Godzilla-mania: lecture analyzes radioactive lizard in Japanese culture

Kyle Almond

A little after noon Wednesday at the International House, University of Kansas history professor William Tsutsui gave a presentation on one of his favorite topics: Godzilla. Tsutsui’s presentation was part of the Brown Bag Lecture series hosted by the international programs office.

Tsutsui, a recipient of Fulbright, ACLS and Marshall fellowships, has won numerous awards for his work and writing. His books include “Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan” and “Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters,” among others. Tsutsui is the former president of the Kansas State Historical Society, has twice been the acting director of KU’s Center for East Asian Studies and is director for both the Confucius Institute at the University of Kansas and the Kansas Consortium for Teaching about Asia.

Tsutsui told several anecdotes about the cultural significance of Godzilla. For example, a survey asked 1,500 Americans to name famous Japanese people. The top three were Emperor Hirohito; Bruce Lee, who is not even Japanese; and Godzilla. He also told about how Kim Jong-Il kidnapped a South Korean dictator in 1985 and had him make a Godzilla movie for him.

“[Godzilla-mania affects everyone from] mild-mannered Kansas professors to crazy North Korean dictators,” said Tsutsui.

Tsutsui is not alone in finding a job that can encompass his love of Godzilla. According to him, some economists spend their time calculating the cost of the damage caused by Godzilla’s rampages.

Much of the rest of the lecture was on the significance and symbolism in the earlier movies. One incident that contributed to the creation of Godzilla that few Americans know about is the so-called “Lucky Dragon Incident.” In 1954 a fishing boat named the “Lucky Dragon” drifted too close to Bikini Atoll, where a larger-than-expected nuclear test by the United States led to radiation which killed several of the fishermen. The story partially inspired director Tanaka Tomoyuki to create his anti-American monster epic. When the movie was re-edited for release in the States, the anti-American scenes were cut.

Common themes from most, if not all, of the 28 movies include those anti-American sentiments as well as moral ambivalence, Japanese vulnerability, attitudes toward technology with an emphasis on military applications, and the movies as a surrogate for Japan’s hamstringed military following WWII.

Tsutsui said he has loved the movies since he was seven or eight and added that the upbeat qualities of the movies allow him to revisit his childhood. He also emphasized that his comments are not to be taken as gospel in any since of the word.

“High theory ruins the fun of Japanese monster movies,” said Tsutsui. “And fun is what it is all about.”

For more Godzilla, Tsutsui encouraged everyone to attend the third annual Godzilla and Friends Festival May 2 and 3 in Henderson 112.