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Godzilla and Environmental Pessimism

The Criterion Collection

“But like his philosophical cousins before him, Godzilla cannot exist because the ideas upon which he is based are incorrect. He cannot exist because pessimism is false.”

Metaphor is a strange thing—the bastard child of insight and entertainment; it is a powerful tool of language used to portray meaning through extraordinary comparisons. The everyday is said to be exceptional; the mundane is made florid. But how is it that a man in a dinosaur costume can come to represent some of our deepest and most influential ideas? How is it that monsters fighting robots can be read as mankind’s eternal struggle? And how is it even possible to publish a near 2,000 word philosophical deep-dive into the evolution of, you guessed it, Godzilla?

It all started in 1954. The Japanese production company Toho released Gojira, a science fiction monster movie (known in Japan as a “Kaiju Film”—literally translating to “strange creature”) about the emergence and ensuing destruction caused by the eponymous, radioactive lizard. In the original story, Gojira is an ancient sea creature mutated by secret hydrogen bomb testing. He enjoys the occasional rampage, appearing unannounced onto the Japanese mainland to trample his arch-nemesis, Tokyo.

At first glance, the Godzilla franchise (romanized from the original Japanese Gojira soon after it broke into Western audiences) lacks depth. The Kaiju film genre is one of apparently adolescent appeal: monsters destroying cities and battling giant robots. But Godzilla is the exception to this rule; ever since its first release, the King of Monsters and his stories have been interpreted as allegories for many diverse ideas including nuclear holocaust, natural disaster and Japanese independence. Soon after the film’s release, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka stated that, “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

It’s as clear a message as any—but the history of Godzilla is long. Since 1954 and Tanaka’s first feature, the central message of the Godzilla series has taken after the beast himself, rapidly adapting to a changing environment. Like all memes, metaphors are subject to cultural evolution and its errors; they can be shared and modified, reclaimed and lost-in-translation. Since the middle of the 20th century and the end of the Cold War, over thirty Godzilla features have been released; and over that same period, the focus of our existential concerns have shifted from the esoteric properties of the element uranium to those of carbon. Nuclear physics has been replaced by the continually emerging field of climate science as the emissary of disaster.

Godzilla has been mindful of this change. In some of his more recent appearances, the beast has largely done away with his atomic origin story and assumed a more geophysical identity. This was true for 2014’s creatively-titled Godzilla, the 30th installment and second Hollywood reboot of the franchise. In the film, Godzilla is no longer the product of nuclear testing but some primordial “alpha predator” lost for millions of years. He is quoted as being, “The top of a primordial ecosystem. A god, for all intents and purposes.” And when battle finally ensues, the film’s top Godzilla specialist states: “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control…and not the other way around. Let them fight.”

I believe it is this sentiment that captures the true heart of the Godzilla franchise. Producer Tanaka alludes to it in his last sentence about the original film: the notion of nature’s retribution in response to humanity’s crimes. But that is an over-complication. Godzilla has, in almost all of his cinematic depictions, come to represent one idea above all others: nature’s insuperable dominance over mankind.

The King of Monsters is the perfect avatar for this philosophy because he is invincible. What was originally a feature of his atomic metaphor has been adapted to fit a new, climatological narrative that states we are small in comparison to the world we live in—and that we are fools to think otherwise. It’s a deeply pessimistic notion that should be easy to refute with the most cursory reading of history. Ever since the Stone Age and our hunter-gatherer origins, we have sought to solve the problems caused by our environment (hunger, lack of protection and so on). To escape these struggles we changed the world by creating new knowledge, and with it, life-saving technologies such as clothes, fire and methods of farming. In those times such breakthroughs were exceptionalfleeting but vital coups against an otherwise tyrannical misery. But today that misery is fighting a losing battle, as we enjoy the fruits of innovation as standard and at a rate unimaginable to our neolithic ancestors.

