Godzilla, Akira, Mononoke: Japan’s Fear

Spirited Away

Still from Miyazaki's "Spirited Away"

Professor Peter Winn Kirby of Oxford has a thoughtful and painfully spot-on essay about how the original Godzilla movies, far from being mere campy horror flicks, in fact were fictional dramatizations giving a voice to Japan’s visceral fears of radioactive contamination.

Once again, mythology and stories put a face on things which are almost unthinkable. Our brains know about radioactive particles and half-life (or not), but our hearts, our souls, find those words and abstract concepts totally inadequate to express our fear.

It’s not just Godzilla. Even a casual fan of anime knows how many Japanese TV shows and films are haunted by ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Akira tells of genetic experimentation which results in innocent children becoming living atomic bombs. The campy old Saturday morning cartoon Starblazers (Spaceship Yamato) is Japan’s Star Trek, but the good ship Yamato (a refurbished WWII battleship) is searching not for “strange new worlds” but for something to save the earth from the evil Gamelon Empire bombarding it with radioactive asteroids.   More recently, many movies (e.g. Nausicaa) by internationally-acclaimed Hayao Miyazaki  force the hero to deal with toxins, sludge, or nuclear contamination that has  spawned demons, mutants and monsters. In most of these stories, the toxic monsters cannot be beaten by force: the hero must yield to them and find some way to purify and tame them.

Even Japanese video games (the new mythology) explore the trope. The gorgeous Okami, done in the style of Japanese calligraphy, pits the goddess Amaterasu against demons and monsters polluting mythical Japan. She cannot simply fight them; she must purify the land and coax trees to grow and animals to prosper. So, too, several of the highly-popular series of Final Fantasy video games pick up the theme. Final Fantasy X is a fantasy world blending medieval Japan and Europe, a pious and almost Catholic culture still “atoning for its sins” 1000 years after an ancient “machina war” destroys civilization. Final Fantasy VII’s endgame with a monstrous glowing “Meteor” hanging in the sky looks very much like a slow-motion atomic catastrophe. The heroes stop it, but the city is still destroyed: all their sword-and-sorcery fighting can’t win the day, only one of their number sacrificing herself for the planet.

Of course, nuclear apocalyptic images are a trope of a few non-Japanese films as well. Yet I have always sensed a preoccupation with this theme in modern Japanese storytelling.

Jung tells us why. When one person has anxieties, he may have nightmares that personify fears as a monster. When a whole culture is traumatized, their nightmares manifest as myth. In the modern world, that impulse emerges in the horror / monster / action genre.

Sometimes the heroes win. Or sometimes the story simply lets our souls emit a collective, primal scream.

I grew up downwind of Three Mile Island, afraid of The Day After. It was only in the late 90s that I stopped having nuclear nightmares. And I did not live where the bomb had been dropped: I simply feared that my leaders might press the button.

I can’t imagine what the people of Japan are going through right now. This disaster cannot get as bad as Chernobyl, but it’s not good. (See this good interview about the radiation levels as of Mar 15).

The workers at Fukushima Daiichi power plant are the heroes in this tragedy-within-the-larger-tragedy. I think they will “save Tokyo,” but I’m deeply worried about them in this nightmare come true.

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