Last time, I shared my past and personal interests that influenced my preference for the Godzilla series and Kaiju movies in general. The Heisei series’ focus on Godzilla as an animal basically formed my affection for that portion of the franchise. Throughout the series, aspects of Godzilla’s biology and behavior are explored, which I thought helped aid in developing a pathos for the monster, similar to Rodan and King Kong. To me, Godzilla is his most compelling when like the other two examples, his vulnerabilities as an animal add a nice contrast to how much of a dominating force he is. Now I believe the Heisei series of Godzilla films explored this the most. I am going to outline the actual ethology concepts and biological details that helped shape this version of Godzilla. This is not meant to be an authoritative article that the fandom should treat as canon such as Keith Aiken’s article that explains Godzilla vs King Ghidorah’s time travel. This is also not trying to push the angle that the Heisei Godzilla is a totally-believable and realistic animal. This is just a piece serving as an educational guide on some ethology concepts while also outlining how they are apparently relevant to the Heisei Godzilla. Furthermore, I am not going to treat every detail as if it were intentional on the filmmaker’s part unless there is evidence to support such. I am, however, going to try my best to stick to what is observable from the films and reasonably connect to what my courses have taught me regarding animal behavior and evolution. Feel free to critique if there is something incorrect regarding the details from the films or the biology facts I bring up. I hope this gives you all a more in-depth look into my own biased infatuation with the Heisei series.
Now let’s begin with The Return of Godzilla. In this movie, noticeable efforts have been made to reduce the anthropomorphization of Godzilla that had been influencing the character since 1962’s King Kong vs Godzilla. In the ”Making of” featurette for the film, it is explained that the design and puppetry of the Godzilla suits/props and Kenpachiro Satsuma’s performance were influenced by the movements and expressions of Komodo dragons, raptor birds, lions, crocodiles, and elephants.
This pursuit for a more animalistic Godzilla even permeates into the plot. The most important of which is the expansion of nuclear energy’s role in Godzilla’s biology. As far as I can discern, the 1984 film was the first time it was explicitly clear that Godzilla is reliant upon nuclear energy for nourishment, atleast in a theatrical film. In the Showa movies, specifically the original film, the H-bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll are only described as being the cause of Godzilla’s disfigurement, displacement from his own environment, and the likely source of his radioactive breath attack.
We also see how this affects other animals, as this movie pays attention to how Godzilla carries parasitic sea lice. These lice are commonly found on other large marine animals such as whales. One louse is shown to have grown very large after being exposed to Godzilla’s radiation. Within the plot, Godzilla’s hunger for radiation sparks the conflict between the Soviets and the U.S. as well as an attack on a nuclear power plant that leads us into the next trait that is added to the 84Goji, magnetoreception! Basically, certain animals possess a means of detecting magnetic fields to form a biological ”compass” that they use for navigation.
What I really appreciate here is that this movie utilizes a concept of animal orientation and navigation that was relatively new and understudied. By the 1980s, the mechanisms behind magnetoreception were not very well understood, and this movie capitalized on that by pairing it with a ”homing instinct” that is influenced by the call of the migratory birds. Now, this is not necessarily true for how we currently understand magnetoreception, but Godzilla is a fictional creature. Furthermore, this was written in the mid-’80s when magnetoreception was a very young concept in animal behavior science, so I will gladly let it pass.
With Godzilla’s means of navigating and gaining nourishment defined, this movie’s plot introduces cadmium shells and a sound transmitter. Cadmium is a real-life metal that is used to slow down the rate of nuclear fission. This appropriately lowers Godzilla’s metabolism and leaves him temporarily halted before the nuclear lightning storm revives him. Godzilla is then lured to a volcano by a sound transmitter emitting a sound frequency that activates his homing instinct.
Now for the later Heisei movies, while they continue to build upon Godzilla’s use of nuclear energy, the homing instinct is not explicitly brought up as a plot device as it is used here. However, Godzilla does seem to still possess a homing instinct towards creatures such as Biollante and Junior. It adds some possible evidence that Godzilla’s gravitation towards the calls of creatures similar to himself such as Junior and Biollante are triggering a mechanism related to the one activated by the migratory birds. However, this is just conjecture. This movie also brings up Godzilla’s conditioned response to light that makes him more aggressive, like in the original film. This is also never brought up again.
