Why the Human Characters Matter in Godzilla Movies

A troubling talking point has become commonplace in the past decade, coinciding with the release [...]

A troubling talking point has become commonplace in the past decade, coinciding with the release of movies like Pacific Rim, Rampage, and Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse franchise. I refer of course to the popular turn of phrase, "No one cares about the humans in these movies." This specific rebuttal is bandied about recklessly and thrown at most criticisms of the latest crop of kaiju features when reviews and critics make a note that the elements of these movies focusing on the actual people in the narrative are lacking. It's a defensive response from the fan's perspective, and it's understandable. "Why would that affect how I feel about the movie when what I am interested in is seeing the monsters beat each other up?" The answer is clear, though. Despite an inclination for the city destroying mayhem of these franchises, the human element of these stories is often the most important part, and takes up the most room.

Let's look at the original movie in the Godzilla franchise, 1954's Gojira. The film remains one of the few standouts in the larger franchise due to actually being about something; it's a deeply personal response to life after the atomic bombs fell. The cornerstone of the film isn't just the effects work that bring the titular creature to life, but the dramatic tension surrounding his appearances and how the people of the story react to his presence. Take for example Takashi Shimura, who plays the elder Dr. Kyohei Yamane in the film; the pain, tragedy, and sorrow felt in his presence throughout the movie is rooted in how all of the other people in the narrative react to Godzilla.

Yamane is eager to study Godzilla, hoping to find the key to its resistance to radiation as a means of helping his fellow man while others simply want to destroy him to prevent further damage. This is what makes the death of Dr. Serizawa even more heartbreaking for him and the audience, as Dr. Yamane not only loses out on a "son" figure that he admired but also any chance of studying the thing he believed could help, and it's all present in his performance on screen. Even looking at Gojira in the broad sense, the entire "Prayer for Peace" sequence is a harrowing portrayal of a populace beaten down by war. It's the human element of the story writ large and just as important as any of the destruction sequences, if not moreso.

That's not to say that you'll find these examples of a critical human storyline in Godzilla movies just at the beginning of the franchise. You don't even have to go back to that far to find a Godzilla movie that clearly establishes that the human side of its story is important, since 2016's highly lauded Shin Godzilla makes it crystal clear. The film has not only been praised for bringing the narrative from the original movie into a modern context, like turning the kaiju into a force of nature once again, but also by using the set-up and tropes of the narrative to create a farcical satire of government bureaucracy and oversight.

Central to the 2016 film's story is Hiroki Hasegawa as Rando Yaguchi, one of the few people that recognizes early on that there is a disaster in the making when it comes to this mysterious creature. Shin Godzilla is largely an ensemble piece, with some characters only appearing briefly, but Yaguchi remains our viewpoint into all of the madness and the story is stronger for that, especially since human ingenuity is what defeats Godzilla in the end. It makes for a very satisfying conclusion that doesn't depend on the deus ex machina of another monster arriving with a haymaker.

Despite largely focusing on the human response to Godzilla, Shin Godzilla pulls off having a huge cast and less screen time individually for most of the human characters by having them fit into the larger satirical tone intended by the filmmakers. Unfortunately, some viewers dismiss all this because of a lack of punching. This could perhaps also be tied into the film's use of Godzilla's destructive nature being shown explicitly for what it is and not with the entertaining glee of forced perspective miniature smashing. On the whole, the movie is narratively satisfying from beginning to end, human and Godzilla scenes alike, which cannot be said for many of the other movies in the series.

Godzilla began as a metaphor, and the films featuring him are often at their best when they deliberately make use of his status as a stand-in for a larger worldly problem rather than a proxy for wanton destruction. Obviously finding enjoyment in the monster smashing of the films isn't a taboo, especially since it's typically the selling point of the movies in the marketing. There's also the point to be made that, to an extent, Toho and the various other studios go out of their way to make the kaiju sympathetic and interesting as non-verbal entities, but in the end the majority of the dramatic weight of most of the film's narratives are not carried on their shoulders. Where the trouble lies is in movies like 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, where there are so many human characters spread throughout that they all start to suffer. Some of them frankly only exist to deliver dialogue that would be given to a tank or a fighter jet if they could speak.

Perhaps the influx of Godzilla video games, where the fighting and destruction takes center stage, is where this notion of the monster set pieces mattering more than human characters takes its root. Maybe it also comes from nostalgic memories of watching the Toho features while hopped up on breakfast cereal. I have those myself, but what's clear is that criticisms of this specific element of many of the movies have merit, particularly in the modern pantheon.

Even as the action beats become more and more visually appealing in monster movies due to enhancements in effects, they're worthless without a throughline in the story that can make us care. Underdeveloped characters in a monster movie that features outstanding kaiju action can seem like a worthy exchange, but more city-leveling action does not always come at the expense of the scenes with people. In the end, this trade-off doesn't actually exist in practice, and if it did it would sacrifice the required storytelling care that makes monster movies complete, fulfilling, and memorable.

Godzilla vs. Kong, and all of its human characters, will debut in theaters and on HBO Max on Wednesday, March 31.