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Giant monsters are doing great business this year. In April, Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire reached $500 million at the box office worldwide. In recent weeks, Toho Studios’ Oscar-winning Godzilla Minus One has topped Netflix’s list of most-watched films. Godzilla in 2024 is a lizard, a real star.

While the two films have a lot in common—both feature Godzilla laying waste to computer-animated cityscapes—they’re also a study in contrasts. Godzilla x Kong is a popcorn-throwing monster mayhem that asks the viewer to leave their brains at the door: In one memorable sequence, Godzilla’s friend-nemesis Kong fights two enemy giant apes by grabbing a third (baby) giant ape and using it as a giant, hairy baton. Throw it in the bin, Barbenheimer—for some of us, Kong’s monkey-club scene is the greatest cinematic moment of the last five years.

Godzilla Minus One – winner of the Oscar for best special effects – is different in that it harks back to the franchise’s origins in 1950s Japan after Hiroshima, when Godzilla served as a stand-in for the unfathomable destruction of nuclear war.

In the new film, the monster embodies the guilt of a kamikaze pilot who refuses to sacrifice his life in the senseless final months of the conflict in the Pacific. Later, the metaphor is expanded to have Godzilla represent the shadow of the country’s totalitarian recent past – when the hero Kōichi and his friends fight the creature, they are in some ways fighting the lies of the military dictatorship that led them into a war they would never win.

Together, the two films are a lesson in having the cake while also cheering when the cake destroys tall buildings. Most of all, they are a testament to the enduring fascination with Godzilla and the giant monster genre more broadly.

The film’s appeal stretches back decades to Ishirō Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla – a dark and gritty film made when Japan was still recovering from the war (due to rubber shortages, the first Godzilla costume was made from precast concrete, which explained why it weighed nearly 100 kg). Of course, there was some camp fun in the film, too. But it also inspired awe and a reminder of the destructive and essentially incomprehensible power of nature.

“For non-believers, the sight of Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo, battling other mutoid creatures, is pure kitsch, a symbol of shoddy, low-tech filmmaking,” writes author and Godzilla fan Steve Ryfle in the introduction to his 1998 book “Japan’s Favourite Mon-Star: The Unauthorised Biography of The Big G.”

“They don’t know what they’re missing. Godzilla may not be the most lifelike monster, but in his best moments on film he is an incredible force, so terrifying and breathtaking that his nature borders on the mythical. He embodies the power of nature and the destiny of humanity, fused into his uniquely Japanese, tough, prehistoric personality.”

As fans know, Godzilla’s real name is “Gojira” – a portmanteau of “gorira” (gorilla) and “kujira” (whale). Additionally, he has been both a hero and a villain in his time on screen. In the first Godzilla, he was an agent of destruction who rose from the seas. In later films, however, he became an ally of humanity – defending us from other “kaiju” such as the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah and the giant pterodactyl Rodan.

These two opposing sides of the character are shown in the new films. In New Empire, Godzilla teams up with Kong to defeat the evil ape lord Skar King. But in Godzilla Minus One, he is clearly evil – a sadistic brute who delights in leveling Tokyo’s new suburbs with his nuclear blast.

In both cases, however, the real magic comes from Godzilla’s terrifying otherness. He represents the unrelenting wildness of nature – and symbolizes how it can rise up and destroy humanity, whether as a result of nuclear war or climate change. He’s a cheap thrill – but also a warning not to take the natural world for granted.

“As long as there are nuclear weapons or nuclear power, Godzilla will always be relevant,” said Kazu Watanabe of the New York-based Japan Society in a 2020 interview. “Godzilla reminds us that we have the terrible power to create our own monsters and contribute to our own destruction.”

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