What Writers can Learn from Netflix’s Godzilla Trilogy

Godzilla anime trilogy

When you’re a writer, every and any piece of writing can serve as a lesson for how to write (or in this case not write) a story. We often think of books as natural learning tools – after all, a common message for writers is that every writer must do two things: write a lot and read a lot. That said, lessons come from every form of storytelling, including comics and screenplays.

The Godzilla franchise is the longest running major motion picture series in existence. With a current 34 movies released (one more due out in May), Godzilla has firmly resonated with international audiences for decades. That’s a success story that any storyteller should note. Recently, the king of the monsters went animated for the first time in his film history.

The results…pretty mixed. Reviews and fans are divided on what to think of Polygon Pictures’ anime trilogy. It’s widely available on Netflix so if you haven’t seen it, you can give it a watch. I personally can’t  really recommend it for entertainment purposes.

For writing instruction, however, well – this new Godzilla series provides some cautionary tales of what can go wrong during scripting.

The Importance of Building a Protagonist

Every story revolves around some kind of a protagonist. They don’t need to be a hero – they don’t even need to be good – they are simply our point of view character. The entirety of the story is laid out through their perspective (bias). The best protagonists resonate with the audience.

We feel their struggles, experience their doubt, and want them to succeed. Think of Charlie Brown – we want him to do well and be happy, even when we know he won’t. He’s endearing to us as readers.

In the Netflix Godzilla anime trilogy, we get Haruo:

Godzilla Haruo

In case you’re wondering, he’s as charming as his disposition suggests. I put it forth that Haruo is not a strong protagonist. He struggles sure – he is up against Godzilla, one would hope there is a challenge. Haruo, however, is not sympathetic – but I get the impression they want him to be.

Right away, we’re introduced to a young Haruo as he loses his parents to Godzilla. Shortly thereafter, Haruo also loses his grandfather. That’s a lot of loss. No wonder he scowls all the time.

The problem with Haruo, in my opinion, is that he feels artificial. In each film, he can be characterized via one emotion. In the first film, it’s determination. Haruo is driven to kill Godzilla, so much so that we never see him reflect on anything else. Yeah there’s brief flashes to his life before (and we’re told how much Haruo hates living in defeat), but we don’t really see his struggle. This is in part because the whole crew seemingly loves him – everyone supports Haruo, even the people who don’t.

Despite opening the film by being incarcerated, Haruo is always at the center of the action and often in a position of power. Without seeing his struggle – besides cliche “my parents are dead!” moments – Haruo does not seem to have reason for his mad passion.

Let this be a lesson: It is okay to have zealot protagonists, but the danger here is they may be unreliable/unsympathetic and feel one dimensional. To get the audience firmly behind them, we have to see exactly where they came from/what lead them to this path. If we don’t, then they may be better off as a side character.

Ahab is fascinating in Moby Dick, but part of that is because he is seen through Ishmael’s eyes.

Bad Character Writing can be Sexist

I make no assumptions about the writers/directors of these movies. I am not calling them (as people) sexist. Their writing, however…geezy creezy.

Female characters are few and far between in this trilogy. There is an obligatory female soldier, the two Mothra priestesses, and…that’s it. Three movies, three female characters – and two of them are interchangeable twins.

It’s more than this, though, that raises the “sexism” flag. When writing a character, you must always keep in mind agency. What is agency? How the character pushes or changes the plot.

For instance, in the second movie – the female soldier (Yuko), falls into a trap and must be rescued. She has no agency in this scene, merely serving to establish a scenario for Haruo to be the hero. Despite being a trained soldier, she squeals and does very little in the way of self-preservation.

Oh, she is also romantically interested in Haruo…as are the priestesses. Yep, evidently he’s just a lady killer. Must be all that talk about how Godzilla must die – really compelling stuff.

Haruo Yuko Godzilla
There’s a lot of chemistry here. Look at how their scowls match.

To be fair, all the characterization in these films is pretty weak (remember when I said Haruo gets one emotion per movie?) but the danger comes when doing female characters. Sexism is real and has a long sad history and, if you’re not careful as a writer, you can add to it.

I don’t know if the writers of these movies were aware of just how token their female representation was, or just how many stereotypes it played into, but nevertheless – here we are.

How to Manage Audience/Reader Expectations

One of the biggest reasons that many Godzilla fans dislike these anime movies is the lack of, well, Godzilla. The Big G is more of a presence in the films than an actual character. While he has a fair amount of screen time, most of it is spent with him just standing around or walking very slowly.

