God of Destruction: Remembering Gojira’s Roots

gojira

A great black shadow falls over the Japanese metropolis. Thousands of innocent people flee in terror, but atomic fire burns them to smoking silhouettes. Streets shatter, skyscrapers crumble into dust, and a new monster is born, one whose devastation will be both evoked and invoked time after time in the coming generations.

From that description, tell me, does it sound like I’m talking about Gojira or Hiroshima?

As a decades-old monster movie icon, Gojira (known better as “Godzilla” in the west, but he’ll always be “Gojira” to me) has played many roles over the years. He’s been a hero just as often as he’s been a threat. In America, he’s been mistreated and misrepresented as a CGI joke, little more than an exercise in crass corporate branding and “cinematic universe” ambulance-chasing. For most of his career, though, he’s been an embodiment of pop art, and I mean that in the best sense of the term.

The Gojira movies that so many of us (including yours truly) grew up with were essentially horror cartoons, campy and colorful celebrations of weird monster art, explosive action, and cheesy special effects. I say this with no disrespect. For me, both “cheesy” and “campy” are very much positive attributes. But the truth remains: The Gojira who battled UFOs, robots, time travelers, and telepaths, who gave Minilla piggyback rides on his tail, used Anguirus like a soccer ball, and celebrated the defeat of King Ghidorah with a jaunty dance number, that Gojira, the one I know and love as much as any other kaiju fanboy worth his salt, represents low stakes as much as he does good fun.

As children (whether in body or spirit), we thrilled at the sight of the big lizard stomping tanks, throwing haymakers at apartment buildings, and roasting everything in sight with his nuclear breath. We were given the green light to cheer on the chaos and root for the monster precisely because of how obviously fake the entire spectacle was. We knew that no one was in those tanks, that no one was in those apartment buildings. We knew that the monster was just a man in a suit, and that all those little planes, trains, and automobiles were just models, often dinky ones at that, no more real than the Hot Wheels cars we collected in grade school. Indeed, the movies rarely ever tried to convince us otherwise; in Gojira’s world, all these structures existed for no other purpose than to get wrecked.

Because of this, we audience members could relish the on-screen annihilation without reservation or guilt. We were given permission to vicariously indulge our destructive impulses and fully immerse ourselves in the fireworks of so much carefully orchestrated anarchy. The only characters that really mattered were the kaiju themselves; the humans were generally afterthoughts. We related to Gojira, Rodan, Mothra, Baragon, Megalon, and Gigan. When these titans clashed, we picked sides and hunkered down for a show like it was a pro wrestling match.

(The fact that there nowadays exists a wrestling promotion called Kaiju Big Battel, whose performers actually strut their stuff while dressed as giant monsters, brawling in squared circles decorated with model buildings, is a testament to just how much of Gojira’s legacy is steeped in the same kind of over-the-top comic-book pageantry as, say, lucha libre.)

It wasn’t always this way, though. Hack away at more than half a century’s worth of embellishments, tangents, and reinventions, and you’ll find Gojira’s heart a smoldering scar, radioactive with pain and tragedy. Released in 1954, just nine years after the Allied bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the original Gojira is very different from the sequels that followed.

For starters, it’s in black-and-white, one of only two such films in the entire franchise (along with the 1955 sequel, Godzilla Raids Again). Superficial though this may seem, it actually has a startling effect on the film’s visual attitude and atmosphere; director Ishirō Honda and cinematographer Masao Tamai express the story’s figurative darkness by embracing literal darkness, meticulously crafting high-contrast monochromatic images that are at once beautiful and oppressive. The film seems to take place entirely at night, and the big lizard himself is depicted as being almost jet black in color, a lumbering personification of death in all its merciless, monolithic inevitability.

What’s more, submerging so much of the film’s visuals in shadow helps hide the artifice in a way that later franchise entries simply can’t manage. Darkness conceals the particulars of the model buildings and vehicles that Gojira tears his way through, and our imagination fills in the gaps, making it all ring truer than a more brightly lit miniature, no matter how methodically detailed, ever could.

With that sense of realness, however, comes morose sobriety. The mayhem Gojira unleashes in his debut carries real weight with it, and it hangs heavy on your heart. The destruction here is not “safe,” it is not sanitized. It doesn’t read as hokey, fantastical, or fun. Honda, who co-wrote the screenplay with Takeo Murata (based on an initial idea from producer Tomoyuki Tanaka), doesn’t shy away from showing the brutal reality of the havoc Gojira wreaks. Even now, the sight of a Japanese cityscape in flames is chilling; one can only imagine what it must have felt like not ten years removed from WWII.

