The scene rarely changes: a towering monster looms over a terrified populace as all hope slowly melts away. In its wake lies death and destruction of an unfathomable scale; houses in ruins, families scattered, infrastructure irretrievably lost. The idea of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds is a cinematic trope that has been explored ad nauseam, but it remains a key ingredient of kaiju movies. And why shouldn't it? Especially when we adopt the popular genre as a viewing lens on recent events.
The concept of kaiju (Japanese for "strange beast") emerged in 1954 with the debut of Toho Studios' Godzilla. The eponymous beast symbolised the terrors of the nuclear holocaust – not just from an interpersonal perspective but rather a cautionary tale about the possible repercussions in the natural world. It was a sobering message, particularly for Japan as the ravages of World War II were then a memory no more than a decade old. The passage of time did little to blunt the warnings of the film; the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis were just some of the close-calls that history can recall.
2020 revealed a different kind of crisis to human civilisation, though not entirely dissimilar in terms of its effects. Covid-19 affected countries around the globe in a way that drew numerous comparisons to the Spanish Flu of 1918. Mortality rates aside, the inexorable spread of the virus represented a credible threat to humanity. Industries were crippled, communities were invaded and for some, the meandering attitudes of their local governments highlighted the inadequacies of the existing legislature. In the eyes of historians, 2020 was defined by a pandemic and one from which we are only just beginning to recover.
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Despite the vast differences in stature, the molecular nature of Covid-19 makes it more similar to the kaiju beasts than one might imagine. After all, how does one defend against something that is essentially invisible to the naked eye? And just like it is with Godzilla, there aren't many things that can halt its advance. Helplessness and the perceived loss of control became commonplace; the Kaiser Family Foundation reported a 300 per cent increase in reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorders amongst young adults aged between 18 and 24.
An interesting observation, however, is how the pushback against the virus mirrored the treatments of the kaiju genre, both of which occurred along cultural lines. While the majority of organised governments fielded different tactics against the pandemic, they were unified in their strategy: isolation, containment and immunisation. The key differentiating factor would come down to idealogy, namely an East Asian "Scientific State" compared to Western Democracy, and how they affected social movements and responses.
With the latter, personal liberties were often brought into question, as numerous voices felt that the policies mandating mask-wearing, travel restrictions and social distinction infringed on their constitutional and natural rights. "Draconian" and "fascist" were some of the more common terms used by dissenting groups to decry these new norms; abiding individuals meanwhile treated as brainwashed and subsequently stigmatised. The advent of drastic change, regardless of its intent, was seen as something to marshall against, particularly through the expression of force.
In Roland Emmerich's 1998 reimagining of the King of Monsters, the pivotal point which sees Godzilla's transformation into an antagonist is the direct result of a trigger-happy American military. The inability to accept something that exists outside the accepted sphere of control is what's responsible for the ensuing chaos, which in this case is a score of semi-demolished buildings throughout Manhattan. It is here that we see a distinct parallel between what occurred on the silver screen and in real life – the flouting of and disregard for safety measures resulted in several Western countries reporting record-level infection cases on a daily basis and also contributed to secondary waves of infections.
When compared to its Western counterpart, the contrast in the East Asian response is more than palpable. While the characters in the original Godzilla (1954) did attempt to fight back, the premise of the film recognised humanity's role in antagonising the monster (and the resultant radioactive fallout). The final act centred on the protagonist's self-sacrifice, both as an act symbolising penance and a means to prevent future tragedies of a similar nature. Likewise, many Asians were receptive towards the new policies. Despite some initial misgivings, the overall sentiment was that it was far more beneficial to accept an uncomfortable present for the sake of a better future. It could also be posited (albeit unlikely) that there may have been an element of collective guilt amongst the ethnic Chinese that motivated their actions, as the virus' origin was traced to Wuhan, China. If true, it stands to reason that these individuals sought atonement, or at the very least to avoid impeding recovery.
The key takeaway of the kaiju genre is that carelessness often leads to catastrophe. Concurrently, it also highlights the ongoing struggle against the forces of urban civilisation and technology. The advances in social media and digital convenience have paved the way to greater levels of autonomy than ever before. But there is a dark side to this. In Radio Pictures' King Kong (1933), we see how one man's ambition ends up robbing the world of its eighth wonder – the titular Kong. Aside from the obvious exploitation involved, the evolution of the character Carl Denham throughout the film is a pastiche of man's inclination towards self-servitude. If Kong's demise is the logical conclusion of one individual's nature, what happens when we scale this to encompass an entire civilisation? And despite being a box-office bomb, 2018's Pacific Rim: Uprising succeeded in showing how technology conceived through noble intentions can still be susceptible to perversion – a sentiment that is similarly echoed in this year's Godzilla vs. Kong.
Pacific Rim: Uprising
To assume that carelessness and technology are intertwined wouldn't necessarily be incorrect. The foremost purpose of technology is to eliminate the ever-present risk of human error. With it comes vast improvements in procedural efficiency, but the mitigation of human error comes with its own set of repercussions. There is a direct relationship to consider, namely, if the inherent risk of an action is low then the due diligence that precedes its execution will likely be similar. Likewise, the afterthought also suffers as a consequence. In Godzilla vs. Kong, great effort was put into developing Mechagodzilla as Godzilla's superior, to the point where they used one of King Ghidorah's three brains to power it. The absence of fail-safes leads one to believe that the Apex scientists saw kaiju reanimation as a highly unlikely event. No one paused to consider whether the possibility (low as it may ostensibly be) of King Ghidorah's brain regaining sentience, thereby ushering an even greater threat into the world, was a risk worth taking. It's easy to dismiss this as a typical movie-villain mistake, but it is becoming more evident in our everyday lives. With the Covid-19 vaccine in circulation, the probability of tertiary infection waves is decreasing, but how often do you find instances of individuals treating pandemic guidelines like they've never existed?
The idea of life imitating art is a scary one, especially when one considers the events that have transpired. Natural disasters and socio-political upheavals have left an indelible mark on countless individuals, with uncertainty being the only real certainty these days. Luckily, no one's contending with giant cosmic horrors, at least not yet. If we're hoping for a happy ending though, we must accept the path to recovery as a long winding road, and one that will likely be laid over the footprints of the monsters we've unleashed before us.
Shin Godzilla (2016)
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