Apocalyptic Imagination in Godzilla Resurgence.

Motoko Tanaka, Tamagawa University [About | Email]

Volume 22, Issue 3 (Article 10 in 2022). First published in ejcjs on 17 December 2022.


This article discusses in the way which contemporary apocalyptic imagination in Japan is described in the film Shin Gojira (Godzilla Resurgence; Anno, Japan, 2016), by comparing it with the original Gojira (Godzilla; Honda, Japan, 1954). While the original 1954 film was based on apocalyptic imagination of the nuclear bombings and Japan’s defeat in World War II, Godzilla Resurgence is clearly inspired by the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear accident on March 11, 2011. The film implicitly reveals that Japan’s changeless status since 1945 derives from its unchanged relationship with the United States since the end of World War II.

Keywords:  Godzilla Resurgence, Godzilla, apocalyptic imagination, March 11, 2011 triple disaster, nuclear disaster


Unlike its unsophisticated low-budget sequels, the original Gojira film (Godzilla; Honda, Japan, 1954) is a dark horror/SF film strongly influenced by the apocalyptic experiences of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, in which crew on a Japanese tuna fishing boat were exposed to and contaminated by nuclear fallout from a U.S. thermonuclear weapon test at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. The film implicitly criticises the United States as the opposing Other with a nuclear weapon, and helps to recuperate the national identity of the Japanese, who are able to defeat Godzilla by themselves.
Just as the original 1954 film was based on apocalyptic imagination in the postwar period, many domestic and international critics have noted that Shin Gojira (Godzilla Resurgence; Anno, Japan, 2016) is clearly inspired by the triple disaster of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011. In contrast with the original, this film does not clearly place responsibility for the problem on the United States, since nuclear power policies and disaster response systems belong to the domestic political realm. However, it does implicitly suggest that inadequate responses by the Japanese government to dangers derive from its continued dependence on America, a situation which has remained unchanged since 1945.
This article discusses in the way which the experience of the 2011 triple disaster influenced Godzilla Resurgence, especially how the film deals with the relationship between Japan and the U.S., by comparing the 2016 and 1954 films. I first look at the development of apocalyptic thought and its social functions and characteristics in apocalyptic narratives, then discuss apocalyptic imagination in Godzilla and Godzilla Resurgence by looking at mimetic and historical contextualisation and the shift of visual representations with advanced technologies. Then I examine the underlying the political theme of the 2011 disaster in Godzilla Resurgence.

