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Godzilla vs. Kong and the "Forgotten" Memory of Japanese Imperialism

Godzilla vs. Kong—and the further dilution of Godzilla from its origins—is the result of decades of collaboration between the US and Japan following WWII. The memory of Japanese imperialism is a burden that lies solely with survivors and descendants. 

CW: discussion of r*pe, massacres, and genocide

By Rui Hua

Godzilla vs. Kong is an epic, monster battle-fight that isn’t meant to be sophisticated, and it’s enjoyed as such. I can’t deny that something about big monsters fighting is alluring. But under the surface, there are overlapping histories of imperialism, militarism, and genocide, specifically between the United States and Japan.

The original Gojira (1954) is a scathing critique of US nuclearism in Japan. From the monster—who would later come to be called Godzilla following its introduction to western audiences—being awoken by hydrogen bomb tests to leaving footprints that cause radiation poisoning in the people, the original film reflects the struggles of Japan against US military aggression. It specifically responds to the inhumane dropping of nuclear bombs on civilians in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which would affect the people for years after. In this way, Japan positions itself as a victim of the Second World War. In conjunction with the incarceration of Japanese diaspora in the US, Canada, and other parts of the world, the narrative of western orientalism is the predominant narrative of Japan and its people.

The history of western violence against Japanese people coincides with the history of Japan’s imperialism—of comfort women, young girls kidnapped from their homes and repeatedly raped by Japanese military personnel, of massacres across the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, of cultural genocides, of ongoing intergenerational trauma. Western violence against Japan runs alongside the reinforcement of racial hierarchies that place the Japanese above other East Asians, above Southeast Asians, above Pacific Islanders. The current Japanese government never truly apologized for its war crimes during WWII under the Rising Sun flag, and the racial hierarchies that it reinforced are very much still alive. Most western diaspora “Asian Pacific” circles are actually only East Asian, at worst exclusionary to Black and brown Asians and Pacific Islanders and at best tokenizing. 

Historically, US nuclearism affects the Pacific, such as the Bikini Atoll and the Northern Mariana Islands, so centering US nuclearism in Japan in the original Gojira shows the short-sightedness of solely analyzing Japanese media from the angle of western antagonism. This perspective flattens the reality of US and Japanese imperialisms as intersecting oppressions and hierarchies.

Under capitalism, the media is a mouthpiece for various forms of propaganda. When it comes to the US, one is hard-pressed to find mainstream media that does not display the police and military as necessary parts of society. Even in Godzilla vs. Kong, the police and military exist as unquestionable givens.

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On the other hand, Japan uses cutesy, kawaii aesthetics that work to normalize the Rising Sun. The Rising Sun flag was erected upon occupied lands after the people were massacred, forcibly removed, or had no choice but to surrender. By interlaying Rising Sun propaganda on kawaii aesthetics, the horror of Japanese occupation is rendered harmless. Japanese media is just as racist, sexist, ableist, and fatphobic as US media. As a descendent of Japanese imperialism, I never consume Japanese media around my given family, especially not my grandparents, for whom Japanese planes dropping bombs and soldiers forcibly occupying their homes in Shanghai and the surrounding villages is integral to their childhood trauma. Consuming anime is something to do in private, or with friends, while nursing quiet guilt. So much trauma still goes unacknowledged whenever Rising Sun propaganda inevitably appears. 

Japanese imperialism did not end after WWII. Like other oppressive forces, it transformed, becoming enmeshed with the US war machine to continue enacting mass abuse in the pursuit of profit. Interpersonally, I have ended relationships with Japanese people who deny Japan’s war crimes. With respect to the media, it means I get to pick my poison; I can choose which colonizer, the US or Japan, to look to for entertainment. It is ultimately an empty choice, and it strips much joy from the content.

Godzilla vs. Kong tells the story of a fight between 400 ft. tall monsters, but the film’s very making is the result of decades of collaboration between the US and Japan following the Second World War. During WWII, the US and Japan were competitors. The US, as they still often do, used vague, hypocritical touting of human rights as a pretext to go to and profit from war. The Japanese bombing of US-occupied Pu‘uloa (so-called “Pearl Harbor”) was an excuse for the US to act on their desire to seize Japanese colonies and expand their empire. As the war ended and the US gained military control of lands previously occupied by Japan through orchestrating coups and collaborating with the neo-colonial United Nations, the relationship between the two nations became one of Japanese subservience to US power, just how the US likes it. In the end, former Japanese colonies only switched hands to the US and other western powers. While the Japanese government likes to play victim in this area, they still benefit from the wealth of their pillaging during their occupation era and from their current relationship to western powers. Today, former Japanese colonies in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and East Asia are still occupied, still not sovereign to the Indigenous peoples. 

Capitalism taints everything, even entertainment. While finding joy and respite is essential, it is important to be critical of the media we consume, or else we are doomed to continue colonial cycles of violence. Godzilla vs. Kong signals Japanese acquiescence to the US. It shows that Japan, as a country, is willing to forgo the meaning of the original Gojira, looking past US military violence in Japan, so they can turn a profit alongside Hollywood. The inhumanity of colonial memory dictates that the trauma of survivors and descendants is continually erased and repeated. As it is currently, the memory of Japanese imperialism in the west is a burden that lies solely with survivors and descendants, continually erased by western hegemony, and this is not acceptable. The cycle of violence churns with the failure of true remembrance. In order to break this cycle, the enmeshment of US and Japanese empires must be interrogated on a mass scale.

Rui Hua (they/them/theirs) is a writer interested in the politics of western and Japanese imperialism, Chinese nationalism, and East Asian diaspora. 

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