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Destroyers of Worlds: Kaiju, Cosmic Horror, and Atomic Elder Gods

Godzilla

“The basis of all true cosmic horror is violation of the order of nature, and the profoundest violations are always the least concrete and describable.”

– H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters III

“There are no secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of man.”

– J. Robert Oppenheimer, Interview with Edward Murrow

“Oh my God. What is that?”

– Beth McIntyre, Cloverfield

Godzilla is a growing boy. In his 1954 debut, the irradiated kaiju measured an impressive, albeit manageable, 50 meters tall. The Toho Studio’s Heisei era of films saw him at an average of 90 or so meters, the Millennium era, 100 meters at his prime. Legendary Studios’ latest reboot puts him around a staggering 120 meters. The numbers have fluctuated over thirty films, but the overall trend is undoubtedly up.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. As our cities sprawl outward and our structures grow taller, greater forces are required to break them down. The 24/7 news outlets bombard us with catastrophe after catastrophe, and now only the most horrific, incomprehensible headlines stop us in our tracks. We need Godzilla to dwarf our crises, because without his looming shadow, the threats in front of us are all too clear.

Intentionally or not, kaiju films fit into the cosmic horror genre pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, and M.R. James. The interdimensional, lumbering giants C’thulhu and Dagon read like the respective granddaddies of Godzilla and Cloverfield‘s unnamed monster from beneath the ocean. Kaiju cinema also borrows the Lovecraftian motifs of human inconsequentiality and helplessness to reconcile societal trauma. Godzilla’s atomic breath levels Tokyo again and again, decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. September 11th lives in the back of our minds as Cloverfield’s creature tosses us the Statue of Liberty’s head, then leaves behind a trail of ash and debris.

GodFeat

In either situation, protagonists have little, if any, means of defense. “I don’t know why this is happening.” Beth sobs into the camera as air raid sirens warn of incoming missiles near Cloverfield‘s conclusion. “And we’re going to wait here until this passes.” Then the bombs fall, and the camera shorts out.

This time, the latest incarnation of Godzilla finds him in Western hands, with the kaiju in question emigrating from their Japanese homeland, traveling thousands of miles to duke it out in San Francisco. American fear isn’t just atomic anymore, it’s climatic. Droughts plague Western states while the Atlantic carves away at the Gulf of Mexico. Godzilla is roused by disturbances in the natural order, not the aftershocks of bombings. In fact, the insectoid “MUTOs” of the film, and our chief antagonists, are shown in one scene eating a submarine’s nukes like they were candy bars.

It’s also worth noting a bit of important revisionist history on the part of the filmmakers. Godzilla is no longer birthed by nuclear weaponry; instead, he is an ancient, hulking alpha predator. Atomic testing did not create him, it was designed to kill him. What’s more, this weaponry is the military’s first choice for attempting to dispatch the kaiju again in the newest film. Not-so-subtle references to the Fukushima power plant disaster and the recent string of devastating tsunamis further highlight our growing fears of ecological catastrophe supplanting radioactive ruin. Even when the now anti-hero Godzilla saves the day, it is not because of any fondness for humanity. We are yet again sidelined by forces beyond our control, and the best we can do is run for cover.

Stories such as these focus on humanity’s attempts, and often, failure, to move the immovable, kill the unkillable, rationalize the irrational—the monster might be put down by the closing credits, but its resurrection is all but inevitable in the sequels. But whereas modern kaiju films often distill our fears of scientific and environmental hubris, Lovecraftian horror takes those collective neuroses and disperses them among the stars and parallel dimensions. Yog-Sothoth can be defeated on the Dunwich hilltop, but it was only a glimpse of a much vaster cosmic terror we can only hope to avoid.[1]

clthulhu

Lovecraft and his acolytes often fall back on the classic gothic trope of unknowable, primordial nature creeping into the sterile realm of science, but in reality, science may be the key to true cosmic horror. The modern age that birthed Godzilla and awoke Cloverfield‘s beast in film still has the potential to burn us all away in the real world. The nuclear power discovered by the likes of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues in the New Mexico desert can now fuel entire cities or obliterate them, depending on who wields the power. Oppenheimer, a pragmatic pacifist, was horrified by the prospects of his creation run wild. Nothing evokes Lovecraftian nightmares more than the now-famous quote from the American physicist in 1965:

“We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”[2]

Science has discovered the Elder Gods of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead, but they aren’t mountainously large, they’re infinitesimally small. The “infernal plane of Carcosa” is not found near a distant star, it portends a potential radioactive wasteland. The atom is older than us, will outlast us, is ambivalent to us, and may one day wipe us away. Quantum physics even suggests the possibility of numerous dimensions and universes beyond our comprehension. Lovecraft wrote of science waylaid by ancient, older-than-time beings intruding into our world, but it’s the other way around. We’ve opened the door for the Elder Gods, let them in ourselves. Our generation’s monsters are birthed of atoms and the unknowable. As the shadows of our real-world threats grow larger, so will our titans. It’s just a question of who will devour us first.

[1] A notable, recent kaiju film bridges this gap, however. 2013’s Pacific Rim sees the giant monsters traveling to Earth through a pandimensional portal, a plot device conveniently developed after the director, Guillermo del Toro, failed to get an At the Mountains of Madness adaptation off the ground.

[2] This quote resonates with many involved in the kaiju genre, evidenced by its use in an early sizzle trailer for the Godzilla reboot at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con.

About Andrew Paul

Andrew Paul's work is recently featured online or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Trop, Jewcy, Lent Magazine, and The Bitter Southerner. His collection of short fiction, The River Thief, is a recipient of the 2012 Portz National Honors Award. He lives in Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @anandypaul.

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