Godzilla On My Mind, by William Tsutsui
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/20/05
I have always been a fan of the Godzilla movie series, so when I heard that there was finally going to be a book that dealt with the series in a bit more depth than websites do, but with none of the ridiculous pseudo-intellectualism that has infected such subject matter as the homoerotic sexual dynamics The Three Stooges or capitalist theory’s relevance to Gilligan’s Island, I was pleased. And even more so when I actually read Godzilla On My Mind, by William Tsutsui, a history professor at Kansas University. It is a well-written, and not too reverent look at the phenomenon of Godzilla- from its start as the semi-serious Japanese film Gojira through its many incarnations and latest filmic forays- twenty-eight films and counting, plus merchandise galore. It contrasts sharply with just such a weighty academic tome predecessor as David Kalat’s 1997 A Critical History And Filmography Of Toho’s Godzilla Series.
The best aspect of Tsutsui’s book is that he brings a personal love of the monster and films to his book. He is not assuming some pose, and this makes his book accessible in the best way, even as he brings many insights to things that I, as a Godzilla fan, have not encountered in the many online fansites for the big green galoot. This book works as a Valentine to fans of the monster and films, and a nice introduction to people who have just heard the name Godzilla, or even the suffix –zilla, and wondered where it came from, or what it was about. In fact, Tsutsui devotes a lengthy section to –zilla’s dominance as a descriptive suffix. This is something that has not, as of this piece’s writing, ever even been addressed online, but underscores the range the book covers, even as it reads breezily, relating anecdotes from Tsutsui’s childhood love of the beast to those of the typical geeks that attend Godzilla conventions to those of the filmmakers and both the legendry behind the film series, and the mythology within. Perhaps the most interesting point the book addresses is on page 206, when at a school to give a talk about Godzilla, Tsutsui was asked a question by a child that he never encountered before, nor has ever been properly dealt with in the writings on Godzilla: ‘Did Americans enjoy seeing all those Japanese people die?’ Tsutsui says he was taken aback by the question, its relevance, and the fact that it had never been addressed before. Hopefully, the next bulky Godzilla tome will address that question.
As for his critical eye on the films Tsutsui provides a nice balance between the hard, overly academic writing of those types who would see phallic symbolism in the eye gouges of The Three Stooges and those rather vapid pronouncements of most online fansites, or prior works in Tsutsui’s vein, like Steve Ryfles Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star. And, as Tsutsui states and demonstrates in film after film, there simply is no way to pigeonhole the Godzilla phenomenon from film to film or decade to decade. Or is there? On pages 165-166 he writes:
A number of fans believe that children respond to Japanese movie monsters because, quite simply, ‘they’re bigger than grown up!’ As one committed enthusiast wrote in a fanzine, ‘When I was a kid, I liked Godzilla because Godzilla was really, really big. Children fel powerless most of the time, they’re subject to constant parental direction and supervision, they are dependent, they are small and weak by human standards. Godzilla was none of these things.’ The apparent correlation of a childhood interest in dinosaurs and Godzilla fandom (a link explicitly made in many of the letters I received) only affirms the significance of an apparently widespread juvenile attachment to huge fantastical creatures.
This, of course is the heart of the appeal. Little boys, especially Americans, love big things: dinosaurs, skyscrapers, outer space. Is the appeal of Godzilla so obvious that many miss it while combing esoterica? All other explanations fail, for the monster started out as an atomic avenger of nature, come to wreak havoc on the hubris of mankind, and turned into an oversized Barney the dinosaur within two decades, only to become to something in between in the two later Godzilla film series of the 1980s through today. The book’s lone weaknesses are few- that Tsutsui seems to spend too much time musing over the lost opportunities for the film franchise and character, rather than dealing what it actually is. But, that’s a small quibble, and a very minor portion of the whole work, especially compared to the book’s other major flaw- his consistent trashing of the 1998 big budget Hollywood production of Godzilla. Now, I’m not saying that this film was great, by any standard- but it was a hell of alot better than many of the worst Japanese entries in the series, or the light fluff that Stephen Spielberg let loose with the Jurassic Park franchise. Like a Metallica fan that never grew up, and wants the fortysomething members of that band to still play only their teenaged death metal standards, Tsutsui reflexively bashes the film as many others have, without saying anything new, and worse, by using the same old wrong standards and clichés. Another problem with the book is it could have had a decent chronology, filmography, and summaries of all the films in an appendix.
A few bad online reviews of the book have pointed to things as typos, or Tsutsui’s insistence that Godzilla’s sex is unknown as flaws, but these are obviously nitpickings by Godzilla fans that were disappointed that Tsutsui was not as fawning as they are in their love for all things big and green. Also, many of the online Godzilla fansites were miffed that Tsutsui did not bow down to them as the unassailable self-appointed experts they think they are. This sort of reverse snobbery from geeky fans of sci fi tv shows or films is well known to Star Trek, Star Wars, and even James Bond fans, and it is somehow comforting to know that Godzilla has spawned as ridiculously puerile and devoted a following as the above mentioned franchises. My only complaint is that the book didn’t address one of the central symbols throughout the film franchise, and other Japanese monster films- that of the little Japanese boy who wears a baseball cap and sees nothing but good in the monster. But, I recognize my biases where others do not see theirs.
Yet, Tsutsui takes it all in stride in his excellent little book. He many times chimes in humorously on the subject he writes of, such as when, on pages 194-195, after detailing the ridiculous names some of the films were accorded in their European incarnations he exasperates: ‘Is it any wonder that we admire the Old World for its castles, chocolates and wine rather than for its monster movies?’ Is this book a must read, or a life-changing entity? No, not in the least. But this is no more than Godzilla should be. It’s a fun, engaging, and surprisingly well written and insightful book. Would that one could say as much for the rest of contemporary American literature.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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