Rudyard Kipling: a kaiju interpretation

I recently went on a writing retreat and made some amazing new friends. Since we spent all week being good and working so hard on our projects, we decided a reward was in order.  The reward was to head into town on our last day and see the premiere of Godzilla.

I loved Godzilla. I loved it exactly for what it was, in all its cheesy glory.  I’m pretty certain the entire movie was designed around the delayed Godzilla reveal, pregnant with self-congratulated awesomeness.  I did an actual double-fistpump in my seat at the atomic breath reveal (I am an adult, I promise). After, I got an influx of texts over the weekend from friends who’d seen it and wanted me to know they didn’t like it.  Knowing how pumped I was, and knowing I was at a writing retreat and perhaps thinking I had not yet seen it, I guess they wanted to hedge my expectations.

Put aside for the moment that I’m a kaiju groupie. How can you not find joy in this movie?  How can you not love a scene where the guy who’s Geiger Counter reads zero in a deadly nuclear quarantine zone decides that’s proof enough to take off his protective gear?  (Surely he replaced the batteries beforehand.)  How can you not chuckle at the multitude of times that children (and one dog) were used as heralds of danger for sheer ham-fisted emotional manipulation?  (PS They’re all fine.) How can you not turn off common sense while an Explosive Ordnance Disposal lieutenant hopscotches onto every single other military operation whether he is qualified or not (restricted Navy transport; jury-rigging a nuclear warhead on a moving train; the oft advertised HALO jump) hitchhiking through the plot to reach his goal?  How can you not dream of a primordial time when the world was “more nuclear” and all these shitkicker kaiju existed en masse?

Yes, it has definite cheese appeal. Yes, it has flaws. But Godzilla is an awesome movie, a classic tale, and at the brewpub afterwards I finally recognized why I loved it so so much:

Godzilla is a shot-for-shot remake of the Rudyard Kipling classic “Rikki-Tikki Tavi.”


Let’s compare.

Rikki-Tikki Tavi is the story of a little mongoose who finds his way into the house of an English family living in India.  It’s a tale of incidental heroism by virtue of one acting quite unassumingly on one’s nature.  Rikki’s main antagonists are Nag and Nagaina, cobras who have terrorized the other animals of the garden and are threatening to hatch even more cobras.  Everyone is afraid of them.

Even Rikki, at first.  When he is introduced to the male cobra, Nag tries intimidating him as he does the other animals, telling Rikki to “look [upon him], and be afraid.”

Until Kipling drops this badass bomb on us: “[Rikki-Tikki] was afraid for the minute; but it is impossible for a mongoose to stay frightened for any length of time … and he knew that all a grown mongoose’s business in life was to fight and eat snakes.”

Let’s take a minute to consider the mongoose.  A mongoose is an underwhelming weird little ferret-looking thing.  And yet its sole purpose on this earth is to hunt one of the most awesomely terrifying and mesmerizing animals known to us: snakes.  Snakes can be big, are quite fast, and sometimes poisonous.  If you were faced with a snake twice your size that could loom up to thrice your height and bite you with a venom-laced mouth at the speed of a whipcrack, what would you do?  Run? Cry? (I’d cry.) The mongoose would see it as lunch.  The mongoose has no fear of it.  The mongoose simply knows that’s its job.

The snake, quite unfairly, has been a representation of evil throughout literature.  Though not as prevalent, one could assume the mongoose, subtextually, represents the benevolent side of nature by virtue of being a snake’s mortal enemy, though without any inherent benevolence of his own.

Sidebar: In the show Hannibal, protagonist Will Graham is a special-utilized crime scene investigator. Preoccupied with the notion that people are manipulating him, he is at times described as “a broken pony” and “a fragile teacup”… but when he asks new acquaintance Hannibal Lecter–who is himself preoccupied with Will Graham’s internal makeup–“how do you see me?” Hannibal demonstrates his faith in Will’s ability by replying: “the mongoose I want under the house when the snakes slither by.”

There is something about a mongoose that represents safety.  Not in the sense of any moral framework, but by the very nature of a mongoose being a mongoose.  He doesn’t wish us harm, but he also doesn’t care about us.  He does his own thing, and in doing so, we reap collateral rewards.

