Bill Tsutsui, lifelong Godzilla superfan and author of Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, talks about humanity’s complicated love of monsters, how they reflect the contemporary fears of society and why it’s so fun to watch a giant lizard destroy our cities.
Q: Your book makes it very clear that you’ve been a fan of Godzilla since you were a kid, but when and why did you decide to bring your academic background to the history and legacy of Godzilla?
A: I’ve loved Godzilla ever since I was 7 or 8 years old, and like one of those lifelong passions, it seems to creep into the other aspects of everyday life. I remember when I started teaching at the college level, about two or three years in, I decided to show a Godzilla movie on a lark in one of my Japanese history classes, and it turned out that the students really responded to it well. A lot of them had grown up watching Godzilla movies too, and a lot of them had never seen one but had obviously heard of Godzilla, and so this was opening their eyes to something brand new. What made it really valuable was that Godzilla movies are really rooted in the history of the time in which they were made, so they were really useful documents to help students understand something about Japanese culture, the world during the Cold War era, environmentalism, pollution — it allowed us to engage in broader discussions about history. And who would have thought a giant radioactive monster from Japan could do that?
Q: In the episode, Guillermo del Toro speaks with James Cameron and says, “Monsters are our abstract fears made flesh,” which relates to this idea that monsters reflect the contemporary terrors of the time. What do you think about that?
A: I agree with that, that we need monsters in order to give a face and a body and a physical form to some of our abstract fears, but what’s also interesting about monsters is they’re heroic beings too, and one of the things we admire about monsters – which we also fear about monsters – is that strength, that power they have to move us, and I definitely think you find that with Godzilla. When people talk about why they respond so strongly to Godzilla films, what I hear from a lot of fans is that they respect him as a hero. He fights for what he believes — and occasionally destroys a city in the process! [Laughs] But you can’t help but respect that strength of power.
Q: Original Godzilla director Honda Ishirō said, “Monsters are tragic beings. … [T]he public finds sympathy for the monsters; in reality, they favor the monsters.” Why do you think that is?
A: In the original 1954 movie, Gojira, the monster is killed at the end. A Japanese scientist descends into Tokyo Bay with a new secret weapon called “the oxygen destroyer” and kills the napping Godzilla. At the end of the movie, even though the Japanese celebrate this victory over the monster, it ends up being very sad. One reason is because the Japanese scientist ends up losing his life, but another reason is because it’s very hard as a human being not to sympathize in that moment with the monster. The monster didn’t ask to be irradiated. The monster was a victim in this process, and you can understand the monster’s rage and really regret the fact that to save humanity the monster had to be killed. One of the beautiful things about monsters is that complexity of emotions we have about them.
Q: Speaking of complexity, monsters in movies occupy this weird cross-section of being the embodiment of all of our fears, and also really fun to watch. Why do you think we respond to monsters this way?
A: [Laughs] I couldn’t agree more. On some level, there’s something absolutely horrible about watching a giant lizard knock down a skyscraper. But when you’re watching that on the screen, you’re not thinking about the possibility that there’s thousands of people in that building being traumatized and killed; watching it in a movie theater, you’re just thinking, “Wow, that looks so cool!” Or else if you’re a kid like I was when I saw my first Godzilla movie, you might be thinking, “I want to be a monster so I can make cities explode too.”
Q: In the 2014 Godzilla installment, Ken Watanabe’s character Dr. Ishiro Serizawa says “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” Do you think this idea of control cuts to the heart of the monster genre?
A: Movies like Godzilla in Hollywood are often called “Monster on the Loose” films because you have this creature running wild inside society — and it’s perhaps not surprising that this theme became really popular in the 1950s, when that idea of order and tidiness and a controlled, organized society was very important in the United States and elsewhere around the globe. One of the reasons monsters are so powerful is because they disrupt the status quo so effectively. And it isn’t just that they knock down buildings and snarl traffic and cause casualties — they also show some of the great weaknesses in our society. One of those weaknesses is often the power of the government, because we want to assume that if there’s a crisis, the government can take care of it, but in virtually every monster movie ever made, including the Godzilla films, the government really doesn’t do a great job of dealing with the threat. And the other thing of course is science. We all think science is going to solve things for us, but the reality is that most of these monsters are created by science, and even if science does manage to eventually put the monster back in the box in some way, it’s at most a draw and not a vindication of science’s absolute power.