We now reach Godzilla vs Biollante. Not much is added to Godzilla’s behavior that I can immediately connect to what I learned in college, though I will point out how this movie continues the trend of using an improved understanding of Godzilla’s biology to form better countermeasures. In this movie, we are introduced to the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria, ANEB!
Godzilla vs Biollante presents G-Cells, the cells of Godzilla retrieved from his attack from the previous film. This movie introduces the concept of genetic engineering and bio-ethics not only through the benefits of G-Cells, but also through the political and economic discourse stirred by ANEB. ANEB was created as a means for cleaning up nuclear fallout and re-worked for stopping Godzilla, a more full-proof means over cadmium. ANEB will actively consume Godzilla’s nuclear energy as he produces it, but required the genetic material from G-cells in order to transcribe the enzyme needed to consume radioactive material.
The plan to use ANEB was initially unsuccessful until the scientists postulate that Godzilla’s an ectotherm, and change their battle strategy in accordance with raising Godzilla’s body temperature. This actually ends up working after Godzilla fights Biollante and heads off to the ocean, where he lies dormant for two years until some weird stuff starts happening in the next movie.
Godzilla vs King Ghidorah’s plot is riddled with logical failings when it comes to the Futurian’s plan, but one thing I will give this movie’s narrative credit for is Godzilla’s relation to Mr.Shindo.
This film reveals that the Heisei Godzilla is a unique species of dinosaur dubbed the ”Godzillasaurus”. This dinosaur lived on the fictional Marshall Island, Lagos, during WWII. While quite unclear within the movie, the official canon is that the Lagos dinosaur became the 1984 Godzilla in a stable time-loop where a crashed Soviet sub mutated him in the 1970s. This monster is a separate individual from the 1954 monster. It is clear, though, that the Lagos dinosaur was the Godzilla we follow throughout the remainder of this film. What I really like about the Godzillasaurus is how its inclusion in this narrative reinforces that Godzilla’s motivation is his own need to survive. Mr.Shindo, who was an Imperial Army officer during WWII, misconstrued that the Godzillasaurus was trying to protect his garrison. Another member of his garrison had the more-likely takeaway, that the dinosaur was only interested in protecting his own territory. Interestingly enough, the Godzillasaurus’ discriminate attack on Americans shows some parallels to elephant cognition studies. Elephants have shown to be capable of discriminating between human ethnic groups by threat-level based on the differences in their vocalizations. Since the Americans that shot at him spoke a clearly different language from the Japanese, it is possible that the Godzillasaurus was able to distinguish the Americans from the Japanese that he was accustomed to through a similar means. Shindo’s misinterpretation of Godzilla as a savior that will ”fight for us again”, leads to him powering-up Godzilla from his ANEB-coma and made into an even larger threat to humanity than before. Shindo is appropriately called-out for his irresponsibility, is left disillusioned with his old beliefs, and accepts his death by his own misjudgment. This is a classic cautionary tale of a person misinterpreting an animal’s apparent altruism. Avoiding this mistake is a fundamental notion to be mindful of in animal behavior research.
An interesting detail about Shindo’s death scene is that Godzilla seems to remember him. This likely indicates that Godzilla’s ability to recognize human individuals is comparable to what has also been observed from elephants, who are capable of remembering individual elephants and humans over the course of their lives. So Godzilla’s memory of Shindo from WWII is actually within the confines of what can be expected of an animal. This cognitive trait usually evolves in social animals who are reliant on cooperation, but Godzilla has been seemingly portrayed as a solitary creature… more on that later.
I will be skipping Godzilla vs Mothra because that movie does not really add much to Godzilla. Which makes sense because that movie started out as an independent Mothra movie that got Godzilla thrown into the script. So on to the next film, Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II.
In Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II we are introduced to Junior, a hatchling of a species closely-related to Godzilla. While my second-least favorite movie of the Heisei series, there is a lot to unpack. Let’s begin with brood parasitism! Brood parasitism is a parental care strategy where an egg-laying creature will lay their (parasite) egg in the nest of a host individual. The host would then raise the parasite egg and the hatchling. This strategy is favored by certain species because the energy that the parents are not devoting towards raising their offspring allows them to maximize their own survival and future mating opportunities, yielding them even more offspring to pass on their genes. This provides a fitness benefit that makes brood parasitism evolutionarily stable under the right conditions.