The Development of Apocalyptic Thought

The original meaning of “apocalypse”—apokálypsis in Greek, literally “lifting of the veil”—has to do with revealing, uncovering, and disclosing. Apokálypsis originally referred to the disclosure to certain chosen people of something new or unseen/unseeable by others. In early Jewish and Christian tradition, “apocalypse” came to mean the revelation of secrets by God to worthy layfolk and apostles. Rather than the end of time or the destruction of the world, it denoted the privilege of certain believers in God to know specific secrets (Quinby 2014). 
From the second century A.D. onward, the meaning of the term gradually changed from the revelation of things hidden to the crisis of the destructive end of an age or of the world as we know it. In the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John, “apocalypse” is used to mean the “unveiling” of Jesus Christ as Messiah. In the second century, however, the word came to be used to describe a specific literary genre with characteristics similar to those found in The Apocalypse of John: resurrection of the dead, the final war between good and evil, judgement day, eternal life, and perdition (Quinby 2014). 
However, when Christianity was eventually adopted as the religion of the Empire and established its authority in the fifth century, the Church began to disapprove of apocalyptic literature, since apocalyptic and millenarian ideals, representing longing for a new kingdom, were a threat to the maintenance of the status quo. Therefore, the Church approved St. Augustine’s claim in The City of God that The Apocalypse of John should be understood as an allegory, and that the millenarian kingdom had already come into existence when Christianity was born (Cohn 1993). 
Even though the imminent end of the world and the establishment of the millenarian kingdom of God on Earth were repeatedly rejected by Christian dogma, the idea of apocalypse still survived in the early Christian tradition. The immanent aspect of apocalypse survived among those in the lowest strata, to erupt as an ideology of insurgence in times of invasion, natural disaster, famine, and plague. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, apocalyptic ideals not only in religious doctrine but also in occultism and heretical prophecies such as astrology and augury became increasingly influential (Kusano 1997).
In the early medieval period, from the fifth century to as late as the eleventh, apocalyptic discourse was muted, for popes came to have powers equal to those of emperors. The Church did not desire to destroy the world over which it had dominion, so it maintained an ambiguous stance towards the end-time: the specific date on which the world would end could not be predicted by human beings, it ruled, yet the end was always nigh and therefore people were to prepare for it by living virtuously. Cohn (1993) explores the apocalyptic movements that flourished in Europe between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Covering the full range of revolutionary and anarchic sects and movements, he demonstrates how prophecies of a final struggle between the hosts of Christ and the Antichrist meld with the desire of the poor to improve their own condition, resulting in a flourishing of apocalyptic fantasies. Apocalypticism was no longer a hidden doctrine of the chosen, or even of the uncertain end of an age or a particular space: it functioned now for the “un-chosen.” It came to bear the concrete purpose of effecting change in real social conditions for the lowest-ranked.
During the Renaissance period, it is commonly understood that Western society shifted to affirm humanity and to overcome superstition. Humanism questioned the absolute authority of Christianity, and as a result apocalyptic discourse seemed to lose some of its power. However, the Renaissance was also an age of Inquisition, witchcraft, astrology, occultism, and religious wars, a period in which social unease and apocalyptic belief were still dominant or became stronger. Boia (1992) claims that we need to consider the period from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries as one continuum: there was little difference between the medieval period and the Renaissance in terms of the apocalyptic phenomenon. This is a time of drastic and unsettling change, from the collapse of the feudal system to the establishment of the early modern world through the development of cities and commerce, the rise of the citizen, the formation of nation-states, the beginning of the colonial period, and major wars, as well as plagues and famines. The reorganisation and alienation of certain social classes, and the confusion and instability in social transition, made apocalypticism yet more colourful and appealing.
With the Enlightenment and modernisation came major breakthroughs in technology, science, industry, and ideologies. There was still apocalyptic discourse, and prophets and astronomers were still predicting that the end was near, but the fear of apocalypse was gone, replaced by new ideas of progress and the future. It is surprising that apocalypticism survived in the nineteenth century, with its emphasis on the future, progress, and evolution. The principal elements of apocalyptic discourse were combined with a new progressivism that sought the establishment of a better society organised rationally and scientifically (Kusano 1997).
At the same time, the apocalyptic tradition was also adopted in literature. Prior to this period, The Book of Revelation and other Biblical apocalyptic literature had been protected by the churches, and interpretation of astronomical omens such as comets was the work of scholars. Apocalyptic scriptures had been in effect off limits, even though apocalyptic discourse penetrated the ideology of commoners who used it to revolutionary ends. However, in the early nineteenth century apocalyptic themes became secularised, and writers began to describe the end of the world in their fiction. Whether people believed it or not, they could talk about, challenge, and play with the idea of the end of world at their will. The world of fiction has remained the most powerful and creative domain of apocalyptic discourse into modern times.
Apocalypticism appeared to have lost much of its former influence in the fully modernised real world. In the twentieth century, however, positivism and progressivism came to be seriously challenged: people realised that “progress” brought materialistic, but not spiritual, improvement to their lives. With constant progress came pollution, ethnic and racial discrimination, colonialism, world wars. In the twentieth century, real-world apocalypticism was revived by the fear that human beings would become powerful enough to bring about the end of humanity, nature, even God. The invention and actual use of nuclear weapons were decisive factors in the reinstatement of apocalyptic discourse.
In contemporary culture, the apocalyptic imagination repeatedly revives and thrives in the varied arenas of religion, social movements, ecology, literature, film, and popular culture. As we have seen, apocalyptic discourse has been versatile and variant enough to adapt to manifold changes in history. It covers both temporal and spatial endings with imminence/immanence, and encompasses a wide variety of triggers such as natural and human-made disasters, famine, plagues, misrule, political changes, social unease, astronomical phenomena, ethnic conflicts, industrial and technological progress, pollution, and degradation of humanity. Apocalyptic themes have been useful for both commoners and elites and comprise both fantasy and realism.

