REMEMBERING UNCOOL JAPAN: A Personal History
Gregory M. Pflugfelder
Why Godzilla? Naturally, I face this question quite a bit. Before attempting an answer, I want to set the record straight about a few things that might otherwise be assumed about me or about anyone who focuses his attention on such an unconventional—some might say unscholarly—topic.
- I’ve never played with a Godzilla toy. Truth be told, as a child I secretly coveted a Barbie doll or an Easy-Bake Oven. But that’s another story.
- Never once have I attended a Godzilla convention. In fact, people in costumes embarrass me inordinately.
- There are some movies in the Godzilla series whose plots seem so lame and production values so dismal that I cannot bear to view them in one sitting.
Having said that, I won’t deny that, late in life as far as these things go, Godzilla has cast an odd spell over me. My fascination is pleasurable, but it also has an intellectual basis. It connects with three of my broader interests as a scholar and a teacher, and it brings them together in a unique way. As a historical figure of consequence, as a global icon, and as a multimedia visual phenomenon, Godzilla cut a deep and lasting swath across the cultural landscape of the late twentieth century, and holds his tail high even in the new millennium. As a way of explaining my goals in developing this website, I’ll expand below on each of these three facets of Godzilla and of my approach to him as a scholar and an unlikely suitor: the historical, the global, and the visual.
GODZILLA AND HISTORY
For the record, I’m a historian. It’s not a glamorous occupation, but on the other hand it’s rarely boring. Simply put, what historians do is use materials from the past, whether recent or remote, to tell stories that are of interest or relevance to those who live in the present. In this age of megamedia, it’s hardly surprising that a growing number of scholars have turned their attention to studying the history of mass entertainment, which exerts a pervasive influence in contemporary society. Academic writings on pop culture range in quality from the ridiculous to the sublime, but they prove at least that the stuff of history doesn’t have to be stuffy. This website is my own attempt to join this broader conversation on popular culture, which unites the interests of academics and the general public.
Growing older has a special poignancy for historians. Among our kind, the past is both personal and professional, since inevitably the passage of years causes lived experience and historical reflection to merge. Eventually, every historian becomes not just a student but also a living embodiment of history, a walking textbook in the truest sense. For Baby Boomers like myself, the Nineteen Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies long remained too fresh in memory, seemed too familiar, too spick and span, to deserve the hallowed name of “history.” It’s a sobering experience to realize that most of the undergraduates whom I teach at Columbia University are children of the Clinton and Bush eras, conceived years after I myself entered college. For them, the Vietnam War is the subject of movies and fiction, just as World War Two or the Korean War were for people my own age. To put it another way, the original Godzilla was born to and inhabited a world that has long since passed. In making that past come alive, I therefore have the ambiguous pleasure of reliving my own history. Creating this website has also renewed my sense of kinship with those who share the memory of that now-lost world, and who were similarly shaped by it. We will always be the Godzilla Generation.
Those much younger than myself may find it difficult to believe, but there was once a place I like to think of—with no condescension intended—as Uncool Japan. Woody Allen made infamous fun of it in his 1966 spy send-up What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [VISUAL SIDEBAR 1: What’s Up with What’s Up, Tiger Lily?], with its hokey “Oriental” characters and intentionally inept dubbing. Nevertheless, by the time the comedy was released on home video in the early Eighties, one of Allen’s original 1966 gags showed serious signs of aging. In the Allen-scripted version of the film, a Yokohama cabbie, playing amateur tour guide, directs the attention of his passengers to a “world-renowned factory where the broken Japanese toys are made.” The joke was already a bit stale by the late Sixties; a decade and a half later, it was hopelessly outdated. By the early Eighties, Japan’s manufacturing prowess commanded considerable respect around the world—and on the strength of more than just toys—so that the once-prevalent notion that Japan-made goods were typically inferior in quality and less desirable than those produced elsewhere no longer resonated with the sensibilities of a younger-generation audience. Ironically, the most sophisticated equipment for watching the newly released videotape was by then most likely made in Japan and based on state-of-the-art Japanese technology.
