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Nostalgia is a green monster

by David Cozy

GODZILLA ON MY MIND: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, by William Tsutsui. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 240 pp., $12.95 (paper).

Toward the end of “Godzilla on My Mind,” William Tsutsui tells us that “Godzilla lives on in the hearts and minds of those who grew up with him, those who can never forget his haunting roar and resounding footsteps, those who love him.” As Tsutsui clearly is one of those who possess strong feelings for the monster, we believe him when he asserts that there are people out there who can “never forget” Godzilla.

What, however, of those of us who have only vague memories, at best, of watching, circa age 11, a Godzilla movie or two. Our feelings for the big guy fall well short of love. Is there anything this book for us? The answer is yes, and not the least of this volume’s pleasures is seeing how the nostalgic longing that Tsutsui and his fellow fans have for Godzilla shapes the various narratives Tsutsui spins around the monster’s 50 years of life.

As nostalgia is the driving force — the old days, the old movies were better — it’s no surprise to find that Tsutsui identifies “Gojira” (1954), the monster’s first appearance, as the pinnacle from which the series of films has, ever since, declined.

After the debut of “Gojira,” which Tsutsui characterizes as “a sincere horror film that engaged honestly — even grimly — with contemporary Japanese unease over a mounting nuclear menace, untrammeled environmental degradation and the long shadow of World War II,” the decay set in almost immediately.

It was evident just two years later, for example, in “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” the American version of “Gojira.” A wooden Raymond Burr was edited into the original and, according to Tsutsui, “virtually all sections of the original film that might have reflected negatively on the United States, or highlighted Japanese resentments arising from World War II, or explored the nuclear issue in any depth were excised or otherwise neutralized in the process.”

The un-Americanized “Gojira” was not released in the U.S. until this year, so “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” which many Americans have long taken to be Godzilla’s debut, was not that at all. Rather, it was the first hint of the rot that would lead Godzilla through a string of less-than-stellar followups such as “Godzilla vs. Megalon” (1973) and, by general consensus the worst of the lot, the American-made “Godzilla” (2000).

Although there have been hopeful moments for the author, as in the “flashes of genius” — Tsutsui’s rhetoric can be overblown — found in “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” (1991) or in the relatively high quality of the Shinsei series of Godzilla films (those released in Japan every December beginning in 1999), the general drift since 1954 has been downhill.

Ultimately, though, the quality of the films doesn’t seem to matter. They don’t do all that well at the box office and are far from being artistic masterpieces, yet “millions of fans the world over have an unaccountable affection for a man in a latex suit thrashing another tiny Tokyo.”

That Tsutsui is willing to call this affection “unaccountable” and leave it at that highlights one of the weaknesses of the book. So eager seems Tsutsui not to subject a pop-culture icon to an overly earnest cultural studies’ deconstruction that he goes too far in the other direction.

Rather than have fun with the various theories that, say, Freudians and Marxists and Christians have spun about the lizard, he prefers to play it safe by offering only the most derisory of nods in the theorists’ direction. These nods take the form of lists: film historian Charles Derry said this, film scholar Chon Noriega said that and all-around intellectual Susan Sontag said something else.

The problem is that Tsutsui presents these lists, but does not engage with the thinkers he is cataloging. This is particularly unfortunate because he is capable of insight, as when he comments on the early Godzilla films: “Producers and directors, who could not, given the political sensitivities of the day, show the nation’s troops engaging Americans, Russians or Asians of any stripe were able to depict combat, showcase flashy new weapons, and gently stir nationalistic sentiments using Godzilla and other monsters as a foil.”

The good side of Tsutsui’s determination not to be an academic bore (he is, in fact, a professor of history) is that his writing is always lively, and he never shies away from humor. He includes, for example, a photo of himself at age 9 wearing a homemade Godzilla suit and Hush Puppies. That such a picture appears at all makes it clear that the book “does not pretend for an instant to be an earth-shattering study of profound societal importance. Godzilla cannot cure the common cold, teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, or provide good instruction in nuclear brinkmanship to Pentagon wonks.”

In the end, Tsutsui just enjoys Godzilla — he confesses to owning “dozens of Godzilla collectibles [ranging] from posters and clocks to snow globes to animatronic figures with glowing dorsal fins” — and he wants readers to enjoy his beloved lizard as much as he does.

At the root of enjoying the monster is, of course, nostalgia. It’s not only the movies that have gotten worse year after year; everything else has, too.

“When I watch a Godzilla movie,” Tsutsui writes, “I don’t just see a man in a rubber suit. . . . I also see my youth, I see days gone by, I see a world that was small and simple and no scarier than the average creature feature on late-night television.”

Readers who share the author’s nostalgia, as well as readers who are interested in how nostalgia of this type can make the star of a string of B-pictures into an Elvis-like icon, will enjoy Tsutsui’s lighthearted love letter.