Godzilla shows Japan’s real fear is sclerotic bureaucracy not giant reptiles
By ROLAND KELTS
Five years before the release of Godzilla Resurgence (Shin Godzilla), the first Japanese-made Godzilla movie in more than a decade, Japan’s north-east coastline was slammed by a massive earthquake and tsunami, causing a meltdown at the region’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Citizens were either misinformed or kept in the dark about the damage: the government would not even use the term “meltdown” until three months later. In an interview with a national newspaper in 2014, novelist Haruki Murakami diagnosed a national character flaw: irresponsible self-victimisation.
“No one has taken real responsibility for the 1945 war end or the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident,” he said. “I’m afraid that it can be understood that the earthquake and tsunami were the biggest assailants and the rest of us were all victims. That’s my biggest concern.”
Resurgence director Hideaki Anno, a revered otaku (nerd) hero best known for creating one of Japan’s darkest and most elaborate anime classics, Neon Genesis Evangelion, doesn’t let his compatriots off the hook, visually or emotionally. Shots of cars and yachts piling up along canals by the force of water pointedly replicate scenes from the 2011 disasters, turning Godzilla into a personified tsunami. Relief workers and politicians in hazmat suits and light blue jumpsuits respectively echo the surreal imagery of the catastrophe’s aftermath.
But during the first half of the film, the monstrosity is neither natural nor imaginary. It’s bureaucracy – specifically, Japan’s sclerotic civil servants, most of whom are men in matching charcoal suits too concerned with protecting their careers and following protocol to risk a decision that might save lives. For them, responsibility is to be shirked at all costs.
These officials and their circuitous exchanges get so much screen time that it’s a relief whenever the eponymous creature rises from the sea or rubble and, unlike the human droids in their corporate uniforms, flexes its reptilian skin, unleashes a trademark birdlike shriek, and actually does something, however disastrous.
“Extermination, capture, and expulsion,” says a ministry official, airing his empty musings as the danger nears Tokyo. To which a fellow suit replies: “Who are you addressing?”
Lampooning bureaucratic inefficiency isn’t unique to Japan, of course. (Gavin Hood’s underappreciated 2015 thriller Eye in the Sky makes similar hay of UK and US officialdom’s tortuous response to impending violence.) But for Japanese audiences, Resurgence’s depiction of paralysed civil servants selfishly fumbling their response to a crisis born of radiation delivered a sharp domestic sting.
Resurgence (Shin Godzilla translates as “new” or “true” Godzilla) was the top box office live-action domestic feature of last year, became the highest grossing of the franchise’s 31 films to date, and won seven Japanese Academy Awards. Murakami’s analysis of his homeland, dramatised on the big screen, resonated most powerfully at home.
The conventional take on the series’ 1954 original is that the monster is a metaphor for America’s nuclear attacks on Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and more recently at the time, the US military’s testing of a hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll, whose fallout contaminated a Japanese fishing vessel and resulted in at least one casualty.
But the literary critic Norihiro Kato has argued that Godzilla may also, and perhaps more accurately, be seen as a revenant, an angry and restless symbol of Japan’s estimated 3.1 million soldiers and citizens who perished during the second world war and were quickly cast aside in shame, as the defeated nation embraced its American conquerors (and “a shallow simulacrum of democracy”) through an economic and military alliance that persists to this day. After all, Kato writes, in 31 films spanning six decades, why does the monster always return to Japan? Why not Australia, New Zealand, Singapore?
Kato’s question and interpretation are brought to the foreground in Resurgence – in exasperation, one bureaucrat literally asks: “Why is it coming here again?” Americans appear on the film’s fringes, as condescending, unilaterally minded bureaucrats who carelessly respond with overwhelming force (and the film was made before Donald Trump), and more centrally in the character of Kayoko Anne Patterson, a Japanese-American representative of the US government whose vulgarity and self-regard reveal a wilful ignorance of Japanese etiquette.
But the harshest critique is levelled at Japan. In its portrayal of a people unwilling to speak out or act on their own and a nation paralysed by dependency, Resurgence piles on heaps of destruction that is almost entirely self-inflicted.
• Roland Kelts is a Japanese-American writer and author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US