Even more haunting are the broken, twisted bodies crushed under the rubble of buildings they once called home, the overworked doctors struggling to tend to a constant influx of injured civilians, and the young children suffering in the throes of severe radiation sickness. Such imagery is something Japanese people of the time were all too familiar with, having been subjected not only to the atomic onslaught of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also, in the very same year as Gojira’s release, the events of the “Lucky Dragon 5” incident, wherein a crew of fishermen sailed too close to a bungled American nuclear bomb test near Bikini Atoll. As if to hit the nail on the head, this event is recreated in the film’s opening scene, implying that U.S. nukes are to blame for the big lizard’s wrath.

While the rest of the Gojira films are more or less feel-good popcorn monster movies, the first one is more like a cross between an unromanticized disaster epic and a grim ‘n’ gritty war picture. The human toll of Gojira’s rampage is front and center in a way it never is again in the series (at least not until Shin Godzilla, but I’ll get to that later). Not only do we see the destruction as it happens and the heart-rending aftermath, but, also, we are granted access to several well-developed human characters. Through them, the film explores more than just the practical challenges of facing a kaiju threat, it also investigates the emotional, moral, and philosophical implications.

Case in point: Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (played by Akihiko Hirata), a scientist researching a new chemical process which could very well be the key to building a weapon capable of downing the big lizard. The problem? A weapon powerful enough to kill Gojira would itself be just as dangerous as Gojira, and the good doctor (a military veteran who lost an eye in WWII) is loath to trust such a device in the hands of foolish, flawed, fallible mankind.

Again, the parallels to real life are striking, even if they’re not entirely subtle. These parallels are, more than anything, what sets apart the first Gojira from its seemingly endless conga-line of follow-ups. For me, one of the primary features that makes horror, sci-fi, and fantasy storytelling so captivating is the ability to confront issues and themes directly. Instead of obscuring them beneath layers of plot and subtext, they are instead integrating into the plot as full-blooded characters. In genre fiction, inner demons get to be actual fire-and-brimstone devils; symbols are given sentience.

In an interview from 2005, producer Shogo Tomiyama (who oversaw the Gojira franchise from the 1980s through to the early 2000s) compared the big lizard to a Shinto “God of Destruction,” an unstoppable, inhuman force, like a storm, which simply cannot be reasoned with, can barely even be understood by petty human minds. Revisiting Gojira’s roots, then, serves a worthwhile function. That is, it reminds us of what kind of symbol the big lizard actually is, when you get right down to it. What Gojira symbolizes is a uniquely Japanese experience (which is why I’ve personally never warmed to any of  the American adaptations). Gojira symbolizes the radioactive horrors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Lucky Dragon 5. If you prefer to look at things more broadly, he also symbolizes the reprehensible horrors of WWII, and of war in general.

Despite the almost superheroic molds we’ve forced him into in the 60 years since he first rose up out of the wine-dark sea, despite all the remakes, reboots, and animated Saturday morning spinoffs, underneath it all, Gojira is an amoral engine of doom. He may have been created by man, but the King of the Monsters owes allegiance to no one.

None of my saying this, mind you, is meant as a jab at the later films for “neutering” the character or anything like that. No sir. If nothing else, I hope you’ll take this long, meandering love letter of mine as an appreciation for how versatile Gojira has proven over the years. The most recent entry in the series, Shin Godzilla, in many ways returns Gojira to his roots, reflecting anxieties brought upon by such recent tragedies as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident.

I love that a character like Gojira can be used like that. I love brooding, allegorical, black-and-white Gojira, and I love bright, zany, robot-fighting, space-faring Gojira too.

Across the character’s long and stories history, only one man ever embodied the big lizard at both ends of the spectrum. Only one man embodied both Gojira the walking H-bomb and Gojira the proud papa of Minilla. That man was Haruo Nakajima, who recently passed away.

Nakajima was the first Gojira, the original Gojira. He continued to be Gojira all throughout the 50s and 60s, right into 70s. He played the role for 12 consecutive movies, more than any other Gojira suit actor. And now he is gone.

