There’s a Little Godzilla in All of Us
What if our stories were more sympathetic towards monsters?
When I was eight years old, my parents rented Godzilla 1985 for our weekly movie night. It was meant to be a sci-fi treat, a fun flick with popcorn and a few gentle scares for the kids. My father could not have predicted that I would spend the last 20 minutes of the film in convulsive tears, my tiny fingers digging into the couch with a tension that marred the upholstery for years, my little heels banging against the floor so loudly that the dog hid in the basement for the rest of the night. My mother chastised him for renting a movie that was too frightening for me, a sheltered orchid of a child who could not handle the 6:00 news without tears. She took me aside and explained that Godzilla was not real, he could not harm us, and that his giant foot would never lay waste to our split-level ranch home half a world away from his natural habitat.
“I don’t care about that!” I wailed in reply. “I want them to be fair! He just woke up!”
From my perspective, Japan was the problem, not Godzilla. After all, this was the third in a long series of Godzilla videos I had seen sitting on the video store shelves. The scientists and military officials obviously knew that Godzilla existed from the previous movies, so how did they not see this coming? They should have been aware that a mighty beast slumbered off the coast of Japan, and that when another human mistake inevitably woke him up, he would not be happy about it. But instead of accepting Godzilla for what he was — a confused and exhausted beast, born once more in a world not built to accommodate him — they brought the fist of the military industrial complex to his big rubber chin. The plastic tanks, the paper-mache rockets propelled on tiny wires into his big glass eyes: it was too much for me. Too unkind. The poor thing had just gotten out of bed and they were already sending helicopters after him. Would it have killed them to just bring Godzilla a coffee and try to talk it out?
Perhaps I knew I loved monsters from a young age because I felt I could find a greater sense of acceptance among them. I was a fat, anxious kid that grew into a fat troubled adolescent that grew into a fat clinically depressed adult. If we look to art and culture to mirror our ideal selves back to us, the only mirrors that looked anything like me came from the back of a funhouse. The women who looked like me and acted like me were always portrayed as monsters. Big Bertha. Ursula. Moaning Myrtle. And so on.
I am not unique in identifying as monstrous. We all have our ugly sides, our secrets, the things we fear will draw the mobs of villagers and their pitchforks to our doors. The things we are taught to hide. Who among us hasn’t known the loneliness of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, watching an exclusive beach party of beautiful people from a hidden cove of envy and lust? Who hasn’t hungered for the love and acceptance of others and rebelled against authority to claim it, just as Frankenstein’s monster did? What is female puberty if not a werewolf story? (After all, in what other stage of your life do you grow so much hair and spend so much time trying to get incriminating blood stains out of upholstery?)
Given my empathy towards beasts, it seems only fitting that I would eventually embrace being one. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I have put great efforts into becoming a villager, rejecting monstrosity, but they were all for nothing. In my life I have gained and lost literally hundreds of pounds, spent years bouncing in and out of therapist’s offices, taken countless pills and cures to address that which is ugly in me. I have never eaten wolfsbane, but I did spent the 15th year of my life drinking Slim-Fast and vomiting it back up whenever anyone’s back was turned. I have never considered a stake to the heart, but I have spoken to a doctor about tying my stomach in literal knots — a process that he cheerfully acknowledged carried a nonzero chance of reducing me to dust. I have let people talk to me and treat me this way without question and without complaint because I understood that, as a monster, I should only wait to be slain.
I even attached hope to these cruelties. I wanted them to work so badly. All monsters do. The promise of being human, being normal, being loved seems worth the pain. It’s worth the lightheadedness, the mood swings, the weakness, the insomnia, the clumps of hair in your drain. These are the sacrifices you make to be seen as human someday. To be seen as worthy of love.
It never works for some of us. I’d say probably for most of us. The curse can’t be broken. So what’s next?
The stories we tell about monsters tend to follow a similar arc. A monster is discovered or created, it imposes its will upon human victims, and then it is either killed or cured. This is despite the fact that the plight of the monster is often a sympathetic one; they are creatures of an understandable desperation, struggling to survive in a world that meets them with pitchforks and torches at every turn. Regardless of how the dreaded creature came into being, we are supposed to be pleased that it ends up dead. It’s a theoretically happy ending, unless you find yourself on the other end of the pitchfork.
As a person who empathizes with monsters, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a way to build a new mythology for these feared beasts. Consider the new stories we could tell if we decided that instead of fantasizing about killing our monsters, it would be worthwhile to imagine safe places for them in the fictional worlds they inhabit. Instead of driving them to the edges of society, our fictional villagers could welcome them, even find ways to live alongside them. Imagine Eagle Scouts at a campfire, roasting marshmallows and telling stories about chipped and tagged werewolves roaming our national parks and rescuing lost tourists from avalanches. Imagine seeing big summer movies where mummies are summoned not by a curse, but by a request from a dashing anthropologist to accurately place ancient artifacts in their appropriate human epoch. Imagine new adult erotica about fetish hookup websites just for vampires and their willing human prey. How would our stories about monsters change, and what would we learn?
