Japan from the inside out

Still a smash in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 27, 2008

Within minutes, the city was aware that Godzilla was inside Tokyo Harbor. Among the people, there was a state of panic.
– From the international version of Godzilla

One rainy Saturday afternoon when I was about 11 years old, I went to the movies with the young savages who lived across the street. We weren’t interested in seeing that particular movie; we went because it was too wet to play baseball, the theater was within bike-riding distance, and the star of the show was a monster.

The feature was a re-release of the international version of Godzilla, an edited version of the original that included an American reporter who witnessed the monster destroy Tokyo. We thought it was one of the worst movies we had ever seen. Everything about it was cheap and hokey. Even a monster movie requires some suspension of belief to succeed, but Godzilla couldn’t even clear our grade-school threshold.


In another 10 years, those of us who became undergraduates might have appreciated the flick as camp and laughed at it, but at the time we thought it was just plain bad. So bad, in fact, that we sat in the front row of the nearly deserted theater and hooted our way through it. None of the ushers came around to tell us to be quiet. They probably thought the same thing and were off smoking cigarettes in the employee lounge to avoid having to watch it again.

Yet despite the movie’s cheesiness–or perhaps because of it—Godzilla has attracted academic interest over the past half-century as if it were flypaper for postmodern intellectuals. The reason is that the film’s inspiration was an event that occurred in the real world, not the reel world. The tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu-maru from Yaitsu, Shizuoka, was exposed to radiation in 1954 when it sailed into an area where the U.S. was conducting an underwater nuclear test. One member later died from the exposure, and some contaminated tuna wound up on the Japanese market. In the movie, which was made the same year, the sleeping Godzilla is awakened by a hydrogen bomb test and is so enraged that it proceeds to wreck the Japanese capital–less than a decade after the real Tokyo was wrecked by American bombers.

Godzilla today

It’s understandable that the movie would have generated some interest at the time, even if people weren’t starved for entertainment. In 1954, cheap entertainment for the masses with an underlying message was not yet the cliché it was later to become. But why are people still treating it as if it were worthy of continuing study more than a half-century later?

Earlier this month, the Shizuoka University of Welfare in Yaitsu, Shizuoka (the same Yaitsu of the original incident), held the Godzilla Fan Convention – Godzilla Summit in conjunction with the annual university festival. It was a symposium for discussing the issues of peace and the environment based on Godzilla.

University President Kato Kazuo told the participants:

“Godzilla (was) the symbol of the dread of destruction caused by nuclear weapons, but has since become a guardian deity protecting global peace and the environment. We affirm the link between Godzilla and Yaizu, and will create peace rather than destruction.”

A member of the citizens’ group Bikini Citizens Net Yaizu said:

“We do not consider the Daigo Fukuryu-maru incident as just a negative inheritance. We will take it as a positive event that emphasizes peace.”

Somehow, without anyone else noticing, the academic alchemists have transmuted a movie monster that smashed a plywood set of a miniature Tokyo more than a half-century ago into a “guardian deity protecting global peace and the environment”.

Maybe we can find some way to lure it ashore on Wall Street instead of Tokyo.

Here’s an account from the UCLA Asia Institute of a lecture given by William A. Tsutsui of the University of Kansas. Professor Tsutsui is the author of Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, which was published in 2004. He also degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton, and is an expert on Japanese banking policy, so perhaps my neighborhood buddies and I weren’t barbarians so much as Philistines.

The professor asserts that Godzilla is an extremely successful cultural export and a Japanese cultural icon. After all, the monster has been featured in a Rose Bowl parade and won an MTV lifetime achievement award. Mia Farrow declared it to be her favorite movie during an Oscar award ceremony.

Of course, that might also mean Mia Farrow and the sort of people who watch the Rose Bowl parade and the MTV lifetime achievement awards are airheads, are being facetious, or both. But who can contradict a man with degrees from three of the most famous universities in the world when he focuses that formidable intellect on a monster movie?

