In 2017 I trawled the internet hoping that a UK distribution deal for Toho’s first Godzilla film for 12 years was on the verge of being struck. When something quite ‘niche’ is important to you, it’s easy to forget that for most folk it is of little consequence. I assumed that some small independent cinema would have some screenings, I imagined that one of the culture/media museums would show it as part of a greater look at Japanese cinema. I even dared dream about a local theatre holding a special season of Kaiju movies, with the new Shin Gojira movie headlining a series of creature features.
The Japanese cinematic release date came and went, and so did any hope of watching my atomic hero on the big screen. I saw that there would be some limited screenings in the USA (where Godzilla fandom is arguably bigger than it is in Japan), but still nothing over here in good old Blighty.
I‘ve been just as excited about this film as I was about the new Star Wars Trilogy, just as desperate to see this as I was Episode VII – but for me, Godzilla was a bigger part of my childhood than Star Wars. I had Star Wars toys and loved the droids cartoon, but I didn’t actually see the films until much later. I would repeatedly watch Godzilla movies, especially my favourite – ‘Son of Godzilla’ (don’t judge me, nearly 30 years on I view the film quite differently) and had many conversations with my brother about whether Godzilla was a goodie or a baddie. It was a topic which caused confusion. The American movies I’d viewed tended to be very black and white when it came to heroes, with good and evil polarised to the extreme. But with Godzilla he was sometimes a scary monster, he was sometimes a friendly ally, he didn’t fit the Hollywood formula I was accustomed to. During the late ‘80s at the age of 9 I had an epiphany - Godzilla wasn’t good or evil, he “just was”.
Of course, now I’m watching every Godzilla movie in order and commenting on each one, I can see that I was wrong – in some films Toho specifically designed the Big G to be a heroic figure, it was an attempt to turn him from a horror movie star into a family friendly character. In 1954 Godzilla really ‘just was’ – he might be a scary atomic beast responsible for hundreds of human deaths, but the destruction was not the result of an evil plan, it wasn’t motivated by wickedness, instead Godzilla was a creation of man’s own destructive tendencies.
Abandoning the idea of binary characteristic quality shaped the way I thought about the world and influenced my pop-culture choices. The Godzilla films I watched as a kid were quite simplistic, and quite honestly were just thin strings of narrative hanging between fight scenes, with stories diluted further by dodgy dubbing. But once I’d argued the case that Godzilla didn’t have to be ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to my brother I found myself less interested in mainstream entertainment. It seems insanely obvious as an adult that there’s a whole spectrum of character traits; an evil person can do wonderful things and a great person is capable of terrible acts. But as a kid I existed in a world of “right” or “wrong” and was used to seeing 2 dimensional good vs evil titles which were entertaining but ultimately unfulfilling. A fantastic story, a superb score and impressive visuals can help to elevate a film beyond the sum of its parts – but a film doesn’t need any of that to achieve greatness – ultimately it just needs to be engaging. The most gratifying film/TV/book output tends to involve characters with allure. For years I’ve much preferred to watch something like a seemingly plotless but utterly compelling Mike Leigh film than a Hollywood blockbuster. Despite threats that piracy would spell the end of cinema (unfounded claims by an industry unable to see how it could embrace the internet), cinema has flourished over recent years despite frequently spewing forth unimaginative titles which are designed as brand enforcement. After watching Thor 2 I felt genuinely offended that such a poor ‘product’ could have been the final output of thousands of hours of collaboration between so many people.
Anyway, I digress somewhat – the point is that for me Godzilla movies were the turning point where I questioned what I’d seen before, shaped the direction my choices led me and purely because it introduced to me the idea that a character can ‘simply be’ and not be formulaic bad or good. He also happened to be a large dinosaur-type creature with atomic breath and existed along a plethora of other kick-ass monsters, and whether I’m 9 years old or 36, that’s pretty awesome.
As for Star Wars, well I ignored it for years because it was so popular and it looked like a standard “good vs evil” series of films. But then I watched it all and I was amazed, completely captivated. As an outsider looking in, Darth Vader seemed like a stereotypical, by-the-numbers villain, but throughout the prequels and by the end of Return of the Jedi it was clear that he is not inherently evil, he ‘just is’.
I have a daughter who is a massive Star Wars fan, one of life’s great privileges was seeing her watch the original Star Wars trilogy and observe her face as she learned of Luke’s paternal bombshell, watched Vader finally unmasked, and as she shed a tear at Vader’s demise. Vader is her Godzilla, a character who inspires the maturity of thought to escape the confines of simplistic two-dimensional thinking. To grow beyond the childish notion that the world is divided into right and wrong, goodies and baddies, the light side and the dark side. It’s an unconscious leap we all make, it’s all part of growing up and understanding the world – and for me it started with a man in a rubber suit.