A few years ago, I had the honor of meeting Nakajima and shaking his hand. I was almost surprised at how small and humble he was in person. Still, as colossal as the character he made famous may be, the imprint Nakajima left in the hearts and imaginations of monster movie fans all over the world will always be bigger.

rip.gojira

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Horror in Times of Strife

d-z

It’s been about a month since the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. I have been overwhelmed with shock and disgust, heartbreak and hopelessness, since finding out that enough of my fellow Americans support a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, corrupt, lying bully to get that man elected to the most powerful political office in the nation. Those feelings are only now starting to fade somewhat into the white noise of my daily life, not so much diminishing in their awfulness as simply coming to a point where they no longer outpace my ability to cope with them. I have to tell you, in the first few weeks following the election, I was a panicked, pessimistic mess. The only thing that helped me stay sane was a timely vacation in Providence, Rhode Island, with my girlfriend, which I had just begun when the Trump victory (something that felt like America’s death sentence) was announced.

It’s also been about a month and a week since I started this blog. I originally planned to follow up my first post, a rundown of five of my all-time favorite horror novels, with a rundown of five of my all-time favorite non-horror novels. But with the wounds of the election still so fresh, I didn’t really feel up to being the guy saying “Hey people, I know we’re all scared of this rising, regressive new regime which values violent self-interest and religious fundamentalism over compassion, logic, or basic human rights… but, c’mon, let me tell you why I like Moby-Dick!” I’m sure I’ll get around to boring you with my fanboy gushing eventually, but for now I think I’ll take this opportunity to bore you with some pseudo-intellectual pop psychology, philosophical wankery, and Cliff’s Notes-style genre history lessons instead.

See, while everyone (including yours truly) was pissing themselves over the grim possibilities of life under Herr Trump, Bram Stoker Award-winning horror writer and fellow Pennsylvanian Brian Keene took to social media and posted the following message to his Facebook wall:

“A Message to Young Horror Writers:

Stephen King and Texas Chainsaw happened in the shadow of Watergate/Vietnam.

Splatterpunk happened in the shadow of Reagan.

Vertigo Comics happened in the shadow of Thatcher.

My generation’s success happened in the shadow of Bush Junior.

Now it’s your turn. Go write about monsters and truth, because that’s our job, and there’s folks your age that are going to need it. Horror always does well in times of trouble, because people are seeking to escape from the very real monsters of the world, and curl up with safe, comforting, make-believe monsters. Don’t let those people down.”

Well said, and totally accurate, though admittedly small comfort (upon first glance) to those of us more worried about the well-being of ourselves, our loved ones, our country, and even the world as a whole than about the quality of the media we consume or the profitability of creating it. In that vein, Keene was deluged with negative comments accusing him of shrugging off people’s very real concerns in favor of quipping something along the lines of “Well, at least the horror genre’s going to be booming again, hurr hurr.” I’m not going to sugarcoat it, there’s a teeny tiny kernel of truth inside that response. Like I said, Keene’s words totally accurate but also, on the surface at least, not much more than a very minor comfort. In the grand scheme of things, it feels like a virtually infinitesimal, utterly petty comfort indeed. It’s hard to give much of a shit about make-believe monsters when you’re worried about losing your health insurance, your right to marry, or even your citizenship.

That said, I think a lot of Keene’s detractors were merely lashing out, taking their fresh pain and fear out on someone who ultimately didn’t deserve it.

Someone who ultimately was right.

Make no mistake, Keene was right. Horror does thrive in times of strife. These things are facts, not opinions. In addition to the examples he provided, it’s worth noting that the explosion of so-called “torture-porn” in horror cinema (embodied by the Saw and Hostel franchises) happened in the shadow of the War on Terror, which shoved the brutal realities of combat, as well as graphic videos of hostages being beheaded, into the faces of a previously sheltered young generation. In the ’80s, the horror genre, in all its various forms and formats, became increasingly fixated with displays of gore, transformation, mutation, and disease, all in the wake of this new ravager of human bodies called AIDS. In the ’60s and ’70s, as New Age spiritualism rattled the cages of established Western religions, the Satanic sacrilege of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, and the like reached a fever pitch. In the midst of the ’50s, when Cold War anxieties and McCarthyist oppression closed in on the American psyche from both sides, the pop cultural zeitgeist was under constant invasion from body snatchers, shape-changing things from another world, and unstoppable, absorbing, individuality-erasing red blobs.