The article notes:

Only a handful of scholarly essays on Godzilla have appeared, and few “have attempted to contextualize the film historically.” In his talk, Tsutsui set out to correct that: “I would argue,” he declared, “. . . that the Godzilla films can provide us valuable insights into Japanese culture since World War II.”.

Tsutsui insists that the Godzilla movies have featured some consistent themes in the more than 50 years they’ve been made. These include anti-Americanism, Godzilla as a defender of Japan, the vulnerability of Japan, and an ambivalence towards science and technology. He also thinks the original was made just as much for adults as it was for pre-teen boys, and that later films in the series have tried to return to adult themes. No, that doesn’t include the one where the monster has a battle with King Kong.

But considering that chronological adults in the United States have conventions to hold discussions about which of the Star Trek TV series and movies they prefer, he might have a point.

Then again, Prof. Tsutusi also says that “Godzilla is never entirely friendly and protective — he always remains surprisingly hostile toward Japan — and he never, of course, can become truly Japanese.”

So, all in the same lecture, it turns out that the guardian deity flame-breathing monster who smashed Tokyo is an unfriendly defender of Japan who is never entirely protective and is really hostile toward the country. And who never can become truly Japanese.

There’s more:

“The first Godzilla film clearly had a strong anti-nuclear message. . . . Yet it becomes increasingly hard to conclude that the films have had a consistent message over time…The only constant about the Godzilla films is a deep ambivalence, a kind of moral and intellectual ambiguity, that precludes drawing any firm, unitary conclusions. The message of Godzilla. . . is complex and reflects . . . a fundamental ambivalence on the part of the Japanese when they look at issues like modernity, technology, science, nature, politics, and the world outside Japan.”

Well, the professor might have overlooked another possibility. Could it be that after the director and script writers shot their creative wad in the first film, they’ve mostly been just monster movies since then? It might be more educational (up to a point) to hear Prof. Tsutsui try to explain what he means by the fundamental Japanese ambivalence toward nature. Or how a nation that is a pioneer in the field of robotics and whose citizens snapped up cell phones from the day they appeared on the market would be ambivalent about science and technology. Or how Godzilla reflects the attitudes of 127 million Japanese towards modernity. Or how anybody anywhere other than religious zealots or cranky old guys who drink too much has any attitude about modernity at all.

Godzilla has the right idea

Godzilla has the right idea

There are some nuggets among all that gravel, however. The article contains information on the so-called Godzilla franchise over the years and some curious trivia. It turns out that the monster’s name (Gojira in Japanese), may have been the nickname of an overweight studio publicist created by combining the words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira). The original Godzilla suit weighed 200 pounds. North Korea’s Kim Jong-il was so captivated by the film that he commissioned his own giant monster movie, Pulgasari, in 1985. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. I’ve always suspected that the Dear Leader admires Japan more than he’s willing to let on.

There are also some annoyances. The author of the article needs to look up the word “voyeuristic” in the dictionary, and a phrase like “military porn” could only be used by someone who knows very little about either.

Here’s the professor’s conclusion:

Godzilla sends a mixed message: as both an enemy and a defender, both a force of nature and the product of high technology, as both an outsider and yet somehow truly Japanese…Godzilla, like the modern world, was both a curse and a blessing, both something alien and something Japanese.”

In other words, he could sit around for days on end talking about it without saying anything at all.

Godzilla the play

The article focuses on Godzilla the movie, so there is no mention of the stage play Godzilla, which was written by Ohashi Yasuhiko and created a minor stir when it was published in 1988. (I’m surprised he didn’t get busted for copyright infringement.) That play may well provide us with as many “valuable insights into Japanese culture since World War II” as the movie.

In the stage version, the character of Godzilla is played by an actor without costume who appears as a normal human being. The premise of the play is that a young woman brings Godzilla home to meet her parents because they intend to get married. The parents are concerned about their daughter’s choice in mates—they worry what the children will look like and whether Godzilla’s huge body will crush their flimsy Japanese dwelling. Godzilla is eager to please, however, lighting his future father-in-law’s cigarette with one breath.

