Godzilla's nuclear power

With a talk and exhibition in Bangkok next week, scholar Claude Estebe explains the iconic film monster's haunted and mutated atomic legacy

From the depths of the radioactive ghetto comes the iconic monster. The Japanese calls it Gojira _ Godzilla to the rest of us. A stomping, fire-breathing post-dinosaur mutant, the beast in fact carries under its skin a horde of cultural and historical meanings, mostly horrific, and largely rooted in the nuclear bombings that left Japan devastated after World War II.

Claude Estebe, a French scholar in Japanese visual culture, has been a researcher on the subject of Gojira and how it represents the nuclear past and radioactive remnants of Japan.

On Tuesday, Estebe is giving a talk titled "Seeing the Invisible: Representation of the Radioactivity in the First Godzilla Movie" at The Reading Room on Silom 19, with the focus on the original film from 1954.

Estebe, currently teaching at University of Oriental Languages in Paris, is also a photographer specialising in images of plastic toys, and his exhibition is opening in Bangkok on Sept 6.

- How did you get an interest in the study of Gojira, or Godzilla as we know it?

I started my research on Gojira in 2009. I had already made my PhD thesis on the beginning of photography in 19th century Japan. It was amazing to notice that the foreign technology of photography was very quickly adopted and massively used by Japanese people.

But since the Edo period, Japan had a striving popular visual culture and they later shifted for new media like photography, movies, manga and anime.

Even with the strong censorship of the Edo period, visual culture conveyed a lot of information and criticism about society, encapsulated in light entertainment. The Godzilla movies are still in this spirit. They are fun, entertaining movies, but some can also be seen as political movies.

- The metaphor of Gojira as a radioactive force must have been very potent in the post-war years in Japan. How do you read the intention of the director of the original film in 1954?

Japan was occupied by the US army until September, 1952. During this period there was a ban imposed by American forces on information about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings and their aftermaths _ namely the radioactivity-induced diseases.

Released in Tokyo on Nov 3, 1954, Gojira was one of the first movies showing and remembering the dramatic experience of Japanese civilians at the end of World War II when atomic bombings and strategic napalm bombings on all the big industrial Japanese cities killed millions of civilians.

Gojira is a very complex movie, mixing scenes of panic and burning cities that could be anywhere in 1945 Japan and scenes showing radioactively-contaminated children in hospital which specifically remind audiences of the atomic bombings. The director of the movie, Ishiro Honda, made it clear in an interview that the monster Gojira was designed to embody the characteristics of a living atomic bomb.

- Radioactivity has recently been the subject of debate following the Fukushima incidents, that means your topic remains relevant.

Radioactivity is invisible and spreads over long periods making it specially stressing. The only way to figure out if a situation is dangerous is to rely on scientific measurements made mainly by government agencies. We are in the core of what should be a democracy. Information must be transparent so we can rely on government announcements. In Gojira, the huge danger caused by radioactive pollution is made clearly visible, but in Fukushima it is hard to figure out how big is the danger.

- Many Thai people grew up watching Godzilla, but we only perceive it as a fire-breathing monster. Would you say that Gojira is an invader _ a destructive, violent force _ or a frustrated, mutated victim of violence?

Gojira is a kami, a sacred force of nature. He is both the executioner and the holy victim, a scapegoat. For [writer] Norihiro Kato, Gojira was an embarrassing yet looming character, so the Japanese movie industry tried hard to soften it. A peak was reached in the 1967 movie directed by Jun Fukuda aimed at a children's audience The Son Of Godzilla _ Gojira lived on a tropical island, fighting with giant tarantulas and praying mantises but didn't kill everyone or trample any city. A new character was introduced, Minila the "son of Godzilla". Minila is as cute as a baby monster can be, human sized and can talk with humans, definitively breaking the once terrific myth of Gojira.

- You're a photographer and your main interest is toys. Why is that? And relating to Gojira, it seems that the Japanese have a way of embedding deeper meaning into what at first look like frivolous pop-cultural products. Is that a unique characteristic?

I have an interest in mass-produced plastic toys as they reflect accurately the spirit and evolution of our society. In my new photographic exhibition "Choking Hazard" [opening in Bangkok on Sept 6] I made pictures of fashion dolls which show how quickly the standards of beauty evolve in our society.

Plastic is also one of the main raw materials of our civilisation, it takes in light marvellously but also decays really quickly as do most consumer goods.

Even if most toys are naive and clumsily made they are often tie-in goods from movies, novels, cartoons, or manga. So they are parts of a huge symbolic universe, especially Japanese toys.

Sometimes the original meaning of certain toys gets lost through time.

The skin of Gojira is often described as crocodile skin and cheap toys are mistakenly painted in green.

Honda [the 1954 film's director] wanted to show a hurt skin burned by radiation and the original costume was painted in brownish tones. For him, Gojira was a gigantic hibakusha (a victim of atomic bombing).

About the author

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Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist