The recent release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and the introduction of a whole new “monsterverse” has got this medievalist thinking a lot about the creatures that are coming to define our time, and their origins both as kaiju monsters developed in the 1950s and ‘60s by Japan’s Toho Studio and their far older inspirations from Japanese and Western myth and lore.
Godzilla was born in the 1950s in a Japan that had just experienced the devastation of the U.S. dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the original Godzilla, dropping the bomb wakes up the prehistoric sea monster Godzilla, making him even more powerful due to the nuclear radiation. Like most traditional monster narratives, the monster manifests our fears, making them both more and less real.
For people in the Middle Ages, monsters were real—a fact of their world. Monsters populate histories, travelogues, heraldry, maps, illuminated manuscripts, and popular fiction. Think of any medieval text, painting, or sculpture and you won’t have to look long to find a monster hiding in the corner.
The medieval illuminated manuscript, the Luttrell Psalter, is full of lurking, Godzilla-like dragon monsters. Sea monsters and other reptilian creatures populate medieval and Renaissance maps. In medieval Arthurian stories, knights go off to fight all manners of beasts, many not looking all too different from the King of Monsters itself, Godzilla.
Japanese lore is rich with dragons and other mythical creatures. As William Tsutsui cites in his book, Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, some scholars have even suggested that Japan has more legendary and mythical creatures than any other medieval culture.
Like Godzilla, the dragons of Japanese lore are typically associated with the water, and are often considered to be water deities in the Japanese Shinto religion. The dragon deity Ryūjin is considered the god of sea in Ryūjin shinkō, an offshoot of Japanese Shinto. There’s even the Dragon Palace at the bottom of the sea further connecting Japanese dragons to the oceans that surround the island nation.
Monsters & Shinto
Japan’s Shinto religion, which grew in prominence throughout the medieval period, is a system of belief that worships divine beings known as “kami.” Kami are nature spirits that embody different aspects of the natural world.
The religion, especially in its early days, was and is largely practiced outside and in outdoor shrines. In Shinto, nature is inherently divine. Just like the many forms of nature, kami also take on many forms. They are the wind, the sun, the moon, the storm, and the seas. They are emperors and venerated ancestors. They take the forms of dragons, chickens, humans, and demons. They are both hidden and ever-present.
And, they can become monsters, many of which don’t look all that different from the monsters of Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
There’s the bird-like demon Tengu. There’s the giant Daidarabotchi, which created the topography of Japan living in mountains and lakes like Godzilla’s titans before they’re awakened. In fact, there’s a direct link between Godzilla, Rodan, King Ghidaroh, and Mothra to nature. Just like Shinto’s kami can be helpful, granting prayers, and doing good for humankind, they can also be vicious and destructive.
Likewise, the monsters in Godzilla: King of the Monsters are unleashed initially with generally good, albeit severely misguided motives. However, they, like the kami, soon turn vicious—just like nature can turn from serene to tempestuous in a matter of moments.
Japan’s monsters and the bomb
Japan’s Toho Studio originally created many of the monsters featured in Godzilla: King of Monsters in the 1950s and ‘60s as a reaction to the devastation of the nuclear bomb. When the U.S. dropped the bomb, it caused unprecedented disruption to human life and nature as we know it.
It’s estimated that 225,000 people were either killed or wounded following the bomb being dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagaski.
This previously unknown amount of destruction spawned the creation of Toho Studio’s fictional monsters, quite literally waking them from their underwater or volcanic hibernation outside of Japan. The bomb defined post-WWII Japan, and so it likewise defined their monsters. Toho Studio manifested the fears of the Japanese people into monsters that could be destroyed, giving Japan a new way to reckon with the devastation of the bomb.
Many of Toho’s creations are like angered kami set on vengeance in the wake of the bomb. With Japan’s Shinto religion still widely practiced today, the devastation of the bomb can be interpreted as an attack not only on the people of Japan, but also on nature, on the divine aspect in Shinto.
Without America dropping the nuclear bomb, there would be no Godzilla. In the original 1954 Japanese Godzilla, the bomb creates the creature. But more than that, Godzilla is the bomb itself. Godzilla embodies the city-destroying capabilities of a nuclear-armed nation.
Though based in part on Japanese dragons like Ryūjin, Godzilla takes on a new composite form—just as Godzilla is an entirely new form of destruction. Like radiation (which still affects residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Godzilla can never entirely be destroyed, which leaves room for it to be an unlikely hero in the new films.
In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla becomes a new weapon, one to combat other “titans” unleashed in the film. Eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) initially unleashes Ghidorah and Rodan on purpose to try and correct climate change and perceived overpopulation, in a Thanos-esque move.
Wherever these titan monsters go, extreme weather follows: hurricanes, earthquakes, tropical storms, wildfires. The titans become our fears around climate change manifested. But it soon becomes clear that unleashing some world-destroying titans isn’t the best strategy to try and save the planet.
Rodan, a huge monster based on the prehistoric Pteranodons, is the second titan to make an appearance in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The film’s director, Michael Dougherty, called Rodan “a winged A-bomb,” and yet the movie underplays Rodan’s connection to the bomb.
Similar to Godzilla, the bomb awakens Japan’s original 1956 Rodan character. Though in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Rodan (like the other titans) is an ancient king of the natural world, the true ruler of our planet. The flying creature is more similar to Shinto’s kami than Toho’s original, bomb-born character. In fact, Godzilla is the only monster still associated with the bomb, breathing deadly radiation rays, in the new film.
