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During the late 1950s and leading to the 1960s radical politics created shifts worldwide. This affected many aspects of society, including cinema. Like the French cinematic movement, La Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) Japanese cinema underwent its own changes. This latest generation of filmmakers worked to move away from the rigid school system of filmmaking, where students were taught under strict apprenticeships.
Unlike their French counterparts, these radical filmmakers started in the studio system (like Czechoslovak New Wave) but went on to create independent studios where they could work with taboo subject matter. However, the political focus is also seen in earlier Japanese studio films after the end of American Occupation in 1952. An example would be the Kaiju film Gojira (1954). Directed by Ishiro Honda, the film is a representation of conflict found in post-Cold War Japan. The film is dark, somber and underlines a society deeply influenced by the nuclear bomb testing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki which had occurred less than a decade prior. Gojira focused not only on natural fears (fire, typhoons, and earthquakes that frequently reshaped the islands) but also man-made fears such as the Hydrogen bombs. Chon Noriega examines this representation with allusions of the ship Daigo Fukuryu Maru ( Lucky Dragon #5) and the phenomenological concept of ‘otherness’ shown by the titular character. Ultimately these examples would allow the Japanese audience to relate to Gojira not as a monster but as a victim. In the opening scene of the film, we see a group of Japanese sailors on the ship deck playing Go and resting after what would have been a long day. In the distance, a bright flash of light crossed the open ocean and a loud booming sound brought attention to the men. The ship becomes absolutely decimated. The town people were incredibly worried about missing people and no one knew what had happened; only that it was not natural.
This parallels the historical story of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a tuna fishing boat that was contaminated by the radioactive fallout during the Castle Bravo testing at Bikini Atoll a few months before filming. While the fallout fell around them the crew continued to fish and then ultimately headed back to port. Months later the crew became to show signs of radiation sickness from the Hydrogen bomb. The twenty-three crews’ members suffered tremendously both physically and emotionally. The keloid scars from the bomb victims would be used for inspiration for the skin of Gojira in the film. This would not just be for cosmetic reasons but to resort the role of Gojira as a victim of the bombs just as much as any other Japanese victim. This brings us to the concept of ‘otherness’ or ‘othering’. Othering is the action of labeling a person as someone who belongs to a different, or subordinate, social group. Often it alienates the labeled person from society and is placed in at the societal margin. It is a concept that comes up regularly within genocide and atrocity studies as well as a large motivator of the Cold War. Noriega makes note that in America in the 1950s monster films were based around characters with impersonal names such as “Them” and “It”.
Alternativity Gojira does have a name as well as a backstory. This alone cements the character as part of Japanese culture and society. Names humanize things that are different and taking away names can result in distancing. This humanization of Gojira shows up often in the film as the character Takashi Shimura fights to understand the needs and wants of the character. In the end, the appeal of Gojira to the audience is not the destruction or brute force but his role of an anti-hero and victim.
Ultimately, Gojira is not just a monster film reiterating the dangers of nuclear bombs. By this time the destruction was common knowledge and fear was growing that other countries were starting to share the power. Instead, the film is an allegory of the lasting trauma felt by the Japanese society. It is important to make note of this very specific viewpoint because it will change when the series becomes adapted for American audiences.
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