My Take

Japanese psyche reflected in monsters

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 3:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 5:08am

In his masterpiece Embracing Defeat, US historian John Dower gives a panoramic view of post-war Japan, from the books and movies ordinary people read and watch to high policy conflicts between Tokyo and Washington. Yet, in hundreds of pages, there is not a single mention of Godzilla, the influential 1954 classic about the giant reptile that came to embody the Japanese mistrust of science, fear of nuclear annihilation and anti-Americanism.

No, I am not talking about the latest Hollywood 3-D version which has the reptile's diehard fans in Japan up in arms because it has grown too fat.

The 60th-anniversary digital restoration of Godzilla: The Japanese Original has just been released. The original is as much about the wounded Japanese psyche as it's about the country's love-hate relationship with its American conqueror-cum-liberator. It is like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula. They arose out of primal fear but have early on been turned into kitschy remakes, their real psychic disturbance neutered by commercialism.

The movie's original Japanese viewers in 1954 would have instantly recognised the references of Godzilla's radioactive fire-breathing, its awakening from the deep sea by a nuclear weapon test and its merciless destruction of Tokyo. Earlier that year, the news was full of reports about a Japanese crew that was exposed to massive radiation after their fishing boat strayed into a US nuclear bomb-testing zone off the Bikini Atoll. Memories of the fire-bombing of Tokyo by the Americans, as well as of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were still fresh in audiences' minds. The movie's special effects director cut his teeth by building war-planning models for the Japanese military during the second world war.

The movie was bought by American distributors who promptly removed all the anti-American and nuclear-war references, and inserted a dodgy American character to make it more "audience-friendly" during the McCarthy era.

With the rise of China and the fear it provokes in Japan, you wonder if a comparable monster or apparition will appear from the collective artistic unconscious of the Japanese.

After Godzilla, what Chinese monster awaits the Japanese?