Until a few weeks ago, Godzilla was a time capsule of nuclear dread and handmade special effects. But with parts of Tokyo in ruins, over 12,000 Japanese dead, and radiation spreading, the film is more relevant than ever.
Last fall, Boston University lecturer Hiromi Miyagi-Lusthaus and her colleague Keith Vincent planned a screening of Godzilla at BU to take place this Thursday. “I’m glad we held off on printing the posters,” Vincent says.
In addition to a lecture from Gregory Pflugfelder, director of Columbia University’s Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture, students in BU’s Japanese Literature department will sell handmade bracelets to benefit earthquake relief efforts.
Though she was born and raised in Tokyo, Miyagi-Lusthaus didn’t see the original, 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla until the Coolidge Corner Theatre screened it five years ago. Many of her students hadn’t seen it at all. “They had only seen the campy American version,” she says.
The hodgepodge, overdubbed Raymond Burr vehicle Embassy Pictures released in 1956 — a staple of late-night UHF programming — bears little resemblance to Ishirō Honda’s vision of monstrous radioactive fallout.
“Given the recent nuclear crisis and string of disasters in Japan, the film takes on a new meaning,” Pflugfelder says. “I think many of us in the post–Cold War world think that the kinds of nuclear danger Godzilla was meant to represent in 1954 have receded into history, or, at the very least, have taken on a very, very different aspect in our daily lives . . . but as we’ve seen, nuclear danger is by no means a thing of the past.”
Pflugfelder became entranced with Godzilla in 2004, when he helped arrange a celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary at Columbia.
Less than a week before Fukushima, he attended a conference on Cold War film culture. “One of the talks that really fascinated me was about the Atoms for Peace campaign launched in the 1950s by President Eisenhower as a way of changing public perceptions of nuclear power, of curing Japanese of what was sometimes described as their ‘nuclear allergy,’ ” he recalls. The lecturer finished by saying the campaign worked.
But, he says, “The perception that it isn’t nuclear danger but other technological developments that we need to worry about has been given a kick in the pants.” Will Godzilla become scary again? “Until March of this year, my answer would have been no. Now I’m not so sure.”