Nuclear Dinosaurs and Tragic Heroes – more of why I love sf/f

Image from the 1954 Gojira (click to embiggen)
Image from the 1954 Gojira (click to embiggen)
I don’t remember precisely when I saw my first Godzilla movie. I was probably four or five years old. When we were living in the parts of Colorado where all the TV stations we received came from Denver, one of those channels had a Saturday afternoon movie called Science Fiction Theatre (or something like that) which seemed to almost exclusively show Japanese sci fi films. So there were a lot of Godzilla, Mothra, and other kaiju films that I saw during this time.

Often when there were parts of the plot that didn’t make sense to me, Mom would explain it away as the problems with translation. She had already explained about how the movies were originally filmed in Japanese, then dubbed into English. So anything else that seemed odd or illogical was because of that. It didn’t occur to me until later that part of the process of translating it for an American audience also sometimes involved editing the film, taking out scenes or cutting them short.

Godzilla was, of course, my favorite…

I loved watching the little model tanks and trains and such while the unknown man inside the rubber suit caused destruction. Half the fun of some scenes was trying to figure out how they had filmed them when the human actors would be spliced into the giant monster action.

I loved Godzilla’s weird roar, and the way his atomic breath could be so versatile.

Given how easily scary movies gave me nightmares, I think more than a little of the appeal of the Japanese kaiju movies was the fact that the big scary scenes were so transparently fake. Those model trains and tanks and rocket launchers looked like toys. And in some scenes the actors actions seems so exaggerated that I never forgot for even a moment that it wasn’t real. No one was actually being hurt.

I was probably closer to 10 or 11 years old when I was re-watching one of the earlier Godzilla movies and I realized that the monster was being used as a metaphor for the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in particular, and the threat of nuclear war in general. This was also when the full effects of the dubbing and editing started to become meaningful to me. One of the reasons that Mom had had, when I was younger, to explain the dubbing process to me was that there were always scenes where the facial expressions and the music didn’t seem to go along at all with the tone of voice (and sometimes the words) of the English dubbing.

During commercial breaks Mom and I would discuss what the original Japanese dialog might have been about. Sometimes when I was younger Mom suggested that there was just some subtle cultural stuff that didn’t translate well for an American audience. When I was slightly older, and I understood about the nuclear war stuff, we had more philosophical discussions about the nature of war.

I remember one specific one. We had recently moved again, it was during third grade, and the new school district, in addition to doing monthly fire drills, also had us do atomic bomb drills. Yes, they had a different sounding siren for that, and we had to practice huddling under our desk with our heads covered in our arms (they showed us a really scratched up old filmstrip to explain the process) as if that would protect us from the radioactive blast.

Anyway, one of the older Godzilla movies where the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing metaphors were most apparent, I asked Mom if she thought kids in Japan did the duck and cover drills, too. I don’t remember what conclusions we came to. What I do remember is that both of us were pretty subdued for the rest of the movie. It didn’t help that this was one of the early kaiju films where one of the characters sacrifices his life to save the world from the monster at the end. I remember specifically that the character that did it in this one wasn’t the guy who had seemed like the hero earlier in the movie. He’d been more like the comic relief buddy of the guy who seemed to be the hero. Which made the whole thing even more tragic.

At one of of subsequent library trips (not only was my mom a sci fi fan, she also believed in regular family outings to the library), Mom found a couple of post-apocalyptic books. Of those, she let me read one after she had finished it, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Which deserves a post of its own, later.

Godzilla and the other kaiju movies of the 50s and 60s could be watched as just silly shows about actors in rubber suits kicking over model skyscrapers. But there were serious issues being explored in the story. One of the things that I thought that Pacific Rim got right, as an homage to these sorts of films, was the key role that knowing and intentional self-sacrifice played in trying to save the world.

Godzilla is a cool nuclear dinosaur who morphs into a defender of the planet in later films, but the cold, inhuman power of destruction he represents is a real horror. And perhaps the only way we could confront it was to wrap it in a metaphor and turn it into a rubber suit.

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