Two Functional Characteristics of Apocalyptic Narratives

As we have seen, apocalyptic imaginations change according to historical events and circumstances; yet the functions of apocalyptic narratives do not change greatly (Tanaka 2014). The two major functional characteristics are opposition and revelation.
First, apocalypse encompasses opposing values such as birth and death, beginning and end, creation and destruction, the cyclical and the linear, beauty and ugliness, joy and sadness, eternity and temporality, dominance and subjugation, and decadence and morality. This does not mean that all apocalyptic narratives construct a binary system and either take one side or function dualistically. Rather, apocalyptic stories and ideology narrate the relationship between opposing values, and by examining this opposition, reveal what is at stake. While some apocalyptic narratives are based on a clear binary but place more value on one side or the other, others function to display ambiguities, simultaneously incorporating opposing values.
The Book of Revelation, for example, presents opposing values such as virtue versus vice, temporality versus eternity, and decadence versus morality, clearly valuing one side of each binary over the other. Nevertheless, apocalyptic ideology is used much more ambiguously. According to Keller (1996), while the Book of Revelation was used to justify the supremacy of the elite as the omega of the Bible, it also favours the disadvantaged—such as religious minorities and exploited people—in their fight against the dominant. It is therefore both for the powerful and the powerless, incorporating revolutionary ideas as well as conservative ones: its story works on a binary system, but its functions are more ambivalent.
The most representative opposing value pair in apocalypse is life and death. Death is understood as absolutely separate from life and experienced as totally Other when we are alive; we cannot experience it until we die, yet death is ever close by, for every living being must perish. Apocalyptic narratives can describe this ambiguous relationship between life and death clearly: they may emphasise the contrast between the two or declare the impossibility of reconciliation between them, or emphasise the ambivalence of life with death, or the connection and continuity between these conflicting states. The trajectories of the opposing values in apocalyptic narratives can thus show what Otherness means. At the same time, the apocalyptic situation brings understanding of the self and helps to stabilise fluid identities by contrasting them with the Other.
When this characteristic of opposing values is considered from a different angle, it can be argued that its function in apocalyptic narratives is profoundly related to confrontation with the Other in a time of crisis. Apocalypse, in other words, is a narrative about what one opposing value says about another, and the way in which people respond and react to the Other in times of significant sociocultural change. Apocalypse is the dynamic between the self and the unknown in a time of crisis; this unknown is often a threatening Other, including the limit of our imagination. Accordingly, apocalypse is often used to address unstable identities as a response to a crisis brought about by an unknown Other, and it often attempts to restabilise them by offering affirmations and visions of a better future.
The second functional characteristic of apocalyptic narratives is that they always reveal what comes after the end—of the event, the world, or the universe. In traditional apocalyptic narratives, after the war between good and evil the triumph of the good brings salvation and perfection. Epilogues in traditional apocalyptic myths mostly describe the happy or promised “ending” of the stories, but modern apocalyptic narratives are often tragic and hopeless such as H.G. Wells’ Time Machine (1895). The modern period gave way to the postmodern period in the advanced nations in the 1970s. According to Lyotard (1984), the postmodern condition means that people lost the grand narratives of pursuing truth and justice through enlightenment, education, and progress. The postmodern period thus lacks a definite sense of finality due to the absence of a common purpose. The characteristics of epilogues have varied as apocalypse has changed over time. While contemporary postmodern apocalypse mostly deals with post-apocalyptic situations without a definite sense of ending, in many postmodern post-apocalyptic popular narratives, such as the Matrix film series, a certain catharsis follows the destruction.
Post-apocalyptic science fiction started to boom after the Second World War, as people had experienced apocalypse in the form of the Holocaust and the atomic bombings; the main theme of apocalyptic fiction correspondingly shifted from destruction to survival and revival in the aftermath. In Britain, for example, a genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction called cozy (or cosy) catastrophe emerged. Works in this genre describe the emergence of new civilisations following destruction; a representative example is John Wyndham’s 1951 The Day of the Triffids. Usually the main characters are able safely to observe a disaster that happens in a limited area. Most works in the genre describe the challenges of the survivors, the horror of dystopian high-tech societies with tight surveillance, or strife in destroyed civilisations. Regardless of their settings, the narratives seek ways to cope with the experience of existing between life and death, to speak the unspeakable, and to unveil what is hidden in such crises.
On the other hand, some postmodern post-apocalyptic fiction deals with special situations such as the lack of significant change: highly postmodern apocalypse often assumes that there are no more major changes to come. While characters in post-WWII cozy catastrophes merely observe the destruction, characters in contemporary Japanese apocalyptic narratives often experience it directly; the impact of the shock will remain forever, like the impact of the atomic bombs. The conflicts caused by the opposition of ideologies are eliminated, and all that remains is the barren realisation that we must exist in a world without major endings. We have to live in an endless time when it is not obvious what is right or wrong. When apocalyptic narratives are influenced by the postmodern changeless/endless worldview, they must deal with something other than progress, change, growth, and maturity. Conventional hope after apocalyptic crisis no longer exists in postmodern narrative, and apocalypse itself comes to mean something very different.
Regardless of the form, date, or cultural background, the relationship between opposing values and what comes after apocalypse are two important keystones that are always present in any apocalyptic narratives. With this in mind, the way that Godzilla and Godzilla Resurgence define and cope with Otherness becomes clear.
The Japanese postwar apocalyptic imagination has been shaped by the impact of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the country’s surrender in World War II. The film Godzilla (1954) deals with nuclear horror and apocalyptic imagination, and reflects what people just after the war and the occupation felt about the nuclear issue and fear of the Other. Although regarded by many, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, as an unsophisticated low-budget exploitation film for children, a number of critics see Godzilla as an important work of apocalyptic imagination. Among them, Tsutsui’s detailed research discusses how the original film is different from its sequels (Tsutsui 2005). Godzilla is not merely a parodic, entertaining monster movie but a dark horror/SF film with serious themes of imminent nuclear terror, anxiety about worsening environmental pollution, and the trauma of the World War II, which was still fresh in Japanese people’s minds in the 1950s. 
