Thursday, May 15, 2014

Culture Shock 05.15.14: Changing Godzilla reflects a nation's mood

Godzilla first stomps Tokyo in 1954's "Godzilla."
One of my earliest movie-going memories is my grandmother taking me to a Saturday matinee showing of "Godzilla on Monster Island," aka "Godzilla vs. Gigan."

This was Godzilla smack in the middle of his kid-friendly phase. During the 1970s, Godzilla kiddie matinees were common. It was the high tide of Godzilla's popularity in America.

Blue Oyster Cult released its 1977 album "Spectres," which included the single "Godzilla." Mattel produced a popular Godzilla toy (with spring-loaded claw and flicking tongue) that now fetches hundreds of dollars on eBay. NBC aired Hanna-Barbera's now-infamous "Godzilla" cartoon featuring Godzilla's dorky nephew Godzooky. And Marvel Comics published 24 issues of "Godzilla: King of the Monsters," which saw Godzilla square off against the Avengers, SHIELD and other Marvel heroes.

Godzilla vs. the Avengers!
Apart from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, about which the less said the better, these American Godzillas kept him in his original role — a chaotic and destructive force of nature — rather than adopting the "protector of Earth" role Godzilla had by then assumed in Japan. For many Americans, Godzilla's hero period is yet another inexplicable artifact from the culture that is Japan.

In the Japanese context, it makes perfect sense. Many things about Godzilla may change, but for 60 years one thing has remained constant: Godzilla is Japan's most reliable mood indicator.

The original "Godzilla," aka "Gojira," opened in Japanese cinemas on Nov. 3, 1954, less than a decade after Japan's defeat in World War II and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a bleak and somber film, much more so than the Raymond Burr version most Americans have seen.

The '54 "Godzilla" is the product of a Japan still reeling from defeat, and Godzilla, a prehistoric creature awakened by atomic bomb tests, is a terrifying reminder of nuclear disaster.

That's the part Godzilla would play until the mid-'60s. With 1964's "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster," Godzilla began to change. Toho, the studio that produced the Godzilla films, began pushing the character in a more heroic direction, having him team up with two other monsters, Rodan and Mothra, to fight the outer-space menace of Ghidorah. By "Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster" two years later, the transformation was complete. In that film, Godzilla defeats a terrorist army and its giant lobster monster, and in the process helps save the terrorists' captives.

Godzilla's flying dropkick in "Godzilla vs. Megalon" (1973).
Godzilla's change coincided with increasing Japanese confidence. In the '60s, Japan was a growing economic power. Also, it had begun building its first nuclear power facilities, taming for peaceful purposes the same atomic power that had leveled two of its cities and given birth to Godzilla in the first place. If the atom could be tamed, Godzilla could be, too.

Nowhere is the transformation more pronounced than in 1971's "Godzilla vs. Hedorah," aka "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster," which pits Godzilla against a monster literally made of pollution. Godzilla here is completely domesticated. Children play with Godzilla toys, while Godzilla might as well be a cheerleader for nuclear power over smoke-belching factories.

The next change comes in the 1980s. Godzilla returns to his "force of nature" mode just as Japan reaches a peak of national prestige. Then by 1991's "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," Godzilla is saving Japan from time travelers who want to prevent Japan from becoming the future's dominant world power. Ironically, that was just as Japan's "lost decade" of stagnation began — pride before a fall.

So, Toho killed off Godzilla in 1995's "Godzilla vs. Destoroyah" only to revive him as a leaner and meaner monster in 1999's "Godzilla 2000," a symbol of what Japan needed to become to regain its confidence. (The Japanese don't regard the 1998 American-made "Godzilla" as a true Godzilla, and neither do I.) Then, after five more films, Fukushima happened.

So, now comes a new, American-made "Godzilla," the first Godzilla film since 2011's tsunami-spawned Fukushima meltdown. As Blue Oyster Cult sang, "History shows again and again how nature points up the folly of men."

In Fukushima's wake, Japan's answer is to let someone else deal with Godzilla for a while.

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