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Godzilla Movies: Analyzing The Horror Genre Through Theoretical Lenses

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Abstract

Does the horror genre reflect the fears of the current culture? If so, what characters and themes are used to represent that fear of the current cultural climate of that era? Looking at the genre through the theoretical lenses of semiotics, queer theory and postcolonialism through the Godzilla movies and the monster’s most notable incarnations and how they connect with the cold war and the nuclear bomb and themes of disaster, and the 80s slasher and themes of sexuality and the connection to parental ignorance and fear. Horror as a genre has permeated through literature, television, and film, but is often overlooked in the critical eye because it’s seen as low brow, cheap and raunchy. But that perception overlooks the hidden meaning behind many classics of horror. There will be a deep dive into two drastically different decades and how that era’s fears reflected the cultural climate.

Jumping into the 50s, the Cold War was on many North Americans minds and the notion that someday, that there will be an atomic attack terrified many. So horror in the 50s showcased films with giant bugs, aliens, or atomic experiments gone wrong. One of these movies from the 50s does not come from America, but from Japan with the film known as “Gojira”. Directed by Ishido Honda and with special effects done by Eiji Sugurya, the two had worked together with Tomoyuki Tanaka and Toho studios to produce a political film presented under the guise of a creature feature. “Gojira” was meant to be reflective of the persistent fear of the Japanese with the destruction of the atom bomb and the effects of radiation as many scars were still healing from the events prior. That reflection was a result of the nuclear bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had left a ruined empire and resulted in American occupation. While the U.S had attempted in forming a new foundation of democracy in Japan, it also resulted in strict censorship regulations involving propaganda and the outright banning of military imagery.

While “Gojira” had come out two years after the American occupation ended, unfortunately, Toho studios still faced pressure from the new censorship regulations that had been implemented by the Japanese government which had been heavily influenced by America’s censorship policies. This lead to a tasteful use of imagery and suggestion to Honda’s vision in what he wanted to show. This included Godzilla’s creature design. There is a lack of scales on its body, despite its lizard-like appearance, this is due to the fact that its grooved textured skin was meant to reflect the scarring of the survivors who encountered the nuclear blasts, along with this, Godzilla’s head is a similar shape to that of a mushroom cloud. In addition, the opening scene of “Gojira” shows a boat with a life preserver with a number five on it, referencing the Lucky Dragon 5 incident a few years earlier which involved American nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall islands (FSD Productions, 2017). The film was meant to be about the perspective of the ordinary people who had encountered such a horrific disaster, how they reacted to it, and how they dealt with it. However, that perspective wasn’t taken into consideration when the Transworld Releasing corporation gained distribution rights in 1956. The message of the film was deemed unsuitable for American audiences, resulting in many scenes being cut out and the plot being rewritten to include an American actor. The notion of a Japanese film with a Japanese perspective was deemed unsuitable for audiences in North America because Americans were supposedly not ready to face what the U.S. Military had done and didn’t want to face the pain and destruction through the eyes of the common Japanese civilian.

So “Gojira” was renamed “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and had actor Raymond Burr playing the lead as an American reporter covering the destruction of Japan’s capital and was shot alongside Japanese-American actors that were cast as cast look-alikes to seem as though he was originally part of the production. Along with this, any notion of American nuclear weapons testing was either completely removed or distorted, including the subtext involved as it was either not translated at all, or lost in translation and with the thirty minutes that replaced the twenty that was removed from the film, the dubbed lines were either done poorly or not done at all, erasing any profound dialogue that was in the original.

As expected with the version being released in North America was a critical flop due to the unfortunate circumstances. The original “Gojira” had themes of oppression, tragedy and showing how the Japanese dealt with that tragedy, only for it to be censored, have that tragedy being trivialized, and introduced an American perspective to an experience that was so heavily Japanese, as Americans had never dealt with that kind of nuclear disaster before giving no understanding to that experience.

Godzilla only gained popularity in drive-in theaters, and the context and symbolism of Godzilla shifted from war, destruction, and suffering, to something as simple as Godzilla fighting other big monsters like Mothra and King Ghidorah. Due to the American censorship, it wiped away all that Godzilla symbolized and now he had been domesticated and boiled down to nothing more but a tourism mascot and depicted in later films as supposedly the “savior” and cultural symbol of Japan. (KaptainKristian 2017).

