Saturday, 9 May 2015

The pleasure of destruction: Godzilla and other things that come from the ocean

In this post I want to focus on the role of the sea, especially the vast expanse of sea stretching out in a south-eastern direction from Japan, as a screen for utopian as well as dystopian projections in Japanese popular culture.

A good place to start is Godzilla - not the new movie from last year, though, but the original one from 1954. In these post-Fukushima times, it's easy to understand the enormous impact this movie must have made on the audience when it was released, resonating, as it does, with the fear of radioactivity, memories of the war and at some level also with an ancient dread for the sea itself as the birthbed of tsunamis and typhoons.

"Irane" (No thanks), a print by Inaba Tomoko in the wake of the "triple" diaster 2011  
It is well known that this original Godzilla movie is littered with references to the war (see Igarashi 2000, Napier 1993). The monster is awoken by US nuclear tests in the Pacific. Its attacks on Tokyo replicate the destruction wrought on the city by the American air raids. The Japanese military is totally powerless to stop it. People run for shelter to the sound of air raid sirens. It razes buildings symbolic of power to the ground, but - like the Americans - leaves the imperial palace intact. In an interview, the director Honda Ishirô later stated that the destruction had been modelled on the March 1945 fire-bombings of Tokyo. That the monster was a thinly veiled reference to the former enemy is also clear from the fact that the film opens with a scene that in a shockingly direct way alludes to the Lucky Dragon incident, showing a Japanese fishing boat suddenly overpowered by a mysterious force emerging from the sea. This incident had taken place earlier in 1954, when a Japanese fishing boat had been showered with radioactivity from a US hydrogen bomb (despite being outside the putative danger zone), leading to the death of one of the crew members a few months later. But is Godzilla really a stand-in for the enemy? In another memorable statement, the film's music director Ifukube Akira, said: "I even thought Godzilla was like the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific Ocean during the war". Here too the reference is to the war, but the monster is seen as an incarnation of Japanese soldiers, who, in the fashion of vengeful ghosts, return to haunt and kill the survivors.

So is Godzilla less an enemy to subdue than a ghost to be placated? In any case, Godzilla is more than a thinly veiled fleet of American bombers. Recall the scene early in the film when the first rumours of something strange at sea are starting to circulate. An elderly fisherman says, with tremour in his voice, that "it might be Godzilla" (Gojira ka mo shiranee) and explains that in the old days human sacrifices had been needed to pacify the monster. Later, during the stormy night when Godzilla first wades ashore, the villagers perform a religious ritual involving dancing and tengu-masks, presumably in order to placate the monster. Here, obviously, Godzilla is treated as a form of god-like being or kami associated with the sea.

The fact that Godzilla resonates with religious traditions may at first seem surprising considering the central role of science in the movie. It is modern science in the form of nuclear bombs that awakens the monster. The main protagonist is an aged scientist, Yamane Kyôhei (played by Takeshi Shimura). In the end, it is also science in the guise of the "oxygen destroyer" invented by the young scientist Serizawa that subdues the monster. Susan Napier also highlights the role of science in her interpretation of the film, which allows for a happy ending by letting "'good' Japanese science triumph against the evil monster". The film, she writes, belongs to the fundamentally optimistic genre of "secure horror" in which order is "ultimately reestablished, usually through the combined efforts of scientists and the government" (Napier 1993:332). But this interpretation is hard to square with the fact that Godzilla reenacts the trauma of the war: surely science is a flimsy and fragile protection against the force of trauma. If the "deeper" problem addressed by the film is related to the war and the guilt associated with it, then science is certainly not the recipe. Furthermore, viewing science as the savior overlooks the fact that what subdues Godzilla is not just science but also a human sacrifice, namely that of Serizawa himself, who, instead of returning to the surface after having delivered the oxygen destroyer at the bottom of the sea, chooses to cut off his air-hose in order to die together with the monster. This suicide clearly enacts the very ritual - the human sacrifice - mentioned by the old fisherman earlier in the movie. Science then is not the solution, but merely the camoflage or alibi of the real solution, the resurrection of ritual by other means. Ritual becomes a means of atonement, a way of addressing the lingering grief and guilt associated with the war. The monster becomes the place-holder of the trauma that has to be placated. "Never again", Yamane says, echoing what today has become the formula for addressing the horrors of the war. But his prophesy that new Godzillas will be born as long as the bomb tests go on reminds us that the task of finding a reconciliation with the past is not over. 

