I never really got the idea of ‘camp’. Watching something that you know is ‘bad’ in order to get pleasure out of reveling in its badness seems smug to me. The classic Japanese monster movies (Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, etc.), were obviously low-quality. Surely no one was watching them for any other reason than the camp pleasure. The special effects looked cheap, even by the standards of 1950s sci-fi. But when I was younger I loved watching these movies even though I thought I knew how bad they were supposed to be. But my nascent camp posture was always circumvented by pure enjoyment. So, when TCM showed Godzilla (Gojira or ゴジラ in the original Japanese) I thought I would give it fifteen minutes of my time to see if I could relive some of that pleasure I once got. I was surprised at what I found.
Knowing more about history now than I did then, the whole thing seemed like a complicated riff on WWII, the Bomb and both Japan’s and America’s roles in the conflict.
And this is not a stretch to make this thesis fit the film. When you see Godzilla trampling through Tokyo, it is impossible not to imagine the Allied destruction of the city. The black and white photography of destruction and chaos look like WWII newsreels.
Remember, this film came out less than 10 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the war in the Pacific. The traumas of that time were undoubtedly still fresh in the minds of the Japanese. The economic rebound was still not in full swing. Many parts of the country were still devastated. The emotional impact of these scenes must have been profound.
Along with his expert trampling, Godzilla also destroys the city with his breath of fire. No doubt this was a traumatic memory for the original audience, most of whom had seen the city completely destroyed by fire bombing.
The attempts of the Japanese military to destroy the monster have clear echoes of the Kamikaze pilots.
The ‘oxygen destroy’ that is used to end the monster’s terrifying rampage sounds very much like splitting the atom, that the process sounds like the Hail Mary pass that the Atom Bombs were to bring the war to an end.
The argument for ‘oxygen destroyer’ similar to is very similar to the rational for the Manhattan Project : pure science drives the research for and creation of the bomb, even though all the scientists must have been aware of its destructive potential. Serizawa is ultimately more noble than the Americans since he realizes that it must be used, but he destroys all the plans and himself to ensure that it will never be used again. Is this a casual (or not so casual) indictment of the U.S’s continued advancement of nuclear arms?
There are other more thoughtful Japanese films centered on the dropping of the Bombs and its aftermath. Akira Kurosawa’s I Live In Fear from 1955 depicts a businessman who slowly drives himself insane with his obsession of protecting his family from what he believes is an inevitable second nuclear attack. Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) is a harrowing depiction of the delayed effects of the bombs. Both of these films are richer and more nuanced than Gojira, but for pure visceral trauma, The King of the Monsters still has it, tacky rubber suit or no tacky rubber suit.