Utopias and Anti-utopias in Japanese Cinema
Art attempts to create the impossible with limited means. Sometimes this gives birth to works of greatness. Sometimes it leads to giant monsters.
‚Each summer a typhoon comes over the southern seas to Japan. Can you imagine what a typhoon is like? A mobile catastrophe. Additionally there are many volcanoes and earthquakes in Japan, therefore we have to live with this situation. Monsters are a metaphor for this situation. Japanese people are afraid but also in respect facing them. I suppose these feeling are incarnated in the giant monsters from Japan. During the war Japan was bombed. Many cities were turned into burning deserts. Within Japanese people the idea arose that someday all of our cities could simply disappear. That is a premonition rooted deeply in Japanese hearts.’ These words by Shinji Higuchi, special-effect-designer of the giant monster film GAMERA – REVENGE OF IRIS (1999), perfectly sum up the end of a cycle, when the traditional giant monster genre in Japan, the keiju-eiga, had long passed its climax. As the series of nuclear explosions happened in the power plant of Fukujima on March 11, 2011, reality broke into this metaphorical culture again. But originally this history began much earlier: right after the Second World War.
The incarnation of primal fear
Japan in the year 1955 – over a decade after the disastrous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the American air force: Near the island of Odo a huge battleship explodes virtually without any reason. Another army ship sent there to uncover the mystery is also destroyed by an unexplainable force. A huge part of the island seems to be under severe attack. Scientists discover huge footprints at the beach of Odo, seemingly radioactive and filled with sand grains and a ‘Trilobite’-crab which are located 10000 miles beneath the sea… Finally the scientists uncover the disastrous reason for all the destruction: a gigantic dinosaur walks the island. They call him Godzilla (from ‘godjira’, the ‘gorilla-whale’), inspired by an ancient myth. This beast is a mixture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, with the bonespikes on the back reminding of a Stegosaurus. Similar to a dragon’s deadly habit his breath consists of fire. This monster was awakened by the nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean and now is obviously very angry – seeking to destroy the creatures bothering him. Therefore Godzilla is heading towards Tokyo…
All the attempts to stop the giant (including a trap made of high voltage cables and an air force attack) fail. Godzilla crushes huge parts of the city. Within this crisis the administration turns to the scientists: A young man, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), presents his new invention, a mass destruction weapon: the ‘oxygene destroying bomb’, which is capable of sucking oxygen out of the water and disintegrating flesh in this process. This weapon seems to be even more dangerous than the monster itself. The scientist follows Godzilla onto the open sea and sets off the bomb, which kills all organic beings within several miles. Godzilla is destroyed. To prevent the weapon to be misused by the army the scientist burns all his papers and kills himself afterwards to insure that this doomsday weapon might never fall into the wrong hands…
The main source of inspiration concerning the films of the fifties was an American monster-film called THE BEAST FROM 20.000 FATHOMS (1953), where a Rhedosaurus (created by Ray Harryhausen) is revived by nuclear tests in the arctic circle and invades New York. On Coney Island it is trapped in the rollercoaster-construction and killed by an atom bomb (which seems to be no problem for New York). Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer at Toho-studios then, was impressed by this b-picture, which had such a huge success world wide. He stopped another film-production (BEHIND THE GLORY) in favour of recreating an own Japanese version of this monster-story. Although the contracts were already made there was still no certain idea how this monster could eventually look like. The working title DAI KAIJU NO KATEI NIMAU MARU (‘the beast from 20.000 miles beneath the sea’) pointed out the first idea by special effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya, who went for a giant octopus. Incidentally this was the same idea that Ray Harryhausen realised at that time for the film IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA. So Toho skipped the octopus and decided to create a tyrannosaurus-like monster, a predatory giant walking (or better: stomping) upright on two legs. Science-fiction-writer Shigeru Kayama developed the story and hundreds of storyboard-sketches were drawn in a hurry.
