The Godzilla movies likewise began in rage and fire. They ended with Godzilla as an ally of the Japanese, fighting alongside them against all manner of foreign intrusion for the cause of national unity. Godzilla became a source of nationalistic pride for Japan, a symbol of perseverance and rebellion, a flag to follow, and an ally born of the things that had been done to the Japanese people. I’m fascinated by him in the same way I’m disturbed by America’s superhero kink: yes, they save us from city-destroying bad guys, but they destroy the cities in the process. Watching Godzilla movies for an American will always be colored by the knowledge that they are about the trauma we inflicted on the Japanese people under the aegis of a draconian leader setting up his people for nauseating retribution. Watching them as a Chinese-American is even more fraught for the knowledge of what the Japanese army did to us under orders of their leadership.
No single Showa Era Godzilla film crystallizes all of the manifold complexities of these films as well as “Destroy All Monsters.” Even the scorched earth of its title promises a final reckoning, a collective exorcism of these creatures of the Id.
An extended opening narration places “Destroy All Monsters’” in “1999” (the end of the millennium is a traditional marker for periods of great transition), in which a Japanese-led United Nations has established rocket colonies on the moon and earth. They have solved the kaiju problem by quarantining them to an island dubbed “Monster Land,” segregating them there with gaseous barriers designed (with pheromones?) to keep them, organically, even gently, to their respective bailiwicks. These emblems of postbellum Japanese nationalism—not unlike our roster of superheroes post-9/11—are finally under the control again, if only temporarily, of a unifying collective identity. It feels very much like a metaphor for trauma survivors learning how to compartmentalize their monstrous triggers, thus managing their outsized, aggressive responses.
The peace is short-lived. The monsters break free of their confinement and destroy major cities worldwide. Rodan destroys Moscow, Baragon levels the Arc de Triomphe (and all of Paris), Mothra gets Beijing, Manda lays waste to London, and Godzilla has the pleasure of taking Manhattan. Is “Destroy All Monsters” a story now of the Japanese losing control of their barely-repressed grievances to the dismay of all the world? It turns out it’s a different fantasy of victimization and empowerment. The monsters have been freed and are now under the control of an alien race of silver-jumpsuited Kilaak who have secretly established a base of operations in Tokyo. The unwelcome alien occupiers of the Japanese home island use the kaiju as leverage to keep them in power, turning these manifestations of Japan’s subsumed humiliation against itself. Traitors to the human cause turn out to have been mind-controlled with little silver beads embedded behind their ears—a call-out perhaps to Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951), which, like “Destroy All Monsters” could also be read as a paranoid thriller about the insidious creep of communist “sleeper cells” conspiring to bring down the nations of the world from the inside. It’s up to a small band of Japanese freedom fighters to wrestle back control of Japan’s weapons of mass destruction—its monsters. Their successes lead to a final battle between Earth’s menagerie of champions, the alien’s three-headed King Ghidorah, and a UFO cloaked in pink fire.