The Godzilla films, for all of their faults, eventually end in a place of tolerance for their massive rubber star. Despite Toho’s best efforts to make Godzilla scary, it never really worked: children like me just fell in love with his big doofy face, and we wanted to see him win. Partially because Toho recognized that they were sitting on a merchandising gold mine, and partially because Godzilla became so entwined with Japan’s national identity overseas that it became a self-defeating effort to continue blowing him up, the world of kaiju (or Japanese monster movies) began to expand. Other monsters entered the scene. Some were destructive and yet quietly benevolent, like Mothra, the massively elegant moth whose heart only beat for her children. Some were powerful enemies, like the fearsome three-headed Ghidora, with whom Godzilla maintained a brutal rivalry throughout the 70s and 80s. And some, like the giant floppy lazer-eyed dog known as King Caesar, were just deeply stupid. But one by one, they all joined the campy kaleidoscopic world of kaiju, and Godzilla was the grudging king of them all. He kept the peace, kept them in line, and generally acted as a buffer between the tiny snack-sized people he used to terrorize and the massive plastic new gods born into the world with every subsequent film.
The Japanese people learned to like Godzilla, even trust him. Godzilla was soon given a home of his own: Monster Island, a remote isthmus in the South Pacific Sea, where the new kaiju could live together in peace under his giant immobile eyes. That isn’t to say their lives were conflict-free from then on. Godzilla’s relationship with humans remained mercurial, and the kaiju fought each other in literally every movie, because that’s what they do. But they also teamed up and protected each other, and took care of each other, and defended the people of Japan from a thousand imminent disasters. There’s a true beauty in the harmony between humans and monsters in these films. Just because a giant flaming space turtle is out of the ordinary, there’s no reason we can’t all get along.
Perhaps this view is too optimistic or too childish to hold much weight. What do old cheesy movies about monsters have to do with anything real? And yet, I grew up rooting for Godzilla, and I remain a fan. I have seen every Godzilla movie that has been released in American theaters, although my absolute favorite is Godzilla: Final Wars. Final Wars was billed as the ultimate ending to the Godzilla franchise. It was a no-holds barred battle between humans, aliens, and the kaiju caught between them. And yes, I did cry at the end. Not because I was frightened, or sorry to see my big rubber monster friend put out to pasture, but because the film ended so happily. The music swelled as Godzilla and his large lizard son walked hand-in-hand into the pink sunset ocean, humanity waving him a tearful farewell. Harmony, achieved at last.
It was especially touching to me considering how the previous film, Godzilla 2000, had ended. After yet another kaiju battle royale, Godzilla had emerged victorious, and was celebrating by throwing himself a building-punching bar mitzvah in Tokyo Square. Watching from a rooftop, a group of scientists argued about why Godzilla keeps coming back. Why do Godzilla’s truces with humanity never last? Why does he defend Japan from alien monsters, and then immediately attack a city for the ten-thousandth time? The scientists’ weary conclusion is that there is a little Godzilla in all of us, an inner monster we ultimately fail to conquer. Godzilla was awoken by Japan’s nuclear ambition, and has endured as an enemy because the society that created him doesn’t know how to stop provoking him, even when it’s trying to be good. It’s a dour ending for a campy film, but it’s worth considering: as long as Godzilla has been fighting us, we have been fighting him too. It’s never really worked out for either side. If we can’t find a way to live with Godzilla, this is just how it’s going to be.
Final Wars, with its happy ending for Godzilla and his son, subverts this in a beautiful way. Yes, Godzilla had to kick his way through a river of rubber-suited carnage to win. And yes, the residents of Monster Island were utterly vanquished this go-around. But Godzilla is undeniably the hero of the film. The ending where humanity celebrates him and allows him to make his own way home is framed as a triumph. Japan has finally accepted the love it has in its heart for its most monstrous son, and this has allowed peace.
For now. I mean, he’s coming back eventually. He’s Godzilla.
If there’s a moral here, it’s that we have to accept that there’s a little Godzilla in all of us. And maybe he’s scary at first, and hard to control, and he might torch a few buildings and crush a couple of tanks while you get to know him. But in the right setting, Godzilla can be a hero too. You can’t kill Godzilla. The only way to win is to treat him with empathy, house him humanely, and learn how to get along with him. There’s a little Godzilla in me, and in you, and that beast within us deserves an island home and playmates of its own and a happy ending where the credits roll as he strides into the ocean, head held high, finally accepted and understood for what he is. Maybe that’s the world we should create for our monsters: the world that we would want to live in, too.
The monster in me recognizes the monster in you.