The protagonist of GODZILLA is played by the then popular Japanese actor Takashi Shimura who is also seen in Akira Kurosawa’s films RASHOMON, IKIRU and THE SEVEN SAMURAI. Director Inoshiro Honda, who already was a regular Toho-worker, also had strong connections with Kurosawa (even until KAGEMUSHA in 1980). The main difference to the sensational monster-films by Ray Harryhausen was the principal use of an actor in a rubber costume as GODZILLA rather than the miniature-stop-motion-effects from THE BEAST OF 20.000 FATHOMS. Only the mouth was directed by remote control and the heavy tail hung upon thin wires. To make the movements more ‘gigantic’ all GODZILLA-actions were filmed in slow motion. Only for some minor scenes a hand-puppet respectively a little mechanical model was used. The two actors in the GODZILLA-costume became a legend of their own. Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka could only carry the 50 kilo-costume for some minutes before they collapsed in the heat of the lights on the set. Nakajima went on to carry this costume in 12 following films… In GODZILLA he is also seen as a ‘normal’ actor: He plays the technician trying to kill the monster by activating the high voltage cables… The characteristic sound of GODZILLAs roars – which is very rarely heard in the first film – was created by an electronically distorted contrabass.
This film was also going to launch a new kind of film promotion predating the blockbuster-marketing of today. The film was finished in November 1954, after a production period of 180 days. From July on the marketing department of Toho had produced a radio series introducing the main protagonist to the public. GODZILLA had a budget of 60 Million Yen, which was three times the costs of an average Japanese movie then. But the huge success paid off.
GODZILLA is one of the few Japanese monster movies to emphasise human suffering as well as the physical destruction caused by the monster since GODZILLA is at least the metaphor for the atom-bomb. This encoding comes as no surprise as Japan is the only country to have actually been attacked with a nuclear weapon so far. The scene with the children’s’ chorus singing a hymn to the dead is reminiscent of this real background. The lost war and the disastrous after-effects of the atom bombing with thousands of people affected by the radioactivity appeared as a nation wide trauma to the Japanese people. According to their strange code of honour the Japanese officials decided to simply ignore these ‘shameful’ events with the result that the surviving victims of the bombing were never really accepted and cared for within Japanese society after the war. Even in school these wartime events are not analysed or taught until today. The naive idea of this film therefore worked on this level of encoded ‘Erinnerungsarbeit’ (‘memorial working’). ‘”Awakened” by the A-bomb and put to rest (again and again) by selfless Japanese scientists, Godzilla became a kind of barometer of the political mood. From punishment-figure-from-the-past he turned friendly and finally took to defending his country (right or wrong) from not only foreign monsters but also the machinations of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.’
For the American audience a purely Japanese film seemed inadequate back in the fifties. New scenes with Raymond Burr were filmed by Terry O. Morse and included in the overall shortened original version: Injured in a disaster that has destroyed most of Tokyo, foreign correspondent Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) recounts the events leading up to the catastrophe. This altered American version adds footage of Raymond Burr talking to Asian actors, interacting with characters from the original if the producers could arrange someone who resembled them from the back, or if he talked to them via telephone. Some scenes are dubbed, but most of the scenes are handled by having another actor explain and translate to Burr what the Japanese characters are saying. The American version cuts out a lot of the anti-nuclear stuff for the obvious reason that it was the USA that dropped the bomb on Japan…
Cold War reflections in Japanese genre cinema
After the huge success of GODZILLA Inoshiro Honda rearranged some of the familiar elements and produced this intergalactic war-film: CHIKYU BOEIGUN / THE MYSTERIANS (1957). There is not a lot of giant monster-action this time – only a Godzilla-like robot in the beginning causes some destruction round the area of Fujiyama…
Astronomer Ryoichi settles down in a small village for health reasons as suddenly, the village is destroyed by a forest fire. The next day, an earthquake virtually swallows up the village. Radiation is stated in the area. The military scientists are clueless – until a giant robot appears stomping down buildings and firing heat rays from its eyes. Bombs and canons seem to be useless, therefore the soldiers lead the robot to a bridge, which they bomb… The giant weapon of foreign origin falls into its death…
Later a huge luminous dome rises from the ground where once the village was located. The military forces assume their position. Soon the invaders from outer space mark themselves as Mysterians, former inhabitants of the planet Mysteroid, which was located between Mars and Jupiter. A nuclear war destroyed their homeland – and now they want to occupy some square-kilometres of land at the Fujiyama as well as intermarry with some human women – for their own race is severely damaged by radioactivity. ‘The Mysterians have chosen Japan as party headquarters, because (we are told) the Japanese represent the best qualities of humanity.’ At the same time the Mysterians insist that their mission is peaceful – that they only want to prevent the humans from using nuclear weapons and destroy their own civilisation. The robot had only been a demonstration of their superiority. Japan gets together with the United Nations and forms an attack-treaty. The Americans come up with a reflector weapon that will hit the enemy with his own weapons. With united forces the international team succeeds to blow the Mysterian station to pieces. The United Nations decide to stay united in case the Mysterians come back one day.
