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Notes from Godzilla Week

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"I'm totally old-school Godzilla," snorted Master Right.  "It's gotta be a guy in a suit.  None of this computer animation bullshit. That's cheating."

It's Godzilla Week across the Fatherland on Channel Five, and my husband is pumped. 

I learned he was a Godzilla snob early in our relationship.  Having just moved to Tokyo, and wanting to immerse myself in Japanese culture, I gathered some classics of the Japanese cinema on the still-novel medium of DVD.  Among them was Destroy All Monsters (1968), which many fans consider the consummate Godzilla flick. 

"You know," he recalled as he picked the box from the shelf, "this was the very first movie I was ever allowed to attend at the cinema in Kobe, on my own."  Unthinkable nowadays, my future husband would have been five years old.  

He took his discovery as a sign that we were Meant To Be.  For two blokes, things like this amount to a romantic moment.  I can't recall being so misty-eyed since he bought me an orbital sander. 

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Americans first encountered Godzilla in a 1956 release called Godzilla, King of the Monsters.  (Trailer here) But that was a poor reflection of the original Godzilla from 1954. (Trailer here)

In the original, US H-Bomb testing in the Pacific arouses a sleepy sea monster, Gojira.  Japanese speakers hear echoes of two words in his name; the English gorilla, and kujira, meaning "whale".  For centuries, natives of a nearby island kept him out of their hair with the odd virgin sacrifice, but all this nuclear tomfoolery has messed the guy up.  He now has atomic-breath, indestructible skin, and a bad attitude. 

His attitude is a bit hard to figure out, sometimes.  Godzilla helps and protects mankind from time to time, and equally often he just tromples buildings and eats trains.  You don't know what he's going to do.  Dude is out of control. That's the scary part.

Neither good nor bad, but powerful and dangerous—many have written that Godzilla is a metaphor for nuclear power.  Some have suggested that Godzilla, an impulsive leviathan, embodies the United States.  Both make sense, when we think about the tenor of the time, and what fate had befallen the nation less than a decade before.

The parallels were so stark, that American distributors edited the film heavily before its stateside release.  They even went  so far as to shoot an extra twenty minutes of footage, casting Raymond Burr as the young reporter Steve Martin (no relation) who explains events into a dictaphone for posterity, reminding us how serious it all is.  The performance calls to mind his later work as Perry Mason, but without, like, the acting.

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Master Right is a child of the late Showa period, so he's in it strictly for the camp value.  The overacting, preposterous plots, and obvious terror devices earn an ironic—but amused—roll of his eyes. 

One of the most obvious terror devices, employed everywhere, is creepy familiarity.  We see icons that we know and love, bite the dust.  That's why every disaster movie set in New York shows the Statue of Liberty, right?

Few viewers from across the world realise exactly how familiar—and accurate—were the models that Godzilla crushed and torched.   In Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla pops up in New York and flattens the newly-constructed UN Building as a warm-up on his way to Tokyo for the main event.  If he had nuked the Empire State Building instead, that would be rubbing King Kong's nose in it, I fear. 

I once lived in that very Manhattan neighbourhood, and can vouch for the model's authenticity.  To the left, the big chap eyeballs a tasty-looking Tudor City, and on the right, the delicious Beekman Tower.  

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Master Right and I can vouch for his Tokyo exploits, too.  We lived in a small two-chome neighbourhood not far from the centre of the city, nestled among the louche gaijin of Roppongi, liquored-up civil servants faking overtime in Akasaka, pompous leaders doing deals in Kasumigaseki (Tokyo's Whitehall or Manuka), salarymen copping a feel at the hostess bars of Shimbashi, and the Emperor himself at the palace.  In the course of several movies, Godzilla would play merry hell with all our neighbours. 

The original film shows him attacking the Diet (Parliament).  Mostly, though, he headed for the mid-rise skyskraper district where our apartment perched.  Destroy All Monsters might confuse the casual visitor, but locals reckon Godzilla beached up around Hamamatsucho, slap-bang in our neighbourhood.  There's even a statue of Godzilla in nearby Hibiya Park, since it is—if you'll pardon the expression—his old stomping ground.

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Given the events of the 21st century so far, such casual depiction of mass destruction in the name of entertainment makes me feel a little uneasy.  Do individuals, or even nations, who have suffered lose their taste for stories of further tragedy?  Godzilla suggests not.   Does it actually help people process horror they otherwise cannot comprehend?  That, perhaps, would go too far.

Tonight, as we sit in front of the Fernseher, watching Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah (2003), we laugh as an unsuspecting band of camera-wielding Japanese tourists are caught unaware by history's most beloved radioactive dinosaur.   Hey, Shark Week is for wimps.

 Images are taken from trailers for the 1954 and 1956 Godzilla movies, and the 1968 Destroy All Monsters.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism. If you use these images, similar conditions apply.

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