(“Godzilla vs. The Code” first appeared in Barrelhouse)
My husband has a favorite Japanese actor, and he can pronounce the man’s name. To-shi-ro Mi-fu-ne. At our house, Mr. Mifune appears in Samurai movies, mostly on Saturday afternoons. I’ll walk into the TV room and there’s my husband on the couch, reading subtitles. The men on TV are dressed in black, they huff out their lines.
I cannot make fun of my husband.
My favorite Japanese actor is Godzilla.
In the Samurai movies, the men have a Code. I don’t understand the Code but it seems very important. For one thing, the men bow, then die over the Code often. For another, the movies are shot in black and white and that makes anything seem important.
Godzilla, on the other hand, has no Code. He isn’t even Good or Bad. Sometimes at the beginning of a movie he’s Good and later in the same move he becomes Bad. In one movie he’s saving Tokyo. The next time you see him, he’s spewing radioactive fire across the city’s rooftops. Void of agenda, directionless, virtually without plot, the monster rampages.
Those of you who know Mr. Mifune’s work may object to my discussing his film career in the same breath as that of Godzilla. But your offense would be misguided. Just as Mr. Mifune embodied the essence of the Japanese tateyaku style of acting, so did Godzilla embody the essence of post-World War II Japan. That is, he did until he became kitsch.
Wait, you say. Godzilla was always kitsch.
No he wasn’t. Look back before the Godzilla directors became enamored with space aliens. In the first movie, filmed in 1954 by Tomoyuki Tanaka (Gojira), you see the cinematic image of the only people instructed in the horrors of the nuclear bomb. Godzilla’s early monsterography confirms this view: Godzilla was a prehistoric creature awakened by the bomb, the monster rising from the sea as an inexplicable, chaotic force, one totally owned within the Japanese experience.
Later, as happens with so many who become famous, Godzilla’s backstory changed. Under the revised version, Godzilla aided the Japanese soldiers in WWII, an ally who became a mutant as a result of irresponsible American nuclear testing. In these movies, the Japanese people quit examining their own experience and looked outward. Godzilla – he who once represented the unthinkable – is reduced to the lesser, and more boring, political.
I admire the early Godzilla in part because he has no Code. He doesn’t follow the Code of the Samurais, the Code trumpeted by Ernest Hemingway and other testosterone-saturated writers. The Code does nothing for me. In fact, when I read Hemingway, I wonder, who decided this was good? The Code as enacted by the Samurai is somewhat less off-putting, probably because it’s in Japanese and I don’t understand it as well. But the Code that treats men like pawns on the chessboard, tabs in the computer chip, rats in the maze – I am not a fan.
I prefer the chaos of Godzilla.
Godzilla, being what he is, appears on the TV screen at our house mostly at night. In the afternoon, we loll in front of the Samurai matinee; at night, we tense to the true Godzilla. We watch with the Japanese people as they scan the horizon for the lumbering monster. Suddenly, he stomps onto the screen – a collective, national night-terror, a post-traumatic stress creature destined to die, then boil anew when the camera cranks again. The creature’s sole purpose: to rise without ceasing or resolve. Like an open, cinematic wound, Godzilla! erupts.