Diving into the Aquatic Depths of East Asian Ecohorror
A scaly foot makes landfall, a woman screams, buildings come crashing down—the iconography of the original 1954 Godzilla directed by Ishirō Honda is hard to forget, even all these years later. Truly a classic among monster movies, its influence on the “creature-from-the-deep” film genre continues to permeate modern iterations. Acting as a commentary on the nuclear contamination of the post-war period, Godzilla gave form to people’s fears and helped popularize the usage of monsters in visual media to embody environmental pollutants.
The creature isn’t the only scary part about Godzilla, though, or about aquatic monster movies in general. Often overlooked, but always present, is the water. Despite being the origin point of the monsters, it is easy for discussions about these “creature-from-the-deep” films to get wrapped up in concerns of the human, or the political, or the military, and for the water to fade into the background, becoming ambient visual noise rather than a point of focus for directors or viewers. Ecohorror films like Bong Joon Ho’s The Host and Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla, however, place the water in focus as the site of humans’ worst fears, suggesting that we should worry less about the scaled giants themselves and more about where they came from.
In the grand scheme of things, the importance of water is difficult to overstate. There is not a period of Earthly time where water, or the lack thereof, has not been key to life and death. Human groups throughout time have settled and prospered near water, looking to aquatic spaces for sustenance and for symbols of cultural significance, but folktales also encouraged people to temper their reliance on bodies of water with a healthy caution for how quickly things could disappear into them—or emerge from them. It is from a similar vein of cultural fears that contemporary “creature-from-the-deep” cinema derives.
Just as water in visual media is often used to symbolize personal cleansing or a great journey ahead, so too does it exist as a symbol of potential danger and horror. In an article about the multifaceted nature of water’s filmic representations, Adriano D’Aloia writes, “Water is strategically used as a substance capable of marking the passage from one psychological condition to another, and of ‘hosting’ a crucial event . . . Troubles pass under the bridge of cinema and, nonetheless, as water appears on the screen, something menacing always lies in ambush—a sea monster, an oppressive past, a looming catastrophe, a tsunami.”
While a sense of water’s positive transformative power remains a part of many cultures, water has also become a common media symbol for disaster. So many water-related fears, in life and in film, hinge on the unpredictable, the uncontrollable, or the unknowable. Ranging from the environmental (e.g., natural disasters like floods or tsunamis) to the metaphorical (e.g., looming catastrophe or past oppressions), the aquatic monster in cinema is born of a combination of the two realms—it quite literally emerges from the water but also represents anxieties modern viewers have about water safety and our effect on rivers, lakes, and oceans near and far.
Over the centuries, human societies have attempted to control and contain water by building structures like waterways, dams, and water-front condos, but the truth is that these manufactured separations are illusions. The supposed borders between humans and water are permeable. At any time, the water can reclaim the land via natural disaster, rising sea levels, or through the natural ebb and flow of time and tide. And from the human side, a constant stream of pollutants makes its way into the water, altering the composition of aquatic spaces and affecting the plants and wildlife that live within. “Creature-from-the-deep” films offer a representative space for confronting these real-world fears. The monsters are born from contaminated water—highlighting the role human civilization plays in its own ecological downfall—and they also embody the uncontrollable power of a natural disaster, washing across the land with devastating force when least expected.
The Birth of Monsters
Shin Godzilla (2016) and The Host (2006) continue the tradition of associating monsters with contaminated bodies of water and with the human struggle to control those monsters when they appear. Shin Godzilla’s plot focuses on nuclear contamination of the ocean off the coast near Tokyo. When an unidentified force in the water causes flooding in an underground roadway, the Japanese government is forced to begin investigating. A battle of bureaucracy and military control ensues, but ultimately it comes to light that the culprit is a Godzilla-like monster birthed via nuclear contamination that still carries radioactive energy in its body.
Much like the 1954 original, Shin Godzilla’s plot is rife with references to the strained military relationship between Japan and America. While concerns about the lasting effects of thermonuclear testing and atomic bomb warfare carried the significance of the contemporary moment in the 1950s, the fact that these themes remain present in the mid-2010s suggests that neither Japan’s relationship to America nor their relationship to the water has changed much since the days of Ishirō Honda and the end of World War II.
The Host is based on the pollution of the Han River, which runs through the city of Seoul. Contaminated by chemicals from the American military base, the bodies of suicide victims, and trash (both in the film and in reality), the Han River is the perfect breeding ground for a monster. As the creature grows—nurtured by the contamination—it eventually seeks larger food, driving it to leave the water and attack the human population.
Opting for a more direct approach to American pollution than Shin Godzilla, the military presence in The Host is established in the opening scene. A retelling of real events that occurred in 2000, the film begins by showing a morgue worker at the military base pouring formaldehyde down the standard-use sink drain. Between this reference and the later use of a substance called “Agent Yellow” (hinting at the military use of Agent Orange in Korea), it is clear that, like Japan, South Korea continues to feel the lack of control they’ve had over what exactly enters their waters.
