On Tuesday September 8, a screening of the original 1954 version of Godzilla, titled “Gojira,” was held in the Chapman Auditorium. The event preceded a lecture on Wednesday by Bill Tsutsui, President of Hendrix College and the western world’s top Godzilla expert, titled “The Cosmic Meaning of the ‘Godzilla’ Movies. The events were coordinated by Trinity’s EAST (East Asian Studies) program and were free and open to the public.

“We have a First Year Experience seminar called ‘Being Young in Asia.’ We talk about Japanese, Korean and Chinese culture […] So, one of the first things we are doing is bringing in this series about Godzilla with Dr. Tsutsui. He explains things about Godzilla and how it has been exploited,” said Donald Clark, one of six professors teaching the ‘Being Young in Asia’ First Year Experience.

According to Clark, “Godzilla” was not originally meant to be a simple monster movie designed to terrify audiences and have a happy ending.

“This movie was made as a nuclear protest in Japan. […] It’s about Japan [and] it’s full of Japanese disaster tropes. […] It is a powerful movie and very important in Japan. [In our course] we talk about how East Asian popular culture goes around the world and, in order to do that it has to be commodified, it can’t be something that is going to upset people. That’s how the Godzilla movie turned into a monster movie with a happy ending.”

According to Clark, in order for ‘Godzilla’ to sell in America, it had to be ‘sanitized’ of its anti-nuclear war message. In the American version of the film, the monster is even attributed heroic characteristics, which was far from being the case in the original version. The purpose of the film screening and the lecture was to shed light on the way cultural products are modified and stripped of their original message in order to be appealing to different sets of consumers.

Bill Tsutsui is an expert on Japanese pop culture and has given over a hundred talks on ‘Godzilla’ over the past decade.
“The original movie was something special. It was very serious [and] somber, and it’s still remarkably moving. […] The basic story is a pretty simple one: a mysterious creature is disrupting shipping and terrorizing a small island, south of Japan. Japanese scientists investigate and discover that there’s a surviving dinosaur rendered huge and radioactive by South Pacific H-Bomb testing. The monster then, for no particular reason, turns its sight on Tokyo, laying waste to the city in a series of horrifying nighttime raids. Ultimately the monster is stopped by a secret weapon developed by a noble Japanese scientist who kills himself and takes the secret of that super-weapon with him to his grave in order to rid the world of Godzilla.”
Tsutsui has written books about Japanese popular culture as well as solely about ‘Godzilla.’ He did his undergraduate studies at Harvard University, majoring in East Asian Studies; has two master’s degrees from Oxford and Princeton, and a PhD from Princeton. He speaks about ‘Godzilla’ to audiences ranging from elementary school children to college students and TedEX events.
“Godzilla is real and Godzilla is cosmic. […] Over the past six decades, Godzilla has starred in thirty movies, twenty eight made in Japan by Toho Studios, and two in Hollywood. […] Thus now is as good a time as any to reflect on Godzilla. What is the deal with this radioactive lizard who seems to love nothing better than destroying Tokyo? Why does this cinematic monster continue to stir our imaginations and attract audiences? Why do fans still enjoy watching an actor in a rubber suit stomping the heck out of toy cities?” said Tsutsui.

The Godzilla franchise has not only found extreme success in movies, but also theme parks, toys, promotional spots for fast food chains and comic books. According to Tsutsui, the reason for this monster’s success for so many decades has to do with its adaptability to different audiences and issues over time.

“Over time the films took on a range of timely themes that were of concern to Japanese society: the Cold War, nuclear testing, memories of World War II, vulnerability in international relations, government corruption, the rising influence of large corporations, consumerism and the blossoming of a mass market economy, pollution, urbanization, school bullying, generational change and nationalism,” said Tsutsui

Godzilla as a character, Tsutsui pointed out, has remained remarkably flexible as well. It was able to adapt to the shifts of markets in post-war Japan. It addressed the needs of a wide range of movie audiences from children to adults, and has remained a timeless character in pop culture.

“The monster grew larger as Japanese skylines grew, then he got even larger when he came to Hollywood, and the tone of the films could change based on the tone of the times. […] Godzilla is [also] effectively un-ageing, and that explains his staying power as a celebrity. Godzilla is constantly refreshed […] and avoided the ravages of time and mortality.” said Tsutsui

The last reasons why Godzilla has remained popular over time is that it embodies character traits and values that audiences find appealing. It also appeals to the worldly love of dinosaurs and the unknown.

“Notably, most of the films come down to simple story lines of good versus evil. In the first movie, Godzilla is the threat, but in the later films he really becomes a defender of Japan and a defender of humanity; a hero who audiences root for. Godzilla is, when all is said and done, a big irradiated dinosaur from Japan, and the world, especially children, has consistently just loved dinosaurs. […]”said Tsutsui

By appealing to the most basic senses of human nature, Godzilla was, and will continue to be, a great success among audiences of all ages, inspiring both fear and delight in viewers all around the globe.

“The exuberance, the cathartic nature of the destruction, all are just enjoyable to watch, whether you are six years old or sixty. Godzilla is the outrageous guy that breaks all the rules and gets away with it, the walking disaster who leaves a trail of devastation behind him, and inspires not just fear and loathing, but also admiration, awe, and an odd tingle of delight.” said Tsutsui