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By Steve Trautlein

The Meaning of Godzilla

For a generation of American kids, the monster from Japan opened up a whole new world

Steve Trautlein is the editor of Metropolis

When I was a boy growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, life was pretty good. The local elementary school was so close that I could walk there, and I had lots of friends. In summers, I rode my bike on streets that were safe and clean, yet New York City, where my dad worked, was only an hour away by train. I didn’t learn until later that Long Island was the butt of a lot of New Yorkers’ jokes, or that the name of a nearby village, Levittown, was synonymous with mindless suburban conformity. And to tell you the truth, when I found those things out, I didn’t really care.

Like most kids my age, watching TV was a big, and satisfying, part of my routine. Yet it’s hard now to imagine what television was like back then. One of our sets was black and white, and the other was a big console unit that must have weighed a hundred pounds. We had no remote control, no DVDs, not even cable—when there was a thunderstorm, reception from our rooftop antenna could get really bad. But because we lived so close to the big city, we had a choice of seven channels. We thought that was pretty lucky.

I enjoyed all kinds of TV shows, but horror and science fiction were my favorites. The Twilight Zone, The Night Stalker, Alfred Hitchcock Presents—these series would give me chills, much like Long Island’s harsh winters! And then there were the Saturday afternoon movies, especially low-budget ones from the ’50s whose very titles promised a goofy thrill: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Them!

But nothing captured my imagination, or the imagination of my friends, quite like Godzilla. Vicious and indestructible, this prehistoric lizard stomped people and leveled buildings—cool! Whenever I read in TV Guide that a Godzilla movie would be on, I knew where I’d be, and when. One local station had an afternoon show called The 4:30 Movie, and they’d occasionally devote five straight days to the big green monster from Japan. Hanging out with friends and watching “Godzilla Week” with the smell of dinner cooking in the kitchen—I think thousands of American men my age would agree that if life ever got better than that, it never really got much better.

Thirty years later, I sometimes wonder why this is so. What was the attraction with a cheesy monster in a fake rubber suit? Certainly the men who battled Godzilla in tanks and fighter jets seemed brave and heroic. And unlike homegrown American monsters such as King Kong, which were miniature models brought to herky-jerky life by stop-motion animation, Godzilla was a man in a costume whose movements were fluid and realistic. Maybe, too, as some critics argue, the movies tapped into our fears about the threat of nuclear war.

All of these explanations are no doubt true in their way. But what I found in Godzilla was something a lot less obvious, and, I think, a lot more hopeful.

This may sound strange, but monster movies gave me and my friends our first real glimpse of Japan. What we knew of the country before then was pretty stereotypical: delicate geishas and fearsome samurai, cheap transistor radios, and the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Godzilla films revealed something new and different. They showed us an unfamiliar land whose people didn’t look like anyone in our neighborhood or, judging by the bad dubbing, talk like us either. The movies’ depictions of day-to-day life, from furniture to food to clothing, struck us as unusual as well.

And yet in most other ways, the Japanese seemed pretty ordinary. In one scene in the original film, weary Tokyo commuters are riding on a train when Godzilla lurches across the tracks and destroys it. I remember thinking that no matter how remote Japan seemed, if there was a guy like my dad reading a paper on a train and looking forward to getting home to see his family, maybe this land of compact cars and strange-looking pagodas was, in a way, not so alien. I think Godzilla movies first drove home the idea that the similarities between people are a lot more important than their differences. And once that realization came alive within me, it led to a lifetime of curiosity, open-mindedness and travel.

The makers of the original Godzilla, it is said, had modest goals. Their idea of success would have been for the movie to turn a profit, or maybe lead to a sequel or two. Certainly they didn’t anticipate that their rubber monster would be such a hit. Or that it would inspire a thousand imitators. Or that it would awaken within one Long Island boy an appreciation of the mystery and possibilities of life.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.