attempt at a robotic counterthreat. While the machine doesn’t succeed — it can’t because Godzilla is that which also animates us — it is successful at driving him back to the depths… for now.

However else it might save us, our animal soul must also be kept in check. Too little, and we become a machine. Too much, and civilization is lost to chaos.

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

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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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