A Monster for All Ages and Cultures: Godzilla Resonates for East Asian Scholar
This spring, Godzilla has been wreaking havoc worldwide as the latest incarnation of the skyscraper-sized lizard stomps its way back onto the silver screen. The 2014 reboot of the iconic film franchise also highlights an enduring research interest of Gregory M. Pflugfelder, an associate professor of Japanese history at Columbia who teaches the popular undergraduate seminar “A Cultural History of Japanese Monsters.” He is also on the faculty at the University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute.
Over the past decade, Pflugfelder has collected more than 5,000 posters and other promotional materials—including playing cards and board games—for movies featuring Godzilla and a host of other monsters created by Japan’s movie industry, including Rodan, a mutant pterodactyl, and Gamera, a giant fire-breathing turtle.
Pflugfelder’s interest in the granddaddy of them all dates back to around 2003, when he began to think about organizing an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the original film, released in Japan in 1954. He curated an exhibit the following year called “Godzilla Conquers the Globe,” which explored how the marketing and the meaning of Japanese monster movies made during the Cold War changed depending on the cultural and political circumstances of the countries in which they were shown.
“Before I began collecting these materials, I had started thinking that it was not literally true that the first kind of Japanese culture that came my way was the Japanese court poetry I studied in college,” said Pflugfelder, who earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard and Ph.D. at Stanford. “In fact, there were these Japanese monster movies I watched as a kid in suburban Pennsylvania. I was not terribly conscious that they were Japanese at the time. That became interesting to me: Why were those movies marketed not to seem Japanese? What is the larger cultural history of Japanese popular film in international circulation?”
The franchise was born at Tokyo’s Toho Studies as Gojira, a film about an enormous sea monster awakened by nuclear radiation. Two years later it was adapted by Hollywood into Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Pflugfelder—who narrated an audio essay for Criterion Collection’s 2012 dual Gojira/Godzilla DVD about the nuclear-testing accident that inspired the film—notes that Cold War audiences, regardless of language, could understand the threat of radioactive destruction. The U.S. version obscured Godzilla’s Japanese provenance while retaining much of the Japanese footage, dubbing in English dialogue and crafting a more upbeat ending. And since the U.S. continued to conduct atomic tests, the producers also excised the original’s explicit anti-nuclear message.
Godzilla and its ilk also can be seen as having roots in centuries of Japanese culture, said Pflugfelder, whose seminar explores examples of monsters from eighth-century Japanese myths and folktales to the manga, or comics, and blockbuster movies of today. “It’s possible to view Godzilla as a descendant of much older dragon lore,” he said. “There are also long folkloric traditions surrounding various kinds of sea monsters.”
With the release of the latest Godzilla, Pflugfelder has been putting items from his collection online to help people understand the various ways the film has been received in different countries. “The 1956 German poster for Godzilla is dominated by this fiery urban conflagration, which must have been visually powerful for audiences in a nation that had been recently subjected to firebombing,” he said.
“It’s possible to view Godzilla as a descendant of much older dragon lore.”
Pflugfelder, who was visiting Japan at the time of the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, is not surprised that Godzilla, a monster born in the 1950s out of fears of a nuclear disaster, endures as a powerful symbol today.
Yet he notes that successive remakes have reflected different cultural anxieties depending on the period, from concerns about rampant capitalism and commercialism during the economically prosperous 1960s, to the growing awareness of pollution and environmental degradation in the 1970s, as seen in the 1971 Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.
“I don’t think it’s a historical accident that there has been a conspicuous revival of interest in the Japanese monster genre in the past few years,” he said, noting the release of the 2013 film Pacific Rim, which involves another war between humans and monstrous sea creatures.
In the latest Godzilla, the giant reptile battles other equally fearsome monsters in scenes that suggest the monumental and destructive power of nature. “On a certain level, although we're accustomed to thinking of monster movies as being somehow removed from serious political concerns, in fact they take on directly the pressing issues of any moment in allegorical form," he said.
— by Ross Yelsey