Dear Mr. President, Please Watch Godzilla (An Open Letter)

Dear Mr. President,

Please watch Godzilla.  I’m not sure what kind of movies you typically watch in your leisure, but this film is a classic and certainly worth your time, I promise you.  You may be familiar with Godzilla as the the giant lizard monster that ravages Tokyo.  But do you know the origins of Godzilla?  Originally titled Gojira, this 1954 film tells the story of beast created by American nuclear testing in the South Pacific.  The testing resurrects and mutates this dinosaur into what we now know as Godzilla.  Godzilla is as much a force of nature–like a hurricane or a tsunami–as it is a creature.

Yet what I find most fascinating about Godzilla is that the film was produced less than a decade after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  Director Ishiro Honda was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army and became a POW in China until the war ended. Although Honda was not present in Japan those fateful August mornings in 1945, the nuclear bombings were certainly fresh in his mind when he and Takeo Murata penned the screenplay. Such an influence is evident in the mayhem and destruction that Godzilla rains down on Tokyo.  According to Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the relentless force of the monster was a deliberate parallel to the destruction inflicted by the atomic bomb attacks.  Honda is quoted as saying…

“If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”

The visual aesthetic must have been eerie for those first audiences, but the film resonated with the Japanese people and raked in $2,250,000 U.S. dollars at the box office (twelve fold the cost of making the film). And that aesthetic has endured through the majority of the 29 Japanese-produced Godzilla films.  This includes the most recent film, Godzilla: Resurgence (or Shin Godzilla), released in Japan in 2016, in which the origin of Godzilla is not linked to nuclear testing, but to radioactive contamination (a likely allusion to the 2011 Fukushima disaster).

The original Godzilla and subsequent films reflect the place of the nuclear attacks in the cultural memory of Japan.  And it’s not just the giant rubber monster movies that burn in remembrance in Japanese pop-culture.  No, Mr. President, Japanese anime carry that mark as well.

While I assume that cartoons of any sort are not your forte, please bear with me a moment longer.  Like many action-oriented movies and television shows here in the U.S., many anime titles include the threat of a doomsday weapon or some external, malicious catastrophe.  Yet unlike Western film or television where the protagonist succeeds in preventing said threat during some action-packed climax, it is not uncommon in anime for the doomsday device to activate or the catastrophe to occur.  In these cases, the narrative arc of the protagonist is no longer about preventing the event, but persevering through the event and re-establishing equilibrium in the devastating aftermath.  Some shows, such as the quintessential Neon Genesis Evangelion, even begin after the catastrophe has taken place, setting the whole plot in the midst of recovery and reconstruction.  While Western films like Mad Max may be set in post-apocalyptic worlds that are the implied result of nuclear war, the goal of the protagonist is often to maintain his or her civility in the midst of depravity.  In shows such as NGE, or in the film Akira, the narrative arc is always moving towards some form of rebirth, recreation, or reincarnation for humanity.  The post-catastrophe/post-apocalyptic narratives in Japanese anime seem to be less about survival (a la Mad Max) and more about recovery and reconstruction.

I write all this, Mr. President, to illustrate this one point: the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki irrevocably changed the history, culture, and mindset of the Japanese people.  I suspect you and I are in stark disagreement on whether or not the August 1945 bombings were justified or necessary, but we cannot (and most importantly you cannot) risk forgetting that an estimated 129,000-226,000 lives were taken by the atomic bomb. That’s at least 23 times the casualties of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the attack on Pearl Harbor combined.  You are the leader of the only nation to ever use nuclear might against another nation.  You are quite literally the most powerful person on the planet.  And if that order is given and that button is pressed, you would be responsible for bringing about death and destruction on a scale only truly known and fathomed in Japan.  You would drastically and irrevocably change a nation’s history and culture, their art and their narrative.  I have no doubt you  would change their identity.

Do you comprehend the burden of such power?  Can your imagination grasp what it really means to have such atomic energy at your finger tips? So Mr. President, I ask you to watch Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla.  Please take just a couple hours to catch just a glimpse of the cost of such power, and the legacy it leaves in its wake.

Sincerely, Daniel R. Garrison Edwards

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