The tragic events that have transpired in Japan following the March 11 magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami are almost too horrible to fathom at this moment. One very small pleasure I have gotten out of this is seeing the very interesting piece in the New York Times on what the Godzilla movies reveal about Japanese anxieties over nuclear energy written by my good friend, Pete Kirby, an anthropologist who studies the environment and the place of nuclear energy in Japanese culture. Pete tells the back-story that motivates the original (1954) movie, ‘Gojira.’ It’s probably not what you think. This surprise is echoed by Andrew O’Hehir his article on the Japanese taste for apocalyptic cinema in Slate.
The key issue that the Godzilla movies reveal about Japan is its vulnerability. Pete writes:
If there is any thread running through this sprawling bestiary of monster films, it is “the profound vulnerability of Japan,” as William Tsutsui writes in his acclaimed book “Godzilla on My Mind.” Japan, relatively powerless in the cold war arena in reality, is able in a fictional world to muster its heavily armed and impressively disciplined Self-Defense Forces to fight against, or occasionally delay or redirect, the colossal rampaging of outlandish threats… But the films also clearly depict a human population that is, again and again, boxing above its weight class.
And he reminds us that these cheesy monster movies end up being more prescient than we’d like to think:
If the monster-film genre is less ubiquitous than it once was, the themes it reflected are no less present today, particularly in the 24-hour blanket coverage of last week’s earthquakes and tsunami. It shows a Japan that remains visibly beset by large-scale threats that strike without warning. Japan’s emergency response teams rescue citizens stranded amid once-thriving cities I have visited in years past that are now little more than sludge and debris. Cars, trucks, trains and large ships lie swept into piles ashore or float in murky water like misshapen bath toys. Buildings implode and fires rage as if ignited by a burst of radioactive breath or a flick of a great creature’s tail.
As I try to find some down-time in the frantic run-up to teaching two very intense courses next quarter (which starts in just over a week!), I will try to catch up on my Godzilla movies, probably late at night a bleary-eyed and stiff-fingered from a day hacking at my computer. I certainly expect to see them in a new light.