800px-Dwarf_mongoose_Korkeasaari_zoo“A god, for all intents and purposes.” –Godzilla (2014)

Back to Rikki’s tale: now, it isn’t just Nag that Rikki has to contend with.  There is also Nagaina, the female, “Nag’s wicked wife.”  Nagaina is the more deadly of the cobras.  She is the dominant one, and utterly without scruples.  She sends her husband Nag to kill the Englishman, and when that fails, she makes to kill the small child Teddy herself in front of his parents.

But here’s the thing about Nag and Nagaina: they are actually sympathetic villains.  Their one driving desire is to make a home for their unhatched eggs.  Their goal is to have a family together.  Since they are cobras, they rightfully know that the humans are a threat to their babies, and Rikki-Tikki is an even greater threat.  Their plan to kill the humans is a means to give Rikki no further reason to stay, in hopes that the garden will be left to them in peace.

There are two sides to every conflict in nature, divorced of right and wrong, with survival and consequence riding on each side.  Nature can be brutal yet is inherently neutral.  We root against Nag and Nagaina because we are bonded to Rikki and his boy Teddy, but that does not mean we can’t understand the plight of the cobras. (“Do you think it is right for you to eat fledglings out of a nest?” asks Rikki. “You eat eggs. Why should not I eat birds?” responds Nag.)

The primary conflict in Godzilla is framed in much the same way.  Awakened from hibernation by a massive cave-in caused by excavators, the MUTO (massive unidentified terrestrial organism) incubates and then hatches into a kaiju which looks like a cross between a Xenomorph and a Graboid and a giant pterodactyl.


It takes up residence in Japan before it is fully fledged.  Humans track this MUTO’s echolocation calls to a second signal, which they initially interpret is Godzilla calling him out for a fight.  But the second signal is revealed to be that of an even larger, more dangerous MUTO waking up in the Nevada desert.  This one is twice as big, and is a grounded animal in contrast to the first MUTO’s ability to fly.  The scientists conclude that MUTO must be a sexually dimorphic species, and the larger one is female.

The male MUTO races across the Pacific with the goal of mating with this female, and Godzilla finally appears to track it and the “scientists” conjecture that either Godzilla’s some sort of ancient god intent on destroying these MUTO to balance out the lifestream, or far more likely, it is his instinct to hunt them. (Sound familiar?)

And though we are supposed to be terrified of these MUTO, there is a scene where the male and female finally meet, and it is actually quite tender.  They approach each other eagerly and nuzzle their beaks in affection, and the male gives the female his mating gift (which in this case is a live nuclear warhead).  I’m sure there are whole swatches of the internet where you can find people who went “aww” at that part.  It illustrated that they’re not just destructive claw-and-stomp monsters:  they’re animals.

Even visually, the kaiju seem designed to pay homage to the source material.  The MUTO are quite alien and serpentine in their design.


Whereas Godzilla is a more familiar shape to us.  And kind of chubby and cuddly.


Pictured: primordial mongoose

The plots even follow the same basic chain of events: Godzilla/Rikki fights the male MUTO/Nag and destroys him first; the MUTO/cobra nest is then destroyed before it can hatch, which ignites the wrath of the more dangerous female MUTO/Nagaina, which escalates into an even more dangerous confrontation.  Godzilla/Rikki succeeds, and both are feared dead from their injuries.  But they recover, and go on with their lives much as is expected: Godzilla returns to the sea; Rikki-Tikki spends his days as Teddy’s companion.  Both receive accolades that they have restored nature to its rightful balance, though it doesn’t seem that either of them cares at all what others think of the outcome.  They were both merely following their instincts in the order of things.

And here’s the thing about both Rikki-Tikki and Godzilla: everyone around them knows they are fighting a great war.  Everyone around them is aware of the stakes.  But Rikki-Tikki and Godzilla only don this role of savior by virtue of the perception of others.  It goes beyond modesty; Rikki-Tikki and Godzilla are creatures that have no nobler concept than doing what they were born to do, and in doing so, give the illusion that they are bringing balance to a world never quite knocked out of balance to begin with.

“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control, and not the other way around.”

  –Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) in Godzilla (2014)