KPBS film critic Beth Accomando speaks with Ramie Tateishi about pop culture icon Godzilla.
Related Story: Rants and Raves: Godzilla
KPBS-FM Radio Film Feature: “Godzilla”
By Beth Accomando
Air date: March 23, 2011
Pop culture has a way of reflecting society and providing an outlet for its fears and anxieties. So KPBS film critic Beth Accomando talks with a Godzilla expert to see what the giant monster reveals about Japan.
GODZILLA (ba).wav SOQ 3:55 (music out at )
(Tag:) Check out Beth’s Cinema Junkie blog at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G for more information about Godzilla and Japanese science fiction and anime [pronounce ann-uh-may].
In movies, Godzilla was born out of an atomic blast that woke him from the ocean depths.
CLIP Godzilla roars
But he also rose out of real life tragedies that hit his homeland of Japan. Ramie Tateishi teaches about Japanese science fiction.
RAMIE TATEISHI: The original 1954 Godzilla film was sort of a symbolic representation of certainly the atomic bomb but also to an incident involving a fishing vessel that had gotten caught in atomic testing and the sailors came back sick.
For a country still recovering from the devastation of two atomic bombs, this additional nuclear tragedy stirred public outcry, and “Godzilla” served up an immediate response. Tateishi says pop culture can provide an outlet for fears.
RAMIE TATEISHI: All of these kinds of fears and anxieties that a culture has, that’s the way that those fears and anxieties take form or take shape and enter into circulation or enter into dialogue amongst people.
The dialogue regarding nuclear technology has been a long and complex one for the Japanese people. It began in part with the 1954 “Godzilla.” In the original Japanese version of the film, the destruction Godzilla leaves in his wake looks shockingly similar to the ruins found in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tateishi says trying to convey what this unimaginable destruction was like posed problems for literary artists but not for filmmakers.
RAMIE TATEISHI: How do you represent this experience that goes beyond the capability of language to convey to someone, and so Godzilla -- this giant monster, something that is extraordinary -- that became the perfect way of representing this experience that you can't really represent or try to convey to someone any other way than something that is not ordinary or something that you don't see everyday.
The bomb deeply influenced Japanese science fiction. The mushroom cloud hovers over many films and anime as a symbol of destruction. Through science fiction Japanese filmmakers have the opportunity to make the unimaginable more tangible. Just look at what Godzilla’s breath does to Tokyo.
CLIP Godzilla breath
RAMIE TATEISHI: You see a big gust of wind blow through the city and a big flash of light and things catching fire and that matches up with eyewitness accounts of what happened when the bomb went off.
Godzilla also allowed Japanese filmgoers to wrestle with their ambivalence about science, and nuclear technology in particular.
RAMIE TATEISHI: I think the ambivalence can stem from the fact that there are both positive and negative applications of the technology Just like Dr. Serisawa in the first film, who created that oxygen destroyer for positive purposes he wanted it to benefit mankind but then that device got turned into something destructive that's what led to his guilty feelings and eventually he decided to die with his creation.
Japan was devastated by atomic bombs so it had a sense of caution about nuclear technology. Yet Japan would develop into a country that would rely heavily on nuclear energy. Currently, Japan is recovering from an earthquake and tsunami that have destroyed nuclear reactors and reignited fears over radiation. In the 1995 film “Godzilla Vs. Destroyah,” Big G is like a nuclear reactor melting down.
RAMIE TATEISHI: 1047 … So throughout the film you are watching Godzilla develop these huge cracks in his skin that start to glow so it's the visual representation of a nuclear containment dome cracking and glowing to break down.
CLIP Looks like we paid for it in the end… paid for what… all of it, all that stupid use of nuclear energy…
The fears expressed back in ‘95 are proving very real today. Through dozens of movies spanning more than half a century Godzilla has transformed from being the monster attacking Tokyo to the one sometimes defending it. He emerged from the fears and anxiety over nuclear weapons but has come to represent a much more complex message about finding a balance between science and nature, and between technology and the dangers it poses.
For KPBS, I’m Beth Accomando.