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Rants and Raves: Godzilla

What Does the Pop Culture Icon Say About Japan?

The 1954

Credit: Toho

Above: The 1954 "Godzilla."


KPBS film critic Beth Accomando speaks with Ramie Tateishi about pop culture icon Godzilla.


Pop culture has a way of reflecting society and providing an outlet for its fears and anxieties. Listen to my radio feature on "Godzilla" or read more about what pop icons like Godzilla reveal about Japan.

In movies, Godzilla was born out of an atomic blast that woke him from the ocean depths. 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 of an incident involving a fishing vessel that had gotten caught in atomic testing and the sailors came back sick.

Trailer: 'Godzilla, King of the Monsters'

The American trailer for 'Godzilla, King of the Monsters."

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 (not the butchered American release), 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 extra-ordinary -- that became the perfect way of representing this experience that you can't really represent or try to convey to someone in any other way than as something that is not ordinary or something that you don't see every day.

Through science fiction Japanese filmmakers have had the opportunity to make the unimaginable more tangible. Just consider what Godzilla’s breath does to Tokyo.

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.

Photo caption: Akihiko Hirata as Dr. Serizawa and Momoko Kôchi as Emiko in 1954's "Godzilla,...

Photo credit: Toho

Akihiko Hirata as Dr. Serizawa and Momoko Kôchi as Emiko in 1954's "Godzilla," the film was released as a badly recut and badly dubbed American version known as "Godzilla, King of the Monsters."

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. Serizawa 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 and that's what led to his guilty feelings and eventually he decided to die with his creation.

So "Godzilla" raised moral questions about technology and how it can be used. And because Japan is the only country to have had two atomic bombs dropped on it, it has a unique perspective that colors its science fiction. In fact that's one of the reasons why Godzilla did not translate well into a Hollywood film. What the American filmmakers did not understand were the cultural underpinnings that makes Godzilla work. You can't take him out of Japan and his atomic roots. If you do he no longer makes sense. An Asian man once pointed out to me that the reason the American "Godzilla" movie failed was because Americans cannot understand or accept a creature that it cannot destroy with military might.

Japan's unique cultural perspective fuels its sci-fi anime as well. Again these stories reveal an ambivalence about science and technology. In "Princess Mononoke," progress has a cost as the primordial forest is sacrificed for modernization. "Full Metal Alchemist" talks about the "Law of equivalent Exchange," in which everything has a price. That show also presented science as alchemy or a kind of sorcery, which Tateishi says taps into what was going on in Japan at the turn of the 19th century.

RAMIE TATEISHI: There was the move to modernize and to become more of a technological society and there was also coinciding with that a move to suppress things like references to sorcery and folklore and mythology and things like that. So one way of interpreting these things is that when technology goes wrong it's an instance of the repressed past or nature coming back into the present and meddling with things. So what we see is the need to uphold and respect nature at the same time that there is this emphasis towards advancement and technology so there's always this ambivalence in a lot of Japanese sci-fi and popular culture. I don't know if I would necessarily say it was anti-technology but definitely there is a sense of pro-nature and if there is an anti-technology aspect I would say it's not to valorize technology at the expense of nature. You need a balance between both.

These pop culture shows and films continually suggest that it's not easy to balance nature and science or good science and bad. Much of Japanese science fiction suggests a complex struggle and a pragmatic sense that you have to find a way to maintain the balance. Tateishi also cites another anime that deals with the nuclear question, "Giant Robo." In this story society depends on something called the Shizuma Drive but their dependency on this one power source and the secret behind it proves devastating.

RAMIE TATEISHI: There was a Japanese animated series in the 90s called "Giant Robo" you could view that as being sort of a analogy or an allegory about nuclear technology.

Here's a scene (forgive the bad English dubbing):

Clip: 'Giant Robot'

A clip from the Japanese anime "Giant Robot."

The bomb deeply influenced Japanese science fiction. The mushroom cloud hovers over many films and anime as a symbol of destruction. That symbol is most potent, Tateishi says, closest in time to the event that inspired it.

RAMIE TATEISHI: But later on as time goes by -- although that image is still a strong part of the culture and is part of the cultural psyche -- filmmakers and artists look to use those images in different ways that haven't been tried before so that's when you start to see all the variations. So it's interesting as ten, twenty years go by to see the kinds of experimentation different directors and writers will try. In Hayao Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro," there's a scene where the forest creatures grow a giant tree and it's in the shape of a giant mushroom cloud so Miyazaki is reversing the imagery so it is not one of destruction.

Photo caption: Godzilla symbolizes a nuclear reactor meltdown in "Godzilla vs. Destroyah" (1...

Photo credit: Toho

Godzilla symbolizes a nuclear reactor meltdown in "Godzilla vs. Destroyah" (1995).

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.

Clip: Godzilla Meltdown

Godzilla's meltdown from 'Godzilla vs. Destroyah."

RAMIE TATEISHI: 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.

One of the characters mourns Godzilla's death and notes that they have paid a price for all their dependence on nuclear energy. Those sentiments expressed back in ‘95 resonate powerfully today. But Godzilla has always resonated with audiences. Back in 1964, China performed nuclear testing and Godzilla faced Ghidorah.

Photo caption: Ghidorah standing in for China.

Photo credit: Toho

Ghidorah standing in for China.

RAMIE TATEISHI: So we had this monster in 1964 that arose, Ghidorah, if you think of the dragon as being emblematic of China then Ghidorah is this dragon that has 3 heads and 2 tails and lasers all over the place. So it was like this symbol of China that had been horribly mutated. Godzilla stood in for Japan in a heroic sense as opposed to the original film where he was standing in for Japan but more in a tragic sense. So the monster does change and become more heroic over time and sort of in response to the need to have a social or cultural hero.

In the 1970s, as the country faced the oil and energy crisis, Godzilla took on Hedorah, a smog monster that embodied the fear of pollution so Godzilla proved once again to be a versatile symbol adapting to the needs of each generation of filmgoers.

So 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.

Companion viewing: "Godzilla" (1954), "Godzilla Vs. Destroyah," "Akira," "Princess Mononoke," "Giant Robot," "Grave of the Fireflies"

Also of note, Comickaze has teamed up with IDW Publishing to help relaunch the Godzilla comic franchise with a special cover in which Godzilla crushes Comickaze. So on March 30, all profits from the sales of this limited edition book, both in store and online, will be donated to an agency dealing with disaster relief in Japan. Here's a peek at the cover.

Photo caption: IDW Publishing has done a variant Godzilla cover in which Big G stomps Comick...

Photo credit: IDW Publishing

IDW Publishing has done a variant Godzilla cover in which Big G stomps Comickaze.


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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