Fast-forward a couple decades. By the turn of the millennium, made-in-Japan animated films, TV programs, comics, Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, video games, and other forms of soft merchandise had come to define and shape the latest trends in pop culture in many countries. Consumer Japanophilia especially grew during the Nineties, supposedly a “lost” decade for Japan’s national economy, but by no means in terms of creative output. Even after the millennium’s turn, the global popularity of Japanese mass-culture commodities has shown few signs of abating. Sanrio’s trademark Hello Kitty character still smiles her mouthless smile on stationery and knapsacks around the world; film directors and actors like MIYAZAKI Hayao and WATANABE Ken feel at home at the Oscars; and American teenagers freely use such terms as Kawaii (Japanese for cute) and Hentai (literally “perverted”—but more often used in the sense of sexually-themed) to refer to particular categories of manga and anime. In fact, the words anime and manga themselves hardly ever appear in italics anymore, having been fully incorporated into the English language. As Douglas McGray put it memorably back in 2002, Japan’s GNC or “Gross National Cool” has outstripped most of its rivals for quite some time now.
Almost every one of my students has known the Cool Japan literally since childhood. But the Uncool Japan that I grew up with is a distant and receding country. Fewer and fewer are those of us who were familiar as youngsters with those gimmicky giant monsters, known in Japanese as kaijū, who swam, crept, or flew their way into our everyday lives from the Land of the Rising Sun. In the days before CNN and the Internet brought the world into practically every home in so-called real time, the more innocent among us might even be forgiven for believing that Japan was home to actual monsters and not just to the smaller-statured men in rubber suits who played them. For an American tyke growing up in the Sixties, the archipelago of Japan was one vast Monsterland, not unlike the imaginary island preserve—strikingly similar in conception to Michael Crichton’s later Jurassic Park—that made its film debut in the 1968 kaijū extravaganza Destroy All Monsters. Why else would monsters display such a conspicuous fondness for attacking that particular nation’s cities?
Such childish misperceptions are less conceivable, of course, in the globalized and cyberlinked information community of the early twenty-first century. Other images of Japan have replaced them—images that may be truer to life, but that are equally a product of mass culture. For the Godzilla Generation, especially outside Japan, one of the most familiar views of Tokyo used to be a cityscape of tumbling buildings and panic-stricken crowds. By contrast, for today’s generation of Japanophiles, it’s not the footsteps of made-up monsters that imprint Tokyo’s sidewalks so much as the incessantly photographed and televised hordes of well-heeled and fashionable young women and men who stroll the trendy neighborhoods of Harajuku and Shibuya. Cool Japan, in other words, has all but replaced Uncool Japan in the popular imagination. Such is the malleability of perceptions in an age of global capitalism.
Yet from the perspective of a cultural historian, these two Japans—Cool and Uncool—are by no means opposites. Instead, they relate intrinsically to each other as complementary phases of a longer process. The bigger picture, which unfolds gradually across the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond, is one in which the products of Japan’s mass-culture industries have emerged ever more conspicuously onto the global marketplace, acquiring a steadily growing degree of favor among overseas consumers. Since the Fifties, Japan has come to be identified abroad increasingly in terms of its popular culture. One of the things this website sets out to demonstrate is that, within this process of making Japanese cultural commodities known around the world, Godzilla and his kaijū kinfolk played a historically significant and highly visible role.
Witness my own history. My acquaintance with Godzilla began in the late Sixties, when Godzilla was already a teenager. In the suburban Philadelphia community where I grew up—as I suspect was the case in any number of similar towns across America—more than a few parents, especially those with young boys, welcomed a weekly respite from their boisterous kids and were all too happy to take turns shuttling them to the nearest movie house on Saturday mornings to be distracted for a few hours by a double-feature matinee [VISUAL SIDEBAR 2: Matinee Idylls]. The offerings with which the local theater tempted my contemporaries and me included, among other titles, Jules Verne fantasies and made-in-Britain horror flicks, along with miscellaneous Hollywood fare. Although most of the young viewers paid little attention to the national origins of a given feature, the playbill in fact sampled from several cultural traditions and international movie industries. Occasionally, Japanese productions, chiefly of the kaijū eiga (monster movie) variety, would enter the mix. I don’t recall how many such Japanese titles I saw in that setting or exactly which ones they were, but I know for sure the list included Frankenstein Conquers the World and Destroy All Monsters. Several scenes from those films made a particularly strong impression and have remained with me over the decades.
