We’ve all shared the horror these last few days over the recent catastrophe, the civilizational calamity, which has struck the people of Japan. A city-leveling quake, followed by tsunami, followed by a quadripartite nuclear-plant meltdown that is only being averted at this point by the ingenuity of inspeakably brave engineers who may lose their lives saving their people from the effects of the quake.
In the teeth of this, we’ve been seeing Godzilla references popping up as people joke about the horror.
Bad taste? Uncalled for? Too Soon?
But what was Godzilla?
A cheap monster movie of a guy in a rubber suit?
Or maybe not.
I had an experience recently–prior to the quake–that kind of put the whole thing in perspective.
"I love monster movies," Frank Zappa once famously said, "I simply adore monster movies, and the cheaper they are, the better they are."
I always agreed. Some of my happiest adolescent nights were spent up after midnight watching Channel 62, watching the Ghoul -- a Detroit/Cleveland late night monster movie host, for those of you not from around here -- who camped up such wonderfully crappy movies like "The Tingler" or "War of the Gargantuas."
So at the end of a long and unpleasant work week a month or so ago, you might imagine the glee I felt when I found a used copy "Godzilla King of the Monsters" for sale at a local swap meet for $3.00 on Saturday.
With wife and kids safely abed, I grabbed a beer and some popcorn and tossed the tape into our slightly aged VCR for some late night giggles.
Opening scene was a destroyed city, a burned out landscape, and Raymond Burr on a hospital litter surrounded by dozens of other moaning wounded, as a pretentious voiceover talks about the great disaster that has just hit the city, and the thousands who died in it....
....and I thought to myself, yanno? This ain’t funny.
It felt too damn familiar to be funny at all.
Yeah, the scenes that followed--the big guy in the rubber suit crushing the dry-wobble landscape, the model trains being knocked off the tracks, the radioactive fire melting the power grid--were cheezy and fake and should have left me chortling.
But they didn't.
Looking back at the movie: this was 1956. The American occupation of Japan had ended just four or five years earlier. And this was only eleven years after every major Japanese city was melted by the fire of a monster beyond their comprehension.... including two by literal radioactive fire.
Everyone talked about how Godzilla is a "cautionary tale of the nuclear age." It isn't, not really. It's an act of post-traumatic stress, where Japan comes to grips with the fact that its cities were destroyed by a green monster that spewed fire. A literal monster--the United States Army Air Corps, flying green aircraft, vomiting death onto their cities 1000 planes at a time.
Remember when you see the scenes of flattened Tokyo, they were filmed only ten years after WE flattened Tokyo, burning 125,000 people to death in a one night firestorm that has never been forgotten there. (It should be added that this firestorm dwarfed both A-bombs...put together.)
Now, I'm not a pacifist. Nor do I regret a single megaton of what we did to bring a half century of peace to the Far East... I live because we dropped the bomb; my father was headed to the Pacific Theater of Operations when we, as they say, Dropped the Big One.
But let's not forget that from the point of view of your average Japanese on the street, separated from any connection with the war, the U.S.A. was not unlike Godzilla: a huge monster on the eastern horizon, first sinking ships in firey mystery, then stomping ashore and blasting every city we could with a force that a T-Rex could only envy.
Remember too therefore who the big green monster really was and is.
It's not a guy in a rubber suit.