Sunday 17 June 2018

Godzilla: The King of Monsters - and a Metaphor for Japanese Angst

The Godzilla Head in Shinjuku
Tokusatsu (特撮) live action films and dramas full of special effects, especially those featuring actors in superhero (think Kamen Rider) and giant monster (kaijū =怪獣) suits, reflect a very Japanese type of popular entertainment. Godzilla is perhaps the best known of these characters, though the original 1954 film was heavily influenced by King Kong and other Hollywood giant monster movies. Nevertheless, Godzilla (gojira =ゴジラ in Japanese, a blend of gorilla and kujira or whale) is a much loved Japanese icon that continues to fascinate movie goers: the 45th (and final?) movie starring the prehistoric city stomping sea-monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation was the 2016 "New Godzilla".

Godzilla cake set in Hotel Gracery, Shinjuku
Recent years have seen an explosion of new sites for Godzilla fans to visit. In April 2015, a giant Godzilla head was unveiled on top of the Shinjuku Toho Building, the film studio behind the original 1954 film. It stands around 50m above ground level which is also roughly the same size as the original 1954 Godzilla and on the hour sound and smoke comes from its mouth. The adjacent Hotel Gracery is something of a shrine to the irradiated monster with film posters (pictured), models, and even a special cake set (also pictured). Interestingly, the monster was appointed special resident and tourism ambassador for Shinjuku at the unveiling, which is the longest in a long list of non-humans, including the dress up doll Licca-chan and various sea-lions in Tokyo Bay, to be presented with residency certificates (jūmin-hyo =住民票) - much to the chagrin of foreign residents lacking such certification.

A new Godzilla statue also appeared in March this year in front of the Hibiya Chanter, the commercial complex in Yurakucho, Tokyo and the square was renamed "Hibiya Godzilla Square". The statue itself is disappointingly small though, standing at only 3m tall, but is pretty close in appearance to the Godzilla in the 2016 blockbuster. Another tourist stop on the Godzilla tour of Tokyo is the Godzilla-like image painted on the platform of Shinagawa Station marking the origin or start point (tetsudō hasshō no chi=鉄道発祥の地) of the circular Yamanote Line. If you still haven't had enough of Godzilla, you might finally try the new live-action Godzilla-themed escape game, also in Shinjuku, which opened this April.

Godzilla is actually more than just a pop culture icon - it also reveals much about the Japanese psyche and the hopes and fears of Japanese society itself. In the first place, the monster was conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons against the background of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 2011 earthquake and nuclear disasters gave Godzilla even more relevance as a broader metaphor for Japanese victim-consciousness and bureaucratic incompetence in the face of disaster; indeed, the key theme of the 2016 film was the lack of responsibility and flexibility demonstrated by Japanese so-called decision-makers in a nation paralysed by dependency and protocols. This is no fantasy; for example, the official report on the Fukushima nuclear disaster concluded that the fundamental causes were to be found "in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” No wonder Godzilla keeps coming back...

NOTE: I'll be taking a few weeks off, but normal service will be resumed mid-July. Watch this space! In the meantime, why not browse through any posts you missed, or search by preferred theme: there are 139 posts in total! Of course, if you have any comments, ideas, or requests do please get in touch using the feedback box on the right.