Serizawa's sacrifice
Godzilla embodies destructive forces associated with the sea, forces that both evoke the Pacific War and forces of nature such as typhoons and perhaps earthquakes that in old times were addressed in religious language. But what is the significance of the sea in this movie? That the sea is in fact central to it is suggested by the fact that it plays a similar role as an abode of monsters or supernatural beings in many other works of popular culture.

Take for instance Neon Genesis Evangelion, the celebrated anime series from the mid-90s, where monstrous "apostles" (shito) mysteriously hatch in the ocean and compulsively wade ashore in Japan to wreck havoc in a seemingly endless succession. At once we can notice the similarity of the geographical route taken by Godzilla, which in turn, as we have seen, repeats the route of the US forces in the war. Like in Godzilla, there is also a striking tendency to "quote" war-memories, as in the bisarre naming of several principal characters after WWII aircraft carriers. As Sawaragi Noi suggests, it is easy to read the apostles - who form a cross when they blow up - as a symbol of the US or the West, and the endless row of battles therefore as a traumatic repetition of the desperate last days of the Pacific War. At the same time, there are many things in the weird setting - for instance the fact that the Evas (the gigantic robot-like machines used for battling the Apostles) have to be driven by children - that only make sense if we view the film as not really being about the struggle against an external enemy but rather as an imaginary reproduction of an inner psychic traumatized space in which two impulses compete: on the one hand the death-drive or the urge to repeat the trauma - a drive symbolized by the relentless Apostles, who seem to lack all consciousness and attack blindly - and, on the other hand, the budding impulse of recovery and consciousness, symbolized by the small kids locked up in the gargantuan mecha-shells who have to fight the death-drive. The big difference to Godzilla is of course that Neon Genesis Evangelion is a far more "anomic" film, a film that depicts a world in which the terrifying psychic/supernatural forces can longer be brought under control. There is no longer any ritual - in the style of Serizawa's sacrifice - that can contain them.

Apostle approaching from the sea
The importance of the sea here resides, I think, in the fact that it helps us compare movies like Godzilla and Neon Genesis Evangelion - movies that appear to have a lot in common but which nevertheless differ in interesting ways. The sea can play this role because of its persistent association with the supernatural. The supernatural forces associated with the sea do not necessarily have to be monstruous. Recall for instance the arrival on a of the "myriads of gods" (yaoyorozu no kamigami) to the bath-house in Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away). The gods arrive on a paddle-streamer, hailing from a glittering city on the other side of the water:

The arrival of the myriads of gods
This reminds us that the sea is also Japan's utopian direction - the place of Tokoyo, the happy, green land of immortals or the dead which was pictured as existing far out in the ocean or on the other side of the sea. Tokoyo could also be pictured as a land of gods, as in the Okinawan idea of Nirai Kanai, from which the gods would periodically come to visit the human world. Japanese etnographers like Orikuchi Shinobu and Yanagita Kunio have written famous works on this belief. The former based his theory of marebito (visiting gods, or "rare visitors") on it, while the latter discusses the various ways in which it was linked to a view of the ocean as a bringer of gifts and blessings in his late work Kaijô no michi. Probably this belief in gods arriving from the sea is also connected to the idea of the Dragon Palace (Ryûgû) under the sea where the god or goddess of the sea was supposed to live. This palace appears already in the Kojiki myth about Uminosachi where it is said to be the dwelling of Watatsumi, the sea god. The chronicles Kojiki and Nihongi also contain other myths that describe gods arriving from the sea such as Sukunahikona or Hiruko/Ebisu. The most touching of these tales is probably that of Hiruko (the "leech-child) who was deformed and put out to die in a boat of reeds, but who - according to one variant of the myth - was taken care of and healed in the Dragon Palace and later returned on the back of a wani (a form of sea monster) and became worshipped as Ebisu, protector of fishermen and one of the "lucky gods". In parts of Japan there was a belief that the Buddha of the future, Miroku, would arrive on a ship from across the ocean. Similar ideas can also be found in the Chinese legends about islands like Peng-lai or Fusang which were thought to be located in or floating around in the Eastern Sea and which were also associated with immortality and eternal youth. It is not farfetched, I believe, to see an echo of these mythological beliefs in the motif of the seven lucky gods on their "treasure ship" (takarabune) which become popular in Japan from the Muromachi period onwards.