Since the films take place on a forest-covered future Earth, there’s no real destruction either. It removes the stakes as Godzilla trudges on. Yeah, he’s probably stepping on trees but…who cares?

In addition, Godzilla films are known for their monster fights and the anime film teased all of Godzilla’s biggest rivals (Ghidorah, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla) returning in prominent roles. And Godzilla fights…exactly one of them, if this can be called a fight:

Godzilla Ghidorah Planet Eater
To be clear, an actual video of this footage would not feature much more in the way of movement.

I for one am okay when Godzilla films subvert expectations (there are 34 movies, after all). That said, I understand the audience frustration when – after teasing Mechagodzilla for a film – we only get a generic futuristic battle city that we’re told was once Mechagodzilla (really).

It also reduces the threat of Godzilla to portray him as a colossally slow, rarely active threat. I know he’s giant but the Earth is a big place – couldn’t they just avoid him?

The trilogy was sold as a story about a world ruled by Godzilla, a “planet of monsters.” It felt like a truly barren (read as boring) world.

The Dangers of Exploring High Concepts

So what does the Godzilla trilogy do with its three films since it isn’t developing characters or showcasing monster brawls? IDEAS!

Get ready for three long philosophical outpourings, some of it lecture, some of it debate. And, to be fair, some of it works. I especially enjoyed the climax of the second film, where the question becomes “Is it worth it to give up your humanity to destroy a monster?” The plot implies that, by crossing this line, Haruo will become the very thing he has sworn to destroy. It’s interesting and it feels specific enough in the context to be an intelligent espousal on common Godzilla themes.

Godzilla philosophy anime
One of the alien races decides to turn itself into machines to defeat Godzilla.

However, this film trilogy shoots for the stars more than once, and – more ofen than not – ends up missing entirely. Unfortunately, the biggest disaster comes at the end when the film tries to imply that all forms of human ingenuity and technological curiosity are evil and will only end with the creation of a monster.

Yep – all inventions lead to war. That seems to be the closing lesson. If it sounds like general, broad-based garbage, it is because it is. What’s sad is this lesson has been done in films – and done correctly. The original Planet of the Apes is famous for how well it handles man’s self-made destruction.

The film directly creates ties between nuclear war and the apes ascension. The Godzilla trilogy tries to do this as well, only Godzilla does not appear until well after the first usage of nuclear weapons. He comes in the 21st century for…reasons? It is very unclear and therefore creates a number of causes. Is it war? Climate change? Pollution?

Something awakens Godzilla and the final film tries to tell us it was the atom bomb…but he woke up sixty years too late. Of course, if he had risen directly post WWII, well then they never could have done all the space stuff. I mean they could have but it would all have had to look retro and stylized – you know – visually interesting.

When tackling high thought concepts, everything needs to be air-tight. Get specific, get down into the details. Don’t just have characters talk about war and peace like they want to be Tolstoy.

Overall, the Godzilla anime trilogy on Netflix is an interesting failure. There are some things I enjoy very much but the films trade too much for too little. I personally would have preferred more developed characters and a more living world to all the lecturing and science-babble that takes place in the films. The dueling alien philosophies were interesting but ultimately felt overbearing and plot controlling – mostly because they were the main focus rather than being a charming side addition to world lore.

Of course, the wonderful thing about art is its all subjective! If you don’t agree with me, that’s cool. I just hope you take the lessons I suggested with you on your writing – they will most definitely help.

 

Why Theme Matters in Writing

This past summer, I went to the movie theater and watched Ant-Man and the Wasp. I remember thinking that it was a fun way to pass two hours. It came out in July – only three months ago – yet ask me to remember anything else about it and I’d have to think for a minute. I know there was action and cool scenes of things changing sizes…but as to what actually happened – it’s a bit of a blank. Again, it’s only been three months. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a terrific example of what happens when stories lacking theme, or execute that theme in a really superficial way.

Continue reading Why Theme Matters in Writing

Prejudice in Fantasy

Let me say a few quick things before we dive in. This article is not intended to be your last stop on this topic, but your first. This topic is worth researching as it reflects a shift away from Tolkien’s more simplistic fantasy archetype, as well as an important examination into issues that we as a society still struggle discussing. I’m also (with a couple exceptions) going to focus on prejudice portrayed in writing – not in the author. All righty, here we go.