This kind of peaceful message appears somehow hypocritical for the Mysterians are clearly identified as anthropomorphic beings – dressed in coloured robes and funny motorbike-helmets. Their longing for land and women reminds of the mechanism of World War II-propaganda. The weapons used bear strong resemblance to phallic formations, while the Mysterian local station appears as a giant egg – a symbol for fertility and female sexuality. At first the human canons are melted by the Mysterian rays (castration), then the mission succeeds by a cigar-like rocket. This comes across as silly as it sounds – and finally the giant robot Mogella with his anteater-head seems to be nothing more than a gimmick to satisfy the needs of the monster-film-audience.
‘Although the plot isn’t particularly original, the concept of aliens using monsters as instruments of domination was quite unique. After this film, the idea has been used and re-used in many Japanese rubber-monster pics, including the cult fave DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), MONSTER ZERO (1965) and SPACE MONSTER GAMERA (1980).’ And once again a Japanese film uses the nuclear subtext as a revision of the own history. Therefor the Mysterians are only the projection of real human enemies.
Utopia of cultural superiority
In 1963 Honda returned with another Cold-War-inspired Science fiction film, that combines utopian and anti-utopian elements. In KAITAI GUNKAN / ATRAGON – UNDERWATER BATTLEBOAT the threat lies within the earth itself, not in the deep space. Miles beneath the sea the legendary kingdom of Mu sends out its agents to regain the power over the world. 12000 years ago – as the legend has it – Mu sunk into the sea – but it survived beneath thick walls, guarded by a giant sea-snake. That is how this Japanese Science fiction film puts it: ATRAGON.
Originally the legend of Mu was described in detail by James Churchward in the 1920ies. He claimed to be initiated into the secret of the Mu-empire by a Indian high-priest, instructed by ancient inscriptions which no one saw besides himself. In his books he tells the story of the first human beings living the continent of Mu located between the Fidji-islands and Hawaii. Atlantis and the ancient Egypt would have been colonies of Mu, a population of over 60 million inhabitants. 12.000 years ago Mu was destroyed by earthquakes – but the people of Mu managed to spread over the continents and were the founders of many different races. It should not be obscured that this theory of (Aryan) origin perfectly fits into the racist ideas of that time Churchward lived in… The film ATRAGON only refers to the name of Mu, and exploits this myth to tell a colourful fairy tale of hypermodern technical superpower versus ancient ideology…
Here Mu’s agents try to kidnap the beautiful photo model Makoto Shinguji (Yoko Fujiyama) because they are after her father, who disappeared shortly after the world war and now hides on a deserted island where he created his secret weapon to avenge Japan: Shinguji (Yu Fujiki) is this chief in command of the atomic ‘super-submarine’ Atragon, an elaborate machine which is able to swim, dive and fly as well as to drill through massive rocks. Shinguji seems to be a Japanese nationalist who never accepted the ‘fall’ of Japan after the second world war.
Fashion photographer Hatanaka (Tadao Takashima), who is in love with Makoto, decides to fight against the menace from beneath the sea side by side with the girl. When the Japanese government is informed by the plans of Mu to invade the country, they send their battle-submarine ‘Red Devil’. This mission ends as a failure. The boat never returns. Finally they find out where Shinguji lives, but he refuses to collaborate – he is only interested in revenge for the lost war. But when his daughter and Hatanaka are finally kidnapped by an agent of Mu he goes to war. With the multiple weapon systems of his boat he kills the guardian serpent, invades Mu and threatens these people, which possess the newest in technology and the most ancient of totalitarian systems. His daughter, her friend and the world are saved in a final big bang…
ATRAGON is a psychedelic pop art colour-feast working on a mainly sensual level in all its intellectual naivety. All the stereotypes of childish event cinema are present: a stubborn patriotic warrior, a young hero in love, a beautiful lady, agents of a dark conspiracy order, some dumb but sympathetic fools, and – not to forget – the rubber monster. But the main attraction of this film is not the monster but the submarine ATRAGON itself with its unbelievable abilities; and there is the fantasy-world of Mu – an underwater kingdom reminiscent of the Atlantis myth and the inner-earth theory of Edward Bulwer Lytton in his novel The Coming Race alike. Despite some monster-action the screen-time of the huge sea-snake is very limited. This monster looks exactly like a Chinese dragon and is well known from the publicity photos of this film.
