God of Anthropocene


To the cinema, in August, to see Shin Godzilla (2016) on its brief and belated UK release. The film is produced by Toho studios, which made the original Godzilla film (Gojira) in 1954, and made many more over the next fifty years. I loved these films when they were broadcast on British television in the 1990s. This was a time, as countless people have lamented, before the compartmentalisation of television channels, when viewers could be introduced to all manner of films: an education for my young self in McCarthyite B-movies, Nordic existentialism, the politics of the Parisian banlignes, kitchen sink, and Gothic horror.

These memories had me well-disposed to Shin Godzilla before I entered the cinema. The film delighted me despite its flaws (particularly the heavy-handed signposting of stock characters and character traits). A decision was made (whether by writer-director Hideaki Anno, composer Shirō Sagisu, or some level of the company) to include soundtrack elements from the original films: both sound effects and the original score by Akira Ifukube. The old music was neither re-recorded nor remastered, which resulted in a peculiar retro effect in modern cinema speakers: comfortingly familiar, but at odds with the modern pacing of the film, as if challenging us to compare it with the originals.

The heavily-signposted subtext of the film showed it to be psychologically freighted with memories and premonitions of catastrophes natural (tsunami) and anthropic (nuclear bombs, radioactive waste), and the exacerbation of these by bureaucratic ossification. In the week of its British release, fears of nuclear attack in East Asia were all too raw in the shadow of US and North Korean willy-waving. The film offers moments of satire of interminable governmental and academic meetings, which give way to a (rather too) simple message of interdepartmental, interdisciplinary, and international collaboration.

What interested me most, of course, was its exploration of the position of myth in a resolutely Anthropocene setting. The dialogue contains snatches of human self-doubt. The scientists studying this ‘Gojira’ creature consider that it may be a biologically perfect organism – ‘better than man’ in its ability to adapt to, and to reform, its environment. Characters compare the damage wrought by Gojira to the towns around Tokyo Bay to the violence of human history,  prompting the disaster-movie-truism that ‘man is more destructive than Godzilla’. The Gojira creature itself represents an allegory of technology as mass destruction, evolutionary power (hyper-accelerated in this film), and diminishing geographical distance (in the potential to disperse itself internationally).

In short, Gojira is an incarnate god of the Anthropocene epoch. Shin Godzilla (‘new‘, ‘true‘, or ‘god Gojira‘) is a telling title. The naming of the creature – first named in the film as ‘Great Unidentified Creature’ – is important, as it playfully endorses the Anglophone name Godzilla, emphasising the feeling of encountering an inscrutable, ungovernable divinity. But this god is partly of the natural world, and partly a consequence of nuclear-age humanity. Surely a case of each epoch getting the god it deserves.

I’ve often wondered about divine succession. To take the Greek pantheon: Ouranos was succeeded by his son, Kronos, who in turn was succeeded by his son Zeus. Violently so, in each case. But then Olympian historical time seems to cease while human historical time begins. Would it take an epoch-shattering event among humans to dislodge the secure Olympian order? Here is Gojira, come to shake Zeus down from his mountain. Gojira is the divine representative of the Anthropocene – the epoch of irreversible human impact on the Earth – emerging on the face of Zeus’s grandmother Gaia.

English version of Yamata no Orochi (by B. H. Chamberlain, 1886, illustrator unknown)

The emergence of a god onto contemporary Japanese reality requires a mythic response, of sorts. ‘Operation Yashiori’ is the name given to the internationally-collaborative reaction to Gojira’s threat: the alternative to obliterating it – and much of the country around Tokyo – with a nuclear bomb. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is explicitly referenced, and Operation Yashiori is a mytho-scientific counter both to Gojira and the human violence epitomised by the bomb.

Operation Yashiori derives its name from the sake drunk by the monster Orochi. In Shinto myth, Orochi is a huge, eight-headed serpent (termed a hydra in Shin Godzilla’s subtitles) which has been devouring the daughters of an old couple (or earth-spirit). Seven of their eight daughters have been eaten when the storm god Susanoo encounters them. Susanoo’s solution is to stupefy Orochi by making it drunk on yashiori-no-sake, the inebriated beast is then sliced up by the storm god, who marries the surviving daughter, Kushi-nada-hime. Shin Godzilla constructs a technological equivalent for this myth, advancing the hope that human creativity and collaboration can release us from a global catastrophe of our own making.