What Godzilla Teaches Us About the Unknown

Whether it be COVID-19 or an ancient monster crawling to shore from the irradiated depths of the sea, humans have never interacted well with what they do not know. We have an uncanny ability to provoke, disrespect, and vilify the unknown: What is unmanageable is automatically perceived as a liability, a tumor to be excised from our neat cultural fallacy of total knowing.

This visceral aversion for what is not in our likeness manifests in a multitude of all too familiar ways: racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and systemic brutality. But what happens when humanity itself bands together to face off against a non-human foe? How do our embodied conceptions of alterity, safety, and righteousness interface with the ways in which we attempt to control — through political, narrative, and visual currencies — that which is too strange or too sinister to comprehend?

Never in my life did I think I would watch “Godzilla.” I shuddered when friends proposed “The Conjuring” as quality sleepover bonding, shielded my eyes for the majority of “It,” and to this day refuse to finish the flower-wreathed, psychedelic nightmare that is “Midsommar.” I was exasperated by what I saw as a cultural pattern of violence, blood, and bodily mutilation injected into films for aestheticized shock value. Only a few weeks ago, when the film “Gojira” was assigned in one of my courses, did I learn that before the United States distorted the cinematic idea into their garish, violent franchise, “Godzilla” was not “Godzilla.” It was “Gojira,” a deeply felt, politically nuanced film by Japanese director Ishirō Honda that explores the implications of nuclear fallout and diplomatic tensions in the Pacific.

What I thought would be an hour and 30 minutes of a rubber-suit monster dragging its feet around a burning metropolis turned out to be much more complex and much less overstated. Honda’s film is a gripping ecocritical treatise on the urgency of human accountability, as well as a cautionary tale of the unforeseen consequences of careless militaristic violence: As viewers later discover, the monster’s escape from its watery lair is a direct result of radiation’s disruption of its natural ecosystem, a commentary on the United States’ atomic testing in the Pacific.

Being a black and white film, “Gojira” depends heavily on light — or the lack thereof — as a narrative tool. An aesthetic binary pervades the treatment of light in the movie: There exists an unnatural, radioactive light, connoting violence and domination, and a softer natural light suggestive of divinity, restoration, and peace. To heighten suspense, Gojira is first introduced to the audience in an intentionally obscure way; rather than glimpse the monster itself, viewers bear witness to an uncomfortably bright stream of light that shoots from the ocean, torching a humble fishing boat bobbing in tumbling black waves. The lancing brightness forebodes strange and uncontrollable forces, a stark juxtaposition from illumination as a guiding source of life in the world as we know it.


“Gojira,” in other words, extends to viewers a visual politics of light. The interlocking sources of tension and danger in the film — government secrets, shocking scientific breakthroughs, and a ravenous ancient monster — are illuminated either too little or too well, often to the detriment of those who have the misfortune of bearing witness.

Like the radioactive fallout in the Pacific during the 1950s, COVID-19 looms so large as a point of existential contention in the global psyche precisely because of its invisible ubiquity. The vicissitudes of statistics and scientific conjecture regarding the future of the pandemic communicate a singular truth: In this increasingly surreal world, uncertainty is king. The resounding question mark pervading our collective wellbeing demands from each of us something we are enormously uncomfortable with: a continual interrogation of how and what we know.

Similar to how the townspeople in Honda’s film perpetuate the haunting refrain “It’s just a myth” to dismiss the reality of the sea monster, we, too, bear witness to alarming percentages of the United States’ populace positing the same about a virus that has claimed upwards of 220,000 American lives. The denial of science has long been instrumentalized as a political tool to undermine narratives, promote agendas, and polarize communities. Honda’s admonitions ring uncannily true in our contemporary culture — what, then, is our politics of light? What questions, anxieties, and narratives will we choose to over-illuminate in this time of shared obscurity? Perhaps more important, what uneasy truths will we keep concealed in the dark?

A future steeped in uncertainty is, indeed, its own sort of terrifying monstrosity, and we do not seem to have many answers. But perhaps this is exactly what Honda’s message insists: that we have the astuteness to sit with our unknowing before deciding how to confront the monster before us.

—Isabella B. Cho ’24’s column “Ulterior Visions” explores how the histories and affective complexities embodied in East Asian literature and cinema interact with personal and global notions of time, crisis, and “otherness.”