Imagine a world where you didn’t know anything about Godzilla. A friend of yours says you should check out some of the films but doesn’t really give you much more info than that. Intrigued, you decide to jump online to learn more. Before you know it, you’re overwhelmed by a lot: 30+ movies, all of these different “eras,” and what’s this nonsense about a “fake” Godzilla named Zilla?
More than anything, though, you notice a debate consistently crop up regarding the right way to watch a Godzilla movie. It doesn’t make sense to you, since you haven’t watched any of the films yet, but it’s interesting at first. A few comments in, however, and slurs and insults are being thrown around a high school food fight. It gets to the point where you wonder if this is how everyone talks. You then decide to press pause on watching the films. “I’ve already been a part of one toxic fandom,” you think. “I don’t need to be in another.”
While this is a hypothetical situation (as you most likely are already a Godzilla fan if you’re reading an article on a site like this), it’s really not that far-fetched. The debate has existed as long as Godzilla fans have been able to share their opinions on the internet (at least), but with the advent of social media and more fans being turned onto the franchise thanks to Legendary’s Monsterverse, it seems to be widespread and rampant. Instead of debating with civility and compassion, though, it’s not uncommon to find people labeled as “retard” or “fake fan” because of their opinion, and this mentality isn’t confined to one view. Ridicule and insults abound on both sides of the war, and plenty of us feel like we’re stuck in the middle, wondering why we can’t listen to each other.
I’ll confess: I advocate wholeheartedly and unapologetically for a “humans first” approach to monster and kaiju films. Whether it’s the Universal monster films of old or the Godzilla films in the 50s, 60s, and 70s (sort of), the monsters play a pivotal role. Without the human drama, however, there wouldn’t be a movie worth watching. The best Godzilla films, in my opinion, are the ones where the monsters invade the already-existing plot line, not ones where the plot solely centers around battling creatures. While the 60s and 70s didn’t always have the best constructed narratives, we see the “monster first” approach truly kick into high gear in the 80s/90s with the Heisei-era. Apart from a few films here and there, that’s been the method ever since. (This is where I feel like we lost a lot of the heart Ishiro Honda and Company injected into the films, so it’s no surprise, when asked about his views of the Heisei films, Honda didn’t have a whole lot to say positively.)
However, just because I feel this way doesn’t mean this is the only way to approach, let alone enjoy, the films. As a kid, I didn’t give two rips about pacifism, the “brotherhood of man,” or even the ethics and moral implications of nuclear warfare. I only cared about Godzilla and Jet Jaguar teaming up to defeat Megalon and Gigan; about how awesome the explosions and set pieces were in Godzilla 1985. I also saw the monsters as characters, as my mother lovingly reminds me: apparently I cried whenever Godzilla was disintegrated by the Oxygen Destroyer. (To be consistent, I also cried when Jaws died as well.) Does this mean I didn’t deserve to be a Godzilla fan? Not at all. It just meant I didn’t know any differently.
As teenagers and adults with widespread access to the internet, however, it’s hard to claim ignorance when it comes to the deeper meanings. Whether it’s our favorite Youtube channels or the surplus of interviews and articles discussing what the directors and writers were trying to accomplish, the stigma regarding Godzilla films being solely men in rubber suits beating each other up is disintegrating, and for that, I’m thankful! I think the films deserve to be viewed and considered as legitimate pieces of art, even if they aren’t always “high art” like Ingmar Bergman or even Honda’s friend and contemporary, Akira Kurosawa.
What I’m realizing, though, is even if the stigma is going away, some people don’t really care about King Kong vs. Godzilla critiquing exploitation and greed found in the entertainment industry. They just care about the match of a lifetime, even if it means watching an inarguably inferior dubbed version. (I mean, corns? Really?) To them, it’s all about the enjoyment aspect, and it’s hard to argue against that: these are fun films.
So my question, as someone who has a podcast devoted to discussing these deeper and ethical themes present in kaiju films, is: is there a wrong way to watch a Godzilla film? On the one hand, I want to say there is. But the more and more I talk to fans worldwide, the more I’m seeing it’s not as black and white as I once thought. And after a lot of thought and consideration, I think I’ve come up with a way to look at this to help foster helpful conversation and reflection.