Ebisu, Daikoku and the other lucky gods in the treasure ship

The last great historical moment when these beliefs fuelled popular Utopian expectations on a large scale was probably in the wake of the Ansei Earthquake in 1855. As the historian Gregory Smits points out, the destruction became linked in the popular mind with the arrival of Perry's "black ships" the year before. A large number of woodblock prints (so called namazu-e) exists from these years that depict the gigantic subterranean catfish (namazu) that was thought to cause earthquakes. Many of these prints depict the catfish together with one of the lucky gods, Daikoku, who has a wonderful hammer (uchide no kozuchi) which showers gold over the common people. The message of these woodblock prints was clearly subversive since they called for yonaoshi - "rectification of the world" - which implied the redistribution of wealth. Smits makes a point of the fact that the giant catfish was usually depicted as big and black and that the name Daikoku literally means "big black". In the prints, these two "big blacks" were in turn linked a third, namely Perry's black ships.

Daikoku and the catfish

The catfish forces the rich to throw up their money
Does this rich flora of myths and folklore tell us anything about Godzilla? Well, let us try, as a thought experiment, to map these ideas on film monster and see what we get. I have already suggested that Godzilla can be seen as an incarnation of the trauma of war. Could it also be seen as Ebisu? As a "rare visitor" (marebito) who brings blessings, utopian energies, and the possibility of a renewal or rebirth of the world?

Maybe this is not so farfetched as it may sound. Godzilla, after all, is an ambivalent creature, not so much a mere external enemy to be destroyed as a catalyst of our own inner process of coming to terms with a painful past. In later films, it even takes on the role of defending humanity against other invading monsters, becoming, in effect, a kind of benevolent deity. The sea too was never regarded simply as a bringer of blessings, but was also, just like the monster, a source of destruction, of typhoons and tsunamis. To really grasp the utopian side of Godzilla, however, we need to hold fast to the deep pleasure of destruction itself. This pleasure is well expressed in the following quote:
"Godzilla appeals to that destructive instinct that’s in all kids," says Takeshi Maruyama, a 28-year-old "salaryman," who grew up on the VS series and has an extensive Godzilla figure collection. A lot of buildings were constructed while Maruyama was growing up, a period for Japan’s "bubble era" modernization. And it was a delight to see Godzilla destroy them almost as soon as they went up, Maruyama recalled. One of his favorites is "Godzilla Vs. Mothra," released in 1992, which showed his hometown of Yokohama destroyed, including Land Mark Tower, one of this nation’s tallest buildings, which was being built as the movie was shot. "It is so fun to see a giant thing break and get totally destroyed," he said. "You can’t explain it in words. You just feel it in your heart, and it’s so immediate." (Kageyama 2014)
What is this pleasure? To understand it, we might compare to how the Neo-pop artist Murakami Takashi welcomed the collapse of the "bubble economy" in the early 1990s. Comparing the bubble to a maniacal feeling of having conquered the world, he writes that “when that mirage vanished, we felt relief, as if to say: ‘That’s right, this is what reality looks like’” (Murakami 2005:135). This sentiment was echoed by the philosopher Karatani Kôjin, for whom the collapse was a breath of fresh air. Looking back in 1997, he writes that he had “felt almost suffocated in Japan during the 1980s”, when people were euphoric and Japanese capitalism seemed triumphant (Karatani 1997).

There is, I think, a moral dimension to the pleasure expressed in these quotes, which can be expressed as pleasure at seeing justice done. It is relief at the disappearance of something that is not just suffocating or oppressive, but that by rights should not exist. Here is the place to quote Kafta, who ends one of his stories ("The City Coat of Arms") with the following words: “All legends and songs originating in this city are filled with nostalgia for a prophesied day when the city would be smashed to bits by five blows in rapid succession from a gigantic fist.” Expressed in these words is the pleasure of the apocalypse, of divine force levelling the human world. A similar pleasure is, perhaps, also typical of revolutionary moments. A new world has always required a settling of accounts with the old one. Talk of yonaoshi (rectification of the world) was in fact feared by Tokugawa officials much as the talk of revolution has been feared by elites in the modern world.

