Godzilla, great grey-green monster, rises up out of the ocean, makes his way toward Tokyo. Is always making his way toward Tokyo. Perpetually swimming in cold waters, bubble trail on the surface, until he nears land and comes screaming to the surface and all the people cover their faces with their hands and one guy points and says “Godzilla” with his eyes wide and his heart full of fear.

Godzilla, sleeping peacefully at the bottom of the ocean, dreaming whatever monsters dream, of ravaging and pillaging and plundering, perhaps, asleep with his breath curled about him, Godzilla breathing and the earth tremoring around him, Godzilla forgotten lo these thousand years, a creature from prehistory, asleep in the cold depths of the ocean, until the first nuclear bombs rattle the earth’s crust and Nagasaki and Hiroshima are wiped out in one brief flash of fire. Godzilla awakes, angry, comes storming out of the ocean, roaring his terrible roar and gnashing his terrible teeth, his breath like fire and lightning and thunder and smoke all in one, fanning the still smoldering flames of Japanese cities, stomping on trains and pulverizing buildings and lighting up the sky as the tiny people at his feet cover their mouths in horror at what has come crawling out of the ocean.


Godzilla first formed from unknown forces. Stones and dragon’s teeth, bones salted on unhallowed ground. Somewhere in the earth’s core, perhaps, where flames boil like the roiling ocean, sulfur vents and acid pulling skin and scales tight over stone bones. Claws and teeth stretched like stalactites, the eyes like opals, clear gems that somehow see. And when he is born in the primordial stretches of time a roar rips out of the earth as Godzilla rises.

But in the millions of years before the dawn of man, Godzilla slept. In the depth of the ocean, ancient dinosaur hibernating while the world changed around him. Meteors hurling from the sky. The earth growing cold, then warm again as man is born, walks upright, learns to build weapons. And when the atomic bomb wakes him, Godzilla changes as well. Mutates and grows and rises, is rising, as alien a presence as anything man could create. Built on no known paradigm. Part lizard, part alligator, part dragon. Scales and armor plating, teeth-like rows down his back. Eyes the color and texture of nuclear winter. The only recognizable thing about Godzilla his dragon breath, which is not dragon breath at all, but nuclear radiation.

The name evokes the old gods. Giant lizards. Something exaggerated beyond all common knowledge or sense. His name in the Japanese is Gojira, a combination of gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale). A gorilla-whale. Or an alligator in the guise of a god.

He is a manifestation of fears, meant to evoke terror. After all, what does one do to stop an elder god or an ancient dinosaur reawoken? How does one stop an alligator-lizard with atomic breath and scales hardened by waves of radiation? How does one stop a gorilla-whale?

Godzilla impervious to all conventional weapons, his armor too strong for slings and arrows or outrageous fortune, bullets and bombs, missiles and whatever magic our puny sorcerers can hurl at him. Little toy tanks line up and fire, their toy turrets rotating, spitting smoke. Planes scream downward, rattling off rounds from belt-fed machine guns and missiles streak skyward and arc spinning back to the earth where Godzilla stands, shrugging off all fire. Then opens his mouth and the airplanes go hurtling downward to land in a blast of fire from Godzilla’s wicked atomic breath, his scales glowing as he roars triumphant, victorious, unscathed, his roar laughter at the puny insects attacking.

His roar is missiles and thunder, lightning and fire. It comes from some primordial distance, part frenzy and fury, part ancient depths of time. His roar shakes buildings, causes lesser creatures to cower. It is like a tornado in the night, a tsunami surging along the ocean floor, fierce wind howling through burning cities. It is designed to invoke fear. Here is a creature who crawled from the ocean, was woken by what forces we conjured in our thirst for destruction. And it is angry, it’s roar says. It is very, very angry.

Godzilla drawn to fire the way other beasts are drawn to fire. Drawn to heat and light as if reminded of his awakening. Godzilla is not fazed by the cold ocean waters. His inner workings full of atomic energy, warmed by fission or fusion, something that splits or comes together with such force as to rip worlds apart.


In the original movie, Godzilla was defeated by the Oxygen Destroyer, which removed all the oxygen from the ocean and suffocated him. For most of the movie, the inventor, Daisuke Serizawa, would not allow the weapon to be used. Like the use of atomic energy, it was, to him, an ethical decision, weighing cost versus reward. Only after witnessing the destruction of Tokyo and hearing the choirs of children sing of death did he relent and allow his fearsome weapon to be used. Then he burned his notes and drowned himself in the ocean so his knowledge could never be used again.

But always, Godzilla returns. In the depths of the ocean, Godzilla regenerates to raid again. After being avalanched into ice in the second movie, an errant ship strikes frozen Godzilla. Always, some blunder of man brings him back to stomp and roar.