The main thing that all cultures do is take something inherently awful and turn it into something entertaining as a means of coping, we see many examples of this with the U.S and the Vietnam war and the counterculture era. With the youth being discontent with the current situation of the U.S. horror filmmakers sought to create something that reflected this discontent. The film “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was meant to show that anger and just how ugly violence can be and how youth felt about that violence.“Gojira” is just a Japanese way of showing tragedy and using entertainment to cope in contrast with American horror. It was meant to be a means of release and healing for war and the disaster that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki and allowed them to learn from the wartime.

However, with the war being over, and the relationship between Japan and America improving, Toho studios felt that it was time to change Godzilla with more lighthearted and campier tones, appealing more so to younger audiences. However, in current years, Godzilla has been once again shifting from a mascot symbol to a symbol of natural disaster and will continue to shift and evolve as time progresses and changes. For example, we see a shift from tourist figure to that of a symbol not of nuclear waste and the danger of radiation but laced with themes of nature and natural disasters. In “Godzilla 2014” the film uses imagery that harkens back to disasters such as the Pacific earthquakes and Hurricane Katrina, it shows that humanity doesn’t necessarily triumph due to ingenuity and creativity, but shows that humanity is helpless and unable to stop natural disasters, in this case with two giant monsters brawling in out in the middle of San Fransisco. “Shin Godzilla” is a film that is least likely out of the newer phase of Godzilla to beat you over the head with meaning and symbolism, instead, it focuses as a criticism toward Japanese politics and the way Japanese politicians act in the event of a dire situation, as every action Godzilla takes, the audience is then taken to a scene of a conference room filled with politicians debating on what to do next before they can decide to move forward with their decision. Does Godzilla in “Shin” symbolize the dangers of a nuclear disaster or a natural disaster? In a way, it’s a bit of both, as there’s still imagery of the use of gas masks, and tracking radiation after Godzilla uses its radiation breath, but also natural disaster imagery, most poignantly relating to the Fukushima nuclear disaster that happened in 2011. However, there is a newer, fresh take on the symbolism of the creature, and that is the life cycle. At the beginning of “Shin” Godzilla is nothing more than a tadpole in the middle of a bay, only to rapidly grow and evolve, come on to land, wiggling and clumsily crashing into buildings until it becomes bipedal and even more seemingly aware of its surroundings. Only for it to roar at the Japanese military and retreating, very much like an infant or child discovering the dangers in life. However, Godzilla returns, fully formed and most recognizable as the creature we know. In the end, when Godzilla is standing there frozen like a statue due to the blood coagulant it was force fed, it’s noticeable that in an attempt at a last resort, the creature had attempted to split itself off into smaller organisms, giving the audience a sense of dread, as these organisms vaguely look humanoid, in turn giving a sense of the uncanny valley. Even part of the title “Shin” has symbolic connections, as it roughly translates to God. So in turn, “Shin Godzilla” has themes of science and religion meshing together as Godzilla symbolizes evolution and metamorphosis, but also a wrathful god as in the film, he doesn’t go out of his way of killing people until bombs are being dropped on him, in turn, he retaliates. Even the musical cues in the film have this deep gothic hymns whenever there is a dramatic shot of the beast.

Godzilla is important because it shows how human beings cope and react to disasters at given times, and these three incarnations show a deeper, more moral and philosophical side, Godzilla is more than just a giant lizard destroying a city, Godzilla serves as a catharsis for the Japanese and serves as a symbol for how humans react to near apocalyptic events.

Flashback into the eighties, during that time in the U.S. politicians, were calling back to older traditions and American values. However, many felt that the Reagan era politicians were trying to gain control over their rights and freedoms. During this time, it gave rise for the 80s slasher film, with the “Friday the 13th” franchise giving rise to the iconic killer Jason Voorhees. Many argue that Jason represents a force of nature or divine intervention, as many who wind up dead in the Friday films are teenagers that engage in drug use and premarital sex. In turn, something that many parents were concerned over what their kids were doing. Expanding on parents fearing sex and teenage sexuality, the first “Nightmare on Elm Street” film expands upon this, as the movie has deep themes of the morality play between promiscuity, sexual themes and the danger of sex.

