On ‘Gojira’ (Godzilla) 1954—A Natural Embodiment of a Man-Made Disaster

“To say that this Oriental monster is fantastic is to state but half the case. Godzilla, produced in a Japanese studio, is an incredibly awful film … the whole thing is in the cheap cinematic-horror stuff … ” (Crowther 1956).

Museum Visitors (Fantatom 2008)
(Factotum 2008)

In his review of the very first Gojira 1954 screening in the States, New York Times’ critic Crowther mercilessly bashed director Ishirō Honda’s sci-fi Kaiju film, dedicating a full paragraph to complaining that the iconic sequence of the nuclear-activated monster’s rampage through Tokyo carried little meaning and was done “for no clear reason”. Crowther’s blunt scorn might (understandably) enrage those who have already known the meaning behind this film—nuclear disaster and the loss and pain it brings. But one could also cut him some slack, for he spoke from the point of view of a person from a vastly different culture, and the ways we interpret a piece of art presented to us are melded in our frameworks and the cultural norms surrounding ourselves.

“Divergent interpretations emerge when there is a gap between the assumptions spectators bring with them to an encounter with a work and the understandings that framed the work’s creation and initial reception.” (Hubard 2007, p. 403)

bcm320 Gojira
Gojira 1954 (Illustration by me)

Yes, I do share some of Crowther’s thoughts about the poor-quality special effects or the tackiness of the man-in-the-rubber-dinosaur-suit scene (speaking of the suit, it actually has a name, Toho), which looks even clumsier now that CGI has become the standard practice. However, as a person coming from a collectivist, high-context, Asian culture similar to that of Japan (Hofstede 2001, cited in Jackson 2014, p. 289), with a fair share of knowledge about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki disasters, I could see through its flaws to see what Gojira conveys and to sympathise with the emotions it evoked in its first audience.

DrYamane_&_Emiko (jpninfo)
Paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) 2015

The interactions between characters, such as Dr Yamane and his daughter Emiko or Dr Serizawa and Ogata, stunned me for how familiar they were—the repressed emotions, the clear respect emanating (Nishimura et al. 2008, p. 790) from the ‘inferior’ person for their ‘superior’. The villagers’ collective panic and fear, the sense of a close-knitted community, also stroke a chord in me.

If the mentions of the mysterious nuclear power possessed by Gojira are not enough proof for the monster’s symbolic meanings, then the sequence of the havoc it wreaked all over Tokyo hit the nail on the head.

city_rubble
(City in debris n.d.)

The film did more than warning its audience about the potential disasters by careless use of nuclear weapons; director Honda had woven in multiple other themes, especially the conflict between pure scientific research and ethics.

DrSerizawaTo me, Dr Serizawa’s guilt also alluded to the very Japanese value of altruism, of how at all cost one must not harm nor inconvenience others—the value itself could make for a whole series of blog posts on how it’s upheld in contemporary Japanese society. It is ingrained in every citizen, for in their culture, the emphasis on social cohesion means that the needs and wants of groups must be prioritised over individuals (Jackson 2014, p. 359).

Live-tweeting Gojira was, no doubt, the most amusing experience I have had in this session. For the first time, I could watch so many of my classmates from different cultures reacting in such various ways to the same media text from a culture rather foreign to them.

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Oh and watching films with subtitles and tweeting at the same time? That, my friends, is what I’m proud to say I excel at.

Mia (Minh-Anh)


References:

  1. Crowther, B 1956, ‘Screen: Horror Import’, New York Times, 28 April, viewed 27 July 2018, <https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1956/04/28/94292106.html?action=click&contentCollection=Archives&module=ArticleEndCTA&region=ArchiveBody&pgtype=article&pageNumber=11>.
  2. Hubard, OM 2007, ‘Negotiating Personal and Cultural Significance: A Theoretical Framework for Art Museum Education’, Curator, vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 401-416.
  3. Jackson, J 2014, Introducing Language and Intercultural Communication, Routledge, New York.
  4. Kirby, PW 2011, ‘Japan’s Long Nuclear Disaster Film’, New York Times, 14 March, viewed 26 July 2018, <https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/14/japans-long-nuclear-disaster-film/>.
  5. Nishimura, S, Nevgi, A & Tella, S 2008, ‘Communication style and cultural features in high/low context communication cultures: a case study in Finland, Japan and India’, Renovating and developing didactics (ed Kallioniemi), pp. 783-796, <http://www.helsinki.fi/~tella/nishimuranevgitella299.pdf>.

Images:

  1. City in debris n.d., fourthreefilm, viewed 27 July 2018, <https://fourthreefilm.com/2014/05/godzilla-in-1954-and-the-fantasy-of-destruction/>.
  2. Destroyed 2016, Gojipedia, viewed 27 July 2018, <http://godzilla.wikia.com/wiki/File:Destroyed.gif>.
  3. Dr Serizawa in his lab n.d., ScifiMovieZone, viewed 27 July 2018, <http://www.scifimoviezone.com/scifi50s54.shtml>.
  4. Factotum 2008, Museum visitors, Street Phon’ography, viewed 27 July 2018, <http://moblog.net/view/856168/museum-visitors>.
  5. Gojira’s atomic breath 2015, giphy, viewed 27 July 2018, <https://giphy.com/gifs/films-1iyY1DcahP01a>.
  6. Paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) 2015, Japan Info, viewed 27 July 2018, <http://jpninfo.com/14977/paleontologist-dr-kyohei-yamane-takashi-shimura-and-his-daughter-emiko-momoko-kochi>.
  7. Rialto Pictures n.d., Gozilla circa 1954, National, viewed 27 July 2018, <https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/godzilla-a-walking-nuclear-reactor-1.243521>.

