ORIGINS OF GODZILLA, Part One: Is Godzilla a Dragon? - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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ORIGINS OF GODZILLA, Part One: Is Godzilla a Dragon?

Up from the depths, Gordon Hopkins explores the origins of Godzilla.
“A story never comes from one single place. There are a lot of inputs that form it.”
Harlan Ellison

Godzilla, or Gojira, as the film was originally titled in Japan, has over the decades been transmogrified from a silly monster movie to an important cultural icon and finally accepted as a true artistic achievement. The film and its successors have come under increased scrutiny by scholars and critics and historians. Surprisingly, as the film becomes more mainstream and more broadly examined, its imagined significance becomes strangely narrow. It is a reaction to and statement about the nuclear ambitions of the United States, Japan's onetime enemy turned cultural and economic partner.

It is almost as if the more academics come to accept the importance of Godzilla, the more imagination is sapped from it's monstrous aura.

Well, I am neither a scholar nor a historian. I am a critic, but that's only because everyone's a critic. Godzilla is not simply a dumb monster movie. Neither is it simply political propaganda. The inspirations for Godzilla are broad and disparate. (not unlike this introduction, which is almost over, I promise.) I intend to examine just a few of those inspirations below.
In my career as a journalist, I have been forced to confront some difficult questions. Not necessarily difficult to answer, though most are. I mean difficult as in the very asking of the question can engender angry, fury, outrage, even violence. Humans must grapple with the hard questions every day. Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? Are we alone in the universe? What is the best way to govern populations? Can we live with security without sacrificing freedom. What is freedom? Do we have free will?

As a reporter, it is my job not to answer hard questions but merely to ask them. Now, despite my deep reservations, I must ask that one question that enrages and infuriates like no other.

Is Godzilla a dragon?
Boy, do folks get hostile when you trot that one out. Especially those who refuse to accept that a giant,(atomic) fire-breathing reptile is a dragon. They usually respond, with a straight face and without a hint of irony, “Of course Godzilla isn't a dragon. Dragons aren't real.”

You will find quite impassioned (if not always rational) opinions on forums that specialize in impassioned (but not always rational) opinions, like Reddit and Quora. (Apropos of nothing, in Quora, under related questions, not kidding about this, are such posers as, Does Godzilla eat people, How would Godzilla react seeing a blue whale, and Is Godzilla gay?)

If the debate of Godzilla's species is akin to the debate between faith and evidence, then it is clear which side is represented by the Nays. broached the subject a couple of years ago. It should be noted that Tor's commenters tend to be better behaved than those on a lot of other websites. Nevertheless, passions were inflamed. Commenters on the Yes side presented long, well thought out arguments with references to history, mythology and science. Whereas commenters on the No side tended to be more concise, “Godzilla is NOT a dragon. Ugh.”

Perhaps we should first ask, what is a dragon?
Myths of dragons date back centuries and can be found pretty much all over the world, though these myths are far from consistent. Some are snake-like. Others are more like big lizards. Some have faces more like dogs. Some are winged and fly. Only some breathe fire. In some legends, they instead spit acid. This may be the source of the myth that Komodo Dragons spit acid. They don't, but their saliva contains venom, so you probably don't want to get any one you.

While we in the West tend to know dragons mostly as fire-breathing monsters that need slaying by valiant knights dressed in iron britches, some cultures viewed dragons as protectors. This waffling of dragons between protectors and destroyers mirrors the evolution of Godzilla, himself. The point is, we've all seen those ancient, dun-colored maps, where uncharted seas are labeled with the warning, “Here There Be Dragons.” Good guy or bad guy, the dragon clearly needs to be respected.

In the West, the image of the dragon tends to be a mishmosh of different varieties of dragons, most from Eastern mythologies. Dragons have existed in one form or another throughout Asia. Buddhist and Hindu mythologies include dragons. In the case of Japan, birthplace of Godzilla, their dragons came directly from China. When Buddhist monks brought their faith to Japan, they brought their image of the dragon as well.

