Saturday, November 25, 2006

As monster movies, Gojira and Godzilla share an unusual quality: neither has a real action hero. The hero who sacrifices his life to destroy the monster is a scientist, and he has a relatively minor part in the film. The central human figure in Gogira is another scientist—the elder, Professor Yamane, played by one of Japan’s most distinguished actors, Takashi Shimura. He would play the lead in another 1954 release, the first Japanese film to become widely known in the U.S.—Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (known to filmmakers first, as it became the basis for the 1960 western, The Magnificent Seven, and years later, one of the models for Star Trek: Insurrection.)

Professor Yamane leads an expedition to investigate other ship disappearances, and to a small island where villagers believe the “mythical” sea beast they call Gojira is responsible. Gojira comes ashore, preceded by a violent storm—again, it’s an inexplicable event that doesn’t occur when Gojira appears later, but it is clearly reminiscent of an atomic blast. But it is also like a typhoon, which (along with the ancient monster story) relates to a sub-theme of this and some other atomic monster movies: with the atomic bomb in particular but with a lot of modern technology in general, humankind was deforming nature, and playing with forces within nature that we may not be able to control.

The theme of humanity deforming nature with technology, and taking power into human hands that humans may not be capable of controlling, is at the center of what many consider the very first science fiction story---Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a theme throughout science fiction ever since (Star Trek may have been notable for showing the positive future that technology could help to create, but it had its share of cautionary tales about technology gone amuck, with major assistance from human weakness.)

This theme is carried forward in Gojira on these two tracks: the human ability to control nature (in for instance the lingering shots of birds in cages, fish in tanks) and the consequences of nature’s power unleashed (symbolized by the monster from the deep and from the deep past), as well as the consequences of deforming nature. That’s the role of radiation in atomic films, and in this one in particular. For while investigating on this island, Professor Tanabe finds Gojira’s huge footprint. And the water and soil in it are radioactive.

According to the commentary, the design of Gojira was meant to reflect a beast disfigured by radiation. Tanabe immediately wonders how it survived —and surmises that because it did, Gojira would be even more dangerous.

Photos of Bomb victims in Hiroshima disfigured by blast, burns and radiation had been widely circulated, even in the U.S., by the mid 1950s. The effect of radiation in creating mutations in the children of those exposed was also well-known, although U.S. officials continued to deny this. So the idea of disfiguring mutation was a starkly frightening part of atomic lore, expressed symbolically, mostly in these atomic monster movies.

Mutation would be an even greater source of anxiety in Japan, because that’s where some of the first evidence emerged, not only as a result of Hiroshima, but of nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific. The U.S. physician and writer, Dr. David Bradley, re-published his best-selling book on the 1946 postwar atom bomb tests, No Place to Hide, and included new information, such as the results of a study of 406 Pacific islanders (probably very similar to those depicted in Gojira) who were exposed to H-Bomb fallout in 1954: nine children were born retarded, ten more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be "not recognizable as human."

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