Lately my son has been asking me to play a game called “Nutcracker” with him. The rules are simple – be whoever you want and do whatever you want. Sounds good in theory, but since being social requires some element of shaping who you are and what you do to fit with what other people are doing, this game doesn’t seem to involve actually playing together. In fact it doesn’t seem to involve doing much of anything at all. I’m never really sure when it begins or ends, or what it is that he gets out of it, but I find it very interesting that he keeps asking me to play it with him.
One day when we were playing Nutcracker at the park, I said I wanted to be Stitch from Lilo and Stitch and he chose Gorosaurus from the 1960’s Godzilla movies (we’ve been watching a lot of old Toho Studios monster movies recently and he likes Gorosaurus’ drop kick move). After a minute of silence he said it would be difficult for us to play Nutcracker together then because I was so small and he was so big, so I ended up choosing the colossal squid from Octonauts instead. Then he climbed up the slide and slid down it a bunch of times while I stood in the sand and watched him. I still have no idea why it mattered that I was a giant squid rather than a tiny alien monster.
As I watch him I’m thinking, does it really matter who we tell ourselves we are while we’re doing what we’re doing? I can’t decide if I think it’s basically irrelevant because we are who we are and we can’t really control how other people perceive us, or central because what we tell ourselves about ourselves encompasses and defines our experience. He’s there just being Gorosaurus sliding down a slide at the park because he says he is, and I wonder if how I feel standing in the sand playing Nutcracker is a bit like being a guy in a rubber monster suit who’s always aware that he’s a guy in a suit. Then I wonder if that means I’m failing to comprehend the beauty of Nutcracker.
Kids generally seem to be exceptionally good at blurring the lines between representational and real. If you show them a person in a monster suit or a box painted like a rocket ship, they’re able to experience it as the essence of the thing it represents even when it’s drawn in very broad strokes. Watching Godzilla with my son reminds me of how genuinely cool I thought the monsters were when I was a kid. Despite all the fancy CGI that he’s seen, he loves them. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy them too, but going back to them now is a bit like revisiting my elementary school and realizing the scale of my memories is all off. The rooms are all smaller and darker, and the monsters are all clearly people in costumes stumbling around and flailing at things, but at the time it all seemed shiny and oversized.
In a way, I get more out of watching them as an adult, or at least something additional. Now I’m also looking beyond the monsters themselves to what they represent in historical and political context. Part of the value in the original Godzilla movies is in the way the monsters operate as a metaphor for the horror and devastation of nuclear warfare, and part of it is in seeing a bunch of people in rubber suits awkwardly duking it out. Of course, as you get into some of the later and lesser known movies it becomes more transparently about the monsters, and sometimes the monsters defy even a child’s ability to imagine them into scariness or coolness. I’m sure that somewhere there’s a kid who was obsessed with or had nightmares about Ebirah, the giant lobster thing from Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, but his big scene involves standing knee deep in the ocean while he and Godzilla basically play hot potato with a boulder.
For me, most of the appeal in the classic kaiju movies was in identifying with the monsters. Sure, they’re destroying cities and all the humans are terrified, and sure I’m technically a human, but it was the monsters that I had the most empathy for. Maybe it was that they were different and I felt different too. Maybe I felt bad for Godzilla being woken up by people doing terrible, foolish things to the ocean he lived in. Or maybe it really was just that I thought they were cool and playing monsters was a good excuse to tear things apart. I think that sense of identification came from the same place as my excitement when Disney’s Lilo and Stitch was released. I saw Stitch on a poster in a bus shelter and immediately thought, “it’s me!”
Stitch identifies with Godzilla too. When he first arrives at Lilo’s house, he builds a model of San Francisco from her books and toys, uses a hula girl desk lamp to light it like a movie set, and then goes on a kaiju-style rampage, knocking over buildings and gnawing on cars, interspersing monster roars with the terrified screams of imaginary citizens. Stitch is a science experiment from another planet, created with a drive to destroy things and make a mess. In the words of the mad scientist who created him, left to his own devices “he will be irresistibly drawn to large cities, where he will back up sewers, reverse street signs, and steal everyone’s left shoe.” Everyone except Lilo sees him as a monster and expects him to wreck everything, and at first that’s all he wants to do, but he starts to struggle with a desire to belong somewhere and create something good. He wants to believe that he doesn’t have to destroy everything he touches just because that’s what he was created to do.
There’s a complexity over the course of the Godzilla movies too, where sometimes certain monsters are feared as destroyers and sometimes they’re welcomed as champions come to rescue people by fighting off other monsters or aliens. Watching them now, I can’t help wondering who Godzilla thinks he is when he’s destroying Tokyo, or saving it? He clearly comes out of the bay for a reason, so he must have some narrative about who he is and what he’s doing. I suppose it would be some giant mutant lizard narrative though, so perhaps it wouldn’t make any sense to me even if I knew what it was.
My favorite explanation of why I had to be a giant squid rather than Stitch is that at its heart, Nutcracker is a way of letting everyone self-identify and choose how they’re seen, and it’s important that I tell him who I am so he can treat me the way I want to be treated. I think probably everyone from tiny humans to giant lizards wants that.
What do you get if you combine Godzilla action figures, Licorice Allsorts, a basic stop motion animation app, and a desire to amuse small children? Find out in alex MacFadyen’s extremely slapdash short, Feed Godzilla a Sandwich.