Saturdays on the Couch with Godzilla
Memories of my long-running friendship with the King of Monsters
I’ve known Gojira for so long that I can’t even tell you exactly when we met. Growing up in megalopolis in a small community nestled almost equidistant from both Philadelphia and New York, I was fortunate to have a veritable cornucopia of entertainment available to my small, dial-tuning hands even in a day when TV revolved around broadcast networks. The major cities had numerous independent stations continuously churning through syndicated content that had either been spurned by or long since left the major networks.
I think I probably first encountered kaiju through kids’ shows like Battle of the Planets, Ultraman, and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot — all of which I remember faintly but fondly. (Is it my imagination, or did the flying robot essentially invent the dab? Check out his activation routine on YouTube. It looks suspiciously familiar.) This presumably put me on a trajectory to graduate to the feature-length kaiju movies aired on those same independent stations on Saturday afternoons — counter-programming to the sporting events shown on other channels.
Even at that time, you see, there was an implied self-segregation where Gojira/Godzilla and the other Toho Studios monsters were concerned. At least in the United States — where the popularity of these films wasn’t bolstered by national pride or viewed through a post-WWII Japanese cultural lens — watching kaiju movies was seen as a deeply nerdy/geeky pastime. Don’t get me wrong; a lot of kids my age fell into that category — as was evidenced by an influx of kaiju-themed shows (both live-action and animated) and toys. But there was an implied if generally unspoken consensus — one depicted fairly accurately in Netflix’s Stranger Things — that some things fell into the sphere of cool kids and jocks and some things belonged to the nerds. Godzilla, while a name recognizable in any household at that time, still definitely fell into the latter category.
So acknowledging that fact, I find myself somewhat bemused by assertions that the King of Monsters may be facing extinction based on the performance of his recent Legendary Pictures movie series. Simply put, Godzilla isn’t an acquired taste. Enjoying kaiju movies is an immediate visceral reaction to a science fiction fantasy that puts heavy emphasis on fantasy. It’s a fantastic, fun niche — but it’s still a niche.
To some extent, I fear that the Monsterverse and other science fiction and fantasy franchises will continue to suffer from expectations generated by the “Marvel Effect” — a belief that good writing, direction and storytelling can elevate almost any such property to a state of universal appeal. But Marvel Studios has a vast library of stories and characters to choose from ranging from the gritty to the absurd. So while there’s material in the Marvel Comics archives to inspire moments like the epic hallway fight scene in season one of Daredevil or the cat-and-mouse psychological turns of Legion, a Godzilla movie can’t take itself too seriously. Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy was recently quoted as saying that her franchise isn’t Marvel — that the movies and TV shows need to follow their own path that doesn’t try to follow the Marvel Studios formula for success. That’s even more applicable where the world of kaiju is concerned.
Every science fiction and fantasy world demands a willing suspension of disbelief — but some demand much more than others. “Hard” science fiction asks the viewer or reader to swallow one premise — one significant difference from life in the real world — and then (hopefully) weaves a believable tale stemming from how all the dominos would fall from there. Many more science fiction stories seek to create an immersive world that blends in fantasy to varying degrees — space operas, superhero tales, etc. — asking us to hold our questions a little longer. And then way (way, way) out at the fringe — waving awkwardly at us like a parental chaperone at the prom — you have kaiju movies.
Seeing Godzilla, King of The Monsters within the last week reminded me a lot of the first time I ever saw a kaiju movie in a theater. It was Godzilla Versus Megalon and I probably would have been around 10 — as my mother was willing to let me watch the movie by myself. She was waiting at a small food court several stores further down the mall. The movie was already old at that point — having been released in Japan in the 70s — but it was showing as a Saturday matinee in a movie theater that has since been closed for decades. The place wasn’t packed, but it was busy; I suspect there were a lot of other moms sitting on wrought-iron café chairs in the mall. This wasn’t their kind of movie, after all.
Inside the theater, we few — we happy few — were treated to what was for us the latest movie in a beloved franchise. I remember the air being full of cheers and groans. The now-infamous scene where Godzilla takes a gravity-defying running jump at his insectoid opponent probably got a mix of both, however, no one felt gipped and no popcorn was spilt or thrown. Because we were the initiated. We knew what we’d signed up for. Godzilla may have been from the other side of the world, but we extended him a hometown discount on our incredulity just the same.
