Anyone familiar with the theory of mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism by René Girard will identify its structure in the story of Godzilla. Here is a summary of Girard’s theory by Hamerton-Kelly.
“The basic components of the Girardian hermeneutical theory are mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism. Human desire is essentially imitative. It copies the other in his desire; objects become desirable because somebody else desires them. Eventually desire becomes competitive and loses sight of the object because of concentration on the rival. The rivalry becomes violent, one tries to kill the other, and such violence makes community impossible, until the group spontaneously discovers the scape-goat mechanism, which transforms random violence into unanimous violence by directing it against one victim. Violence then unites rather than divides the group, making community and culture possible. The scapegoat victim is sacralized by the process, he/she embodies the sacred which has the two valencies of violence as destructive and as unifying. The process of killing the victim is re-enacted ritually in sacrifice, a good and life-giving activity, thereby concealing from us the originary and persisting violence and giving us a false estimate of human nature and society, as essentially benign. The scapegoat, therefore, is the generator of all culture.” (Source: Hamerton-Kelly, “A Girardian Interpretation of Paul: Rivarly, Mimesis, and Victimage in the Corinthian Correspondence,” Semiea 33, pp. 67-8)
Godzilla represents nature out of control. Birthed and scared from the atomic bomb, nature incarnated in Godzilla is let loose to get revenge. He embodies the danger and threat nuclear facing humanity. The story of Godzilla is mythical in that Godzilla is a metaphor and embodiment of human violence. This can be missed if Godzilla is seen only as a giant monster. The original film makes explicit the connection between the atomic bomb and the awakening of Godzilla. So in another sense there is no myth because the truth about what has happened is revealed. The victims are not concealed, but rather clearly seen. Godzilla is both the victim and the mechanism of victimization without discrimination between the guilty and the innocent.
The scapegoat victim is sacralized by the process, he/she embodies the sacred which has the two valencies of violence as destructive and as unifying.
Godzilla is a monster of our own making. Humanity is at fault. Nature, animals, and our fellow human beings become our scapegoat. Godzilla is both the cause of the crisis and his sacrifice (destruction) is its cure. We can make others out to be monsters by blaming them for problems they did not cause. And we become Godzilla when we engage in violence.
Watching Gojira (1954 Japanese version) again was very revealing. After a series of boats are destroyed at sea the people of Odo Island enter into ritual and prayer led by the local priest, which is a human practice at the time of crisis. But even more significant an elder of island reveals a secret behind the ritual which has evolved over time. He speaks of the monster that lives in the sea that feeds on humankind to survive. But he goes on to explain the significant of the ceremony Here is what the island elder between the young man inquires about Godzilla.
“It’s the name of a monster that lives in the sea. It will come from the ocean to feed on humankind to survive. In the old days, during times when the fishing was poor… we used to sacrifice girls… to prevent him from eating us all, yes! Now, this exorcism ceremony is all that remains of the old traditions.
Here we have archaic religion and the scapegoat mechanism at work. The archaic way of thinking is to believe that the sacrifice of one will save all. In times past, they concluded that the expulsion of an innocent surrogate victim appeased the monster. But the monster is of human making. Godzilla may in fact be the first human being killed by a collective act of murder during a time of crisis. More and more girls would have been sacrificed to quell future violence outbreaks. But there would be no sacrifice able to put “Godzilla” to rest forever. For Godzilla represents humanity at odds with itself.
Let me take it one step further and suggest that Godzilla could have been a foreigner who discovered the island and was blamed for an outbreak of trouble. Could Godzilla be a way of speaking of a foreigner or even a military that appears on their shores to take their resources and takes their women?
This army would be that of the United States who was attached by Japan at Pearl Harbor. World War II would come to an end with the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945 upon Hiroshima (70,000 killed) and on August 9, 1945 upon Nagasaki (60,000 killed). Radiation poison killed up to 200,000 people. After the war, the Marshall Islands would be used for nuclear weapons testing that led to an accident with a tuna fishing boat, named the “Luck Dragon No. 5,” on January 22, 1954. At Bikini Atoll, its crew saw an atomic explosion that covered them in radioactive dust. What they had seen was the largest bomb ever dropped by the US. They were victims of the bomb and succumb to it. Japan claimed they were guinea pigs of US testing. This would shape and give birth to the story of Godzilla. Godzilla embodies the terror of the atomic bomb and represents both its victims and the source of their victimization.
This interpretation is captured in the words of Marsha Admiral Isoroku Yamano’s following the bombing of Pearl Harbor:
“I fear all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”
What we find in the story of Godzilla is the truth behind the monster and the myth. We are Godzilla and our victims are the women and children. Throughout Gojira, the women and children, particularly the girls, play significant roles in the film. Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko, carries the secret of Dr. Serizawa, who has secretly discovered the Oxygen Destroyer that can destroy Gojira. In a fascinating scene during Dr. Yamane’s explanation of the monster, a women stands up to demand that the public be told of Gojira. She is resisted by the men. Later, young girls stand together in collective chorus and voice mourning in song. There is the dramatic scene of the mother comforting her child with the promise of seeing her father as Gojira approaches. Nurses, the wounded, the women, and child fill in the hospital. The women, mothers, and daughters are the innocent surrogate victims. In contrast, the men, their weapons, and their propensity to violence create the monster that will require one more sacrifice, Dr. Serigawa. He knows the secret of the weapon must die with him. Will myth, monsters, and murder die likewise?
Our insatiable desire to subdue and plunder the earth’s resources without restraint is our undoing. Godzilla is the result of mimetic human desire and violence run a muck. He also is a metaphor for humanity’s violence. Godzilla embodies the apocalypse. In Godzilla nature is let loose and gets revenge. Humans become the scapegoat that is expelled from the earth.
In biblical language, Godzilla is the mighty leviathan that God created as his play thing and only God can tame. Humanity is called to subdue the dragon and chaos by following divine wisdom in subduing their desire, rivalry, and violence in check and by loving their neighbor.
In the end, Dr. Serizawa’s sacrifice as a scapegoat subdues Godzilla. He refuses to leave humanity with the secret of his weapon. But the threat still exists. Godzilla will no longer be destroyed by human recourse to violence, missiles, and bombs. Godzilla will only rest when we resist the temptation to do harm and violence to our fellow human beings and to the earth. But when we give into our violence Godzilla again will be unleashed in our lives and upon the world.
For years now, I have understood Godzilla and the other Toho kaiju as just monsters. But now I understand that they are the monsters of our own making. They are our deified and demonized scapegoat victims.