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Aug 13, 2009 2:11 pm


JAPAN DEFEATS GODZILLA, IF NOT KIM JONG IL



Writing in this month's Le Monde Diplomatique, Ohaira Namihei muses about the role of science fiction in modern Japan. He concludes thus:

Science fiction allows Japan to imagine a future where it is master of its own destiny and where questions about preventing an alien invasion don’t seem so ridiculous. For many Japanese, the alien today is called Kim Jong-il. The threat to the region by the North Korean leader’s nuclear programme and ballistic missile tests demands a clearer response from the government than the one it gave to the question about UFOs.

Japan defeats fictional monsters

Fighting Godzilla
Japan’s disarmament following its defeat in the second world war has left it feeling vulnerable – even to UFOs. Films like Godzilla and manga cartoons express this sense of weakness and imagine a future where Japan controls its own destiny
by Odaira Namihei
“Is Japan prepared for the arrival of extraterrestrials?” asked the opposition MP Ryuji Yamane in December 2007. The government’s response caused quite a stir: “There are no grounds for us to deny there are unidentified flying objects and some life-form that controls them,” Japan’s defence minister, Ishiba Shigeru, told a shocked media. He thought Japan needed to prepare for such an eventuality by defining a legal framework for possible military action. This may have sounded foolish, but Shigeru had put his finger on the complexity of the military question in Japan.

Japan was defeated in the second world war after a failed attempt to become the dominant regional power. It paid a heavy price for its ambition: the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and the US-imposed constitution of 1946-7, which forced Japan to renounce war and replace its armed forces with “self-defence forces” (FAD). Since then, Japan has been militarily dependent on the United States, the big winner of the war in the Pacific. That explains why three themes – nuclear weapons, the role of the army and the importance of science – are recurrent in Japanese literature, cinema and science-fiction cartoons. They provide a vehicle for the Japanese to explore how they feel about their nation, which only regained independence in April 1952 with the end of US occupation.

Godzilla (1954) by Ishiro Honda (1) was the first in a long series of films about a monster which emerges from the deep and destroys everything in its path. Godzilla’s awakening is linked to US nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean: a few months before filming, the US carried out a test at Bikini Atoll, contaminating the crew of a Japanese trawler. Less than 10 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese were once again victims of an atomic bomb “made in the USA”.

Honda used this event to remind his compatriots that their country remained vulnerable. But at the same time he wanted to say that Japan, newly liberated from the US, was at a turning point, ready to take its destiny into its own hands: the weapon that destroys Godzilla is developed by a Japanese scientist, Doctor Serizawa (2).

Aliens and allies
Three years later, in 1957, Honda made The Mysterians (3). This time the threat does not come from monsters, but extraterrestrials escaping from a planet laid waste by nuclear war. They set up home at the foot of Mount Fuji (the symbol of Japan) and try to recreate a society dominated by science. Although they seem peaceful (“our aim is to end nuclear war”), they make a series of demands that Japan cannot accept: in particular, they want to marry humans in order to regenerate their race, which has been contaminated by nuclear radiation. The Japanese military tries to drive them away, but without success. It is only with the help of the UN (which Japan joined in 1956) that the aliens are finally expelled from the planet. Satellites are launched into space to keep watch and prevent them returning. That idea was added at the last minute, after the Soviet Union sent its first Sputnik into orbit.

The extraterrestrials in this film exercise their power through a giant remote-controlled robot. The figure of the robot often features in the Japanese science fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s. It symbolises the extreme vulnerability of a country caught between the rival powers of the East and the West and unable to choose its own path. But with Japan’s economic success came greater confidence and hope: aliens and robots were transformed into allies who helped bring peace – as in the television series Ultraman, broadcast from July 1966 on the TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) channel. The hero, Hayata, is a member of the “Science Patrol” whose job it is to protect the planet from monsters. While on a mission, Hayata discovers the ability to transform himself into an Ultraman, a super-being who makes short work of any opponent.

The Manga cartoon Cyborg 009 (4) tells the story of nine cyborgs (a cross between human and machine) which rebel against the powerful organisation Black Ghost, which wants to use them in its plan to take over the world. The film came out in 1964 when tensions were high between the US and the Soviet Union. It was also the year of the Tokyo Olympics, where Japan had demonstrated its technological and cultural prowess. The message of the film is clear: the Japanese will not allow themselves to be manipulated by the big powers.

The main hero of Cyborg 009, Shimamura Jo, is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to prevent Black Ghost succeeding in its evil plan. Indeed, many characters from Japanese science fiction are ready to give their lives to save the planet, such as the captain of the space battleship Yamato in the animation series of the same name (5), made in 1974 by Leiji Matsumoto. The series relates the battleship’s interstellar adventures as it fights against extraterrestrial civilisations who threaten humanity. In the end the spaceship carries out a suicide mission to save the world from certain death.

In Japanese mythology, where the world was created by the deities Izanami and Izanagi, humans are insignificant compared to the gods, who can manifest their power at any moment. Another deep-rooted popular belief has it that Japan rests on the body of a giant catfish, namazu – each time the fish moves, the islands suffer an earthquake. Sakyo Komatsu, considered the king of Japanese science fiction, imagined the worst in his novel Japan Sinks (6), which was published in 1973 and adapted for the cinema that same year (a new version was made in 2006). He describes in detail the consequences of a devastating earthquake, making the point that the main threat to Japan does not come from extraterrestrials but from nature itself (incarnated in various mythological deities). The director Mamoru Oshii, who made the movies Patlabor 1 and Patlabor 2 (1989 and 1993) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), created new myths with a wider resonance for a modern, global society.

In the form of myths, machines or mutants, disruptive elements threaten chaos, but they also herald a rebirth and the construction of a new society. In Hideaki Anno’s television series Neon Genesis Evangelion, made in 1995 and considered one of the best of the last 15 years, giant robots battle mysterious creatures bent on wreaking destruction. The first episode was broadcast in the autumn of 1995, shortly after Japan had experienced two traumatic events: the Kobe earthquake of 17 January (7) and the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground in March by the Aum Shinrikyo sect led by Shoko Asahara, who thought Japan was heading towards the apocalypse (8).

Science fiction allows Japan to imagine a future where it is master of its own destiny and where questions about preventing an alien invasion don’t seem so ridiculous. For many Japanese, the alien today is called Kim Jong-il. The threat to the region by the North Korean leader’s nuclear programme and ballistic missile tests demands a clearer response from the government than the one it gave to the question about UFOs.




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