Is Godzilla then linked to revolution? Well, it is certainly linked to the desire to erase wrong. The reason that the monster is not simply a fearful external enemy and that there is something pleasurable about the destruction it causes is that the "ghosts" that it embodies are right. The destruction is felt to be rightful and well deserved. As James Berger (1999) points out, the desire for the apocalypse is always a desire for a second catastrophe that will set things right that went wrong during the first one.

The monsters appearing in films like Godzilla and Neon Genesis Evangelion point back to earlier, prior catastrophes that are still not properly acknowledged and atoned for by those responsible for it. The catastrophe of war, perhaps, in which countless people were sacrificed for the nation or the emperor, or the ravaging of nature, or the exploiting of people for the profit of others. These catastrophes have a traumatic quality since the "wrong" that needs to be righted is not just external, but committed by the communities with which "we" identify or the systems that benefit "us". Unlike in the usual enthusiasm for revolution, the trauma calls for the destruction, not of an external enemy, but of ourselves. This is why, at first sight, these monsters appear as vengeful ghosts that won't go away until they are placated, until we apologize properly, until we have found a way to make up for our wrongs. Until that happens, the monsters will reappear and the cities and skyscrapers will continue to be toppled over and destroyed.

Trauma, I suggest, is suppressed revolutionary desire - it is the guise taken by such desire when it cannot be acknowledged by the ego. It is revolutionary in its merciless accusation against the present and in its insistence that justice be done, but at the same time it is suppressed because the ego is unable to acknowledge its own destruction. The trauma calls for the ego to stop identifying with what needs to be destroyed. Freud stresses that the traumatized person actively desires to repeat the trauma. Importantly, this is not just a symptom of the trauma but also part of the process whereby it can be mastered. By repeating it actively, out of its own volition, the ego turns itself from a passive victim into an active agent, and thereby gradually makes the trauma acceptable to consciousness. This can be seen as a process whereby we acknowledge the right of ghosts - as a process whereby we move towards the standpoint of the ghosts and thereby resurrect them, lend them life, as part of ourselves. The working through of a trauma is not a mere inner process, but a transformation whereby we commit ourselves to changing the world into a better one in which the ghosts will not have died in vain. As we repeat, we learn to avoid the "wrongs" of the first catastrophe and, if we learn well enough, not only the ghosts but we ourselves will spring back to life. The pleasure of destruction doesn't just spring from cruelty. Another dimension is the feeling of recovery, or, as Karatani puts it, that we become able to breathe again. 

As I think I've shown, destruction in Godzilla is linked at least indirectly to a form of Utopian imagination. Looking at the list we have assembled so far of the monster's incarnations, we find: the American bombers, the souls of dead Japanese soldiers, the god of the sea, the rare visitor, Ebisu and Daikoku, the giant catfish, and maybe Perry's "black ships". Which one of these incarnations will come to the fore when we watch the movie will depend on our interpretation. When facing Godzilla, we should perhaps ask ourselves, as we should whenever we meet a human being: this person has immense potential both to do me harm and to bring me happiness - what will it be? Will it be both?

The pleasure of destruction


Berger, James (1999) After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Igarashi, Yoshikuni (2000) Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kageyama, Yurika (2014) “Japanese fans speak on evolution of 'Godzilla'”, Japan Today, 28 July 2014; (accessed 2014-07-28):

Karatani, Kôjin (1997) “Japan is interesting because Japan is not interesting”, lecture delievered in March 1997, reproduced on Karatani Forum: (accessed on 2002-11-19).

Murakami, Takashi (2005) “Earth in my Window”, pp 98-149, in Murakami Takashi (ed) (2005) Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, New Haven: Yale University Press

Napier, Susan (1993) “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira”, Journal of Japanese Studies 19(2): 327-351.

Smits, Gregory (2006) “Shaking up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints”, Journal of Social History 39(4): 1045-1078.

Yanagita, Kunio (1978) Kaijô no michi (The ocean roads), Tokyo: Iwanami.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.