The teenagers who engage in sex are the ones to die first, and the film tends to make a connection between sex symbolically connected as a gateway drug to evil, with the use of the symbolism of the phone scene, the scene where Nancy is in the bathtub and the suggestive nature of Tina’s death in the first act of the movie. With the negative connotations toward sexual activity meshing with the teens’ naivety as they’re on the brink toward adulthood, society in general and parents tend to use the label of danger in association with sex in order to keep their kids away from sexual activity and in line. The Adults of Elm Street tend to fear it, as Nancy’s parents show more concern over whether or not their daughter is engaging in such activity as opposed to more obvious and pressing issues that should be addressed.

Wes Craven wanted to showcase his vision of the impact that hypocritical adults had on vulnerable teens but also Freddy Krueger’s dominance. As in life, Kruger was a man that preyed upon children, in a sense, an adult using his dominance as a means of abuse. In death, he is a demonic serial killer that uses dominance in his victims’ dreams as a mechanism for his success. The key differences between Kruger and other 70s and 80s slashers is that Kruger does have an exploitable weakness in comparison to Jason and Michael Meyers, who are mute and seemingly invincible monsters. The factor with Freddy Kruger is that he doesn’t have the factor of being seemingly invincible, but with the way he taunts, toys and manipulates his victims, his need to show that he is bigger, worse and tougher than everyone else, which is just another means for Freddy to assert his dominance and to instill more panic and fear into the children that he preys upon.

This puts the main cast in a difficult situation to deal with, because, in reality, Freddy asserts his dominance over them through their parents, as the parents of Springwood had taken the law into their own hands by killing Kruger in life and all of them being guilty of it, and keeping that source of guilt hidden away from their children, ergo, the dream world manifests into the source of the parents guilt, the boiler room in which Freddy would kill kids. In turn, driving the theme of the next generation having the clean up the mess of the last generations.

The overall metaphor of the movie is that once we show our fear, we will lose our control and composure, and the cause of that fear will take the reigns that we lost. Once Nancy drags Kruger into reality, Craven makes a point in showing just how vulnerable Kruger is only to subvert the notion that he can be killed by indicating that he’s not essentially real. However, the ending shows that the trials of responsibility and adulthood will never go away and with Kruger being the embodiment of fear and nightmares, he can’t be completely erased as Nancy’s dreams will always be a part of her, and seeing her mother symbolically dragged away symbolizes that her parents won’t be there to protect her from the dangers of life forever. (Ryan Hollinger, 2017).

Expanding on the notion of teenage sexuality, another main thing that parents feared was also their children being gay. Many fans had debated whether or not “Nightmare on Elm Street 2” was a gay movie, as many people involved in the production either outright denied it, or stepped around giving a definitive answer. So that left many fans and critics left to observe and analyze the subtext of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequel.

It wasn’t until recently that the actors and screenwriters involved admitted that the sequel had gay subtext, as screenwriter David Chaskin stated that the film was being made right around the post-AIDs and the notion of men unsure about their sexuality was in fact, a bit scary. Robert Englund even mentions how the sequel rocked the boat in Europe, as many had picked up on the homoerotic subtext and how Freddy represented the self-hatred in the gay community.

In addition to this, Mark Patton who played the lead as Jessie Walsh was gay and brought bits of himself into the character. The premise of “Nightmare on Elm Street 2” surrounds Jessie Walsh, a teenage outsider who has been having nightmares about a man taking over and controlling his body. Kruger, in turn, wants Jessie’s body so that he can appear in reality so that he can continue his work of killing the children of Elm Street.

There are a multitude of overt examples of homosexual subtext, with an example as when Grady mentions to Jessie that their Coach Snider is queer and regularly visits S & M bars, along with this, there are many themes going on in the film, such as shame from parents, a seduction and being afraid of who we are becoming as people. All of these themes were subtext, but why only subtext?

Will Haze had been asked to head the motion picture and distributions of America, an organization created with public relations primarily in mind for studios and to protect themselves from outside influences like the Catholic church. By the 30s, Haze spawned the motion production code which would allow the industry to have self-regulation, however by 1934 the code became stricter thanks to pressure from outside influences like the Catholic Legion of Decency.

