Monsters of Japan: From Fact to Fiction

Japan’s culture has long been marked by the presence of “monsters”, both on and off the silver screen. From the thrilling story of Godzilla to real life tragedies like the nuclear attacks upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s fascination with instant mass destruction is anything but passing.

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Mt. Fuji has represented an ominous threat as well as a source of admiration to the people of Japan for millenia.

For many of us, “monster films” are an iconic part of American culture. From King Kong to Cloverfield, monsters have provided summer moviegoers in the US thrilling action and unbridled destruction for decades. Perhaps surprisingly though, monster films have never done to the American box office to the degree their subjects do to cities. In the past eighteen years only six monster films have been released in the United States. Meanwhile, Japan is announcing the grand opening of a theme park solely inspired by the popular series Attack on Titan (or Shingeki no Kyogin). But it’s not just the success of monster films that separates American and Japanese fans. At its core, Americans don’t see monster films as our friends across the Pacific.

What are Kaiju?

In Japan, the monster genre is known as Kaiju, meaning “strange beast”. This encompasses all the creatures that appear in Japanese film. Though Kaiju is a term defining the peculiar physical aspects of these monsters, there is also a moral or spiritual component to the concept. These creatures are meant to represent the wrath of nature and the threatening, omnipresent forces dictating life. This is contrary to films in the west, where monsters are often a result of “mad science”.

Kaiju find their roots in the nation’s creation myth, where Izanami the “mother of Japan” is consumed in fire giving birth to her sons, Kagutsuchi (incarnation of fire) and Homusubi (causer of fire). The result was the volcanic islands that comprise the country.

Godzilla and the Bomb

When Godzilla makes his appearance on screen and begins to destroy Tokyo, we begin to imagine what it would be like if our own cities were to disappear in an instant. For Japan, they know that feeling all too well. The only nation to experience the real power of nuclear weapons, Japan essentially lost Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the blink of an eye. After the close of World War II, soldiers returned home, and nations began to rebuild.  Japan began to rebuild as well, but they did so under the fear of the unknown consequences of nuclear radiation.

Chart by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

What would radiation do the environment, people, or wildlife? This was a real fear for Japanese citizens. When Godzilla premiered nine years later, these fears were reawakened. A monster that was the result of radiation was now in their cities, causing destruction once again. In America, this film would be re-released as Godzilla: King of Monsters. Though much of the original story remained intact, its essence was lost in translation. Many mocked the silly effects and explosions, and the film had its share of laughs. In Japan, it was the opposite. Total silence pervaded theaters, especially during one scene where the monster finally leaves the city, and the paramedics arrive. A doctor examines a small boy only to look up at the mother and shake his head. The boy has received a lethal amount of radiation poisoning, a real fate for many relatives of those watching the film.

A History of Destruction

Japan experiences nearly 1,500 earthquakes each year, some more deadly than others. Tectonic forces have caused some of the most tragic events in Japan’s history such as the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 (only two decades before Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Even more recent is the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Not only did earthquakes result in a tsunami hitting the coast of the Oshika Peninsula but the meltdown of many nuclear reactors in the region.

Infographic by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

These disasters are due to the four tectonic plates that underlie Japan. The plates smash against each other and cause massive earthquakes at levels as high as 8.9 on the Richter scale. They also have formed what is known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, one of the most seismic and volcanic regions on Earth.

Unfortunately, these events have become the norm for many Japanese. They have affected not only the environment but the mentality and culture of Japan. Living with nature is not a choice, and that has resulted in a fear, respect, and an odd admiration for the forces that dictate the island nation, one that has transcended tragedy and has evolved into a source of perseverance and strength.

Untranslatable

While the perfect formula for a monster film continues to elude American audiences, the fascination with Kaiju seems to have no end for Japanese audiences. Culture is hard to translate, and the history behind the fiction is something that is rooted in the island nation. It gives a perspective that cannot be manufactured. So while we may flock to the theatres for the next monster blockbuster, the western world may never leave with the same feelings as our East Asian counterparts, and hopefully, we never will.

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