For example, I vividly remember the non-Caucasian features of the title figure of Frankenstein Conquers the World, released originally in Japan in 1965, and the fact that they seemed distinctly unconventional to my young eyes. By the same token, that visual difference made the character all the more eerie and unforgettable. At seven years of age or thereabouts, I’d already seen Western cinematic versions of Mary Shelley’s monster and knew what he was “supposed” to look like. Even today, FURUHATA Kōji’s troubled countenance is, along with that of Herman Munster from TV’s The Munsters—I’m a child of the Sixties, after all—one of the two faces of Frankenstein that I can call readily to my mind’s eye.
I watched with equal fascination as Destroy All Monsters showed my friends and me a larval Mothra “smashing” Beijing—or Peking, as we used to call it in those days before ping-pong diplomacy [VISUAL SIDEBAR 3: Kaijū Diplomacy]. My mother and grandparents fled the Soviet Union during the 1940s, so the map of Cold War geopolitics held a more personal interest for me as a child than it did for many of my playmates. It was thrilling to see onscreen a tantalizing, if imaginary, glimpse of “Red China,” a place I knew my passport prevented me from visiting in real life. Unlike most Hollywood pictures I’d at that point been exposed to, Destroy All Monsters, a flick from Japan, transported me instantly to one of the few places on earth in 1968—the year that first elected Nixon—that seemed even more distant and otherworldly than Japan itself. The scene of Mothra slinking along the railroad tracks to Beijing evokes wistful feelings even as an adult.
Similarly unforgettable in Destroy All Monsters were the scenes of Monsterland, more familiarly known as Monster Island [VISUAL SIDEBAR 4: Monster Archipelago]. According to the movie’s plot, by 1999 all the earth’s kaijū had been pacified and brought to live together in this isolated, semitropical preserve. Despite its monstrous megafauna, the island setting seemed idyllic—sort of like Milton’s Paradise on steroids. For some reason, I concluded that Monster Island was supposed to lie in the Caribbean, perhaps inside the Bermuda Triangle. I may not have been paying sufficient attention to the film’s narration, but at least my imagination was healthy.
As I recall these episodes from boyhood, it occurs to me that my interest in kaijū eiga was a bit more brainy than hormonal even then. I was bookish rather than boisterous as a child. The spectacle of Japanese monsterdom attracted me less on account of its staged violence and pyrotechnics, which appeared the biggest draw for some of my schoolmates, than because of the lesson in geography and pseudo-geography that it provided. I’m struck, too, by an underlying paradox. Staring at the screen in that darkened theater just outside the municipal limits of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, I was clearly aware that the feature films I was watching were Japanese in origin, as were most of the actors who played in them. On another level, though, the movies could well have been—and in a very real sense were—taking place in my own backyard. In order to experience the sort of ticklish fear that constitutes one of the chief pleasures of watching a monster movie, one had to be able to imagine oneself among the creature’s possible victims, to place oneself, in effect, among the nameless crowds who flee in terror before the kaijū‘s approach. Geographic distance and cultural difference were immaterial in that moment, and Japan could seem, temporarily at least, just as close and familiar as the Jersey Shore. In my boyish mind, then, the movies I was viewing both were and weren’t Japanese. One might say this website illustrates basically the same point, albeit from a more mature and historically informed perspective.
All the above events transpired long before I came to study Japan in any serious way. And I can’t truthfully say that my early and relatively sparse encounters with its monsters were what led me in that direction. It was somewhat in the manner of an afterthought that I realized, just over a decade ago, that the products of Japanese culture to which I’d first been exposed weren’t the delicate verses by tenth-century court nobles that I learned to appreciate in college, although it was, to be sure, the latter that encouraged me to study the Japanese language. Nor did my introduction to Japan come by way of exquisite Tokugawa-era woodblock prints, as it did, famously, for the Impressionist painters and along with them many members of the nineteenth-century European public. Rather, the first form of Japanese creativity to reach the threshold of my consciousness was more kitschy and raucous than it was refined and sensitive. It was oversized rather than miniature, mass-produced not handmade, more future-looking than traditional. I began to wonder, as both a student and an object of history, what processes had brought that particular version of Japanese culture to my doorstep, and to that of a whole generation. This website presents some of the answers I’ve discovered, and some of the observations I’ve made along the way.