Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Godzilla and the Sendai Tsunami

The Sendai earthquake and tsunami have obliterated  most of the coast of northern Japan. Photos of the disaster liook like Hiroshima and Nagasaki sixty-five years ago.  Ground Zero, all over again. So I felt guilty that I was thinking of Godzilla (Gojira)at a time like this. But one survivor did say, "It's like a horror movie" so maybe I'm not alone. Godzilla films are much deeper than plain schlock.

Godzilla rises from the oceans, part dinosaur, part sea god, leaving a trail of radioactive footprints.  He appears first in an idyllic fishing village - a lot like the Sendai coast -- then marches on to Tokyo which he rips apart with his fiery breath. All the might of the military are tuned on him. Here, he's tearing apart electricity towers. But guns and bombs don't work. Finally, he's killed by a good scientist who sacrifices himself, not to stop Godzilla, but to destroy the dangerous weapon he has invented.The scientist had wanted to save Godzilla to studyhi, but was overruled.

Godzilla is a post-nuclear King Kong, but with far more troubling connotations. The original Godzilla movie (1954) was made less than 10 years after Hiroshima so the implications are obvious. "I don't want it to be like Nagasaki again" says the pretty cub reporter. But it also connects to deep-seated anxieties about military/industrial power. Japan is vulnerable because it has few natural resources other than the drive of its people. By watching these films, audiences could exorcise their fears, rationalizing them in the way nightmares defuse terror. Community spirit is a way in which people can support each other when havoc reigns all round. But the underlying message is clear: don't mess with nature. "I don't think he was the only Gojira" observes the prfessor at the end."As long a man keeps experimenting with weapons, another Gojira will arise, somewhere in the world".

Most people n Japan may live in cramped apartus filled with kitsch, and use metro systems so crammed they have to be pushed on board but the fundamental, ideal aesthetic is harmony. And war is the most obscene distortion of nature. With Fukushima in our minds we should take heed of what Godzilla stands for. He's not a villain. No simple answers. In the film, when Tokyo is destroyed, school girls sing a Hymn of Peace. It's dignified, elegant, an extremely moving expression of hope. At the end, the theme returns as the people salute the scientist who gave his life to protect the community. It's not armies that bring peace, but the altruism of ordinary human beings.

As I was reading up to write this I came across an article in the NY Times on the exact same theme. Read Japan's Long Nuclear Disaster Film by Peter Wynn Kirby who actually lives not far away in Oxford. 

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