Racism, prejudice, bigotry – whatever you wish to call it – has been reflected in the fantasy fiction genre for many years. Part of this comes from the simplistic nature established by the Tolkien archetype. Orcs are evil because… well, they just are. Their whole race was made from black magic with ill intent. You can read every extensive page of Tolkien lore and never find a good orc, Tolkien never envisioned one.

Tolkien orc prejudice Warcraft
When Blizzard first created Warcraft, its orcs were also stereotypically evil. As the series evolved, this shifted to favor actual characterization and a break from the Tolkien model.

And that’s fine. Middle Earth is not ever intended to be a one-to-one comparison with our actual Earth. Its larger-than-life heroes without flaw are proof of that. The Lord of the Rings has much more in common with Greek mythology than modern day fantasy. After Tolkien, however, the problems really started. Writers, influenced by the grand epic nature of Tolkien’s world, sought to flesh out and humanize their characters… while still maintaining Tolkien’s simplistic world view.

The Unknown Prejudice of Brian Jacques

I grew up reading Brian Jacques‘ Redwall series. Books like Mossflower, Mattimeo, Mariel of Redwall – I loved them all. I was a big fan of mixing epic fantasy with local woodland creatures, somehow it helped make it more believable for me (I say this as someone raised surrounded by woods). As I grew older and the series continued, however, I began to notice things.

Marlfox was the novel where I first really noticed it. It seemed like certain races – rats, foxes, cats – were just destined to be evil. Wickedness appeared hardwired into their lineage. Born a fox – well too bad, you’re a monster! Every good character in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series was relatable. The mythological, Arthurian nature that was present in Lord of the Rings was nowhere here.

The problem manifested again and again with every new book – and perhaps this was the root of it. Jacques likely had never envisioned Redwall as a long-running series (22 main books when all was said and done). It is fine to have a group of murderous rats once or a thieving fox once – but as these character recur endlessly without contradiction, then an ugly commentary on racism becomes apparent.

Prejudice in Redwall
One bad rat is not a problem. A race of bad rats without a single good rat is.

I will not assume motive but the taint on the series is sadly undeniable. Whether intentional or not, Jacques has damaged the enduring charm of Redwall with, at best lazy and at worst racist, villains.

A Better Portrayal of Prejudice

There are many Brian Jacques (and unfortunately some H.P. Lovecrafts) in the fantasy genre. The inherent problem stems from a domination of white voices at the expense of minority ones. This is an issue that troubles multiple genres. A recent (2015) study found that less than 2% of science fiction stories published that year were by black authors. The odds of that happening by chance are practically non-existent.

We need to do better. If literature is as mind-opening as we claim than we have to make sure it is a medium owned by everyone. I say we because last year I attended a writers of color event and discovered – with incredible dismay – that I really had never read books that weren’t from a white author.

While there is nothing wrong with reading white authors, it is innately limiting. That meant that there was a whole perspective, whole dimensions of understanding that I was missing. It was unacceptable to me so I resolved to change it.

The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin is a marked improvement in the examination of prejudice in fantasy literature. Jemisin presents a world where those gifted with earth-related magic (here called orogeny) are treated with distrust, abuse, and torment. Stripped of their humanity, they are seen as less than people and too dangerous/stupid to be left on their own. They must be shackled for the good of all humanity.

Of course, The Broken Earth is told from the perspective of one of these “less-than-human creatures” and the reader can learn firsthand how nightmarish the whole system is. The lazy black-and-white nature that writers like Jacques relied on is gone. The Broken Earth Trilogy sparks thought without hitting very real issues expressly on the nose.

Dragon Age Mage Prejudice
Dragon Age was a fantasy video game series with writing that was initially similar to N.K. Jemisin’s work. Its portrayal of prejudice against mages was thought-provoking and compelling… until it was dropped for the most boring black-and-white conflict that Bioware could imagine.

I believe it is incredibly important to discuss issues like racism and slavery outside of the real world. Trapping them in history confines the reality of what happened and is still happening in the world. While books like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing may be fantastic – and it is fantastic – they can be too easily ignored. Sometimes the best way to talk to people on tough subjects is to do so indirectly. It, at the very least, is likely to expand the audience.

I am optimistic that more new voices will enter the literary space and that genres like fantasy will deepen and improve. The presence of writers of color can only strengthen us. They will bring to light issues and ideas that we may have not thought of before and we will strengthen each other by having, for the first time, truly open exchange. Prejudice is a literary topic begging for new and better voices that offer real examination and do not simply attempt to emulate what has come before.