The movie begins with a scene reminiscent of the real-life Daigo Fukuryūmaru (Lucky Dragon 5) incident. As the film opens, a Japanese fishing boat is attacked by a mysterious flash of light near Ōdo Island. Following a destructive storm a few nights later, archeologist Yamane Kyōhei (Shimura Takashi) goes to the island to investigate. Dr. Yamane returns to Tokyo to present his findings, concluding that Godzilla, who had been asleep since the Mesozoic era, has been woken by nuclear testing conducted by the United States. Ships are sent to destroy the monster, but Godzilla attacks them. Officials appeal to Dr. Yamane to find some way to kill Godzilla, but he wants the creature kept alive so it can be studied.
Meanwhile, Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Kōchi Momoko) decides to break off her arranged engagement to her father’s colleague Serizawa Daisuke (Hirata Akihiko), because she is in love with Ogata Hideto (Takarada Akira), the captain of a salvage ship. Before she can tell him, however, Serizawa reveals that he has been working on a secret experimental weapon. Emiko is shocked, but he swears her to secrecy. Meanwhile, Godzilla begins going on rampages in Tokyo that leave thousands of civilians wounded or dead.
Tokyo is in ruins, and hospitals overflow with victims. Emiko witnesses the devastation and tells Ogata about Serizawa’s experimental weapon. Called Oxygen Destroyer, it is a device that disintegrates oxygen atoms and causes organisms to die of asphyxiation; she hopes that together she and Ogata can persuade Serizawa to use it to stop Godzilla. Serizawa initially refuses, citing the potential for abuse of the weapon. Yet moved by choirs of children on TV, Serizawa decides that he will use it just once, and then it must be destroyed for the good of humanity.
A navy ship takes Ogata and Serizawa to Tokyo Bay, where they dive to plant the device. Ogata returns to the surface as Serizawa activates the device at sea. Serizawa confirms Godzilla’s death, and tells Ogata to be with Emiko. He then cuts his own oxygen tube, sacrificing himself so his knowledge of the device cannot be used to harm mankind. Although the monster is gone, those aboard the ship are grim: Dr. Yamane believes that if mankind continues to test nuclear weapons, another Godzilla may appear.
As many influential critics such as Napier (1993) and Tsutsui (2005) have argued, it is clear that Godzilla represents the complicated feelings of Japanese people in the 1950s about the recent past: the nuclear bombings; the Japan’s defeat and many casualties in the war, both soldiers and civilians; the Allied Occupation, under which many people suffered and which had ended only two years before the film’s release; and tension in international politics. What makes the film interesting is the complicated ambivalence in the deceptively simple story. Godzilla is as much victim (of nuclear testing) as victimiser (of the people in Tokyo). For viewers, he also represents the horror of nuclear pollution: an ultimate Other, a destructive monster. At the same time, however, as Tsutsui (2005), Igarashi (2000) and Katō (2010) argue, Godzilla can be considered a representation of the souls of soldiers who died in the Pacific. As Noriega (1987) explains, many Japanese have sympathetic feelings for the monster: in the 1950s he also represented the civilian victims of the recent war, especially those wounded and killed by the nuclear bombs. 
I agree with Noriega (1987), Napier (1993), and Tsutsui (2005) that Godzilla implicitly and explicitly tries to recuperate the damaged identity of the Japanese people via its tacit criticism of the United States. It is important to note that what stops Godzilla is the principled use of advanced technology and the brave self-sacrifice of a young Japanese scientist. Serizawa was not so different in the 1950s imagination from the kamikaze pilots ten years earlier: both died for what they believed to be worth protecting.
As Kawamoto (2007) points out, it is important to realise that all the people in charge of the problem in Godzilla are Japanese, and there is only one scene, set in the Japanese Diet, that refers to the international significance of making the matter public. Indeed everyone in the movie is Japanese, and Japanese society as a whole is responsible for tackling this apocalyptic crisis. Through the individual sacrifice of one Japanese person for national and global peace, the country is able to overcome the crisis for itself and the world. What comes afterwards is the unification of the Japanese people, and awareness of the dangers of nuclear experimentation by the United States. The film thus successfully both reinforces the virtue of the Japanese spirit and achieves social ideals such as recovering the damaged national identity and regaining social unity against the United States as a brutal Other.
At the end of the film, Dr. Yamane murmurs that he does not think that Godzilla is the last of his kind. He goes on to say that other monsters may appear if humans continue nuclear testing. Dr. Yamane’s warning has come true in our time: Japan’s choice to use nuclear power has polluted its land, and the 2011 triple disaster may be the precursor of a new apocalyptic imagination, one with its own monster that represents invisible horrors like nuclear contamination. This time, the story does not include a clearly visible Other such as a brutal U.S.; this time, the Japanese people have realised that they themselves have created and relied on something monstrous.
Godzilla Resurgence
Godzilla Resurgence (2016) begins one day in Tokyo Bay, when something in the water attacks an abandoned boat. Soon afterwards, the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line is mysteriously flooded and collapses. After seeing a video showing a massive entity moving in the area, Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yaguchi Randō (Hasegawa Hiroki) is convinced that the incident was caused by a living thing. His theory is initially dismissed, but later an enormous creature rampages through central Tokyo, destroying everything in its path. Top government officials focus on military strategy and civilian safety, while Yaguchi is put in charge of a task force to research the beast. Due to high radiation readings, officials speculate that the creature is energised by nuclear fission.
A few days later, the creature, now named Godzilla, reappears and makes landfall near Kamakura en route to Tokyo. The Japanese Self Defense Forces and U.S. army are mobilised, but they only manage slightly to injure the creature, who responds with highly destructive atomic rays. The battle destroys a major part of Tokyo. After depleting its energy, Godzilla enters a dormant state and becomes immobile.
Yaguchi’s team discovers that Godzilla’s blood and fins work as a cooling system, and they theorise that they may be able to stop him by using a coagulant. Through analysis of tissue samples, they discover that Godzilla is able to survive as long as air and water are available, and can reproduce asexually. The United Nations, headed by the U.S. government, informs Japan that the use of thermonuclear weapons against Godzilla is inevitable. Despite international pressure, the team manage to procure enough coagulant and enact their plan. They provoke Godzilla into depleting his atomic breath, knock him down, and inject a coagulating agent into his mouth before the thermonuclear weapon is released. The team’s plan succeeds and Godzilla is frozen solid.
In keeping with its apocalyptic nature, the film’s tagline is “Reality (Japan) versus Fiction (Godzilla)” (see Fig. 1). Godzilla Resurgence deals with the opposing values of reality and fiction; Japan and the unknown Other; bureaucracy and politics; Japan and the U.S.; ordinary life and life in time of crisis; disaster and restoration; and of course the original Godzilla and the new Godzilla. Among these, it is clear that the opposition of reality versus fiction is one of the most important themes in the film. The plot revolves around a realistic Japanese government dealing with a fictional creature. However, rather than a simple opposition of values, the story deals with a fusion: fiction and reality overlap in this film, making reality stratified.

