Andrew Osmond on disasters as entertainment
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How soon is too soon? The question’s raised by the new Godzilla trailer, the first half of which seems to be all about recreating traumatic events as fantasy, just three years after they occurred. Specifically, the trailer opens with a disaster at a Japanese power station, before segueing into images of a giant wave sweeping into a town with devastating force. Both images seem less ripped than Xeroxed from the headlines of March 2011, when northern Honshu (Japan’s mainland) was struck by an earthquake which caused a tsunami, killing thousands, and the meltdown at Fukushima.
According to an article on the Kotaku website, the trailer has already drawn comment in Japan, with one critic arguing that Hollywood is going where today’s Japanese films can’t, and other tweeters finding the footage tasteless. Indeed, it’s doubtful that if there’d been a tsunami and nuclear meltdown in, say, California in 2011, we’d have a Hollywood fantasy blockbuster using such imagery so blatantly. A national tragedy looks different on the other side of the ocean.
But of course it’s more complex than that. As we’ve discussed on this blog, Godzilla has form – massive form – in bringing up the national traumas of the day, traumas so overwhelming that they dwarf those in the new film. The 1954 Godzilla, played utterly straight, invoked the memories of the Great Tokyo Air Raid, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the mass bombing of Japan in general, plus the scandal of the Lucky Dragon V, the Japanese fishing boat showered with fall-out from an American A-bomb test. (Lucky Dragon V happened the same year as Godzilla.) Wikipedia claims some contemporary reviewers took offence at this; but now the film is acclaimed as a serious, forthright fantasy, allegorising the nightmares of the age.
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At least one Hollywood film before the new Godzilla tried something very similar for America. 2008’s Cloverfield was a found-footage monster movie saturated with images and collective memories of 9/11, most pointedly in its downbeat, un-Hollywood ending, followed by a Michael Giacchino theme over the end credits which was a clear tribute to Akira Ifukube’s famous Godzilla music. Again Cloverfield got flak for alleged bad taste, though it looks like the model of restraint compared to what followed – Michael Bay’s Transformers films, in which endless falling skyscrapers were just an excuse to f*** the frame.
Meanwhile, Japan used 9/11 to demonstrate the dictum above, that a national tragedy looks different across the ocean. In 2003, less than two years after the World Trade Centre came down, Toei released Battle Royale 2: Requiem. The film opens with the heroes destroying a Japanese landmark, the twin-towers Tokyo Metropolitan Building (the home of the Tokyo tax office, and hence a regular target for giant monsters). The script valorises ‘terrorist’ as a badge of honour and makes plain that America is the wickedest nation on Earth. Kinji Fukasaku directed the original Battle Royale and started the sequel before his death (it was finished by his son). I was told by a Toei rep that when the director had seen the 9/11 attack on television, he broke into wild applause.
Perhaps Michael Moore would have made Battle Royale 2, had he been given a blockbuster budget and absolute freedom, but even he might have gone quite as far. For another alternative Japanese take on 9/11, try the anime Eden of the East; though it’s far lighter in tone, it still revolves around large metal objects hitting skyscrapers, and the potency of such symbols. Judging by its director Kenji Kamiyama’s comments, the show was driven less by anti-Americanism than by Kamiyama’s broader interests in dissidents and ‘terrorists,’ Japanese as well as American. Kamiyama returned to the subject in Re: Cyborg 009, whose 9/11 imagery is in-your-face; the film starts with skyscrapers collapsing worldwide.
One difference, though, between these cases and the ‘tsunami’ imagery in the Godzilla trailer is that the latter was a natural disaster, with no inherent political dimension. In Japan, there was a period in the weeks following March 11 when some fiction and fantasy was deemed inappropriate, both in anime and manga. For example, Manga Goraku magazine suspended publication of a serial about a disaster at a Japanese nuclear power plant. The Animax channel suspended a repeat of the anime serial Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 (first shown in 2009), even though the series took its subject completely seriously. Positing a quake in Japan’s capital in 2012, it was deemed too relevant by its producers at a time of national mourning.
Less sober anime were also affected, including an episode of a high school romcom that showed characters swept away by a wave, and a film based on the magic girl franchise Precure with similar imagery. No doubt if Ghibli’s Ponyo – which has a massive magic flood – had been scheduled for broadcast at that time, it would have been removed, as would a show like Paranoia Agent, whose deliberately disturbing title sequence (involving both floods and a mushroom cloud) would have been suddenly unacceptable.
It didn’t take long, though, for fiction film-makers to break the taboo. The live-action Himizu was released less than twelve months after the tsunami (it’s available in Britain). It was directed by Sion Shono (Love Exposure), based on a manga by Minoru Furuya; it’s a gruelling, cruel drama about an abused teen boy who in turn abuses his obsessed girl stalker. However, the film also includes footage filmed at tsunami-devastated locations, at Ishinomaki City in Miyagi prefecture, as Sono sought to rework the manga into a tortuous message for post-disaster Japan.
“I had already written the script and was forced to change it,” Sono told the Independent newspaper. “Whether to shoot footage of the area was something I struggled with because many there lost their lives and many have still not been found. (The film) was supposed to be a light romance. When I began to rewrite the script, they begged me not to write an apocalyptic film but I couldn’t stop.”
Sono could have added that his approach – of filming in a real disaster zone – was only following other fiction films. For example, the last scenes of the American indy film Monsters (2008) were shot in a part of Texas torn up by a hurricane. Half a century earlier, Akira Kurosawa made his thriller Stray Dog (1949) round the bombsites of Tokyo. Kurosawa’s assistant director on Stray Dog was Ishiro Honda, who went on to make the original Godzilla. Monsters, of course, was made by Britain’s Gareth Edwards, who’s directing the Godzilla remake. As we said, when it comes to provocative blends of tragedy and fantasy, Godzilla has massive form.
Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is in cinemas on 15th May.