Saturday 12 March 2011

Homage to Japan – Catching Up With the Fukushima State of Emergency

Illusions depend a great deal upon not being in full possession of the facts. To see the kaiju eiga genre as the obsession of a culture repeatedly rehearsing its unvoiced fears of nuclear obliteration or natural catastrophe is to explain little and to obscure a great deal more. It is also an attitude based upon a very selective view of Japan’s filmic output. For example, in the decade that witnessed the rise of Godzilla, films explicitly confronting Japan’s continuing nuclear nightmare, such as Kaneto’s Shindo’s Children of Hiroshima and Lucky Dragon No. 5, were also being released. Ishiro Honda himself had visited Hiroshima in 1946 and had wanted to convey in Gojira some of the horrors which he experienced there. Unfortunately, the film’s references to bomb shelters, Nagasaki and its pleas for nuclear disarmament were deleted from the English-language version by its American distributors. Godzilla, however, had already selected a very different target for himself. It was a disaster area still waiting to happen, and each time he returned to it, he became more a part of its future than its past.

By 1945, Allied air raids had reduced most of Tokyo to smoking embers. Its predominantly wooden buildings had burned easily, resulting in the destruction of three-quarters of a million houses and the deaths of 100,000 of the city’s inhabitants. A further three million were left homeless. Today, as well as being one of the principal centres of world economic activity, the greater Tokyo area also houses an astonishing 25% of Japan’s entire population. This vast urban sprawl has come to be regarded by many as the ultimate megalopolis: the first city of the 21st Century. The planners and engineers responsible for its safety have also described it as a ‘disaster amplification mechanism’: a term which could just as easily be applied to Godzilla himself.

There is, however, something both reassuring and unsettling about the Tokyo which Honda and Tsuburaya had Godzilla smash so repeatedly. It never changed. No matter how far into the future the films were set, Tokyo always returned looking the same. In a universe increasingly populated by alien invaders, female psychics, killer androids and giant mecha, Tokyo’s vast centre-less sprawl seemed to expand into time and space, eternally rising unchanged from its own rubble. The more Godzilla demolished it, the more it came back, determined to survive.

From Tokyo Must Be Destroyed: Dreams of Tall Buildings and Monsters, written after the Kobe Earthquake, 1995

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