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Opinion The King of Monsters, America, and the legacy of the bomb – will Godzilla be done justice?

Director Gareth Edwards must balance the demands of a big budget blockbuster with the historical and cultural importance of Godzilla. Not a simple task, as previous versions have shown.

GODZILLA OPENS AROUND the world on the week of 14 May. With synchronised international release and a diverse cast from around the globe, it seems like Godzilla is making a conscious effort to court the ever-expanding international box office.

At the same time, there is something just a little uncomfortable about the way that Western cinema has struggled with Gojira, the iconic lumbering Japanese movie monster. Like Anguirus (or even King Kong), there’s a sense of clumsiness to way that American studios have grappled with the King of the Monsters.

Try though we might, it’s hard to forget the cinematic misfire that was Roland Emmerich’s 1998 adaptation of the source material – with much of the audience undoubtedly wishing that Ferris Bueller had taken that particular day off. However, that wasn’t the only time that Godzilla has been defeated by American studios.

There’s a palpable discomfort in how American studios approach Godzilla, and it’s entirely understandable. Much like American science-fiction and horror in the fifties, a great deal of Japan’s post-War culture was overshadowed by the splitting of the atom. However, given that the atomic bomb was dropped on two Japanese cities, the Japanese perspective was rather distinct from that of American pop culture.

The legacy of the bomb

In his wonderfully titled paper Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is US, Chon Noriega argued that the Japanese perspective on Godzilla must – by its nature – be distinct from the way that America approaches the legacy of the bomb. (He contends that the sympathy for Godzilla in the Japanese films is distinct from the unequivocal horror of atomic monstrosities in contemporary American cinema.)

Godzilla was a monster awakened by the horrors of nuclear war – an atomic-era monster rampaging across the countryside. Gojira was originally released less than a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it’s hard not to to see that destruction mirrored in the long shots of Godzilla-ravaged Tokyo.

This is, of course, an incredibly simplistic analysis of the creature. Writing in the New York Times in 2004, Terrance Rafferty pondered whether Godzilla was “on some subterranean level a metaphor for Japan’s former imperial ambitions, which finally unleashed the retaliatory fury that levelled its cities?”

How can an American production company hope to handle that sort of subtext? In many cases, the adaptations of Godzilla into American media have seemed heavy-handedly political. Outside of the famous urban myth about the alternate ending to King Kong vs Godzilla, there’s also the controversy surrounding the 1956 American cut of Gojira.

In that version of the movie, Raymund Burr played an American journalist – undoubtedly to provide American audiences with a lead to whom they could relate. However, the movie’s political commentary was all but removed from the film. Peace songs were excised in their entirety, and much discussion about the atomic bomb was trimmed.

The American use of nuclear weapons was a highly controversial topic

This sort of anxiety was obvious even in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 American adaptation of Godzilla. Produced around the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in a context where the American use of nuclear weapons was a highly controversial topic – consider the uproar around a proposed exhibit in the Smithsonian in 1995.

As such, the Godzilla of the 1998 film was awoken by French nuclear testing, as a way of exculpating America. Indeed, Matthew Broderick played a representative of the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a body dedicated to preventing nuclear disasters. The result was a horrible tone-deaf blockbuster, one drawing from source material it barely seemed to understand.

Of course, Godzilla is only one cultural icon to suffer through translation – once piece of international pop culture filtered through an American lens such that any unique flavour is lost or distorted. Hollywood has a long history of drawing on the traditions and beliefs of other cultures in order to produce blockbusters, with much of the original material damaged in attempts to appeal to American audiences.

M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender comes to mind – a film that courted significant controversy due to the decision to feature a predominantly white cast. While white actors rounded out the cast, it was unfortunate that the most significant Asian actor in the film was Dev Patal as the movie’s bad guy.

Recently, director Jaume Collet-Serra discussed his forthcoming live action adaptation of the classic Japanese anime Akira. He certainly didn’t endear himself to fans of the source material when he insisted that all the characters were boring, stating: “That’s part of the Japanese culture, they never have strong characters.” The irony of this statement coming from the director of Non-Stop and Unknown was seemingly lost on him.

Are white audiences unable to empathise with non-white protagonists?

One wonders whether the live action Akira adaptation would cast Asian actors in the lead role. The leaking of an all-Caucasian casting shortlist for the remake generated considerable controversy. However, it is far from unusual for American movie studios to focus on white characters.

21, a movie based around the infamous true story of a bunch of card-counting MIT students, famously changed the race of its two lead characters. In real life, all the students involved were Asian – in the feature film, Asian actors were relegated to supporting roles in the ensemble. More recently, Keanu Reeves’ 47 Ronin adapted a classic Japanese myth with a white man in the lead role.

There’s an uncomfortable sense that white audiences are unable to empathise with protagonists of a different racial or ethnic background. It is interesting that the last big budget superhero film focused on a non-white protagonist was Catwoman, a decade ago. Although it has been suggested that Luke Cage may get his own Netflix television show, every single costumed member of The Avengers was white.

The Impossible explored the after-effects of the Asian tsunami through the eyes of a family on vacation. Never mind the people actually living in the wake of the disaster. In a delightful bit of irony, the Spanish family whose story inspired The Impossible were apparently still considered too diverse for audiences; the film portrayed a British family headed by Ewan McGregor and an Oscar-nominated Naomi Watts.

Successful cultural appropriation

To be fair, there is a long history of successful and thoughtful cultural appropriation. After all, Japan’s cinema had a significant impact on the development of the Western. The Magnificent Seven and A Fist Full of Dollars are both successful adaptations of Japanese films, films that are shrewdly aware of the cultural differences between Japan and America.

In fact, it works both ways. Ken Watanabe, who is playing the significant role of Ichiro Serizawa in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, recently starred in a Japanese adaptation of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Recasting the story of a retired cowboy as a samurai story, it is a very thoughtful adaptation which brings one of the most fruitful and considerate connections between Japanese and American cinema around a full circle.

Only time can tell whether Gareth Edwards will be able to balance the demands of a big budget studio blockbuster with the historical and cultural importance of Godzilla. Maybe he can break the pattern.

Darren Mooney has a movie blog, . You can get in touch with Darren here. To read more articles by Darren for click here.

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