Figure 1: Promotion poster for Godzilla Resurgence with the tag line “Reality (Japan) versus Fiction (Godzilla).” (source: Tōhō.)

To give the film a firm basis in reality, the director and the producer did thorough research on real emergency procedures: they interviewed politicians and members of the government and the cabinet. They also visited agencies such as the Ministry of Defense, Self Defense Forces, National Police Agency, Fire Defense Agency, Ministry of the Environment, Nuclear Regulatory Agency, and Coast Guard. They collected data on official residences, military bases, and muster points. In addition, they went through The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Analysis Report (2012) by Tokyo Electric Power Company, the lengthy investigative report on the Fukushima Nuclear Plant meltdown, to learn what the people in charge did during that particular emergency. Anno explains that his team reproduce a number of procedures, meetings, and lectures to make their emergency headquarters and how they work in times of national crisis as realistic as possible.
Thus, the film, which is set in contemporary Japan, in an identifiable Tokyo landscape, includes many highly realistic aspects of the Japanese political and emergency response systems though it appears to abandon realistic characterisation completely, with very few scenes that describe complex emotions, families, romance, or complex interpersonal relationships. However, the film’s conceit is that its characters know nothing of the events of the 1954 movie Godzilla and its sequels.
Godzilla Resurgence, therefore, is not really a “resurgence” in terms of its plot, and it includes a number of science fiction elements. So, while in many ways it represents a thought experiment about how the real, realistically depicted city of Tokyo would deal with a significant disaster, it is in fact based on a pseudo-Japan: one that appears very realistic, but is ultimately fictional. In other words the story is a purely hypothetical world dealing with the “what if” of a nuclear accident or a large scale earthquake in central Tokyo. And of course Godzilla himself is a fiction too: such creatures do not exist in our world, and we understand that he is not real. Nevertheless, like the story, Godzilla’s status and impact are very realistic, especially for those who experienced the 2011 disaster: Godzilla diffuses radioactive materials, creates heaps of debris as if from a tsunami, operates like an atomic reactor, causes blackouts and destruction, and can be temporarily stopped via a “cooling system,” just like the Fukushima Nuclear Plant.
This erosion or overlapping of reality and fiction in the story is expressed visually in the film. Digital journalist Schonfeld (2010) has discussed the shift of visual representation in the digital world, arguing that virtual reality was popular in the 1990s and 2000s, when digital technology allowed us to create completely fictional characters with scenery fabricated by computers, making it possible to create another reality which is “somewhere not here.” However, since the 2010s, he explains, our attention has moved away from virtual to augmented reality. While virtual reality is complete absorption in a digital world, augmented reality is a digital overlay onto the real world. Schonfeld argues that by empowering reality with digital data, it becomes more interesting than a completely fabricated environment. The recent worldwide success of the smartphone game Pokémon Go is an excellent example: it enhances the ordinary (real) world with digital (fantasy) data, melding reality with fiction (see Fig. 2). Players must go out and visit actual places to complete their digital collections: it is not about “somewhere not here” but about multi-layering “here, now.”

Figure 2: Screen shots of Pokémon Go in Shibuya, Tokyo. (Source: author)