After Godzilla came Rodan and Mothra and Anguirus and a dozen or a hundred others. A testament to our love of monsters. Godzilla swimming like a submarine, a torpedo,  a missile that works even underwater. Rodan dive-bombing like a kamikaze, hovering like a helicopter, sending out sonic booms, sound transformed into a weapon. Anguirus built like a tank or a battering ram, his body all spikes and armor plating. Mothra poisons the air with chemicals, all our favorite monsters demonstrating abilities we created, then swore to abhor.


Enter Monster Island, i.e. island full of monsters. Rodan, Godzilla, Mothra, Anguirus, et al, sequestered and studied, all of them stomping and thumping and screaming around, eyeing each other on a secluded island. An attempt at controlling forces beyond our ability to control, and all of us thinking: “What if they ever find a way off?” Here we have contained them, all our fears corralled on this tiny stamp of land in the middle of the ocean, but what if they somehow get free? Make their way toward Tokyo and stomp through the streets kicking over buildings and derailing trains? What forces will then crawl out of the ocean to save us?

Ghid-3But, in Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla, along with Rodan and Mothra, defends the earth against the alien Ghidorah. Godzilla becomes a sort of anti-hero, proving that even monsters can rally together against a common enemy, one from outer space that reminds us what forces can be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

Then there was Mechagodzilla. A metal Godzilla made to look like Godzilla. Complete with weapons of war: plasma ray, missile claws, electric beam and lightning wrist blade. It could fly. Could shoot missiles from its shoulders, hips, and fingers, and electricity from its mouth and ray beams from its eyes. It could create an energy field around its body, could spin its head 360 degrees and could absorb Godzilla’s atomic breath to power its own weapons. It was taller and stronger and faster than Godzilla and though it came closer than any other monster to killing him, it ultimately failed when Godzilla pulled its head off, showing us that even technology can never defeat the atomic forces that we have created.

The first Mechagodzilla was built by aliens. The second was built by man. The first built to look like Godzilla. The second built to destroy him. What we create somehow less scary than what we created.    

Godzilla then both destroyer and savior. Ancient creature changed by modern technology. Blasts of radiation raise him from the ocean, and Godzilla destroys. But at some point he becomes protector against powers that come from beyond our Earth. A paradox, dilemma. A weapon used for protection. As all weapons once were. But a dangerous one, that might turn at any time on its wielders. As all weapons are.

Out of his mouth go burning lights; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke goes out of his nostrils, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes out of his mouth. . .His row of scales are his pride. . .[they] are joined together; they are firm on him and cannot be moved. . .When he raises himself up, the mighty are afraid. . .Though the sword reaches him, it cannot avail; nor does spear, dart or javelin. . .He makes the sea boil like a pot. . .He leaves a shining wake behind him. . .

—Description of Leviathan in Job, Chapter 41, KJV.


Like the dragon in Revelations who was bound, Godzilla had lain dormant for thousands of years before the atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It must have been terrifying to have seen monsters that could destroy entire cities in a matter of seconds.

Of course, Tokyo is only a toy city. Only toy buildings, toy trains. Toy tanks fire at Godzilla, toy airplanes on obvious wires streak toward him. Godzilla is just a man in a grey suit, the kind you might see at any time of day walking into any building in the world carrying a briefcase, readying to make decisions.

“These monsters are as stupid as human beings[1].”

I keep using the participle because Godzilla always is. He is breathing wicked breath, rising, stomping, roaring, destroying. Even when he is somehow defeated, he rises again. Is always rising. I could use the present to say Godzilla returns. Or the future to say he will rise. Or the past to state that he was not dead. Because there’s always the feeling that Godzilla is circling somewhere. Or lying in wait beneath the dark waters. As if, once this force was unleashed upon the world, it is something we forever are dealing with, forcing ourselves to understand what we have unleashed, are unleashing.


All last night I dreamed of Godzilla. In the thunder shaking the sky and fire flashing in intermittent warnings like danger signals from the heavens, Godzilla roared outside my window, destroying what I hold dear. Godzilla in my dreams devastating armies. Godzilla in my dreams changing geography, vaporizing oceans and leveling mountains and toppling buildings. Godzilla destroying vast swatches of land, like tornados in Western Arkansas where I once lived, or the cataclysms crawling from the earth in the Book of Revelations. Godzilla decimating barren hamlets in the mountains, and war-torn cities in the deserts. Godzilla some unstoppable machine full of atomic energy and blasts of fire, either descended from on high or else risen from the ocean, deus ex machina, god in a machine, as if the world were a great tragedy. Godzilla in my dream not Godzilla at all but a metaphor, something the audience understands only as a vague warning.

[1] Quote from the movie Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster.

Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Review and Brevity, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University. More from this author →