Fat Godzilla, Caucasian samurai and giant robots - The Asianisation of Hollywood films
Hollywood directors and studios have slowly become more open towards embracing concepts originating from Asian popular culture
Whenever celebrities gain or lose too much weight, the internet goes ballistic.
This time, the celebrity in question is Godzilla.
Warner Bros. has released a new trailer and several images of their upcoming reboot of the Godzilla mythos, due to open in Hong Kong on May 15. The monolithic monster looks bulkier than usual, and Japanese internet commentators have not missed the golden opportunity to scream about how American filmmakers have supersized Mr. Zilla, perhaps on a diet of fries and burgers.
Watch: Godzilla (2014) trailer
Personally, I like chubby Godzilla and think he looks like a scaly teddy bear. I’m also not surprised that people are kvetching about the outward appearance of a gargantuan fictional lizard, because the number one rule of the internet is that bloggers will always find an excuse to complain about something.
By focusing on Godzilla’s weight, they are missing the bigger and far more interesting picture – the movie’s marketing scheme. In many of the early posters, Godzilla’s Japanese heritage is quite visible, with the katakana characters for the monster’s original name, Gojira, stamped behind the film’s English logo.
Those familiar with the first 1954 Godzilla movie, a surprisingly depressing and disturbing affair, know that the titular monster is born from nuclear radiation caused by World War II’s atom bombs.
Although much of this subtext was removed in the edited American release, which inserted a token Caucasian main character to make the film “friendlier” for international audiences, the original Japanese version has numerous scenes of savage destruction that mirror the horrors sustained by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Apparently, Godzilla’s origins as a creature born from nuclear war will be kept intact in the 2014 reboot, which also features scenes set in Japan. Ken Watanabe, Hollywood’s go-to actor for all things Japanese, is even getting top billing.
All of this makes the new Godzilla film seem fairly confident about wearing its “Asian-ness” on its sleeve, which is something that the last American remake lacked. Tristar Pictures’ 1998 version largely cast aside the giant lizard’s backstory as a byproduct of World War II, making him just another movie monster.
Keen to not make the same mistake, director Gareth Edwards has said in promotional interviews that the goal for the 2014 reboot was to “take something that was very Japanese [and] belonged to Japan, and bring it to America”.
Edwards’ statement reflects a larger Hollywood trend that has originated within the last ten years. Today, we live in the age of computer generated wizardry, a time where no story is too outlandish and a film with the title Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) can be greenlit. Nothing is off-limits in the world of cinema, and in a quest to seek out the most exotic imagery, directors and studios have become more open towards embracing increasingly foreign concepts, including ones originating from Asian popular culture.
The Forbidden Kingdom, a 2008 film starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, is an early example of Hollywood dipping into the Far East melting pot of inspiration. Released at a time when fantasy franchises like Harry Potter were at the height of their popularity, The Forbidden Kingdom stars a young boy played by Michel Angarano who ends up discovering the staff of the legendary Monkey King in a Boston Chinatown shop. He ends up being transported into the past, and the entire movie quickly turns into a flashy (and somewhat corny) interpretation of the ancient Chinese story Journey to the West.
While The Forbidden Kingdom might have looked at China for inspiration, Japan remains the popular Asian favorite with Hollywood filmmakers. Last year saw not one, not two, but three films featuring Japanese elements. The first, Pacific Rim, was a movie with giant robots fighting monsters, a direct homage to 1970’s anime like Mazinger Z.
The second, 47 Ronin, was a surreal re-telling of the actions of several real-life samurai who fought to avenge their fallen master at the dawn of the 18th century.
And the third, The Wolverine, was a take on the titular Marvel Comics character that saw him battling yakuza atop Tokyo trains and starring alongside veteran Japanese actors who mainly communicated to each other in their native language.
47 Ronin was a box office flop, possibly because Hollywood executives, having learned little from the original American release of Godzilla, insisted on making the movie more accessible for Western audiences by shoehorning Keanu Reaves in as a “half Japanese half British” samurai.
Pacific Rim and The Wolverine fared better – although both films underperformed in the United States, huge openings in China and Japan boosted their overall gross to around US$400 million each, making eventual sequels likely.
One could argue that Hollywood’s increasingly noticeable love affair with the East is a shallow one, and that even when a movie like The Forbidden Kingdom prominently features the Monkey King, he’s really just window dressing, playing second fiddle to a Caucasian protagonist.
Still, it is doubtful that Hollywood would have even considered making a big-budget version of Journey to the West twenty years ago. And progress has certainly been made since the 1940s and 50s, when most movies “set in the Orient” featured white actors in yellow-face. (John Wanye himself played Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror, a notoriously terrible film.)
If 2014’s Godzilla fares well at the box office, it’s likely that Hollywood will continue mining Asian concepts for feature films. Avi Arad, producer of the Spider-Man series, has already announced his desire to create an epic Chinese superhero saga based on the Terracotta Warriors.
Arad’s movie, along with all future inspired-by-Asia films, will undoubtedly be far from perfect. Source material will be twisted and Asian actors will likely be delegated to supporting roles rather than main ones. But small victories must come first. The new Godzilla reboot keeps the monster’s cultural backstory intact and his Japanese name emblazoned upon promotional materials, and that’s at least something. Hopefully, future Western movies steeped in Asian popular culture will only build on this foundation of respect.
And if the price of a more internationally minded Hollywood is Godzilla gaining some baby fat, then so be it.