2014 Archives

Godzilla’s Back, With Moral Authority


The following is from the April 29, 2014, edition of The New York Times. William Tsutsui, dean of SMU's Dedman College and an expert on Godzilla, provided expertise for this story.

May 15, 2014


There are at least three versions of Godzilla stalking the landscape this Spring. There’s the campy, frat-boy Godzilla who parties and water skis in the Snickers candy bar commercial. There’s the apocalyptic, computer-generated terror who roars at us with a gale-force voice in the trailers for the Hollywood blockbuster due out next month. And making its way quietly through select theaters across the country is the 60th anniversary restoration of the original Godzilla classic — featuring a mere actor in a latex monster suit.

The new Hollywood version will have the advantage of a zillion dollar budget. But it will take an impressive act of filmmaking for it to approach the technically primitive original in terms of moral heft or narrative ambition.

It is widely understood today that nuclear radiation can kill you quickly, or torture you grotesquely before killing you weeks, months or even years later. That understanding was yet to come when the United States atomic bomb hit Hiroshima in August of 1945. The death that stalked survivors after the blast, maiming and whittling them down before finally taking their lives, seemed a malevolent, invisible force with a will of its own.

These aftereffects had a profound impact on Ishiro Honda, who passed through the bomb stricken city as a Japanese soldier. As a filmmaker, Honda made it his mission to create an anti-nuclear fable that would give radiation a visible form. He and his collaborators came up with an irritable, 160-foot reptile who demolished a painstakingly constructed miniature of Tokyo for the first time in 1954. To underscore the monster’s atomic origins, the creators fitted him out with thermonuclear breath, and skin covered with the keloid-type scarring that was common among people who had suffered radiation burns.

As the historian William Tsutsui notes in his ode to the monster, “Godzilla On My Mind,” the matter-of-fact depictions of death, injury and mass destruction were uncommon for monster movies at the time and had a potent effect on Japanese. He writes that they “watched the destruction of Tokyo — and subsequently of Godzilla — in respectful silence, sometimes leaving the theaters in tears.”

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