Cinema throughout the 20th, and now 21st century has served as a coping measure for the traumas that society is unable to reconcile for themselves. The Godzilla franchise in Japan has been used to heal and come to terms with WWII, and the fraught relationship with America over a period of half a century. This is because movies at their best are able to mirror culture and society. The most recent iteration of the world’s favorite kaiju, Godzilla: Planet of Monsters is a reflection of a rapidly militarizing Japan that seeks to reclaim the nations long lost “glorious” past.
Japan’s horrific war crimes in the lead up to its defeat at the hands of America is nothing to gloss over. The Rape of Nanking claimed an estimated 200 000 to 300 000 lives. The Japanese were brutal in their occupation of South-east Asia, Korea, and much of China. In the aftermath of WWII, one of the conditions imposed upon Japan in the rewriting of the nation’s constitution was the enshrinement of the principle of pacifism. This was an acceptable condition because Japan had just faced the unprecedented horror that has not been matched to this day.
Understanding the Godzilla series not as the cultural export to the world and instead as a process of catharsis to deal with the horrors inflicted upon Japan by America is not a stretch.
In Godzilla (1954), the Japanese military is depicted as mere ants underneath the scaly boot of the lizard. Mirroring the crushing inevitability of Japan’s loss to America, which could only be delayed through a tremendous loss of human life. The official civilian death count in the invasion of Okinawa was estimated to be 142 000 on an island with a population of 300 000.
His atomic breath that sets Tokyo ablaze is reminiscent of a three-year bombing campaign, architected by George R. McNamara, who would later fight hard to get involved in the Vietnam War. The estimates for loss of life associated with the bombing campaign vary between 240 000 to 900 000 lives. The widely-denounced drone program employed by America today has taken the lives of between 2 200 to 2 500 people.
It is fitting that America is depicted as an unfeeling monster, incapable of understanding the damage it has inflicted upon Japan. Godzilla is eventually defeated, but only through unleashing a weapon upon the creature that is seen as potentially more dangerous than Godzilla himself if it were ever to fall into the wrong hands. The scientist who created this weapon destroys it, then proceeds to kill himself at the end of the film to prevent this from ever happening.
Through this suicide the film sends the message that Japan will never make the same mistake as America through unleashing a world ending weapon upon humanity. This is how catharsis through film takes place. Japan is able to experience the horrors of WWII through Godzilla, and have a conversation on the morality of atomic weapons by using Dr. Serizawa’s oxygen destroyer as a stand-in.
However as time marches on, so too does the relationship between America and Japan. During this time, Japan faces incredible economic transformation and wealth creation over a short period. China during this same time goes through a different transformation. The looming threat of China and other communist nations military capabilities leaves Japan in a position where it is only sensible to accept ongoing military occupation from America.
Thus, from the 60s onward, Godzilla is pitted against various monsters to defend Japan. This is always a portrayed as a final resort, often resisted by prideful generals who insist that humans will win the war, and that relying on myth and legend of Godzilla is foolhardy. This is how the brutal past of American militarism is medicated through film.
It is understood by all that Japan is highly dependent on America for military protection due to its pacifist constitution. This pacifist nature of Japanese statehood becomes problematic when faced with an ambivalent actor. At this point, Kaiju are not monsters because of their grotesque appearance; what is monstrous is their capability for violence. Japan does not have this ability, but America, or Godzilla does, and thus it is Godzilla who protects the people.
Throughout the 60s, the period in which American and Japanese relations warm, Godzilla is seen as increasingly human. The once unfeeling monster claps and jumps around after landing a decisive blow against its foes. The film Attack All Monsters serves as an exposition on American exceptionalism, in which Godzilla defeats all in its path. Godzilla even has a child, which symbolizes a relationship between the two nations that will span generations.
None of the movies following the original in 1954 have the same emotional weight, but all serve as ongoing treatments to the complicated nature with Japan’s pacifism and tight relationship with the most prolific warmongering nation to date. If the old Godzilla films were cathartic exercises in dealing with the past and present, the newest addition Godzilla: Planet of Monsters is equivalent to shock therapy.
