I’m obsessed with Godzilla and I don’t know why?
by Samuel De Lemos
Ever since I was a little boy my quirky fascination with monsters has been obsessive. My three favorite monsters growing up was; Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein. I’d stay up late Saturday night for the campy and creepy, Creature Features and hope that that night’s screening was a Godzilla movie. I simply adored him, and
I can proudly boast that my first “date night movie”, with my beautiful wife and mother of my seven healthy loving children, was Godzilla 1998. It was a wonderful date, even if the movie was a total Godzilla fail.
Now, I ’m middle-aged, with a significant sized family who happens to make a living by teaching film and art to middle-schoolers in the Bay Area, and somehow Godzilla lay dormant in me. That is, until one of my students, offhandedly, remarked that we should watch the 2014 Godzilla movie.
I paused to think about that. At the time, I was teaching German Expressionism as it relates to film and art and it seemed simply too random to throw in a Godzilla movie.
Teachers don’t do random, not often anyways. However, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to create and cater a syllabus around the teaching of Kaiju. Thus, Godzilla suddenly was resurrected in me. And I, like the lumbering monster I whole-heartedly adored, went on a quest to learn more about him. Questions like, why did Godzilla came to be needed to be answered? Because in my mind, the best teachers are insufferable learners and I delved into learning about the king of the Kaiju with new found gusto.
The first book I bought on this new-found quest was, Godzilla on my Mind, a book written by university professor William Tsutui, who like me, was obsessed by Godzilla. So much so, that he wrote a book about the King of Kaiju. The book is full of lively anecdotes and facts, and many reasons why one should adore Godzilla, I whole-heartedly agreed with professor Tsutui; but, I needed a philosophical reason why Godzilla should be taught?
I knew Godzilla was cool, even if it was a relatively short, rubber-suited and sweaty Japanese man destroying all those model buildings, made much more apparent as an adult. However, my quest to learn about Godzilla needed to be fully philosophical and thus pedagogically transferable in order for me to teach this material to young and impressionable minds. In other words, it had to make sense and be convincing to me that Godzilla merited being taken seriously in an educational setting.
The next book I bought was, Mushroom Clouds, Monsters, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism 1946–1964. Having studied philosophy in graduate school, this book really resonated with me on an intellectual level.
The premise is that during the Cold War the issues of racism, Capitalism versus Communism, and atomic energy created a stew of creativity within the science fiction community i.e., science fiction in literature and film, used their unique artistic medium to speak about the horrors of the atomic age and more importantly, the fear of the “other”.
According to Keith Booker, 1950’s pop-culture with its, Ossie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver idyllic conventionality. An idealism that was simply untrue, because lurking behind the contrived conventionalism of that time, lay the ugly truth that racism and fear infected every facet of life behind the scenes.
In the real world of the 1950’s, the WASP dream was that “niggers and spics” were simply not allowed to inhabit their world as equals; as servants, well, that’s was and remains another story. As Roberto Montalbán once quipped, that somewhere in Texas, “no Mexicans or dogs were allowed” spoke volumes of how the “other” i.e. minorities, were perceived by white America during that time.
The real world of post-WWII America, like that northern state of Pennsylvania who voted for emancipation, rioted when the first hard-working black family desired to move into an all white neighborhood in their area. The question looms according to Booker, why didn’t we see black people or Hispanics in the Leave it to Beaver’s neighborhood? Why weren’t these important racial issues brought up? Instead pop-culture bombarded us with white male dominance in the workforce and home, women had their place in the kitchen, and nowhere can a racially different (darker) cast member be celebrated. Even the Native Indians in the much watched Western movies of the 50’s were all white cast members! While Hollywood perpetuated a false racial convention, it was the science fiction genre who were open, metaphorically that is, to talk about the “other” in unconventional forms.
After WWII with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America and its political nemesis the USSR entered into a war of attrition, one-upmanship and loathing that resonates to this day. Like I told my students, I am a byproduct of the Cold War, during my day, fear of the USSR invading America, ICBM’s, and nuclear catastrophe was always coming up in our youthful conversations. Being labeled a Commie was the worst thing anyone could call you. Communism was to be flushed out, a euphemism for destroyed at all cost. What was hard physiologically, was identifying a communist from a non-communist? Anyone could be a communist, they were identical in physical attributes to anyone else on the street. The only dreaded difference was that they “thought” differently and were intellectually cunning, with the ability to seduce you into believing like they do. In other words, they could snatch your mind.