Of course, the history of dragon mythology is so complex and expansive, I couldn't cover it in a book, let alone a little online essay. I will note this: a question asked even more often that, “Is Godzilla a dragon?” might be, “Is Godzilla a dinosaur?
Of course, no human being has ever seen a living dinosaur (unless your name is Fred Flintstone), since they went extinct 65 million years ago, quite a while before the first human ever walked the Earth. There is a (likely unprovable) theory that that the myth of the dragon come directly from the discovery by ancient peoples of the fossilized remains of dinosaurs. I am not a paleontologist, anthropologist or historian, but this seems quite likely to me. The resemblance between dragons and dinosaurs is pretty strong.

At least, some dragons. Again, it needs to be pointed out that, in spite of the accepted modern image of dragons, their physiognomy varies greatly from country to country, culture to culture. Another theory as to the evolution of dragons doesn't involve dinosaurs at all but suggests dragons are simply amalgams of other animals; lizards, snakes, birds, etc. The gryphon, part lion and part eagle, comes to mind as another example of such a mythical creature.

Remember, the term “dragon” is accepted nomenclature now, but many years ago, in different languages and cultures, each “dragon” had it's own name. So who decided that a flying, feathered serpent and a giant, four-legged lizard that breathes fire should both be called dragons?

However, if we accept as a given that dragons were indeed inspired by dinosaurs, then we are saying, in effect, that dragons are dinosaurs. So to answer the question, “Is Godzilla a dragon?,” all we have to do is answer the question, “Is Godzilla a dinosaur?”

Easier said than done.

Theoretically, all we should have to do is look at the cannon. Certainly, Godzilla resembles a dinosaur, though no dinosaur like him as ever been discovered in fossil records. Like the other mythical beasts mention here, he seems to be made up parts of different critters. He has the basic shape of a theropod, like a Tyrannosaurus, but with considerably bulkier arms. (I guess the big guy's been hitting the gym.) He has those armored plates on his back, like a stegosaurus.

The earnest scientist in Godzilla movies generally accept the big guy is a dino, albeit one that has been altered by nuclear radiation. In the American version of King Kong versus Godzilla, a scientist even references a children's book about dinosaurs. So it seems Godzilla really is a dinosaur.

Well, technically speaking, Godzilla is a mutation, and a mutation is something that becomes different than whatever it was to begin with. Does that make sense? Probably not. So lets compare with another species with a strain of mutants. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of books (certainly comic books) examining the question, “Is a mutant human still a human?” If the X-Men franchise is to be believed, the answer yet. So Godzilla may be a mutant dinosaur, but he is still a dinosaur.

And, by the long, tortured logic I have already explained, Godzilla is, therefore, a dragon.


Well, there is the whole fire-breathing thing. Dragons breath fire and dinosaurs don't.


First of all, not all dragons breath fire. Second, how do we know no dinosaurs could breath fire?

Okay, I can already hear the veins throbbing in the foreheads of Godzilla fans all over the world.
First of all, don't shout at me. Take a deep breath. When you've calmed down a little, I'll explain.

See, here's the deal. Dragons were around long before the whole concept of atomic energy and radiation and all that mishegoss. So if someone from, say, 10th Century Japan, saw Godzilla stomping around, spitting glowing atomic rays that set entire continents on fire, that poor guy probably thought he saw a dragon and an explanation into the nature of nuclear fission probably ain't gonna change his mind.

If that doesn't satisfy you, let's look at it another way. Godzilla is a dinosaur, but one that has been mutated by atomic radiation. Therefore, that “stuff” that he spits out has also been altered by radiation.

So that brings us back to our original question: is Godzilla a dragon. The answer is a resoundingly unsatisfactory, “Kinda.” Perhaps it would be best to say Godzilla isn't a dragon, but he's definitely got some dragon blood in his DNA.

Up next, the unluckiest dragon of all...

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

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