 It can be said that the original Godzilla also aimed to describe the realistic impact of the monster/monstrous Other on Tokyo, by reminding audiences of the wartime confusion they had felt just a few years before. People who watched the movie in 1954 found Godzilla’s destruction very real, for it reminded them of the air raids and destruction of the war. Also, the special effects techniques of suitmation and miniatures were well contrived within the limited budget of the work at that time, and contributed to the international success of the film. However, production of Godzilla was separated into two parts—the “fictional” parts, using the aforementioned special effects, and the “real” parts, which were filmed live—and they are not layered. That is, the representations of the real and the fictional in the original Godzilla are differentiated visually.
In contrast, advanced digital techniques available when Godzilla Resurgence was made allow this film to present a more naturalistic and realistic fusion of real landscapes of the Tokyo area and the fictional monster. Many Japanese viewers, especially Tokyoites, have commented that they were especially thrilled to see familiar residential areas, office buildings, railways, and downtown landmarks smashed by Godzilla. Also, the film includes a lot of very brief on-screen text, adding another visual and expository layer to the movie. Many films include text in the form of subtitles, or other brief information such as dates or locations. But the amount of text in this film is overwhelming, with most viewers finding it difficult or impossible to read it all. This intentional visual device is reminiscent of the text-heavy interfaces of popular AR games.
Critic Uno (2011) insists that the shift from virtual to augmented reality has been ongoing in Japanese culture since the early 2000s, not only in visual technology but also ideologically, and was completed by the triple disaster in 2011. He argues that this disaster did not bring about the end of the world or of the banal daily life that many postmodern Japanese apocalyptic fictional works have described since the 1970s; it is true that many of the affected areas in Fukushima remain deserted, but many others have gradually recovered from the crisis, although people are aware of the continuing danger of radioactive contamination. Rather than ending Japan, the triple crisis slightly changed it—this is not wholesale transformation, but partial, invisible alteration, adding a new and imperceptible layer of crisis. The reactors at Fukushima are a symbol of Japanese society after the 2011 triple disaster, a symbol which continues to lie at the centre of our anxiety, fear, sadness, impatience, and anger. The non-ordinary does not switch on and off; instead, such events are like cracks in the veneer of our daily lives. We must live on in this slightly changed world with its additional layer wherein the ordinary and the non-ordinary are fused.
A thing with no personality, background, or history can shake our world—a thing that is not outside our society but within it. While in the original Godzilla the monster is provoked by atomic testing by a United States that is implicitly an enemy, the creature in Godzilla Resurgence becomes a monster by consuming nuclear waste thrown into the coastal waters of Tokyo. In the film, this crime is attributed to unnamed “nations,” but while in reality we know that there is a limited number of nations that could be responsible, no effort is made to identify and punish the perpetrators. Moreover it is uncomfortably clear that Japan itself could be responsible, having depended on nuclear power to generate electricity since 1963.
When the original Godzilla was released in 1954, Japan relied mainly on coal to generate electricity. The high economic growth period in 1960s created a need for more powerful energy resources, leading to increasing dependence on oil and a corresponding drop in energy self-sufficiency. This in turn left Japan in a more dependent position in international relations. After experiencing two oil shocks in the 1970s, Japan decided to diversify its energy sources to include natural gas and nuclear power. The latter was particularly promoted as cleaner and less polluting (Ikegami, 2022). The ambiguous responsibility for nuclear contamination in Godzilla Resurgence reflects the real process of the postwar national energy policy. 
Like his 1954 predecessor, Godzilla in Godzilla Resurgence has a dual status: he is both victim and victimiser. By refusing to place the blame on some unknown Other, the story instead shines an uncomfortable light on Japan’s own choices and responsibilities. Japan will have to deal with the effects of the Fukushima meltdown for decades to come: for the Japanese people there is nowhere to go and no one else to blame. While the original film had the U.S. to blame implicitly, in Anno’s film the responsibility is Japan’s alone. As Uno (2011) argues, the Fukushima disaster adds a layer of the non-ordinary that will for decades overlay reality in Japan.

