IS GODZILLA BACK?
In 1954, the movie producer Tanaka Tomoyuki, desperate to come up with a hit, posed a question: “What if a dinosaur sleeping in the Southern Hemisphere had been awakened and transformed into a giant by the Bomb? What if it attackedTokyo?” And he had his hit!
The fact that the movie and its comic book and toy spinoffs have been regarded as Grade B pop culture does not obviate the reality that inspired the film. There are conferences devoted to the putrid old rubber lizard; fans seek his claw prints, just as starry-eyed Star Trekkers turn up at jamborees. They collect kaiju eiga dolls and videos. They swap signed pictures of stars. They download thousands of pages of trivia.
To Americans, Godzilla (Gojira inJapan) was an entertainment, but to a nation recovering from the attacks onHiroshima andNagasaki, the visions of supernatural demons, serpent deities inhabiting remote valleys, and dragons that could traverse water, land, and sky were conflated with the horrors of atomic weaponry. Like the city-leveling eggs of woe that had been dropped from the Enola Gay, the image of a raging monstrous reptile reflected an angst-driven zeitgeist. The atom was, to say the least, suspect.
“The original Gojira was a sincere horror film, intended to frighten rather than amuse, which engaged honestly – indeed, even grimly – with contemporary Japanese unease over a mounting nuclear menace, untrammeled environmental degradation, and the long shadows of World War II,” wrote William Tsutsui in Godzilla on My Mind.
Yet there were already on the scene plenty of enthusiasts who were promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear power, as if a bargain could be negotiated with a temperamental deity. Thus Godzilla, if pacified and appeased, could bestow blessings. He would become a raging out-of-control tyrant, spewing deadly radioactivity and knocking down skyscrapers with flips of his tail only if inexpertly and disrespectfully treated.
Both apocalyptic visions and real events had for generations been reinforced by a history of earthquakes and volcanoes, typhoons and tsunamis, floods and landslides – familiar catastrophes to the Japanese. But myths also had it that a dragon could be controlled. Like children awakened from bad dreams to be comforted by parents who had already fed them tooth fairies and Santas, people around the world were, and are, asked to trust authorities. We have spin doctors who can convince us thatChernobyl, Three Mile Island, or even the present ongoing nightmare inJapancan be taken in stride and that risks are minimal.
Call us Luddites or not, there are doubters who are reminded of T. S. Eliot’s lines, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” Bombs are, to be sure, big bangs, and there are many whimpering contributors to war, pollution in its myriad forms, and global warming. Godzilla and his fellow monsters don’t pay attention to good intentions. The question now is the same the Japanese posed years ago: Can we make peace with Godzilla, or find other and less risky ways to satisfy our insatiable thirst for energy?
With the triadic disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and meltdowns now advancing as if fed by mythical demons, I may not be the only citizen of the world who wonders if Godzilla is back – in our dreams and in the morning’s news.
Copyright (c) 2011 by David Ray
This article appeared in The Arizona Daily Star, 4/8/11