Junior was left in a Pteranadon nest, suggesting that Junior’s species are specifically obligate brood parasites, like the cuckoo that the movie compares Junior to. This form of brood parasitism is where all of the parent’s offspring are parasite eggs. Since all members of these species do not raise any of their own offspring, their host nests are heterospecific, belonging to another species. Facultative brood parasites, by contrast, do raise some of their own offspring and lay their parasite eggs in a conspecific nest, belonging to one of their own species. Another detail to support that Junior’s species are obligate brood parasites is that the coloration and size of his egg match that of Rodan’s. Obligate brood parasite eggs often evolve to closely match the appearance of the eggs of the hosts. This mimicry adaptation prevents the host from being able to distinguish the parasite from its own clutch and knock the parasite egg out. Parasite eggs that more closely resemble host eggs experience greater success.
Another characteristic about Junior is that he appears to be a precocial newborn. A newborn is considered precocial when it is developed enough upon hatching to move on its own and forage, like goslings, ducklings, or a hen’s chicks. This alleviates the need for the parent to feed their offspring and limits their roles to simply guiding and protecting them from predators or other threats. This detail raises curiosity about Junior’s species being obligate brood parasites because those species tend to be altricial. Altricial offspring are not independent upon birth, they desperately require the attention of the parent for feeding them. Altricial species include most songbirds, hawks, owls, and humans. Minilla prior to his rapid growth spurt, by contrast, would serve as an example of an altricial offspring. Since altricial offspring pose a higher fitness cost to parents, obligate brood parasitism is more likely to evolve in altricial species. On the flip side, precocial species are more likely to evolve facultative brood parasitism. This is because precocial offspring are less reliant on parents, so there is less of a fitness cost for the conspecific hosts.
Now Junior belonging to a precocial species that simultaneously evolved into obligate brood parasites is not exactly an inaccuracy. While it is true that obligate brood parasitism is far more likely to evolve in altricial species, biology always likes to show us exceptions that limit this outcome to being a trend rather than a strict rule. There is one known species of duck, the black-headed duck, that is simultaneously precocial while also engaging in obligate brood parasitism. It is rare but possible. A study that looked into this suggests the reason for why this duck evolved obligate brood parasitism is because the host species it uses are very effective defenders of their nests. By passing the buck to this host, these ducks not only avoid the fitness cost of having to the defend their nest but also reap most of the benefits of protected offspring. This is coincidentally reflected by Rodan’s actions in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II. This likely means that Junior’s species utilized Pteranadons as host nests because they were active nest defenders. So Junior conveniently works out in this respect. Now let’s move on to our next topic for this movie, adoption.
Godzilla’s goal in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II is to adopt the orphaned Junior. This is actually a legitimate concept of animal behavior that was just as poorly understood in 1993 as magnetoreception was in 1984. Now to give credit where credit is due, Godzilla’s actions here are definitely meant to be a reference to Son of Godzilla, though Showa Godzilla’s and Minilla’s relationship is a lot more anthropomorphized in its depiction than Heisei Godzilla’s and Junior’s. Not a bad thing, just not exactly my personal ideal.
The first thing I want to make clear, everything I have stated regarding Junior’s species being obligate brood parasites does not apply to the elder Heisei Godzilla. This movie suggests that Godzilla and Junior are not the exact same species, and even species belonging to the same genus can vary greatly in their mating and parental care behavior. The geography of the Heisei series even supports this assertion. Lagos Island ( Heisei Godzilla’s home) and Adonoa Island (Junior’s home), while fictional, both have confirmed locations in this continuity. Lagos is among the Marshall Islands, which is located in the Central Pacific. Adonoa is much further north in the Bering Sea. This is at the very least strong evidence that they are members of separate populations. Why is this important? If Godzilla did belong to the exact same species as Junior, that would also make him an obligate brood parasite. Obligate brood parasites do not even raise their own offspring, let alone would try to raise ones that are not biologically theirs. Now while I appreciate that the movie suggests that Junior and Godzilla are distinct species from one another, I am not gonna act as if the writers were thinking this deep into it. I am merely treating this as a creative decision that incidentally paid off in allowing this more in-depth analysis to make some sense.
Now back to the topic of adoption. What is interesting about adoption is that raising offspring poses a fitness cost to both the survival and future reproduction for the parent. So why would parents waste energy raising offspring they did not spawn? One theory is kin selection, where it has been observed that birds tend to adopt the offspring of their siblings, so they are still improving the fitness of genetically-similar individuals. However, this theory is insufficient in this case because Junior and Godzilla are likely not extended relatives for the reason stated above. Applying the logic that Godzilla’s trying to save Junior for the ”preservation of a similar species even if only distantly-related”, would invoke group selection, which is a concept/fallacy modern biologists wish to avoid. Evolution acts on the level of the individual’s or the gene’s fitness, it is not conscious of saving a species/clade.