Inflexible Japan vs Flexible Godzilla and Father America vs Japan as a Son

At the beginning of this discussion, we saw that apocalyptic narratives often deal with two functional characteristics: the relationship between two opposing values and what comes after the apocalypse. If reality and fiction are not in conflict, then what kind of oppositional value-conflicts can we see in Godzilla Resurgence? As discussed above, the tagline of the film is “Reality (Japan) versus Fiction (Godzilla),” and we have seen that reality and fiction in this film are not functioning in an oppositional way, but instead form layers. I would argue that while the explicit conflict is between Japan and Godzilla, the implicit conflict is between Japan and the United States.
The opposition of Japan and Godzilla centres on power, flexibility, and independence. Japan is portrayed as an inflexible and dependent nation which lacks powerful leadership. The government and cabinet are shown to be pointlessly bureaucratic, bogged down by countless meetings and red tape. Rather than a strong leader, the Prime Minister is merely a yes-man who mindlessly accepts the solutions and countermeasures suggested by his cabinet members. The film intentionally and pointedly exposes the inflexibility of the Japanese political system; the irresponsible experts who say and do nothing helpful; the “broken telephone” game of fire and ceasefire orders; and the bloated disaster countermeasures office, with its unfeasibly large staff, all of which hinder the ability to take quick action in an emergency.
There is therefore no ultimate savior or power to solve the crisis; rather it is powerlessness that is emphasised. Far from being a hero who saves Japan from Godzilla, the main character Yaguchi Randō, who leads the countermeasures office, is merely a cog in the massive bureaucratic machine of the Japanese government, doing his best to save the country. Even the Self Defense Forces are powerless against Godzilla: despite taking a long time to work out strategies and to mobilise the troops, all their efforts leave barely a scratch on the monster. Eventually the government must rely on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, and ask America for help, but the U.S. air attack causes Godzilla to turn central Tokyo into an inferno. The original Godzilla shows responsible, capable Japanese politicians, scientists, and military officials efficiently and effectively dealing with the disaster. Godzilla Resurgence focuses instead on the absence of responsibility and flexible judgement, and the lack of independence of Japan as a nation-state.
In stark contrast to this weak Japan, Godzilla is powerful, adaptable and autonomous. In no other film in the franchise, including the 1954 original, does Godzilla evolve during the story; according to Okamoto (2020), director Anno Hideaki has said that this idea of evolution was initially rejected by the film company, Tōhō, for it was considered too radical a change. As described above, Godzilla has consumed radioactive waste dumped illegally into the sea by nations with nuclear power systems; he emerges from the sea and proceeds to central Tokyo, evolving as he goes. In fact, he evolves in five steps, becoming stronger, taller and more massive each time. After emerging from the sea he takes his second shape when he makes landfall in Kamata: he is amphibian, with gills, but lacks forefeet and therefore crawls. In the third stage, when he reaches Shinagawa, where there are a lot of tall buildings, he has evolved feet and can stand. When he reappears in Kamakura, he has evolved into the fourth stage, and is twice as big as before.
Many previous Godzillas emit radioactive heat from their mouths, but this Godzilla also emits it from his dorsal fins and tail end. He fires laser beams too, destroying tall buildings in the Tokyo Station area. The most remarkable features of this flexible creature are that he is able to survive as long as air and water are available, and can reproduce asexually. Godzilla is thus a clear symbol of a nuclear plant: he is powered by the energy from atomic fission; under some conditions, he is capable of producing power almost perpetually; and his radioactivity can invisibly influence our environment. The changeability and power of the new Godzilla makes a striking contrast with the stagnant and feeble world of Japanese politics.
The other opposition in the film is the implicit conflict of the United States and Japan—those who rule and those who follow. The U.S. helps the Japanese government to stop Godzilla, American Special Envoy Kayoko tries to help Randō with his plan, and it is frequently implied that Japan is still under the control of the United States. In two scenes, the Japanese prime minister speaks with the President of the United States by telephone, and both conversations end with the phrase “Yes, we understand, President Ross.” After the second call, the prime minister sadly says, “that nation [the United States] really requires surreal things from Japan.” In other words, rather than conversations between equals, these are one-way directives from the U.S. to Japan. The second call is about the U.N.’s decision to strike Godzilla with a nuclear missile if there is no other way to stop him. It is humiliating that the country must acquiesce to a third nuclear bombing, but it is implied that Japan has rarely said no to U.S. since the end of World War II.
When we compare the oppositions in the 2016 film with those in the 1954 film, the difference becomes more obvious. The original Godzilla is based on the oppositional values of science versus myth, traditional arranged marriage versus romantic love, and crisis versus calm, and one of its most important oppositions is Japan versus the United States. However, the film seldom includes the U.S. in any explicit way, instead showing Japan coping with the monstrous symbol of nuclear horror by itself, with neither help nor interference. The film’s implicit criticism of nuclear testing manifests the fact of Japan’s pride against the U.S. as Other. It tries to recuperate the national identity of Japan after defeat, and attempts to restabilise it by offering a vision of a fully responsible Japanese nation.
In Godzilla Resurgence, however, there is no illusion of equality with a powerful Other. Instead, the 2016 film suggests that seventy years after the Occupation, and after experiencing both the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2011 Tohoku disaster, the Japanese government has altered little of its inflexible organisation and few of its emergency procedures, and remains pitifully dependent on the United States. In seventy years the security system led by the U.S. has not changed, and in twenty years there has been no major evolution in the government’s attitude towards national-level crises. The film implicitly criticises the fact that the Japanese political system remains inflexible and not fully prepared, even after two recent major earthquakes.

