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Godzilla hits middle age but is still fueled by Japan’s anxieties

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Special To The Japan Times

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Within one month of its July release, Toho’s “Shin Gojira” (“Godzilla Resurgence”) attracted more than 3.6 million viewers. Box-office takings are already estimated to have surpassed ¥5.3 billion, putting the film more than halfway toward the seldom-attained figure of ¥10 billion. Toho has great expectations it will eclipse the success of “Bayside Shakedown,” the film spinoff of Fuji TV’s series, and reestablish the “King of the Monsters” as the top domestic film earner.

That’s all pretty impressive, considering this is the 29th Godzilla film produced by Toho since its smashing debut 62 years ago. What’s more, the series’ basic plot is so simple, it can be digested into a 17-syllable haiku, thus:

Godzilla attacks

Japanese scream and panic

Please pass the popcorn

With this new release, the local media has enjoyed pointing out various examples of “Godzilla trivia,” such as the significance of the number 29: “Shin Gojira” was released on July 29, the Friday marking the start of the summer vacation season; it is Toho’s 29th Godzilla film; and 1954, the year of Godzilla’s debut, happened to be the 29th year of the Showa Era (1926-’89).

A few commentators seem intrigued that the “shin” in the movie’s Japanese title, “Shin Gojira” is written out in the phonetic katakana syllabary. This actually turned out to be savvy marketing, because while a reader’s natural tendency is to assume the “shin” represents the kanji character 新 (meaning new, as in shinkansen, for example), use of katakana leaves the intended meaning open to other interpretations with the same pronunciation — such as “real,” “evolved,” “belief” or even “god” — that might tickle the viewer’s fancy.

Toho’s latest Godzilla is also the biggest ever: 118.5 meters tall — compared to a puny 50 meters in 1954. One blog estimated he’s 200 meters long when his tail is included, but Toho’s PR department informed me, “That has not been made public.” Stunning computer graphics give the livid lizard a menacing inner glow to go with his deadly radioactive breath.

“For his dorsal fin to release heat is likely to be scary for viewers, so that was an interesting idea,” said Noriaki Ikeda, author of “99 Facts about Godzilla,” in a Weekly Asahi Geino (Sep. 8) article titled “Seven secrets of Shin Gojira that will make you want to see it a second time.”

“This film became a big hit thanks to Satomi Ishihara,” said cartoonist J-Taro Sugisaku, naming the film’s female lead. In the film, the 29-year-old Ishihara plays Japanese-American Kayoko Ann Patterson, a U.S. special envoy who proposes use of a nuclear weapon to halt Godzilla’s rampage.

“I didn’t obtain any information about the film before attending the screening, so I didn’t know she’d appear,” Sugisaku is quoted as saying. “More than Godzilla, I liked seeing a determined female politician speaking English. It made me fantasize about her riding on the back of a mechanized Godzilla to battle against the real one.”

The film’s co-director and scriptwriter, Hideaki Anno, told Shukan Shincho (Sep. 1): “The biggest difference between ‘Shin Gojira’ and its predecessors is that nothing is superfluous. The films made in the 1970s and ’80s were full of love subplots and human interest angles, but this time there’s no romance at all. That was a decision that only an otaku (geek) could make.”

How can we explain Godzilla’s enduring popularity? Sunday Mainichi — which honored the monster on its Aug. 7 front cover — noted that Japan has ridden out some rough times even without its capital city getting stomped flat by an angry denizen of the deep. The first Godzilla film was released in 1954, as the nation’s economy was struggling to get back on its feet after World War II. “Godzilla vs. Hedora” appeared during the 1971 “dollar shock,” an abrupt upward evaluation of the yen. “Godzilla vs. Megalon” was released in 1973, the year of the oil crisis, and the “Godzilla vs. King Ghidora” hit theaters in 1991, as the bubble economy was bursting.

Sunday Mainichi quoted critic Tomohide Kure as opining that Godzilla can be seen as a “cultural monster” that represents the “psychological makeup of the Japanese people.”

Japan has really changed from the time when Kure first saw Toho’s original film as an 8-year-old schoolboy.

“Back then, cinema was the king of entertainment,” he recalled. “My parents, younger brother and I could barely squeeze into the mobbed theater. Thanks to the considerate theater manager we watched while seated on the floor in front of the stage.”

Just two months earlier, noted Kure, a crew member of the ill-fated fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) died from radiation sickness caused by a shower of irradiated coral dust from a U.S. H-bomb test the previous March at Bikini Atoll. It was this incident that inspired director Ishiro Honda to create Godzilla, a creature that symbolized Japan’s sense of vulnerability and impotence in the nuclear age — a perspective that was reaffirmed by the March 2011 disaster in Fukushima.

This summer has seen several blasts from the past that have resonated with the Japanese public. July 27 marked the 40th anniversary of the arrest of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, following his implication in the Lockheed bribery scandals. And Emperor Akihito’s Aug. 8 address to the nation evoked memories of the famous broadcast by his late father, Emperor Showa, on Aug. 15, 1945, that ended the Pacific War.

Without a doubt, 2016 has been a year for waxing nostalgic over the personages, events and cultural icons, like Godzilla, of the bygone Showa Era.