9 thoughts on “On ‘Gojira’ (Godzilla) 1954—A Natural Embodiment of a Man-Made Disaster”

    1. Hey Mia,

      First up, this might be the best blog I have ever seen, it looks amazing. I always look forward to seeing your tweets during class as they are always so interesting, you always seem to engage with the text in ways I would never think of.

      As someone from a non-Asian background, reading this blog and seeing how your cultural experiences influence your view of the film was very informative, as you bring up points about the character actions such as the Japanese sense of altruism, something that I don’t think you really see as much in Western films.

      I also really liked the way you engaged with the tweets from our other classmates to compare the differing views of the film as I think that they really show how our different backgrounds can affect our understanding of the same text.

      Lastly, I really enjoyed the more academic elements that you bring to this blog, the extra research that you put in really makes this blog extremely professional and informative in a way we could all learn from.

      Thanks for the amazing blog post and keep up the good work.
      -Daina

  1. Hey Mia,

    First of all, I have to say: your blog is amazing! I’m taking this class as an elective only; I don’t really have any digital skills, so I’m very impressed by the layout of your post – from the larger quotations, to putting your main points in bold. Also, how you included your tweets as images. How does one do that?

    As for the content itself, you made some really interesting insights. You obviously know quite a lot about Japanese culture. I’m curious, though – forgive me if I’m wrong, but you’re Vietnamese, right? I know next to nothing about Vietnam, but I imagine the cultures of Japan, Vietnam, Korea, etc. would be somewhat similar, so were there any elements of ‘Gojira’ that particularly surprised you or were very different to what you were expecting?

    Lastly, I particularly like that you identified several themes that you found in the film – the disaster of nuclear weapons, science vs ethics, altruism… Also, I find it interesting that we seem to come from very different backgrounds, but I identified with a lot of the same things in the movie as you did. Then again, you quoted Hofstede, and I know you’ve done some cultural linguistics classes – maybe our backgrounds aren’t as different as I thought.

    Overall, I really enjoyed this post, and I’m very much looking forward to the next!

    Kelsey

    1. Hi Kelsey,

      Thank you for the kind words! I’m so flattered 🙂

      As for embedding tweets as pictures, you could go to the tweet you want to embed, click on the little “V”-shaped arrow on the upper right corner, and choose ’embed tweet’–a little pop-up window will show you a line of HTML code that you could copy and paste into the post you’re drafting. Once you’ve pasted the code into the draft, click ‘preview’ and you’ll see how it’ll look like when your post is published :-D.

      Yes, yes I am Vietnamese–I’m so glad you remembered! Our culture does share very similar aspects with the Japanese culture, especially in the unspoken rule of repressing one’s emotions in social interactions, and the expected/required extreme, tangible respect for one’s superiors (i.e. those older, better educated, or more intellectual than one is).

      I love how we might actually have fewer differences between our backgrounds than you (and I, too) assumed. And I noticed that usually these shared values are about family and social relationships.

      I visited your blog and was so impressed by your passion for the Japanese culture! It’s refreshing to see someone from a Western background immerse themselves in a culture vastly different from them 🙂

      -Mia

  2. Hi Mia,

    Your blog post has been enormously useful and informative, and I enjoyed considering all of the ideas you have discussed. After watching the film and live tweeting I honestly felt a little lost and would struggle if someone asked me any direct questions about Godzilla. I feel enlightened reading from your perspective (being from an Asian culture) about different cultural themes, actions, and messages throughout the film.

    My initial opinions of Godzilla (1954) were similar to that of the western review and ‘bashing’ of the film by Crowther (1956) I felt that it was “awful, cheap cinematic-horror.” However, because we were able to live tweet and find information on the film while watching I was able to see it as a culturally rich, genre-creating film. And I can now appreciate your blog title “A Natural Embodiment of a Man-Made Disaster”.

    Through my university studies, I have in theory become familiar with Asian cultural elements such as collectivism, and it’s high-context nature, after going through your post I feel a little more understanding of how it plays out in real life. I now know that the interactions between the characters weren’t the common western assumption of an awkward moment or silence but as signs of respect and thoughtful acts of social cohesion.

    Thanks for the great insights.

  3. Hello hello, it’s Dylan here, your fellow countryman and classmate!

    It’s always nice to read your blog as it always open a new perspective for me. While being Asian has helped us understand the significance of Godzilla and how it meant for the powerless to feel restless in face of massive destruction. It certainly hard to get from someone who is on a higher stance. ‘Would we ever understand the pain of an ant?’ as one might say. However, through the live tweeting session I’ve come to understand the power of collective opinions and how they actually help in getting people to understand the context and importance of this movie.

    Though my view of Godzilla is a bit cynical as I look at how Japanese people are running away from their responsiblity post Nazism and colonialism. I think we should really consider the innocent people who were being forced to participate or indoctrinated to become what they had become. Furthermore, I’m glad that you pointed out various themes run in this movie that show the humanity within the script and the directing of Ishirou Honda. It might have come off as strange to the majority of Western audience as some couldn’t see through the acting, it seemed so obvious to us and I’m so happy that you have this blog to provide a different perspective.

    What a great read! Keep up the good work!

    1. Greetings, my fellow countryman!

      You made a valid point I hadn’t thought of, about how the film might be cynical since the Japanese ran from their responsibility post Nazism. Personally, I think it’s (to some extent) justifiable, since the nuclear attacks killed mostly civilians–those who did not really have a say in their country’s Nazism, and the film got that just right. It’s more about how innocent people are displaced and harmed in wars they do not wish for, I feel that’s the case.

      Thank you for the comment!

      -Mia

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