Although the originating pollution itself is acknowledged in both plots, these films rely on the monsters to represent the ecological damage that has been done to the waters around Korea and Japan. Bodies of water are not easily penetrable spaces—consider how little is known about deep lakes and oceans—nor is it easy to know the extent of pollution or monstrousness lurking within. Standing in for all of those unknowns, the monsters act as an embodied omen that these societies will ultimately have to stop denying the severity of the pollution, no matter who originally caused it, and face the damage that has been done to the water.
Beneath the Surface
Both films maintain a measure of suspense about what’s in the water by introducing the monsters in pieces as opposed to having them emerge in full form from the beginning. This uncertainty enhances the sense of anxiety the characters already have about creatures that reside in bodies of water. The viewer shares this unease: the camera doesn’t shoot from below the water, emphasizing the opaque quality of the surface and the unknowability of what lurks beneath.
In Shin Godzilla, the first videos captured of the monster show only what is referred to in the film as a “tail” protruding from the water. Similarly, near the beginning of The Host, a tentacle shoots out of the water to grasp a beer can the main character, Gang-doo, has thrown into the water. In both cases, the visible body part itself is difficult to categorize. Although they refer to it as a tail in Shin Godzilla, it is visually more akin to the tentacle of an alien or sea monster, as is the prehensile tentacle of The Host’s monster. The water obscures its own contents, intercepting the human gaze and likewise denying the humans control over the situation.
The obstruction of vision in both films suggests that humans are not just curious observers but also “other” than the water itself, lacking the ability to even comprehend what’s below the surface. This role as spectator is underscored by establishing shots of crowds huddling at the water’s edge in an attempt to see within the water. In Shin Godzilla, groups of people crowd together in a parking lot, pushed up against a fence on the water’s edge, cell phones outstretched, attempting to capture an image of whatever is disrupting the water’s surface. In the first scene when The Host’s monster emerges, Bong Joon Ho’s establishing shot includes a group of human spectators occupying a space separated from the water by a clear line through the screen—the concrete sidewalk of the Han River—clearly delineating the two separate worlds of water/human.
A monstrous “other” has the potential to change a space that was once familiar into something dangerous and unknown. For Shin Godzilla and The Host, this is particularly true of waterscapes that are on the edge of developed cities because the monsters are not only born in those waters but are also able to enter and exit them at will. Because of industrial and real estate development, waterscapes become something that humans can no longer get away from in the event of a disaster. In contrast, the bodies of water are the monsters’ safe havens.
These films address the fear of water on both the personal level and the societal level. The monster in The Host, which is large enough to eat a human but certainly not large enough to destroy a city, represents the direct psychological tension and emotional anxiety of the individual human versus waterscape. Following its first foray onto land, the monster returns to the water after terrorizing a park full of humans and there is a shot/reverse shot in which the main character and the water are placed in visual opposition to each other. Each one has their realm of safety, but when either one crosses the boundary it is with violence—the human pollutes and the monster attacks.
Due to the sheer size of Godzilla, his ventures onto the land register on a larger scale and visually capture the conflict between industrial development and the surrounding land and waterscapes. By using wide shots for Godzilla’s emergence from the water, the buildings of the city and the expanse of the ocean are both framed in one mise-en-scène, emphasizing the impending destruction when one ultimately collides with the other. The meeting of worlds—terrestrial and aquatic—is further highlighted by a close-up of Godzilla’s foot making landfall on the beach halfway in and halfway out of the ocean, that single footprint undermining all of the borders the humans thought they had to protect them from the water at its worst.
Shin Godzilla and The Host both visually reveal how the surface and the edge of the water are borders created by misguided human notions of separation—an illusion monsters prove false with their ability to submerge and emerge at will. The way the monsters are born from the water and use it as a home base shows how man-made disasters like chemical pollution in aquatic spaces incubate into much larger ecological dangers that are often not properly acknowledged until they reach monstrous proportions. D’Aloia writes that in film, “water is represented or evoked . . . as a substance that submerges something that is destined to re-emerge.” In Shin Godzilla and The Host, it is the history of contamination that resurfaces, embodied as scaly, slimy, rampaging monsters. Much as it is impossible for the characters to ignore the monsters in these films, so too is it impossible to indefinitely ignore the environmental damage they represent. Like the monsters, it is always right under the surface, waiting to emerge.
Featured image: Seaweed washed up on a beach in Iceland. Photo by Ruedi Häberli, 2020.
Lindsay S. R. Jolivette is a Ph.D. student in the department of East Asian Languages & Cultures at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on representations of the nonhuman other and ecological manifestations in contemporary South Korean and Japanese visual media, with a specialization in cinema. Website. Twitter. Contact.