Q: So many sci-fi monsters are born of humanity’s interference in nature — even going back to Frankenstein, what many regard as the “first sci-fi novel.” Why do you think that is?
A: Monster movies are explorations of the hubris of humankind. They’re examples of people overstepping the bounds of what is reasonable and what is possible in society, and in the process they’re creating something that cannot be controlled. It’s a two-edged sword: it allows for that pioneering spirit for science to progress and for new discoveries to be made, but monster movies also reveal the dark side of that. In pushing the limits ever further, humankind may be opening a Pandora’s Box that may not be so pretty to look into.
Q: In a lot of monster films, a monster ends up “protecting” humanity. Godzilla is basically the trope setter for this, but also King Kong, the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the Terminator, the Predator in Alien vs. Predator — why do you think this trope persists?
A: I think that’s very interesting observation and it’s definitely true of the Godzilla movies, where Godzilla changed from the earlier films in which he was this vengeful presence attacking Japan to becoming essentially a Japanese person defending his homeland from attacking creatures. I think it plays toward this desire that we do want to be scared, we want that tingle of terror when we see a movie on the screen, but in the end we all really want some form of secure horror. Which is to say, at the end of the film, we want to be reassured that things are going to be OK. People in general are not nihilistic and they want to see optimism and progress, and having a monster that responds to these human tendencies not only makes the monster seem more real, but I think also delivers a message in the end that, even after you’ve been scared to your core, is reassuring.
Q: When your book was released in 2004, you wrote, “Being a science fiction fan, in particular, marks one as a potential misfit and guaranteed loser.” Now, science fiction films dominate the box office and in a lot of cultural spaces, you’re a loser if you don’t like science fiction. Why do you think the entertainment landscape has changed so much in the last 14 years?
A: [Laughs] Throw my words right back at me, oh my gosh! You are so right. The world has changed a lot from when I was a kid, and that’s a good thing. I think it partly reflects the extent to which science and technology — which have always been important to humankind — have really become a focus in our daily lives, and we really can’t avoid the change that’s taking place, and you can’t avoid worrying about and wondering about the changes that are taking place in our society due to science and technology. I think science fiction is more relevant today than it ever has been, or at least more relevant today than it has been since the atom bomb was discovered, because of that profound sense that our very humanity and our everyday lives are going to be shaped by these forces that are beyond our individual control.
Q: If monsters are our “abstract fears made flesh,” what do you think will be the monsters born from the fears in society today?
A: That’s a really great question, because monsters really do tap into the fears of any one moment, whether it is the H-Bomb in the 1950s or mass disasters like Katrina or the Japanese Earthquake or the Fukushima Meltdown more recently. I still am yet to see the monster movie that manages to tap into mass global issues like climate change effectively. How we capture those very diffuse but profound fears in a creature is going to be interesting to see. Every generation has to make their own monsters. While I’m thrilled that Godzilla keeps coming back, and I hope that for as long as I live there will be new Godzilla movies, what is really exciting to see is new creatures appearing out there and scaring us in totally different ways.
Q: What are some of your favorite science fiction films, and how have they influenced your life?
A: The original Godzilla from 1954, is my favorite movie. I’ve seen it — I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say — hundreds of times. Every time I see it, I see something new there. I think very few films deserve to be called classics, but that’s one of them. I’m also going to do a shout out to a monster movie that usually gets more laughs than shrieks of horror, but that’s the movie Them! about giant ants in the Southwest irradiated by nuclear tests in New Mexico, who descend upon Los Angeles and end up being barbecued in the sewer system. It is the best expression of nuclear fear of any movie. It’s a really wonderful film. Alien is another favorite. I just think about it and a chill goes down my spine. It takes fear to an entirely different level. It’s hard to imagine what it was like watching the original Godzilla or Them! from 1954, because the world was so different and the expectations regarding special effects were so different. I have to imagine it was as chilling back then as it was for me to watch Alien when it first came out. I’m probably going to have a nightmare tonight because I thought about it.
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