Why? Why does horror thrive in times of strife? Are audiences looking to replace their real-life terrors with more easily conquerable fictional ones? Or maybe horror booms not because of audience appetites, but because of creator motivations. Is part of horror’s function, perhaps, to hold a mirror up to society and show us its reflection, warts and all? Certainly a genre preoccupied with “bad things” will have a lot to work with in times when bad things are in no short supply.

Is this all a meaningful form of self-expression, an act of political protest, an indulgence in escapism, or just fear-mongering opportunism? I suspect, in truth, the answer is “all of the above,” though the dreamer in me would like to believe that the overall mixture is such that the fourth option is in the minority.

When all is said and done, few genres of art and entertainment can capture the heart of an age better than horror, because horror is the genre that, more than any other, recognizes that said heart is often quite black. Fear is an ever-present puzzle piece of the human experience; we never feel truly and completely safe. In that sense, it is a common ground that unifies us all.

Of course, art in general is at its most vital when emotions are heightened, when sometimes love or joy, but more likely dread or rage, burn in your veins with such heat that you just have to find a way to let some of it out, be it onto the page or canvas or whatever. That’s why horror never completely goes out of style. Looking at those times when it most definitely is in style, however, one surely finds that not only its popularity but also its overall quality tends to rise and fall alongside the misfortunes of man.

When Keene pointed this out, I think some of his readers misinterpreted it as an attempt to latch onto some kind of flimsy silver lining. I think, in the haze of their hysteria, they saw a sleazy, insensitive bid to ring personal benefit out of a situation that could otherwise spell real horror for millions of innocent people. They saw encouragement for aspiring writers (like myself) to take advantage of others’ misfortune, spinning pain into profit. But they failed to see what Keene’s real intent was, or what I at least believe it was.

That is, he was making a call to action.

Keene’s political viewpoints are different from my own, no doubt. But his call to action is about as apolitical as one can be. It’s not unlike the calls to action others have made as of late: A reminder that, yeah, you’re scared and angry and bitter, but there are a lot of other people out there who feel the same way, people suffering under even worse circumstances than yourself, and what those people need right now is for someone to help them out.

Look, I get it. You’re frightened. Maybe you feel betrayed. You want to crawl into a cocoon of selfishness and just not care anymore. As I said earlier, I’ve been there. I’m still there, to a degree. It’s taken me a long time to shake off the worry and the hopelessness. It’s not just sour grapes because my “side” lost in this election. I genuinely feel like the bad guys won here, and I believe a lot of people are going to get hurt and that a dangerous precedent has been set. This election was not just any old presidential election; the stakes were real.

They still are.

Here’s the thing we have to remember: A battle was lost, admittedly a very big battle, but the war goes on. You don’t get to give up. You don’t get to just throw in the towel because things are about to get a hell of a lot harder. You do that and you’re no better than the people who got us into this mess. More than ever, we need to stand together and strive even harder to make sure things keep going forward, not back. We have to be willing to go farther than we’ve ever gone before. We have to protect the people we love, defend those who cannot defend themselves, call out corruption and deception wherever we find it, and anytime we lose we have to get back up and go at it again. The bad guys won’t stop fighting to mold the world in their image. Being a good guy means that you don’t stop trying to mold it in yours either.

“Go write about monsters and truth, because that’s our job, and there’s folks your age that are going to need it,” Keene said. He wasn’t talking about making the best of a bad situation. He was talking about doing your best even within a bad situation. There’s a difference.

As different as his politics may be from mine, I know Keene isn’t a fool. He isn’t selfish or callous. Nor is he so consumed with being a writer that writing is all he cares about. When he said “go write” he wasn’t saying to do only that. He was saying to continue on, continue standing up for what you believe in, but also remember that, as a writer, you have an additional tool in your toolbox that a lot of other people don’t have. You have a forum through which to help your fellow man in a manner that is important and meaningful in its own way. You can engage with your own fears and the fears of others. You can be the comfort for someone else that you yourself have sought.

So go out and contribute. Do something. Campaign for positive change. Donate to charities. Protest against inequalities. Run for office. Raise awareness. Stand vigilant. Speak out. Volunteer. Vote. And through it all, write. If you’re a writer, you write. That’s what you do. Take all of your anxieties and use them as fuel for your own fiction. Take that fiction and use it to attack the demons plaguing the world we live in, or use it to comfort readers who feel alone in their terror. Better yet, do both!

Don’t just crumble under the weight of your fear, sorrow, and rage.

Do something about it.