But what about those problems caused by progress itself, I hear you ask? What about climate change? After all, it was our many “innovations” during the Industrial Revolution that began to pollute the atmosphere in the first place. It was our reckless attempts to solve the problems of poverty and hunger that have contributed to the natural degradation of the third world. It is our arrogant faith in the specter of progress itself that is destroying us. Right?

I admit it: those very “solutions” to our primeval struggles created the problems of climate change. But this is merely a fact of the growth of knowledge and its interaction with the world we live in. It is not some fatal bug of progress—but its most fundamental feature. Problems are the children of solutions.

The nature of progress is akin to Hercules and the Hydra: one head chopped off yields two more in its place. That is not to say all problems are venomous serpents; there is much joy in the pursuit of creative solutions. This is true for much of art and science, for example.

But when it comes to the problems caused by progress itself, we appear hogtied by some misplaced sense of collective guilt. Where natural evils such as earthquakes, tsunamis and pandemics inspire optimism as a standard, problems like climate change have us on our knees defeated. And the very idea of progress itself—the unending stream of problem solving through reason and science—is seen as some evil chimera born from a childish naivety. We must remember our place.

This philosophy, if taken seriously enough, is perhaps our greatest existential threat. If some problems are indeed unsolvable, and our futile attempts to the contrary only exacerbate matters, then it appears that we are forever locked into some fatalistic doom.

But this species of pessimism is false—historically, psychologically, philosophically—bunk. A tawdry excuse for a worldview that should inspire passionate anger, not somber acquiescence. After all, this is evil we’re talking about—poverty, disease, death. Surrender is never an option because it need not be. We are winning.

It sounds like empty idealism at first. But this follows from our deepest understanding of nature—from the laws of physics themselves. In his book The Beginning of Infinity, physicist David Deutsch writes about a “momentous dichotomy.” It states that if a physical transformation is not precluded by the laws of physics, then it is possible to perform given the required knowledge. He goes on to explain how the laws of physics themselves—the absolute limit on the speed of light, for example—will never constitute an opaque barrier through which progress is made impossible. In other words: it’s only ever a matter of knowing how.

From his momentous dichotomy, Deutsch goes on to derive The Principle of Optimism. It states that “all evils are caused by a lack of knowledge,” evoking Francis Bacon’s famous phrase “knowledge is power.” Both are seemingly prosaic (bordering clichéd) statements, but they harbor deep philosophical truths and follow directly from nature’s deepest laws.

In these terms, it is impossible for Godzilla to exist because he represents an insoluble problem. He is the living rejection of optimism as Deutsch describes it—the Pessimist’s Demon, if you will. But like his philosophical cousins before him, Godzilla cannot exist because the ideas upon which he is based are incorrect. He cannot exist because pessimism is false.

For this we should be thankful—great fiction almost never makes for great current affairs. But the absence of immortal megafauna in our universe does not preclude us from hazards and their risks. This is due to yet another fundamental feature of the growth of knowledge, namely that it is unpredictable. There is no way to predict the contents of tomorrow’s scientific discovery, for example, for that would require the very knowledge contained within the discovery itself.

Following this fact, and the fact that problems are born from solutions, we can know that all problems resulting from progress are also unpredictable. This is one area the Godzilla franchise understands completely: if 35 films have taught us anything, it’s that a giant radioactive lizard—or moth, or pteranodon, or three headed dragon—could turn up anywhere, at any time, for any reason whatsoever. This holds for all our created problems.

So, what is next for the King of Monsters? Pessimism is false, and Godzilla is dead with it, right?

Yes… and no. I said before that metaphor is a dangerous thing because it can evolve within a culture. This also includes divergence.

In 2016, the original creators of the franchise, Toho, released Shin Godzilla. The 31st installment in the series and third Japanese reboot; it contained all the decorative plumage of a Kaiju film—Godzilla tramples Tokyo and destroys fighter jets with his famous atomic breath; one character even refers to the beast as, “A perfect organism surpassing Man.” But Toho’s third draft diverges from all those Godzilla films before it in one crucial regard: optimism.