However, a much more plausible explanation exists-the brood dominance hypothesis. While it is unlikely that Godzilla himself is an obligate brood parasite, he is more than likely part of a precocial species like Junior. This is important to clarify because precocial offspring, as mentioned before, incur low fitness costs. This means that in theory, there is not much of a disadvantage to the parent if they adopt alien young into their brood, in fact, there can be benefits! As observed in shorebirds, parents that adopt alien young increase their brood size, and parents with larger broods experience high fitness benefits. This is likely partially due to access to better feeding territories and lower predation on young by predators. Basically, a parent adopting alien young into their brood is akin to adding a soldier to an army. Godzilla’s behavioral inclination to adopt Junior was likely an adaptation he inherited from his species, who relied on this brood competition. So Godzilla would actually stand to gain by adopting Junior, as he would have another fledgling nearby if he were to ever find a mate and have biological offspring. Junior would basically act as a protective stepbrother, similar to how Rodan guarded Junior on Adonoa.
There still remain other topics that I am gonna briefly go over before heading to Godzilla vs Destoroyah. Junior’s imprinting on Azusa Gojo would serve as an example of in ovo stage of imprinting, where Junior responded to the voice of Azusa Gojo while inside the egg. This is observed in song learning and vocalization recognition in multiple species of birds, like zebra finches. He also appropriately acts distraught when being separated from her, as observed by chicks when the stimulus that they imprinted on is removed from their environment. Finally, there is the ”spinal brain” thing. This is based on a misconception observed from the Stegosaurus’ spinal cavity. This was not a true brain in actual dinosaurs, but rather an expansion of the spinal cord. Nonetheless, a ”true brain” or not, attacking a major area of the spinal cord would leave Godzilla paralyzed. Here, Junior is a valuable asset that is utilized by G-force to target a new weakness of Godzilla. This serves as a fundamental use of a model organism to better understand the anatomy and physiology of other organisms.
Now we are gonna skip SpaceGodzilla’s film because that does not really raise anything new besides Godzilla protecting Junior. That and Godzilla’s homing-in on Spacegodzilla echoing his ability to do so with Biollante and Junior.
Now for Godzilla vs Destoroyah. Right off the bat, I just love the Burning Form, but not just because it is a cool power-up, but how it embraces what I talked about at the beginning of this post regarding giant monsters and vulnerability. Godzilla lost his home and contact with Junior because he accidentally absorbed too much radiation on Birth Island and disturbed the regulation of the nuclear fission within his body. This would make him susceptible to a potential explosion that evolved into a time-phased meltdown. The reason why I love this is that Godzilla’s Burning form is just as much a power-up as it is an illness. Godzilla is more powerful than he has ever been, but he is now unstable, about to die, and is taking the rest of the world with him. Godzilla has never been so simultaneously threatening and vulnerable to mankind as described now. The Heisei series started off with the introduction of Godzilla’s reliance on nuclear energy and it continued to be a plot-serving power-up for Godzilla. Now the finale flips this dynamic and has Godzilla die by the resource that has been the key to the battles he has won and the awkward journey he has been on ever since he was mutated. He does not die while fighting another monster or from a new strategy from mankind, but from an illness. He dies from a very fantastical, but fundamentally simple illness. That sounds very fitting for an animal.
Another thing I like is how this movie is mindful of what has been established about Godzilla’s internal nuclear fission in Godzilla vs Biollante. In that movie, explosive weapons are used to raise Godzilla’s internal temperature, and thus his rate of nuclear fission. This movie is consistent with that principle by explaining that conventional weapons would trigger Godzilla’s explosion. Therefore, this movie shifts from the use of conventional explosives and lasers to cryogenic warfare and the return of cadmium. This attention to detail is arguably intact when fighting Destoroyah. While Destoroyah’s Micro-Oxygen beam shows large amounts of destructive potential, it simultaneously possesses energy-draining abilities as seen more clearly when the aggregate forms swarm Godzilla.