What comes after Apocalypse

The climax of Godzilla Resurgence is the clash between the sincere but inflexible and weak politicians and bureaucrats and the adaptable and enormously powerful Godzilla, who repeatedly returns to central Tokyo for no evident reason. With the help of talented members of the emergency countermeasures office, the U.S. Air Force, and diplomatic negotiations with France, the team finally incapacitates Godzilla in front of Tokyo Station.
According to Onodera (2016), a number of viewers have commented that they felt encouraged that Japan is not helpless and is still powerful enough to save itself with otaku-type talents and meticulous teamwork. Many viewers were left with a positive impression. The soft nationalism, realistic settings, rapid pace, thrilling action, brilliant scenes of destruction, and catharsis in the film are highly appealing: the film was so successful that it ran for four months in the year it was released. Then prime minister Abe Shinzō spoke positively of the film’s pro-nationalist themes, stating, “I think that [Godzilla’s] popularity is rooted in the unwavering support that the public has for the Self-Defense Forces.” [1] Abe, who wanted to revise Article 9 of the constitution, which renounces war, and who enacted reforms the year before the release of Godzilla Resurgence to allow the Japanese military to be deployed overseas, was pleased with the film’s favourable treatment of the JSDF under Japan-U.S. Alliance.
It is true that the film describes successful cooperation between various nations, the effort of averting a crisis with specialist knowledge, and timely cabinet dissolution to “scrap and rebuild” the nation. However, I would argue that the point of this movie is not to celebrate the bright future of Japan: on the contrary, what is revealed after the apocalyptic crisis is a profound resignation about the nation’s stagnation and inability to bring the postwar period to an end. In the story, Japan opposes none of the decisions of the United States: while Japan does successfully negotiate with France, it does not negotiate with the U.S. to call off the planned thermonuclear strike, as it is clear that this would be instantly denied by the American government. In one scene, Yaguchi says that the postwar period goes on forever (sengo ha tsuzukuyo, dokomademo), parodying the song title “The railroad goes on forever” (senro ha tsuzukuyo, dokomademo), the Japanese version of the American folk song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”; in this film, at least, the Japanese government can do nothing without the consent of Father America.
What is revealed after the crisis are a profound and distorted resignation over the never-ending postwar period, and a frozen yet ongoing danger at the very centre of Japan itself; in the end, we learn that the new Japanese government has agreed that, in the event of Godzilla reawakening, a thermonuclear bomb will be launched in 3526 seconds, just under one hour. In short, Japan is resigned to a state of semi-permanent dependence and immanent destruction. If the 2011 tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disaster had hit central Tokyo, Japan might have been more changed. However, the triple disaster in the rural area of Fukushima has not dramatically changed the system of Japan.
When we compare this striking ending with that of the original Godzilla, there is a definite difference of revelation after catastrophe. In the 1954 film, Godzilla is killed by the Oxygen Destroyer, an advanced chemical weapon which disintegrates oxygen atoms causing suffocation. Serizawa explains that the plans for this weapon are too dangerous to release, as it could be used to commit genocide. He agrees to use it just once, to save Japan from Godzilla, and after setting the device in Tokyo Bay he sacrifices himself to ensure that his terrible invention can never be used for evil. Godzilla is dead, which is cause for celebration, but the people waiting for Serizawa on the ship are in deep sorrow and mourning. A typical disaster film ends with a mood of joy, peace, and relief after the danger is gone, but this movie ends with paleontologist Yamane’s warning that further nuclear testing will give rise to another Godzilla, underscoring the film’s criticism of atomic testing by the U.S. At the same time, however, the ending also reminds the Japanese audience of its defeat in WWII, of the atomic bombings and their aftermath, and of those who were killed in the conflict, and leaves them with mixed feelings of being both victim and offender.
The ending of Godzilla Resurgence, in contrast, leaves the audience frozen. The dormant Godzilla, symbol of all the remaining nuclear power plants, continues to exist in the centre of Tokyo: a barren realisation and resignation that we cannot escape our anxiety, fear, sadness, impatience, and anger about the continuing use of nuclear power. As McCormick (2007) argues in Client State: Japan in American Embrace, by accepting the GHQ’s decision to sustain the emperor system Japan failed to establish its postwar identity. Japan has appeared to have some autonomy and independence since 1960, yet has never tried to change its position as a client state of the U.S. The film forces Japanese viewers to admit that Japan has remained in stasis since the war, and that without major progress in the last twenty years it has become a second-rate nation. The film struggles for a way to escape the dependence on Father America in such hopeless circumstances by having characters repeat “do just as you like” several times in the film.


Godzilla Resurgence reveals two important things. The first is that reality in Japan became multilayered because of the 2011 triple disaster, but that the damage to Japanese society was not enough to change the inflexibility of the postwar political system. The second is that we are still in an ongoing crisis: Japan is undergoing necrosis, with immense debt as a result of the disaster, and endless economic downturn. There will be no miraculous resolution, since decommissioning the reactors in Fukushima will take decades.
Each of the previous Godzilla films, including the original, has some sort of conclusion. The 1954 Godzilla is destroyed by the suicide of the young Serizawa, and the film ends with a sombre reflection on death, including those of the scientist, Godzilla, and the people who died in the Second World War, and a serious warning that there will be another Godzilla to come if we continue to harm the environment with nuclear development. It can be said that this prophecy was realised in 2011, and just as no one really knows how long it will take to rebuild Fukushima, there is no decisive end or resolution depicted in Godzilla Resurgence. It is true that the film provides realistic descriptions of recent disasters and catharsis through Godzilla’s destruction, avoiding another nuclear strike. However, it also suggests that the crisis has not really been overcome: the broken nuclear reactors are still there, and no one knows whether they will be fully secure when another disaster occurs in the Tohoku area.
Thus, Godzilla Resurgence presents the post-2011-disaster imagination of living in an inflexible society facing quiet yet ever-present danger: we need no Godzilla to come for us, for what he symbolises remains in our unconscious as an additional layer of crisis to reality. The film suggests that the inflexibility and changeless status of the Japanese government is deeply rooted in Japan’s dependence on the United States since its defeat in World War II. Most of all, the audience is left with the stark and discomfiting realisation that Japan, a nation that has experienced nuclear bombings and thus should know better, has to bear the disgrace, shame, and bewilderment that it is responsible for harming its own land with radioactive materials.


[1] This speech was made at a gathering of high SDP officials hosted by the Prime Minister Abe on September 19, 2016. https://www.kantei.go.jp/jp/97_abe/actions/201609/12jieitai_konshinkai.html.


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About the Author

Motoko Tanaka is Associate Professor at Tamagawa University, Tokyo, Japan. She received her PhD in Modern and Contemporary Japanese Literature at University of British Columbia, Canada. Her book Apocalypse in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction is published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.

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