Saturday, May 24, 2014

Godzilla Is Red: An American Indian Reading of the King of Monsters

Misshipeshu by Carl Ray (1943-1978)
When I saw Godzilla in his latest movie swimming quickly under the ocean waves, leaving behind a flotilla of U.S. Navy ships, I immediately thought about American Indians in the Northern Plains.

Godzilla in his city-smashing battle with a pair of radiation-guzzling monsters reminded me of Mishebeshu, “the great underwater monster.” That is what Theresa Smith calls him in her book The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World.

(The Anishinaabe territory lies on both sides of the central U.S.-Canadian border. They are known to most Americans as the Ojibwe or Chippewa.)

Mishebeshu also is a reptile who lives between the waves and who battles a creature from the sky, the Animiki -- known variously as Thunderer, Thunder being, and Thunderbird and generally imagined in the form of an eagle or giant bird of prey. This struck me as interesting because the male MUTO can fly with his enormous wings.

Mishebeshu and Animiki are in perpetual battle with each other, and humans are at times caught between them – a lot like the people of San Francisco in the movie. The humans and their city are not the target of Godzilla and the MUTO; they are merely the collateral damage.

There is a big difference, though, because the moral poles are reversed. Mishebeshu is the “bad guy.” Animiki is the “good guy.” The Thunderers (actually, there are many) can come to the aid of the humans if Mishebeshu comes after them.

In the first Godzilla movie, Gojira (1954), and the American remix, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956), the monster more closely resembles the Anishinaabe version. Mishebeshu rules all of the creatures of the water and even the waves themselves, and he “frequently was asked simply to allow humans to travel on the water in safety” (Smith 97). In the Japanese original, Godzilla destroys several ships at sea before he is ever seen. And though he emerges to stomp and chew on Tokyo, the final showdown is beneath the waves, where he is destroyed.

Gojira (1954)
Since the original Godzilla serves as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, seeing him as the bad guy is quite easy – even if the film suggests that humanity created him by playing with natural forces that it should have left alone.

However, the Japanese did not wait long to resurrect Godzilla as a hero (albeit no friend to the insurance industry) who would rise from the waves to save humans from various monsters from Earth and elsewhere.

Although the character roles seem switched between the Japanese and Anishinaabe narratives, the dynamics in them are similar.

Smith suggests the battles between Mishebeshu and the Thunderers “are not experienced as contests between good and evil, light and dark, right and wrong, but between the forces of balance and imbalance, as embodied in powerful persons” (129). Mishebeshu is chaos; Thunderers are order.

Thunderbird by Carl Ray
This latest Godzilla reboot suggests a similar assumption. Although the film’s designers have made sure the MUTO look menacing and, to some degree, demonic – like red-eyed gargoyles come to life – they are not described by the humans in the film as evil. They are not shown attacking, torturing, or eating any people. But the humans do describe them as a chaotic force that must be countered, and the scientist played by Ken Watanabe articulates Godzilla’s role in this way: “Nature has an order, a power to restore balance.”

Like the Anishinaabeg in their stories about the battles between the Thunderers and Mishebeshu, the humans in Godzilla are stuck between contending forces that must do battle if order is to be restored to the world. Although the film gives Godzilla the physical attributes of Mishebeshu, it gives him the character of an Animiki.  In doing this, Godzilla suggests an epistemology consistent with the Anishinaabe stories.

In her book, Smith suggests that the Anishinaabe world defined bad behavior not as many people imagine “sin” – the transgression of a divinely ordained rule – but as “the failure to keep up one’s side of a healthy relationship” (105). However, the relationships that are to be maintained are not limited to other humans. Important relationships are everywhere and include those between humans and “other-than-human persons.” That is, plants, animals, and other things that are alive in various ways.

Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster
This view of the world resonates with the latest Godzilla and other entries in the canon. For instance, in Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971), our scaly hero comes from the deep to save humanity from a monster of its own making. Humans had once again thrown the world out of balance, and Godzilla must come to fix it. (The film was released two years after the pollution in Lake Erie caught fire, and the same year as the “Keep America Beautiful” commercials that featured an Indian crying about roadside trash.)

In this regard, I am puzzled by the central role that radioactivity/nuclear energy play in the recent film. I understand its role in the first films – Japan was barely a decade beyond having two large cities destroyed by atomic bombs.  Worldwide, radioactivity remained a potent demon for years after that, as nations experimented with atomic energy and as the Super Powers threatened everyone with the fallout from a nuclear war. But I do not know that atomic energy remains today a potent symbol for the folly of man.

We have not knocked ourselves back to the Stone Age with a one-day blitz of nuclear missiles – instead we are doing it a little bit at a time, with each year’s incremental increase in global temperatures, with droughts and floods, and hurricanes, and all the trappings of an unstable climate.

Rather than have the MUTO awakened by a nuclear energy plant in Japan, perhaps it would have been more symbolically powerful to have them awakened from beneath a melted ice shelf in the Antarctic, awakened by humanity’s refusal to cooperate in reducing greenhouse gases.

This would have given more resonance to the statement by Watanabe’s character from the “Let Them Fight” clip: “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around… Let them fight.”



That would have made the film even more consistent with an Anishinaabe vision of the right relationship among humans, each other, and the world that surrounds them. The MUTO would have come because of the failure to keep up our side of a healthy relationship with our planet, and Godzilla would have come again to save us.

Perhaps in the next film he can attack Washington, D.C., and destroy a certain NFL franchise. 


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Most people have not heard of the book I am goofing on for my title here, but I will use it anyway. God Is Red is an important book in American Indian Studies, published by Vine Deloria Jr in 1973. In it he explains some thoughts on the divine and humanity's relationship to it from an American Indian perspective.

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