An interesting behavioral aspect of this film is Godzilla’s homing instinct on Junior. When Junior is shown to be alive but mutated into a larger form, Miki Saegusa points out that he is naturally heading back to his nest on Adonoa Island. Godzilla is revealed to be following Junior in a manner very reminiscent of how he followed the flock of migratory birds in the 1984 movie. And just like the sound transmitter device from 1984, Junior is manipulated by Meru Ozawa and Miki into heading towards Tokyo to lure Godzilla to Destoroyah.
Now the last topic of this very long article, and an appropriately poignant one at that, is Godzilla’s mourning over Junior’s apparent death. Animal grief is another aspect of animal behavior that is a very interesting area of study. Social animals such as dolphins, primates, and elephants (I know, they show up a lot in this article) are among the key animals where this behavior is documented. These instances usually include dead young offspring or dying matriarchs being surrounded by close ones, inspecting the body, and even trying to gather resources to save them. It is a very heart-wrenching process to observe. Some elephants have even remembered the locations of where they have watched other elephants die. They tend to stop and inspect the remains before moving on. In Godzilla vs Destoroyah, Godzilla slowly heads closer to Junior, growing quiet in his vocalizations and bends down to inspect Junior. Godzilla even tries to offer Junior some radiation, since it has saved himself from certain death multiple times. However, his effort seems to be in vain. His attention on Junior is only broken when Destoroyah comes back for round three. In my opinion, I believe this film did an excellent job, intended or not, in depicting Godzilla’s grief in a way that mirrors that of animals. The context of this scene is bigger than just Godzilla and Junior, this is an event that others of their kind engaged in before. At one point, there would have been an entire herd of these creatures gathering to attend the death of one of their own. This emotional vulnerability is about as similar animals tend to get to humans. It is interesting to reflect on how this could relate back to humans and the purpose of our capacity to grieve. We are social animals ourselves.
It is postulated that grief is a by-product for the adaption of emotional attachment, to improve the survival of offspring, relatives, and companions. Animals also experience significant behavioral changes while experiencing loss or involuntary separation that can have an adverse impact on their health, likely an adaptive reaction to promote sticking in groups. The reason why all of this is important is that if Godzilla is capable of experiencing grief over the loss of Junior, it provides even more convincing evidence that his species evolved as social creatures. Godzillasaurs likely formed in organized units just as elephants and whales and would display similar signs of stress when deprived of their brood. This is reflected in his behavior in Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla and in this movie where he is only on a rampage when he loses access to Junior. Once he enters Tokyo and is reunited with his companion, he is the calmest he has ever been in the movie until Destoroyah attacks. Godzilla is very unlikely to be a naturally solitary creature like a tiger or a great white shark, he is solitary purely out of circumstance. As a scene in the finale’s third act, I believe this grieving ritual is very constructive because it makes me look back on the Heisei Godzilla’s actions with some greater enlightenment. Given the trauma he has experienced, such a socially frustrated animal would embark on a rampage regularly when there is nothing to satiate his desire for social interaction. It provides some possible context for his gravitation toward Biollante. It could even serve to provide context for the original Godzilla, who was likely a similar creature to the Lagos dinosaur in the Heisei continuity.
At the end of the movie, the situation is reversed, where Godzilla dies while Junior is revived from near-death, echoing the mutation of the Godzillasaurus that became the Heisei Godzilla. Most people interpret this final shot as Junior victoriously inheriting the ”throne” as the King of the Monsters from Godzilla, to soften the blow of losing the Heisei Godzilla. However, that is not my takeaway. The Heisei Godzilla, to me, was almost always something to be pitied, such as during the ending of The Return of Godzilla. Just as the original Godzilla, the Heisei Godzilla posed a great danger to humanity but is also a creature that was left displaced, disfigured, and alone. He was naturally drawn to creatures similar to himself and was reliant on a resource that offered immeasurable strength, but was so volatile, that it ended up killing him and almost the entire world. For a brief time, he shared a life with a similar member in his brood and it was taken away from him during his last moments. Something I rarely heard someone articulate about this ending is that Junior lost his dad. Now Junior is the one to be left displaced, disfigured, and alone. I interpreted the final shot to be him calling out in confusion over what happened to his adoptive father, whose body no longer remains. The Japanese may have been free from Destoroyah, the meltdown, and a radioactive Tokyo, but they are still stuck with a Godzilla. This is why the Heisei continuity continues to be my personal favorite, it was an extended saga of a disturbed animal.
Black-Headed Duck and Obligate Brood Parasitism of Precocial species
Social dominance of large broods and adoption of alien young in shorebirds.