Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Godzilla is American: A Response to "Japan's Long Nuclear Disaster Film"

Peter Wynn Kirby has an opinion piece in the New York Times called "Japan's Long Nuclear Disaster Film," discussing the Godzilla movies and the dangers of nuclear technology. It's an interesting article with some in-depth historical insights that are worth reading, and it reminded me of my old post about Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and kaiju films generally. However I had some major issues with Kirby's approach to the subject of Godzilla as an expression of anti-nuclear sentiments, and I wanted to discuss them here (mostly as an excuse to talk about Gojira again).

Firstly, I want to point out how Kirby seems to completely miss the environmental message that is so integral to Gojira and its immediate sequels. The 1954 film explores where Gojira came from, and in stark contrast to the 1998 remake, the original monster is a natural phenomenon as opposed to a product of nuclear technology. Rather Japan's testing of nuclear bombs is responsible for awaking the creature from centuries of hibernation, precipitating its attacks on Japan in retaliation for interrupting its slumber. Throughout Gojira there is a running discussion as to whether or not to use the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon that kills all life in the sea and is therefore capable of eliminating the monster. The characters debate whether or not the cost is justified, and moreover whether or not they even have a right to cause such horrifying destruction to kill a beast that they irresponsibly awakened. It's heavy stuff, and the theme of humanity's negative impact on nature carries on throughout the entire series. Kirby talks about the dangers of nuclear power and how Gojira discusses such fears, but he misses the intertwined environmental message. This doesn't ruin his point, but it does make the whole piece come off a little hallow and humanist, although that's far from the worst part of his argument.

Kirby spends a lot of time talking about an American thermonuclear test near Bikini Atoll in March 1954. Without re-hashing the details too much, the detonation ended up being significantly larger than predicted, and a Japanese tuna trawler called the Lucky Dragon No. 5 was covered in radioactive ash from the explosion. The men on board were horribly injured and returned to Japan with radioactive fish that famously ended up finding its way to the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. The whole incident caused something of a scandal in Japan and, as Kirby puts it, significantly impacted the psyche of the "nation fixated on purity."

The historical breakdown is a fascinating read, and it's obvious how this kind of thing would inform the country's sentiments towards nuclear technology. In terms of informing Gojira, I'm not sure how significant an influence the scandal could have had given that the film came out only a few months later. It's clear, however that the incident impacted the 1998 American remake, the opening scene of which featured a Japanese fishing boat being attacked by a giant lizard that was itself the result of French nuclear tests in French Polynesia. Wow. It's honestly worthy of a post in-and-of itself, but for now I'll just sum it up as food for thought: American filmmakers, remaking a Japanese movie about the horrifying effects of nuclear power, recast America as the victim of French imprudence. Recall now how the Japanese original also depicted the Japanese as being responsible for the nuclear testing that awakened the monster, as opposed to, say, the nuclear activities of other nations.

That brings up my biggest problem with Kirby's piece: it completely ignores the American nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In talking about Gojira as a response to nuclear technology, that isn't just a forgetful omission, it's downright offensive. The uncomfortable silence on those events reflects the article's complete ignorance towards America's role in the scar on Japan's cultural psyche. It's not as though the Japanese people were just presciently mindful of nuclear technology in the abstract. The horrifying destruction unleashed upon the country had a lasting impact that is measurable in the success of Gojira. It's telling that American audiences received a "jingoistic, shoot-em-up, stomp-em-down" while Japanese audiences "watched Gojira in sombre silence, broken by periodic weeping," although the article does nothing with this captivating insight. The article also critiques Japan for its "unusually shoddy record for nuclear safety," which isn't necessarily wrong; but in an article that ignores America's nuclear bombing of Japan, the accusation comes off as both hypocritical and callous. Moreover the article touches upon how the series is coloured a sense of "the profound vulnerability of Japan," but does nothing to acknowledge the role of the bombings in engendering/exacerbating such fears. It's not as though the country's entire complex about nuclear technology was engendered by some radioactive fish, Japan was given a very good reason to be afraid of nuclear technology long before the Lucky Dragon No. 5. Kirby's skirting the issue of America's impact on the cultural setting that produced Gojira is insensitive and hard to believe, particularly in a piece about how America should take recent events as a sign of the dangers of nuclear technology.

There's a lot to be said in the examination of American attitudes towards Gojira, and I might eventually write an entire post to the subject. The Japanese original was remade within two years as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, and many changes were made in order to make the film more palatable for American audiences. Some of these changes included the addition of an American main character, the removal of an incestuous subplot, and the complete removal of debate about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost 60 years later, it's startling to see an article that continues this incredible wilful ignorance of America's responsibility in Japan's fears of nuclear technology.

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On a more sombre note, it's impossible to talk about this stuff without thinking about the tragic events going on in Japan right now. I'd like to point you all towards Google's Crisis Response page, a resource centre for realtime updates, information on how to get in touch with people and organizations in Japan, and a place to make donations. If you are able then please consider giving, the Japanese people need all the help they can get in such difficult times.

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