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Godzilla is coming back! Here's how the monster became a symbol for real life crises


He's known to some as king of the monsters, king of the kaiju. And you know him for his roar.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Godzilla.


ROTT: A new trailer for the latest entry in the "Godzilla" franchise, "Godzilla Minus One," dropped this week. And, full disclosure, I am a longtime "Godzilla" superfan, so I am, like, goosebumps excited, largely because the film is being produced by Toho, a Japanese production company that's been making "Godzilla" movies since the iconic monster was played by a guy in an ill-fitting rubber suit. This is the production studio's first "Godzilla" movie since 2016. And like the original "Godzilla," the OG "Godzilla" made in 1954, in black and white, the new film looks to take place in post-war Japan.

And sure, you may be listening to this and thinking, OK, aren't there, like, dozens of "Godzilla" movies? Do I really need to watch a big, spiny-backed lizard destroy Tokyo for the umpteenth time? Yeah, yeah, yeah. The thing is, "Godzilla," even from its earliest days, has always been more than just a collection of monster flicks.

WILLIAM TSUTSUI: You know, the beauty of "Godzilla" and why "Godzilla" has lasted 70 years is because you can watch these films so many different ways. If you want to drink a couple of beers and just watch it as two guys in rubber suits wrestling with each other, knock yourself out. But what I think is really wonderful about them is if you put them in the historical context of when they were made, almost all of the movies have some relationship to a major issue convulsing Japanese or global society at the time.

ROTT: William Tsutsui is a scholar of modern Japanese history and the author of "Godzilla On My Mind: 50 Years Of The King Of The Monsters." When I spoke with Tsutsui earlier this week, I asked him to tell me a bit about the origins of Godzilla and how the monster has always been kind of an allegory for the crises people faced in real life.

TSUTSUI: Godzilla was very much born with the nuclear age. So the original film came out in Japan in 1954 and was very much inspired by the atomic bombings of 1945 and Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering traumas in Japanese society and in the Japanese psyche about those events. But even more proximately, it was inspired by American H-bomb testing in the South Pacific - hence, the narrative in the movie that Godzilla is a dinosaur left over from the Jurassic age that is rendered monstrous and destructive by radiation.

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, it seems like in some of those original movies, Godzilla was the U.S., right? Am I missing that, or is that - was that kind of the case?

TSUTSUI: You know, there are a lot of metaphors you can use for Godzilla. The makers describe Godzilla as being death, as being fear incarnate. But clearly, there was this threat of Godzilla being a outside force that was threatening to Japan.

ROTT: So how has the symbolism of Godzilla evolved over the many decades that they've been putting out movies on him?

TSUTSUI: Well, you know, "Godzilla" has been going now for about 70 years. There have been 33 live-action films made in Japan and the United States over that time. So needless to say, "Godzilla" has changed a lot. The first film in 1954 was very dark. It was very somber. It was a serious film with a political message made for adults. Over time, though, as audiences changed, as tastes change and as the Japanese movie industry changed, "Godzilla" adapted. "Godzilla" became more goofy, more funny. The movies were aimed more at kids. But in recent years, the series has changed again, and we've gone back to "Godzilla" movies that are more serious, more scary, that tap into the psychological needs of the time and address some serious political and cultural issues.

ROTT: Like what?

TSUTSUI: Well, you know, over time, one theme has been the environment and man's degradation of the environment. So of course, the first movie was about the nuclear threat and the way that this human-created superweapon could destroy the balance of nature. But then, you know, famously, a movie from 1971 called "Godzilla Versus The Smog Monster" imagined what would happen if the toxic sludge at the bottom of Tokyo Bay rose up into a monster and attacked Tokyo. And we see those themes developing over time. You know, any fears that society has are fair game for the makers of "Godzilla" movies.

ROTT: So it seems like today - you know, I usually cover climate change, right? And there are so many global crises. There's been the pandemic. There's worsening climate disasters we're seeing all around the world. You know, basically, the things we're seeing are more "Godzilla"-like than ever before. How do you think audiences are going to respond to "Godzilla" in this newest iteration, given the world that we're living in today?

TSUTSUI: You know, the "Godzilla" films made in recent years, both in Japan and the United States, have really been tapped in to the anxieties that we all face in an age of climate change. So they have directly addressed things like the earthquake, tsunami and natural disaster that hit Japan in 2011. Wonderfully, the first legendary film from Hollywood, "Godzilla" in 2014, really made a lot of nods to natural disasters, whether it was the San Francisco earthquake or Hurricane Katrina. So I'm really thrilled to see how the most recent movie talks about the place we are in, a place of environmental crisis, a place post-pandemic, and uses that as a way of scaring audiences but also making them think.

ROTT: So you mentioned the American-made movies. You know, Warner Bros., I think, just did three that have come out in recent years. There's been a lot of criticism of those movies, too, the American entries, about them. You know, even - this even goes back to the Matthew Broderick version - right? - in 1998, about how white the movies were, about how they didn't have the kind of depth that some of the Japanese versions of "Godzilla" had. Where do you stand on those movies?

TSUTSUI: You know, I think, in some ways, they're very good films, and in some ways, they do tap into the spirit of the original Godzilla, which was this majestic creature with a meaning, with a character, with a spirit. But, you know, I also accept the criticisms of the films. They have rewritten the origin myth of the monster, so it is no longer American H-bomb testing that spawns Godzilla. Instead, these giant monsters are sort of naturally occurring beneath the surface of the earth, and to some people, I think understandably, that seems like a whitewashing of history.

ROTT: So let's talk about the new film. I'm assuming "Godzilla" fan and "Godzilla" fan - you got to be pretty excited about it, right?

TSUTSUI: Oh my gosh. You know, the trailer sent a chill down my spine. The idea of doing a prequel to the Godzilla series seems, in some way almost sacrilegious, given how great that original 1954 movie is. And yet I'm excited to see what Toho Studios in Japan did with it.

ROTT: You mentioned Toho, right? Toho is the Japanese production company that originally did "Godzilla." Can you talk about the company's history with "Godzilla" and how it's changed?

TSUTSUI: Toho, one of the major movie studios in Japan, and originally I think Godzilla was just an attempt to capitalize on audience demand. You know, the American classic "King Kong" was released globally in 1953, and it was a huge hit in Japan. And so they just saw giant monster movies as a way to make money. Over time, though, as they realized the global popularity of this franchise, they began to recognize how important "Godzilla" was and also how profitable "Godzilla" was. And this is, you know, frankly, the best time in history, I think, to be a "Godzilla" fan because the franchise is more active, and there's more for us to consume than ever before.

ROTT: OK. "Godzilla" fan to "Godzilla" fan, I got to ask, what's your favorite movie?

TSUTSUI: Favorite movie - got to go back - 1954, original "Gojira" - really a classic and really compelling, visceral reaction to the human suffering that's shown there and also a strong political message.

ROTT: I'm more of a Gigan kind of guy, you know?

TSUTSUI: (Laughter) I'm with you.

ROTT: Maybe even Minilla, baby Godzilla, the ones that, you know, tripping over...

TSUTSUI: Please don't say that.


ROTT: All right. We've been speaking to Bill Tsutsui, chancellor at Ottawa University in Kansas, scholar of modern Japanese history and esteemed Godzilla expert. Bill, thanks for talking with us.

TSUTSUI: Thank you so much.

ROTT: "Godzilla Minus One" will hit U.S. theaters in December. I'll see you there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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