The Catholic Legion of Decency had a rating system from A to C, with A being acceptable, B being morally objectionable and C for condemned. With organizations that were among the likes of The Catholic Legion of Decency on the industry’s backs, it was agreed that the film industry would follow this code. This, in turn, banned nudity, open mouth kissing, profanity, references to abortion and sexual perversion, which was simply coded for gay relationships being forbidden from being shown on the big screen. This caused screenwriters to blur the lines, using subtext as a means to get by to be anywhere near being a gay film. Horror had a bout of this as well, for example, “Dracula’s daughter” featured a vampiress who was coded as a lesbian, but it was never outrightly said due to censors. By the late 60s, the Haze code was replaced with the early version of the modern rating system that we know now. Gay relationships were “allowed” but were still the subject of subtext or cast as monsters and villains, so having a character like Jessie in “Nightmare on Elm Street 2” who was coded as gay and sympathetic was an act of defiance against that code. Jessie may be afraid and confused about his sexuality but he is not inherently the monster the old Haze code would want him to be. Jessie’s struggle with his emerging sexuality is symbolically represented with Freddy Kruger wanting his body and leaping out of his body, possessing him. In terms of subtext, the 80s attitude toward homosexuality was still something to be feared as many individuals were afraid of the destruction of the nuclear family and gender roles and the notion of homosexuality being linked to violence and child molestation. (Renegade Cut, 2018).

When Jessie starts acting strangely, his parents react in a way homophobic parents would typically react. Through the intense and harsh projection of toxic masculinity and a mix of condescension and fake understanding. The former is symbolically represented by Jessie’s father, who initially ignores any notion of trouble, later as things get stranger around the house, his father blames Jessie even though he’s innocent of wrongdoing. It’s not until the strangeness becomes too obvious and other’s among the community start noticing that the father acts. His solution being asserting traditional masculinity on his son to “cure” Jessie of what’s wrong with him. While his mother seems to be more on the supportive side, she still suggests to her son that he should go and see a psychiatrist, inherently, both notions are a means of “fixing” him instead of connecting with their son and working through his issues as supportive parents. The overall context of Jessie’s parent’s actions is reflective of the fear and ignorance that was a standard of parents in the 80s, and even in some families today.

The positive to “Nightmare on Elm Street 2” is that despite there only being subtext, it provides the LGBT community with an icon like Jessie Walsh, as a means of connection and representation, even if it is only subtext. Horror, despite being perceived as low-grade entertainment, has been provoking discussions, debates and philosophical ideas since the first inception of the genre. It’s captured imaginations of many from young and old and has inspired new horror talent to make the scene, such as Sam Raimi who was responsible for the very controversial but also entertaining “Evil Dead” series. The point of art is to cause a reaction from its viewers, and many horror films have sparked that reaction. Does horror as a genre reflect the fears of the current culture within that era? With the examples mentioned above, it is clear that horror does indeed reflect the fears and anxieties of the times and will continue to evolve and shift just as humankind’s fears progress and change.

References

  1. FSD Productions. (2017, November 3rd). Godzilla, Gojira and ‘Shin’ | Video Essay (2017). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/CYVAlLG5brg
  2. KaptainKristian. (2016, December 1st). Godzilla – The Soul of Japan. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGCTSSWT4lg
  3. Renegade Cut. (2018, October 27th). The Gay Nightmare | Renegade Cut. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/dKC8xWmScME
  4. Ryan Hollinger. (2017, October 31st). The Art of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: What Freddy Represents. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R00bxoQt1AA
  5. The Horror Vault. (2017, January 18th). The Evolution of the American Horror Film. Retrieved from <a>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QtGZy8GMi0</a>

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Godzilla Movies: Analyzing the Horror Genre Through Theoretical Lenses. (2020, October 31). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/godzilla-movies-analyzing-the-horror-genre-through-theoretical-lenses/
“Godzilla Movies: Analyzing the Horror Genre Through Theoretical Lenses.” GradesFixer, 31 Oct. 2020, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/godzilla-movies-analyzing-the-horror-genre-through-theoretical-lenses/
Godzilla Movies: Analyzing the Horror Genre Through Theoretical Lenses. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/godzilla-movies-analyzing-the-horror-genre-through-theoretical-lenses/> [Accessed 29 Sept. 2022].
Godzilla Movies: Analyzing the Horror Genre Through Theoretical Lenses [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Oct 31 [cited 2022 Sept 29]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/godzilla-movies-analyzing-the-horror-genre-through-theoretical-lenses/
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