After the film’s opening minutes, the creature himself is given about as much screen time as would the crest of an oncoming tsunami—just enough to justify a response. The focus lies instead on the people reacting to the event, rushing (the operative word—this film is fast) from boardroom to boardroom in an exhaustive and exhausting flurry of bureaucratic vigor. Admissions of human arrogance are thrown aside in favor of creativity and resolve; the same character who utters that pessimistic phrase goes on to discover the key to defeating the beast—no, not some fictional super-weapon or rival behemoth—but a blood coagulating drug that shuts down its cooling system. It follows directly from an accurate theory of how this particular Godzilla functions: a fun and veracious display of the unique relationship between understanding and subsequently controlling the world around us. This Godzilla is unlike any other because he is vulnerable to knowledge. He is fallible like the rest of us.  

But like fire in the neolithic, progress in the Godzilla universe is a rare and fragile thing. This year sees the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and with it, the return to a pessimistic reign. Shin Godzilla remains the outlier in this regard, but it represents a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise scorched battleground.

Over 65 years and 35 features, the King of Monsters has ruled cinema with an iron fist. Powered by allegory and atom bombs, he has come to represent some of our most powerful (and destructive) ideas. He is unchanging and yet adaptable, metaphorical and yet deeply real. He is a strange creature, indeed.

Tom Hyde is a student at University College London studying for an MSc in Geophysical Hazards.

2 thoughts on “Godzilla and Environmental Pessimism

  1. I would wounder if you actually watched the the original Gojira, as it in fact supports your claims about progress, problems, and solutions. Godzilla (the problem) is caused by the atom/hydrogen bomb (progress ) and solved by the Oxygen Destroyer (solution), which ends up potentially causing more problems to have other solutions to. As well, in the American version, the movie end on a very optimistic note with Raymond Burr’s character saying, “… the whole world could wake up and live again.” Also, the themes and meaning of this film are not exactly meant to be taken as pessimism. This is a dark and brooding film because it is a reflection of the Japanese people at the time; having just had two atomic bombs dropped on them a little less than 10 years prior, being subject to American occupation and meddling for the past 8 years, and having been the victims of the first test of a hydrogen bomb earlier that year. It is a film that expresses much of the pain they felt in the past 10 years and the fears that they felt for their future. This is somewhat represented by Dr. Yamane’s somber quote from the end of the Japanese version, “… if we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world, again.”
    I feel that you also misunderstand what Godzilla is. He is not solely a “Pessimist’s Demon”, but an idea, being whatever he needs to be to reflect the fears and concerns of the Japanese people. In the the 1991 film Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah, he represents some fears that the huge economic growth that japan had experienced recently might lead to a resurgence of some WW II era ideologies; and the film prior, 1989’s Godzilla Vs. Biollante, is about what uncontrolled genetic testing might lead to; and 1971’s Godzilla Vs. Hedorah is about pollution and the environment. In one movie he helps a kid learn to fight is own battles; another has him pocking fun at the lengths that companies went to market their product; and in 2016’s Shin Godzilla, he is representative of the Fukushima disaster and the ineptitude of the government in handling it. Now, that’s not to say that Godzilla isn’t and can’t be pessimistic, but he has a deeper significance in his movies than a contemporary American monster movie.
    However, if I misunderstood what you were using Godzilla for or you didn’t understand something that I wrote down, please let me know.

    1. I agree the original film isn’t as pessimistic as later installments; and that Godzilla has come to represent many contradictory ideas (he is one of the most fracturing symbols in popular culture). Perhaps “Toho’s third draft diverges from *all* those Godzilla films before it” is an overstatement–but I maintain Shin Godzilla is the most accurate portrayal of optimism as I’ve come to understand it (the Oxygen Destroyer is too much of a science fiction “out” for my liking). And I still think natural dominance and agency is the most reoccurring theme of the franchise, even when it takes a backseat compared with Japanese geopolitics etc. Whether it’s him as a mindless, invincible monster or as Mankind’s Champion in the face of other mindless, invincible monsters–that’s pessimism.

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