I’m certainly not the first person to draw comparisons between the iconic movie monster Godzilla (and other daikaiju, Japanese giant movie monsters) and the Japanese concept of kami, and I certainly won’t be the last. However, in the wake of the new Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla movie (which I’ve just watched), and as someone who venerates the kami, I thought it’d be good to give my thoughts on it.
One of the striking differences between the Christian concept of God (or the Devil) and the Shinto kami is that the kami are neither 100% good or bad. They are powerful, magnificent and morally neutral – exactly like Nature itself, in fact. Even my patron deity, Inari, who is usually considered quite a benevolent kami, has her dark sides in Shinto belief (she is associated with the foxes who are also considered mischievous and at times malicious in Japanese folklore, after all). It is generally how we approach the kami that affects their temperament. If we are respectful to the kami, they bless us; yet if we behave in a way that offends the kami, we risk incurring their wrath. Again, exactly like nature.
Godzilla, who has to date been the star of no less than 30 movies, embodies many of the characteristics of the kami. In most depictions, he is a creature of distinctly terrestrial origins (not extra-terrestrial, as is the case with many other movie monsters), and resembles a mixture of several familiar animals – as many fans know, his original Japanese name, Gojira, is a combination of the Japanese words for “Gorilla” and “Whale.” His appearance has been compared to dinosaurs, crocodiles and, significantly, the East Asian Dragon (Long or Ryuu) – another personification of the power of nature.
Yet Godzilla is nature violated. He usually arises as a result of human interference with the environment – most notably, our exploitation of nuclear material. It is our disrespect of nature that is responsible for unleashing Godzilla’s wrath, and once awakened, he strikes with nature’s full force, toppling cities and killing thousands – just as destructive as any earthquake, tsunami or indeed nuclear disaster. The idea of a nature spirit’s temperament, and even physical appearance, changing in accordance to how it is treated by humans, is common in Japanese film – remember the disgusting “stink god” in Spirited Away that turns out to be a venerable river god that has been polluted?
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the new Godzilla movie (too many bland characters and hammy acting and not enough Godzilla in my opinion!). But putting this aside, I did find Godzilla’s depiction interesting. Once again, Godzilla and the other kaiju (or MUTO, as they are called in this movie) are awakened thanks to humans meddling with nature (nuclear power stations again). Plenty of scenes then ensue that mirror the terrifying footage from the 3.11 Fukushima disaster (arguably to the point of insensitivity) and, interestingly, 9.11 as well.
But (without giving away too much) the Godzilla and other kaiju in the 2014 movie are ambiguous in nature. Their motivations seem to be purely animal in nature: that of survival. The havoc they cause is simply an inevitable and inadvertent result of their attempts to feed and breed. What’s more, certain characters in the movie allude to the fact that Godzilla is somehow nature’s way of balancing the destruction wreaked by humans. One character (the Japanese scientist) even states, “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around” – a clear acknowledgement that Godzilla, like the kami, represents nature’s awesome power that ultimately dwarfs that of mankind.
Finally, I would just like to make a comment on the name “Godzilla” itself. It does resemble the Japanese name “Gojira” in pronunciation, but it’s very interesting that the creator of this name chose to include the word “God” in the English rendition – almost as if they too noticed Godzilla’s parallels with the kami.