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King Kong & Gojira: the monster and differing representations of "the other"

(NB: In conversion to html, the term "the other" is not marked clearly throughout. It should generally be notable, but some confusion could occur.)

There is much discussion in film literature on the representations of the other. In particular, this theme has certainly been analysed with relation to the monster film. There has also been much discussion on how monsters relate well to females in film on the basis of the other to the male dominated society we live in. But not all monsters are the same. There are many cultural and societal issues that can influence just what the monster is representing with relation to the other. If we look at the films King Kong (1933) and Gojira (later released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters in the US) (1954) we can see the two examples of the monster. It is not simply the stop-motion animation versus rubber suit that makes them different. King Kong assisted in creating the mould that other monster movies followed. So it is no surprise that Kong displays this relation to the feminine with relation to the other. Godzilla, on the other hand, was a product of his time and culture. The influences around it turned him into a representation of the other in terms of the West and its military force. For the Japanese, the other was focussed somewhere other than on gender and the fears associated with its release of women to positions of power. It drew from the more pressing concerns of the time in post-Occupation Japan. Kong and Godzilla are two of the biggest monsters ever created for the silver screen.

King Kong is a perfect example of the gender issues within the early Hollywood monster films. As is discussed by Berenstein , Kong takes on an interesting relationship with Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in the film. While being a great destructive force that is feared by the hunters (and worshipped by the natives of his island), Kong acts toward Ann Darrow in a caring way. This caring action by Kong is seen as showing Kong as having a maternal nature toward others of a feminine nature. In turn, it is also argued that Ann Darrow herself looks at Kong with more than just feelings of fear. Rather, she looks at Kong with fascination - there seems to be some understanding between them. As Berenstein states, "…an impression of ambiguity regarding Ann Darrow's rapport with Kong … the ape may have been the object of her affection, not just fear." It is this sense of Kong's otherness relating to the female that brings the patriarchal moral to the story. That the out-of-control, primal force of feminine power could destroy society itself. The males must bring this power into check so that normality can be restored and life can continue moving the way it should. It is interesting to note that it was during the time when Ann Darrow had become fully sexualised (after her first kiss on screen) that she was kidnapped and taken to be sacrificed to Kong. The timing of this occurrence, when she was beginning to influence a crew member with her sexual nature, seems to heighten this patriarchal moral undertone. This same point of the destructive capability of the female was earlier argued with relation to Metropolis . From the monster of the robot to the gargantuan creature, otherness in these instances has related their destructive power to uncontrolled femininity.

Godzilla (or Gojira in Japanese - meaning half-gorilla, half-whale) on the other hand, is developed with a different moral argument in mind. Historically, it came from a hard time in Japanese history. The war had been lost and the US Occupation was forcing the Japanese people to embrace democracy. The Japanese were no longer allowed to make films that promoted feudal values, but were even forced to include kissing scenes as an expression of democracy . During this period the Japanese people accepted this - their culture is such that they accept any hardships as being simply what they must endure . Once the Occupation was over, the Japanese began to rediscover their own voice.

During the 1950's Japanese directors, after the Occupation was over, the Japanese began to contemplate what they had been through. It was in this climate that Gojira was born. The monster is not simply hunted out like Kong. Godzilla is awakened from an ancient slumber by nuclear testing in the Pacific. Further, Godzilla's attack on the Japanese cities, complete with radioactive fire breath, "comes on like a bombing raid, leaving only death and destruction in its wake." The Japanese military are powerless to stop it, just as they were against the Western forces. Thus the monster is representative of a fear of the other just as Kong is. In this case, that other is atomic weaponry and the Western forces - both of which devastated Japan and were simply unstoppable.

In further relations to the anti-nuclear sentiment is the character of Dr. Serizawa. This scientist has created a new weapon, an oxygen destroyer, and feels it is too dreadful to be ever put to use. He hides it from others for fear it could fall into the wrong hands. Even in the face of Godzilla's attack, he is reluctant to use the weapon. It is only when he is persuaded to use it that he selflessly sets a trap that destroys Godzilla, the weapon and himself. This victory further emphasises the horror of the atomic weapon by showing a scientist taking responsibility for his creation that could be incredibly destructive.

This theme of anti-nuclear weaponry and selfless scientists who assist in destroying a monster is common in further Japanese monster movies. Inoshira Honda, director of Gojira, was quite prevalent in writing and directing movies with just such a theme throughout his career. In future outings, Godzilla also became a moral crusader of sorts, often rising to save Japan from other vicious monster attacks (though still destroying half of Tokyo in the process). The first of these films was King Kong versus Godzilla.

It is interesting to note that after the initial release of both these films, they gained a large popularity. This popularity took on a form of national pride in that monster - the Americans saw Kong as their own, the Japanese saw Godzilla the same way. In 1962, as part of the long running series of Godzilla movies, Inoshira Honda directed King Kong versus Godzilla. Being a part of the Godzilla series of films, Godzilla defeats King Kong in the final battle. When the film was released in the US, the American distributors were not happy with the ending. So they shot a new ending - this time with King Kong defeating Godzilla. This attachment to their own monster seemed to have exceeded any original relation to the other. Conversely, over time the monsters had gained a popularity that made them a part of the culture - very much a part of the nation they had originally (and often continually) destroyed in film. They had become representatives of the national identity. So this film took on a "US versus Japan" connotation and the endings in each nations distribution kept both audiences happy. As mentioned earlier, Godzilla appeared in further films to defend Japan from destruction.

King Kong and Godzilla are certainly two of the greatest movie monsters ever seen. It is also the case that they are similar in that they each represent the concept of the other. But this other has much cultural connotation involved with exactly what it is representative of. For Kong, it was the fear of feminine primal nature overpowering the patriarchal control of society. For Godzilla, it was the fear of the atomic bomb and the Western military force overpowering Japan (a fear that was being shown on film retrospective to its reality). In this way, they are quite different in what it is that they represent. They are products of the society in which they were created. The popularity that followed these film monsters changed what they were considered to be representative of.

References:

Anderson, Joseph L. & Richie, Donald
The Japanese Film (Grove Press Inc.), 1960

Svensson, Arne
Screen Series: Japan (A. Zwemmer Ltd.), 1971

Fischer, Dennis
Horror Film Directors: 1931-1990 (McFarland & Co.), 1991

Menville, Douglas
A Historical & Critical Survey of the Science Fiction Film (Arno Press), 1974

Bock, Audie
Film Directors (Kodansha International), 1978

Mellen, Joan
Voices from the Japanese Cinema (Liveright), 1975

Huyssen, Andreas
The Vamp & the Machine: Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Indiana University Press), 1986

Berenstein, Rhona J.
White heroines and hearts of darkness: Race, Gender and Disguise in 1930's jungle films vol. 6 no. 3, Autumn 1994