There is a lot of unintended humour involved: In the beginning Mu-agent 23 kidnaps a man with a fake taxi. When his victim touches agent 23’s shoulder he cries out hysterically: the kidnapper seems to be boiling hot! A little later the taxi sinks into the bay and one witness realises the bubbling and steaming water, which leads to the question: ‘What is cooking there?’ The agent is later referred to a ‘the steam-man’. – When the protagonists are brought to Mu, the present cultists, who immediately decide to sacrifice them, look like early Japanese pop-idols with their multi-coloured wigs and pseudo-egypt costumes… Even the Jules-Verne-elements in the second half of the film seem more like a parody of his novel ‘20.000 Miles beneath the sea’. But probably it is exactly the use of miniature models during the actions scenes which make such event movies that fascinating for children: they simply see their toys in action.
Keiju-eiga as utopia?
All Keiju-eiga and related Science fiction films from Japan share a balance between utopian and anti-utopian elements: A pure anti-utopia like the George Orwell-adaptation 1984 (1984) for example does not appear. Either the system itself or the invading super power stands in for the anti-utopian idea, yet it is confronted with a steady nationalism and belief in the own superiority by Japanese heroes in the 1960s genre films. The positive utopian aspects are often connected with new technical inventions which a without doubt very dangerous but may be used in favour of the people. The anti-utopian aspects are either ancient forces awakened by abuse of technology or superior technology used by the non-Japanese enemies.
In the early 1970s the Keiju-eiga took a strange turn when some of the monsters, especially Godzilla himself, now seemed to change its destructive character and became a guardian angel for Japan to be called whenever danger was approaching. These new breed of Keiju-eiga focussed on very young audiences and helped promoting the connected merchandising like rubber-dinosaurs. Also the budgets were cut and special effects suffered significantly during that era. The last time the concept had worked was Ishiro Honda’s own keiju-round-up Kaiju Soshin-geki / DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), where extra-terrestrial invaders set all classic giants free and cause huge destruction and even monster duels.
1984 the alpha monster Godzilla returned in GOJIRA / RETURN OF GODZILLA by Joji Hashimoto, which appears to be a re-launch of the series with Godzilla invading Tokyo just as in 1954. Even an American version was re-cut. After the box office failure of Roland Emmerich’s American remake in 1998 the Japanese cycle reincarnated again: in GODZILLA 2000 MILLENIUM / GODZILLA 2000 (1999). This film is remarkable because here Godzilla attacks a nuclear power plant in Tokai, exactly the same location where a nuclear accident happened on September 30, 1999. What appears like a very simple allegory was in fact written down in the screenplay well before the incident happened. But anyway: It shows that Japanese artists and audiences live with a constant consciousness of big scale disaster.
It may be too early to speculate which impact the latest nuclear catastrophe at Fukujima will have on Japanese cinema – especially considering the fact that the last original GODZILLA-movies war produced in 2004 and Japanese genre cinema is in a crisis for several years now. Undeniably the intrigues and corruption surround the Fukujima-incident, which is not fully under control as of today (November 2011), and the huge level of vulnerability obvious in the aftermath is frightenly close to the concept of the early GODZILLA-films. (Anti-)utopian genre cinema became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in Japan during the decades – and it reflects at the same time the nearly unbreakable durability and stoicism of the people of Japan. Thus keiju-eiga are the collective mythology for modern post-war Japan, like samurai-films are the mythological icon of traditional pre-war Japan. Therefore keiju-eiga remain a depiction of primal and modern fears as well as a celebration of Japanese intelligence and courage. They are anti-utopia and utopia at the same time.
 Patrick Macias: Tokyo Scope, San Francisco 2001, p. 16
 In: Jörg Buttgereit (ed.): Japan. Die Monsterinsel, Berlin 2006, p.175
 William M. Tsutsui: Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York 2003, p. 23
 Donald Richie: A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Tokyo 2001 (revised: 2005), p.178
 Thomas & Yuko Mihara Weisser: Japanese Cinema Essential Handbook, Florida 1996, p. 225
 Thomas & Yuko Mihara Weisser: Japanese Cinema Essential Handbook, Florida 1996, p. 225
 Georg Seeßlen: Vom großen Zerstörer zum großen Freund – die japanischen Godzilla-Filme. In: epd Film, 8/98