For those of you familiar with American sports, there’s a past-time within the past-time called tailgating. For those of you who aren’t familiar because you don’t live in the States, or you’re an American who doesn’t worship at the altar of professional sports (GASP!), this typically consists of showing up to the “sportsball” game several hours before the doors even open and consuming copious amounts of food and drinks (typically of the alcoholic flavor). From there, most people make their way into the stadium once the game begins, and prayers are offered up to respective sports deities in an attempt to sway the score one way or another.
Now here’s the thing: you may have had a blast tailgating, but once the game starts, the experience can go so many different ways. Your team may be playing poorly (or it might be those corrupt referees/umpires), but chances are, you’re still choosing to have a fun time. Or maybe you don’t even care about the game, you just want to be with your friends. Ultimately, no matter why you’re there, the game still exists and does not change one way or another because of your presence. (Unless you jump down to the field and begin to streak, of course.)
Now, there are going to be some games where your favorite team will play better than others; that’s inevitable. And maybe you’re at the game to actually watch, or maybe it’s to celebrate a birthday or enjoy some good food in the parking lot. No matter why you’re there, you’re still present and finding some form of satisfaction and enjoyment. There might even be times when you go to the game for one reason, but come back next month for another.
Back to Godzilla, we’re all coming to the same films (for the most part) for the same reason: we want to be entertained. Now, some of us like to think while we watch a film. Some of us just want to turn our brains off for 90-120 minutes. The difference here, however, is that both approaches are valid. Godzilla films were created as a vehicle for something more meaningful (at least that’s how it was initially), but if they weren’t enjoyable, then no one would watch them.
It’s a both/and, not an either/or.
Here’s where I believe the problem lies, and I hope, if you’re still reading at this point, I’ve proven myself to not be unnecessarily inflammatory. If someone shows up to watch a sportsball game but they don’t show up for tailgating, they’re within their rights to do so. Same with showing up for tailgating but not going to the game. But it does make more sense to show up for the sportsball game over tailgating, because that’s why the stadium exists. The “sportsball first” advocate isn’t justified to ridicule those who only come for “tailgating only”, even if they’re correct, but the tailgating wouldn’t even exist without the sportsball game happening. To see someone tell the “sportsball first” person the event has never been about sportsball, only tailgating? And showing up for tailgating without watching the main event?
Hopefully you see the dissonance here.
Godzilla films exist, first and foremost, as a vehicle to share a message, just like the rest of cinema. Even if the message is solely “hedonism is a viable worldview,” as is the case with the majority of Hollywood comedies, these films still exist to present something. To deny this message or deeper meaning in a film, or to say the films have never been about the human narratives, runs the risk of sheer ignorance, especially with how well-informed the majority of us are regarding our fandom. There shouldn’t be a fear to admit, “I understand these films have something to say, but I only care about the action,” because you’re within your rights to do so.
But to say the story lines are dumb, the acting is bad, and it’s always been about the monster fights? I’d encourage you to
1) watch the original versions, not the dubs, so you see what was actually being said;
2) familiarize yourself with Japanese cinema to see this isn’t the case by any means;
3) ...well, just open your eyes and see this isn’t the truth at all.
Admitting these points doesn’t mean you need to change your preference. It just means you’re being honest and humble, and we need more of that in our fandom!
However, there is a sense of elitism that exists within the fandom, and I am 100% guilty of this. My immersion into the deeper side of Toho’s “giant pool” isn’t like most. It took recognizing some, I believe, unintentional Christian imagery in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Before that I was, for the most part, watching Godzilla movies just for the entertainment value.
In all transparency, it’s easy for me to forget this in the midst of everything I’ve learned. For the times I’ve been uncharitable and unwilling to remember my own journey, I am truly sorry for being a jerk. Plain and simple. Just because we have “seen the light” doesn’t mean we need to blind others with it.
At the end of the day, this debate will never be fully settled. There will always be some form of arguing or infighting in our fandom, because we are human beings who tend to be selfish, inconsiderate, and dead-set on being right. However, if we take the time to remember we are a part of a community, as fractured as it might be at times, that the usernames and handles we are chatting with are real people with real feelings, we might be slower to throw out those insults and passive-aggressive tweets and barbs. When we slow our roll and extend compassion, that’s when real change happens. That’s when people listen, and even if we disagree? We’ll do it with respect, without dehumanizing each other.
And that’s what I’d call a homedown to win the match at the bottom of the 9th quarter.
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This article was written By David Marshall and published on 2019-11-15 20:02:04
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