In this film, Godzilla has won, and reigns supreme over earth, forcing humanity to pack up, get on a spaceship and abandon planet. In this iteration, humans (there are aliens involved as well but they are incredibly irrelevant to the plot) are a scapegoat for a type of militaristic zeal that was lost, or banished from Japan after the war.
The morale on the ship is low, and they have been searching for a new home planet for two decades. People are spraying their brains all over starboard windows, and all the old people got into an escape pod and blew themselves up to help the kids. The audience is also supposed to believe that a disease broke out in an enclosed space that didn’t wipe out the whole ship.
But there is one man who thinks that the answer is not in running away from Earth, but rather in going back and facing down Godzilla, which he believes he has the right tactics for. There is pushback from those that remember Godzilla, but ultimately the ship and crew are faced with an ultimatum of going back or dying in space, and all elect to return to reclaim planet earth.
No one is sure if Godzilla is still on the planet, but this is the first step that the movie takes in advancing the narrative that Japan must return to its past. It establishes the narrative that Japan cannot simply float in limbo, but must be at least willing to fight for what is theirs.
Due to science fiction stuff, it turns out that close to 20 000 years has passed on planet Earth, and the entire planet has been covered by vegetation. Earth is not the same planet as it once was. In short, pacifist and westernized Japan is unrecognizable to those who left it at the height of the nation’s militarism.
To the glee of our protagonist, Godzilla is still there, and he will get to fight the creature and correct history. This assertion in Godzilla: Planet of Monsters that Godzilla could have been destroyed betrays all that was laid out in the original flic in 1954, but in many ways is a true representation of where Japan’s relationship with American militarism, and their pacifist constitution is today.
The reasons for this increasingly skeptical relationship between the Japanese and their pacifism are fairly reasonable. China is building military bases in the South China Sea, and building up their military capabilities through the construction of aircraft carriers. North Korea is literally letting missiles fly over Japan. Perhaps most importantly, overwhelming American military supremacy over the rest of the world is no longer taken as static. Because of this, there could come a day in which military bases in Japan is no longer a given.
There are real reasons for Japan to consider building a military. Indeed, Japan has become increasingly militarized in the past decade, and now boasts a $50-billion military budget for its Self Defence Forces.
A line in Planet of Monsters where our protagonist loudly proclaims that “the planet never forgot about us” is illuminating. It shows that history is never distant, and is passed down through generations. The question is of course what version of history this is. For our protagonist, and Shinzo Abe, this is a sanitized version of WWII. In 2015, Prime Minister Abe delivered a speech commemorating the 70th anniversary that made no mention of the Rape of Nanjing, or Pearl Harbor, but did position Japan as just another state actor trying to get ahead in international politics.
Speeches like this, and movies like this reflect a shifting landscape in Japan’s very identity that are reflected in both politics and culture. Godzilla: Planet of Monsters is a pretty bad movie; I couldn’t remember the protagonist’s name but didn’t feel compelled to search it up. The roster of characters is deep but all of them are disposable.
Most worrisome about this film is that it reflects a Japan that wants to reclaim its past instead of embracing the true principles of pacifism and expelling American military bases and personnel from their nation.
Despite all of this, the film is getting relatively positive reviews (IGN gave it a 7/10, and 93% of Google users “liked” the film) both in Japan and abroad. Godzilla in the past has been a bellwether for the public’s embrace of rejection of militarism and America, and time will tell if this continues to be the case.
Nations have a right to self-determination, but an attempt to reclaim the history of WWII and scrub a sense of shame and horror from it is troubling. Similar attempts to reclaim a dark past are occuring across the world. Donald Trump’s attempts to “make America great again” without naming at which point in time America was great is one such example. The Alternative for Germany party is also attempting to take back the nations horrific past. Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is doing the same, in tandem with cultural products like Godzilla: Planet of Monsters.