09 August 2004

Nagasaki, Atomic Radiation, and Godzilla

Today, on the 59th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan experienced yet another accident in a nuclear power plant, and I received academic junk mail about an exhibit in Lawrence, Kansas, entitled In Godzilla's Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage.

Here's an excerpt from an obituary of Godzilla creator Tanaka Tomoyuki (1910-1997).
Wakened from his deep-sea slumber by a series of careless H-bomb tests, Godzilla first took his Tokyo-destroying act to the big screen in an eponymously titled 1954 debut. Curiously, Tanaka's original aim was not to glorify the wanton squishing of human beings and their abodes, but rather to illuminate the dangers of the atomic age. Godzilla, King of the Monsters was all about getting on a moral high horse and condemning the United States for its silly pummeling of helpless Pacific atolls with multimegaton packages. Funny thing was, audiences didn't care one whit for the preaching. As we all discovered at around age 4 or 5, mind-numbing cinematic violence is a whole heck of a lot more entertaining than ... well, than just about anything else. Tanaka, super genius that he was, picked up on this vibe like a pterodactyl stealing a stegosaurus egg. If the public--especially those American kiddie-matinee patrons eating their Red Vines and digging on the amateur dubbing jobs wanted mass destruction, then by golly! -- that's what they were going to get.
Meanwhile, Godzilla: The Uncut Japanese Original is making its U.S. debut.
You may think you've seen "Godzilla," the monster flick that launched hundreds of campy sequels. But chances are, you saw "Godzilla: King of the Monsters!"

This American bowdlerization of the original 1954 Japanese version included reshot scenes with Raymond Burr, just so the movie could have an American character. It cut out some 40 minutes of material, completely changed the tone of the ending and dubbed the whole thing in English. It even superimposed Burr into existing scenes, so he would seem to interact with the Japanese characters. Reconstituted as a cheese-ball monster flick, it was a far cry from the initial vision: a sobering cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

To mark the movie's 50th anniversary, a beautifully restruck print (with the unwieldy title: "Godzilla: The Uncut Japanese Original") has been released for the first time in the United States. Here's an opportunity to see the first — and a radically different — film (known as "Gojira" [like Gorilla--get it?]) in all its glory. It's in Japanese with English subtitles. The images are crisp. The story is restored. And there's no sign of Raymond Burr....

There are some campy elements left in the original. Some of the acting is ham-handed. Many of the big crowd scenes seem amusingly quaint.... But despite these moments, there's a surprisingly powerful thrust to this film. And it's instructive to recall the political era in which the movie was made. The atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still recent memories. And in 1954, the crew of a Japanese fishing trawler had been fatally radiated by the fallout of a nuclear H-bomb test.

Thus, the notion of a sea monster that has been irradiated from atomic tests and is threatening to emerge from the sea is more than a cartoonish cheap thrill. It's a very real metaphor for doomsday. Which is why, when a character in the restored "Godzilla" almost casually mentions that she's a survivor of Nagasaki, it's chilling.
The political messages in Godzilla sequels changed over time.
In the 1950s and '60s, Japan was still suffering through its post-war comeuppance. In the 1980s and 1990s, Japan had been transformed into a technological and economic powerhouse. The new series of Godzilla movies, released through the 1990s, had to come up with a whole new series of rationales about why Japan deserved to be punished.

In the most overtly political film of the new series [in 1991], "Godzilla vs. King Gidorah," White Guys from the future come back through time to "help" Japan by getting rid of Godzilla. However, the White Guys have a hidden agenda. You see, in the future, Japan's economic might has grown so great that all the other nations of the world pale in comparison, and Japan dominates the Earth. The disgruntled White Guys get rid of Godzilla and replace him with King Gidorah (the three-headed dragon) whose purpose is to destroy Japan so that White Guys can take their place as the rightful owners of everything.

Oh, but wait, there's more! We also learn the secret origin of Godzilla, who was once a surviving dinosaur on a Pacific Island, where he saved a garrison of Japanese soldiers from bloodthirsty American troops during World War II, then was subsequently exposed to the radiation which transformed him into Godzilla proper. So Godzilla is not only pro-Japan, he's also anti-American.
Thank goodness Godzilla Matsui is now protecting New York--or at least the Bronx, while Little Matsui protects Queens.

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