Barney’s Radioactive Cousin: A Lecture on Godzilla

By Jon Erik Christianson • April 25, 2011 at 9:00 am


Courtesy of BU Humanities Foundation, BU Center for the Study of Asia, and the Dept. of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature. Designed by Anthony Lee

What can be heard screeching hundreds of miles away, causes thousands of people to flee on sight, and has a strong anti-nuclear message? Up until that last clue, it was Rebecca Black’s Friday. In reality, it’s the “King of Monsters,” Godzilla.

Numerous Japanese movie enthusiasts, Godzilla adorers, and sushi lovers piled into the 9th floor of the Boston University Photonics Center on Thursday night to treat themselves to an eye-opening lecture about postwar Japan followed by a screening of the original Japanese Godzilla film, Gojira.

The night opened with a few words from College of Arts and Sciences Professor Keith Vincent. He explained that Gojira has been called a number of things, ranging simply from an “anti-nuclear critique” to “military pornography,” and most bewildering of all, a piece demonstrating “the uncontrollable urges of puberty.”

Hiromi Miyagi-Lusthaus, a CAS lecturer, continued to pile on the trivia of everyone’s favorite city destroyer by explaining that “Gojira,” Godzilla’s Japanese name, is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale.”

Despite having been born in Tokyo, Miyagi-Lusthaus had not seen the original Gojira until her husband brought her to the Coolidge Corner Theatre for a viewing.

The primary lecturer of the night, Columbia University professor Gregory Pflugfelder, then fully dove into the beast that was the night’s lecture topic, Gojira and the anti-nuclear and sometimes anti-American messages found within.

The perfect launching point was Godzilla’s beginnings. Typically, the lizard behemoth is shown coming out of waters south of Japan. Initially, he was slated to come forth through the Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea). Since Godzilla’s origins state that he was a dormant dinosaur-made-monstrosity through the help of nuclear testing, Pflugfelder implies that rising out of the Sea of Japan places Cold War related blame on both Japan and the Soviet Union.

Pflugfelder also said that Godzilla’s southern underwater stomping grounds can also point to United States postwar occupation of many islands near and around Japan. The possible symbolism is endless.

After Pflugfelder discussed many topics such as Japanese re-titling of American films, different images of Godzilla (one as a stegosaurus), the significance of the Bikini islands, and “Lucky Dragon” boat incident, the film Gojira began.

The original version of the cult classic film did not disappoint. Between the unintentionally cute moments where the clearly oversized action figure Godzilla model gnaws on a radio tower and proceeds to derail trains by wagging his tail, it’s very difficult to not see him as a sympathetic, albeit murderous death-machine, of a creature. The film also delivered on the standard English-to-Japanese subtitles mistranslations. One actor forcefully saying “You have no experience in using a diving suit!” drew some giggles from the audience.

What was unexpected, however, was the anti-nuclear gravity and seriousness that is absent in the American version. An extended dialogue about the grave nature of the Oxygen Destroyer weapon, a scene of schoolgirls surrounding a wounded mother (comparable to an image of a wounded Hiroshima or Nagasaki victim), and a moment where a frightened mother, sitting right in the path of Godzilla’s destruction, tells her daughters that they’ll be with daddy soon (indicating his death) are simultaneously poignant and terrifying.

These were moments that the film producers behind Godzilla, King of the Monsters! did not think American audiences were ready for. The stark criticism of nuclear weapons, specifically America’s use of them, are vivid and clear. It’s unfortunate that a film with such a powerful viewpoint was edited and commercialized to such a point that it became kitschy and far less moving.

Eventually the film ended and the audience was greeted to many trays of a sushi. A delectable and fitting way to end an entertaining, yet eye-opening night.

For more information, look out for Greg Pflugfelder’s upcoming book about the Godzilla topic. It is guaranteed to make one massive dinosaur/seasmonster/dragon hybrid look a lot more intelligent in the eyes of American audience.


Jon Christianson (COM/CAS '14) is the zany, misunderstood cousin of The Quad family. His superpowers include talking at the speed of light, tripping over walls, and defying ComiQuad deadlines with the greatest of ease. His lovely copyeditors don't appreciate that last one. If for some reason you hunger for more of his nonsense, follow him at @HonestlyJon on Twitter or contact him at jchristianson@buquad.com!



Responses

  1. Great post, Jon – really excellent write-up for an event I’m terribly disappointed I missed. Keep up the good work!

  2. Heather

    I love the flyer for this so much.