I still have to give a little background for the current exhibit. Since the opening of the gallery I’ve been lucky to acquire a half sheet poster from the original GODZILLA movie. That in itself is enough reason to write a bit more about the whys of the exhibit.
GODZILLA – THE CATHARSIS
FUKUSHIMA MON AMOUR is not just a collection of monsters. To start with the first GODZILLA movie made in 1954 by Ishiro Honda is not just another monster movie, but an important cultural phenomenon. It marks the coming to terms in Japan with the outcome of the Second World War. In the years after 1945 the dreadful consequences of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were taboo in Japanese society. The radiation victims and radiation in general were not talked about. Japan had lost the war. An unacceptable fact in a culture where honour and code play such an important part. GODZILLA addressed the effects of radiation by us of a simple metaphor. Mankind meddles with nature by using dangerous technology and nature strikes back with the creation of a radioactive monster. This fits in with the Shinto-tradition of Japanese culture. In Shinto every aspect of life and nature has a spirit god. The spirit gods are linked together in some sort of supernatural force. This force exceeds human action and activity. This spiritual chain of life explains and celebrates the diversity of life.
TEMPLES AND WARFARE
The original GODZILLA movie does look quite realistic or should I say credible. Main reason for the credibility is the detailed miniature reconstruction of Tokyo. The production took great care to replicate Tokyo as it looked in the 1940-1950′s. Godzilla itself is a man in a rubber suit who thanks to the detailed mini-sets can rump and destroy quite convincingly as early animation techniques like stop-motion were not needed. Temples, bridges and other big man-made structures are prominent. They are a key part of the theme of the movies, just like the military might that without any noticeable effect tries to destroy the monsters. They symbolize weak and fragile mankind. Temples, tanks and planes also feature heavily in the poster art of a lot of titles whether they are of Japanese, German, American, Italian or of other origin, especially for titles with a central Avenging Monster, notably Godzilla in his first movies and his flying nephew GAPPA.
EAST MEETS WEST
In many respects Godzilla is the eastern counterpart of King Kong. They are both nature’s reaction to mankind’s meddling with Mother Earth. Both monsters are very photogenic due to their prehistoric quality and superhuman, primal force. They don’t really fight with humans who are basically ignored and/or trampled. They do however like to have a round or two with other prehistoric-like animals. The identification with King Kong is strongest when Godzilla reaches Tokyo Tower after destroying half of Tokyo as a bridge to the climactic conclusion of the film. The Tokyo Tower is for Godzilla as the Empire State Building is for King Kong. They both stand as symbols for man’s technological power. The only thing different with King Kong is that the Tokyo Tower is wrecked before Godzilla will meet his death.
Taken all this in account it is not surprising that Godzilla was a hit in the west as well as in the east. It basically is Japan’s first low-art blockbuster. The commercial success led to more movies, to more success, to more monsters and to more blending of western and eastern low culture.
FROM KONG TO FRANKENSTEIN AND FROM EARTH TO SPACE
To keep up the series Godzilla needed to evolve and soon other monsters were born. The first batch of monsters were conceived to fight Godzilla itself. These monsters still fit the shinto-tradition when nature calls other monsters to combat Godzilla before he destroys earth itself.
MOTHRA the flying moth and RODAN
the flying reptile are nature’s jets and MOTHRA’s larvae are nature’s tanks that succeed were man’s jets and tanks have failed. Next to the Godzilla series another series of monster movie is launched with GAMERA the flying tortoise.
To keep the series interesting more monsters are needed. To this end the series gets more and more mixed with western culture. Just like its counterpart Kong, Godzilla gets a son, Minya, to add a comic note. New types of monsters are introduced, inspired by western horror and science fiction from the 1950′s. One of the more original ones is Hedorah (see top), the monster created by human pollution of the earth. Unlike its Japanese predecessors Hedorah does not come from the sky, earth or sea. Monsters suddenly come from outer space. Three-headed dragon KING GHEDORA is the first of them.
With science-fiction robots are also introduced. To complete the east-west mashup the series introduces existing western icons. King Kong and the monster of Frankenstein (FURANKENSHUTAIN) appear as themselves, albeit in a slightly, different form. Japanese SF becomes a genre in itself, made for the western market, with an increasing amount of western actors, freely using western icons and themes where Japanese ones simply don’t exist.
For example ATRAGON is clearly inspired by Jules Verne and a string of superhero movies are developed in the 1960′s as well. This line of SF is interesting as the superhero will mix with the traditional Japanese superhero, the samurai, ultimately developing in other Japanese low-art icons like Ultraman and providing a nurturing ground for modern Japanese horror, suspense and anime. All this mixing and blending is not all good news as the central themes are traded in for harmless, colourful fun. Production values get lower and lower until a cardboard level is reached that is beyond any credibility and the series has become a form of slapstick. This spirit of colourful fun does inspire more fun however, as can be witnessed in the poster art of the 1960′s. Especially in German and Italian posters the mash-up is so complete that the names of the actual characters really are not something to be bothered about. King Kong or Godzilla? It does not matter, just add an outlandish tag line and the viewing public will know enough. Frankenstein’s name is used idly most often. All this adds enormously to the fun of collecting Japanese monster movie posters.
LIMITS TO HYBRIDIZATION
Not all is permitted with these east-west movie cocktails. Dracula and vampires in general are absent, as are zombies. Obviously there is no place for “the undead” in the Shinto-tradition that concerns itself only with the forces of life. Another noted absentee in these films is sex. Sex and lust are exclusive human attributes and therefore also excluded from the most powerful force in existence. When the series is fully mashed up “pretty ladies” do appear as characters, but then we already are in the cardboard phase of production values where nobody thinks of sex any more.