Without offering any spoilers, I can say that the crowd that watched King of Monsters with my family — at a 4PM showing no less — had a similar if quieter and more reverent vibe. Dads and their kids, grandfathers and their grandkids, high schoolers and college students — they sat there and got what they expected. Some of the action did even raise a few whoops and there was some light pre-credits applause preceding the now-common wait for a post-credit scene. When we reached the car, my wife shared that this was probably her favorite kaiju movie — perhaps rivaled by the previous offering in the series, Kong: Skull Island. It wasn’t until later that we learned of the modest domestic box office results ($48 million opening weekend vs. an estimated $200 million budget) and poor critical reviews (40% freshness score on “Rotten Tomatoes” in the days just following its premiere).
For my part, I’m not sure where to rank this one because I’ve seen so many and there’s a lot of understandable tonal discontinuity across the various imaginings of the characters. The original 1954 Godzilla movie was solidly and unforgivingly a horror movie — an obvious classic, even contemporarily. But I suspect that’s not the first one I saw. I believe I may have seen either Godzilla Versus The Thing (also called Godzilla Versus Mothra) or Godzilla Versus Monster Zero — two of my favorites — before seeing the heavier origin picture. And where you jumped on to the Gojira bandwagon likely has a lot to do with how you view the series on the whole. More often than not, I tend to think of Godzilla as the “good guy” — as that’s how he was presented through most of the original Showa series (through 1975) as well as, to a lesser extent, in the later Heisei (1984 to 1995) and Millennium (1999 to 2004) reboots. And the fact that, through much of his history, Godzilla has moved back and forth along a continuum from destroyer to protector says a lot about how the character and franchise need to be understood.
Not long ago, I remember my older child asking me — in a question containing a thinly disguised rebuke — why I would choose to spend 90 minutes watching men in rubber lizard suits stepping on scale model buildings. My answer at the time was that I was inspired by nostalgia, and that was at least partially true. To this day, even the mention of Toho’s most name-dropped of all monsters makes me smile. When I think of flying saucers, I can’t help but hear inside my head the tinny whirring sound made by the armada from Planet X and the loud buzzing created by its ships’ disintegrator beams. One time early in my marriage, when my wife and I were house shopping, I recall seeing the names Godzilla and Mothra scrawled in the basement cement in one property and suddenly feeling at home; while we ultimately passed on the house, I can’t deny how I was carried back to my own childhood or how easily I was able to picture my own kids thriving there.
But nostalgia only explains why I like watching vintage kaiju cinema — not why I continue to support the genre today. It’s a totally different ball game now, after all. Suit actors, as they were called, have been replaced by state-of-the-art CGI, as have the meticulously created scale model landscapes they so famously trampled. It should surely follow then that these newer films are demonstrably and irrefutably better, right? Well, yes and no.
Have you ever watched kids act out a giant monster movie? Whereas it is popularly supposed that we enjoy horror movies because they allow us to experience our fears in a controlled environment — zombies, for example, representing the existential horror of soulless consumerism or the depersonalization of society — kaiju movies flip that script. Kids don’t play the bystanders running for cover. They don’t assume the role of the helpless citizenry. They become — and I believe to some extent we all become — the monsters in a moment of transparent catharsis.
Godzilla has always been an irresistible force — whether standing in for the nuclear devastation Japan suffered at the end of World War II or for the power of nature in general. But unlike the monster in J. J. Abrams’s Cloverfield, he couples that force with a distinctive and often human personality. With the exception of his origin story and its subsequent retellings, he’s a relatable character even when he’s the antagonist — like the “heel” in a wrestling match. And that’s how you need to view this franchise — not as The Avengers but rather as Wrestlemania.
It’s not my place to say how much Legendary Pictures chooses to invest in its films. No one needs to drag the rubber suits out of mothballs, as I suspect that there are opportunities to size the budget of future kaiju movies to match the scale of their niche even as the studio tries to grow it incrementally. But either way, I think it would be unwise for them to judge their giant monsters with the same measuring stick used for other science fiction and fantasy characters — as someone is inevitably and understandably going to feel short-changed.
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