The idea of an ancient beast with wings powerful enough to cause earthquakes isn’t a new one. Japan’s own mythical bestiaries are full of winged menaces. There’s the mythical Itsumade, a bird-like beast. There’s Basan, a fire-breathing fowl-like monster. There’s the rainmaking dragon Zennyo Ryūō.
But the biggest influence in Rodan’s creation was the prehistoric Pteranodon. As paleontologist José Luis Sanz points out in his book Starring T. Rex!: Dinosaur Mythology and Popular Culture, during the 1950s and ‘60s there was a growing public fascination with dinosaurs due to popular science fiction books and films.
The perception of dinosaurs during this period began to change from stupid, slow, lumbering beasts that deserved to be wiped out to the rulers (or “titans”) of their time. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the dinosaurs’ dominance over Earth began to be equated to humankind’s own current dominance. It’s an association that leads inevitably to a warning: Humans could be wiped out, just like the dinosaurs. Rodan’s Pteranodon form carries with it this warning.
Of all the titans in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Ghidorah is the most inspired by Japanese myth. Ishirō Honda, director of the first film to feature the beast, Toho’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), said Ghidorah was a modern take on the dragon Yamata no Orochi.
Yamata no Orochi is an eight-headed and eight-tailed dragon so large that as it crawled, its body would expand across eight mountains and eight valleys. According to myth, every year Yamata no Orochi would devour one of the eight daughters of a kindly elderly couple—until the Shinto storm god, Susanoo or Susa-no-O, killed the dragon in exchange for the hand of the last living daughter, Kushi-inada-hime.
Yamata no Orochi is one of the best known dragons of Japanese mythology, a symbol of destruction and death, that can only be killed by the power of nature’s storm embodied in Susanoo.
Toho’s Ghidorah is markedly different from Yamata no Orochi, with three heads instead of eight. Its creator, Tomoyuki Tanaka was also inspired by the Greek myth of the multi-headed sea monster, the Hydra, which is often times seen with three heads in depictions. Ghidorah, therefore, is a monster melding both East and West influences.
Ghidorah, like Rodan, was created as Godzilla’s enemy just as Godzilla began to develop as a hero for Japan when U.S.-Japan relations began to improve after the end of Allied occupation of Japan. Following occupation, the people of Japan were allowed to govern themselves again, and developed trade with the U.S., but new fears and anxieties emerged in Japan.
As scholar Carolyn Jess-Cooke points out in her book Film Sequels: Theory and Practice from Hollywood to Bollywood, Ghidorah was created just as China was developing its own nuclear arsenal, and detonated its first nuclear bomb in a trial the same year as the original Ghidorah film’s release.
Rodan was also developed at a time when a new nuclear power emerged, the Soviet Union, making the nightmare of human eradication even more plausible. While nuclear bombs still loomed, they were a danger born of countries other than the U.S.—and the fears that originally helped create Godzilla began to ebb. This gave Godzilla the room to become a hero against new threats to Japan.
In the recently released Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Ghidorah becomes the ultimate rival to Godzilla. Ghidorah has the ability to create hurricane-force winds and tear open the stratosphere with thunder and lighting. Basically, Ghidorah is the force of the mightiest hurricane all wrapped up into one very large, multi-headed monster.
King of the Monsters’ Ghidorah has now transformed into the ultimate threat of our moment, climate change, and what may ultimately be necessary if we fail to correct it. In the film, Ghidorah, if left unchecked, would cause great suffering for a large segment of humankind.
The development of Toho Studio’s Mothra makes a noted change from other Toho monsters. Mothra takes the form of either a colossal larva or moth, and is usually portrayed as a heroine (and, yes, she’s usually considered to be a lady).
In different films, Mothra is portrayed as the protector of her own island in Mothra (1961), Earth in Godzilla v. Mothra (1992), and Japan in Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). In the new film, Mothra teams up with Godzilla to defeat the more destructive titans.
The development of Mothra in 1961 marked a new kind of monster, a wise, godlike protector of humankind. Mothra was unlike Toho’s city-destroying monsters Rodan, Ghidorah, and Godzilla (at least originally). Mothra has a voice unlike the others - two female fairies (or shobijin, meaning “little beauties”) accompany Mothra, speaking on her behalf. More than that, the original character also has a personality. She is the just protector of the world.
In Japanese mythology, a white moth is the embodiment of the soul. So perhaps, in this sense, Mothra can be seen as the soul of humanity. In fact, as scholar Nan-Yao Su points out, the people of ancient Japan actually worshipped caterpillars as Shinto kami.
In chapter 26 of the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), it was said that anyone who worshipped this caterpillar kami (referred to as the God of the Everlasting World) would have a long life and riches. Therefore, Mothra’s medieval roots support her identity as the just protector of both Japan and the world.
We are our own monsters
There are no new monsters, only remixes of previously established tropes, but the fears and anxieties monsters embody do change depending on the context. When Godzilla was first developed, it was the embodiment of the bomb, a city-destroying, mindless brute.
Over time Godzilla began to shift into a hero; in the latest film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, he becomes the dangerous but necessary countermeasure to the most terrifying monster facing society today, climate change.
The fears monsters come to embody define our time. In essence, we are the monsters we create; we are our fears. Let’s just hope we can find our real world Godzilla in time to save us from ourselves.