How do you depict that lurking evil, how do you talk about the phobia that behind every closed door their awaits a commie ready to make you into one? The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, does a great job of depicting the fear and schizophrenia of an all out invasion of “aliens” who transform normal everyday people into the feared and loathed colonizing aliens. According to Booker, it was only through the arts that the real societal issues were talked about and addressed. Criticizing the U.S. government could get you labeled as a commie, so if you wanted to address these sensitive issues, it was done underhandedly, hidden in science fiction. Popular science fiction shows, like the Twilight Zone, made clear and absolute cases that the “other” was only a figment of our imaginations; an unwarranted fear mitigated by our prejudices and the fear of change. In the episode The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street the closing narration sums these fears up:
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices — to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill — and suspicion can destroy — and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children — and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is — that these things cannot be confined — to the Twilight Zone.
Enter Godzilla 1954, otherwise know in his native langugue as Gojira. As the narrative goes, Gojira was birthed in the Cold War climate of post-WWII nuclear testing. After the blockbuster movie King Kong, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Japanese movie industry lead by Honda and Tsubaraya wanted to fashion their own kaiju—monsters to showcase to their people. Story goes that while traveling overseas and after hearing about the H-bomb testing and the horrific aftermath that ensued, Tomoyuki Tanaka wrote the script about an ancient monster that is revived by radiation.
In an interview in 1985 Tanaka summed up the symbolism of Godzilla: “In those days, Japanese had a real horror of radiation, and that horror is what made Godzilla so huge. From the beginning he has symbolized nature’s revenge on mankind.”
The real evil of what happened during H-bomb testing in the pacific is barely understood, perhaps even understated. What really happened was that numerous H-bomb testing occurred which not only infected Japannese fishermen with radiation poisoning, but the fish they caught, some 650 tons were sold and distributed to the populace before anyone knew that they were also poisoned. This “incident” almost caused an international crises that caused the U.S. to make financial reparations and keep the truth from leaking out. What was never disclosed was that natives of the Marshall Islands were also heavily poisoned with radiation and had to be forcibly exiled. The latter never had a voice or a say in their fate, they have become voiceless, left without the technology to express their plight. However, the Japanese created a dark looming monster to give voice to their concerns and the roar heard had an international following.
Much like this slight to the Japanese people and the inhabitants of the Marshall islands during the H-bomb testing, American film magnates edited the film Gojira of all its political references; inserted a well know actor Raymond Burr magically into the scenes and recast it as, Godzilla King Of the Monsters to the American public. This gesture raises philosophical questions about honesty and artistic integrity, and for the Japanese people it casts a shadow on the politics of the times.
Connecting the dots became increasingly easier for me as I read Booker’s analysis of the Cold War and the fears of nuclear energy. I had the philosophical basis to present to my students the reason why the king of Kaiju came to be. Gojira was a monster built on the premise that human environmental negligence, at times purposeful, has a tragic and destructive impact on humanity.
Gojira wasn’t only a cool rubber monster, wrecking havoc on Tokyo. Neither was it an indestructible and radiation breathing apocalyptical behemoth without a purpose. In reality Gojira was a blatant, yet underlined subtle metaphor, constructed around the premise that needless suffering perpetrated on humans is inevitable as long as we continue in the path of unregulated nuclear testing in international fishing waters. Gojira is a balancing force of nature that settles accounts with humanity through death and destruction, much like a hurricane or a typhoon does.
In other words, the original 1954 movie Gojira was and is a wonderful political movie; and one that brings up serious philosophically ethical questions about the misuse of nuclear energy and the collateral damage that it perpetrates. If ever there was a lesson screaming to be taught it was this one. For instance, in our day and age we still haven’t mastered racial issues, black Americans and Hispanics are widely underrepresented demographically in academia, the corporate workforce and economically.
While I’m writing this paper, America is reeling from the Ferguson riots and Eric Gardner’s needless death at the hands of an increasingly militaristic police force that profiles black Americans and other minorities. Oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska have caused massive environmental damage. Chernobyl and ironically the Japanese city of Fukijama have pumped tons of radidiation into the country-side and fishing waters, killing countless wildlife and causing irreparable damage to our Earth.
The Japanese Toho film industry presented to us a dark metaphorical lesson a Kaiju—named Gojira, and this lesson hasn’t been fully learned, yet.