That sounds like some of the gaijin who appear on Japanese television, doesn’t it? Perhaps Dr. Tsutsui is right after all when he says that Godzilla can never become truly Japanese.

It’s hard to miss the metaphor for international marriages in Japan. Mr. Ohashi had a great idea for a dramatization, but the play’s promising start dissipates by the second half, when Muthra and all the other Japanese movie monsters make appearances. It turned the play into a parody of itself, a fate shared by the movie series and Prof. Tsutsui’s exegesis.

Yet the continuing academic interest in Godzilla is still puzzling even after all the high-octane interpretation. It’s natural for the Japanese to make such a big deal over a local creation with so much international appeal that it deeply impresses Mia Farrow, Kim Jong-il, and the Rose Parade organizers. After all, they’re still thrilled (and justifiably so) about Sakamoto Kyu’s international hit, Ue o Mite Aruko, which became known as Sukiyaki in English. (It is still the only song sung entirely in Japanese to reach #1 on the Billboard charts in the U.S.)

But grade-school boys who watch the movie aren’t going to be thinking about the deeper meanings, and the adults of any nationality who could sit through it from start to finish are likely sold on the idea of Americans and their technology as Godzilla-like monsters to begin with. If anyone wants to understand what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are plenty of photographs and first-person accounts. What’s the point of an earnestly pretentious monster movie?

And does anyone really believe that business about a “guardian deity protecting global peace and the environment”?

The people who have their priorities in order were the local fishermen invited to open a concession stand that offered snacks at the university festival in Shizuoka. They sold fried pieces of kitefish shark cut up to look like the monster. They called them Godzillas.

Afterwords: The reporter in the “international version” of the movie was played by Raymond Burr, who later went on to television fame in the United States as Perry Mason and Ironside. Japanese audiences are familiar with Burr as the villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

I saw Rear Window for the first time on American television not very long after I saw Godzilla in the theater. The climactic scene at the end, when Burr confronts James Stewart in the latter’s apartment, scared the living daylights out of me. Unlike Godzilla.

And here’s a site for the serious Godzilla fan: Barry’s Temple of Godzilla.

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6 Responses to “Still a smash in Japan”

  1. James A said

    Squeezing ‘deep’ meanings from monster movies and other pop culture is a prime example of how profs in liberal arts try to reel in bored college kids who want to fill a few elective credits, yet still don’t want to seriously study Japanese culture, or others for that matter. Mickey Mouse Upper Ed. at its finest!

  2. bender said

    I remember Ultraman being aired in some Bay Area TV channel, and it was a hit among kids. Don’t recall how Godzilla was received. Anyhow, I’m a trekkie and I was pinned to my television set when they had a 2-hour special about Star Trek on History Channel. Maybe Godzilla is supposed to be like that in Japan. I do agree that Godzilla is overused, though. How many remakes are there? Peace and long life.

  3. ampontan said

    The first time I saw Ultraman was during my college days. I couldn’t believe how goofy it was, but I can guess kids would like it.

    I haven’t been much interested in Star Trek since the first one, but then I haven’t been interested in much of anything on television for many years now. I watched about five minutes of the second series and about one minute of the third.

    They still show the first one on cable in Japan sometimes. A few years ago I came downstairs one day for lunch and turned on the TV for the heck of it and there it was. I watched an episode in spite of myself.

    While the production values are very dated, the story itself had four (!) separate but interrelated plots running simultaneously but at a very quick pace. It wasn’t surprising to see during the closing credits that the guy who wrote the script was a published SF novelist. (Koontz, I think.)

    I saw the first ST movie and was impressed that they went to the trouble to hire a linguist to invent a Klingon language, but other than that…(shrug).

  4. bender said

    The movies are for trekkies only. Live long an prosper.

    TNG (the one with Captain Picard) is good, but subsequent versions are controversial (they’ve been cancelled due to poor ratings). I liked the humanist approach in TNG- not the kind I find in Japanese dramas. I don’t watch Japanese animes, though, so I can’t really say…

  5. […] After all these years people are still debating deeper meanings in Godzilla movies. […]

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