Thursday, August 22, 2013

Contextualizing Godzilla

When we examine Godzilla critically the general approach is to discuss how the giant monster, brought to life by radiation from atomic bombs, represents Japan’s post-World War II anxieties about nuclear war. Japan is the only country in the world to be subjected to an atomic bomb attack, and the result of that bombing was catastrophic. As the world trudged forward into the nuclear age Japan was still coping with the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla a giant lizard beast is awakened by nuclear testing. It begins to wreak havoc on Tokyo, spewing atomic fire from its mouth and crushing buildings. It’s a painfully clear metaphor for the nuclear attacks experienced nine years earlier. To a Japanese audience in 1954 it was horrifying and struck close to home.

But there is an angle to Godzilla’s commentary that is often missed by Western audiences. In the United States we are well aware of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but woefully ignorant that it was only the ending to a two-year long firebombing campaign launched by the allied forces.

Tokyo during the 1943 firebombing
In 1943 the United States began this campaign by bombing Tokyo. 1,665 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, igniting a massive firestorm. It is estimated that 83,793 people were killed, with over 40,000 more injured. This was only the beginning as the U.S. began firebombing every major Japanese city in the same manner, and after that moved onto the smaller cities.

Unlike the United States, Japan’s cities were mostly based on wooden architecture. They burned ferociously. Future U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara helped to oversee these bombings. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War McNamara discusses this campaign and ultimately admits “we were war criminals.” Hundreds of thousands of civilians are estimated to have died.

Now, flash forward to 1954. Imagine being a Japanese citizen and seeing this on a cinema screen:

Yes, Godzilla was about the nuclear bomb, but it was also about so much more. It was about a country still in shock.

The Coen Brothers and Desks

Have you ever noticed the Coen brothers use desks in their films extraordinarily often?

A desk is a great device for a scene. It not only puts a physical divider between two people, it puts the person behind the desk in a position of power. Sitting behind a desk one feels safer, stronger.

In The Big Lebowski, The Dude is constantly disenfranchised when sitting before a desk. The chief of Malibu police throws a mug at him from behind a desk. The man at the funeral home attempts to charge him hundreds of dollars for an urn while sitting behind a desk. The big Lebowski himself insults The Dude and refuses to compensate him for the soiled rug. The nature of The Dude’s character allows him to shrug these incidents off, but he is never dominant when in front of a man behind a desk.

In Barton Fink, not only is Barton in opposition to the studio executive he is forced to work for, but he is even in opposition to his typewriter. Barton sits at his own desk, ready to work, but his writer’s block stops him. The desk becomes a block between himself and his creativity.

In Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard feels safe and self-assured as he boldly lies behind his desk. Lying is his business, seeing as how he’s a used car salesman. The desk gives him power over his clients, his office is his element. His cockiness will be his downfall. Later when he is on the phone with Carl Showalter he finds himself dominated. He is in his office but his desk has no power over the phone. Finally, when Marge Gunderson exposes Jerry’s lies he flees from his office, abandoning his desk and showing his true vulnerability.

In Raising Arizona, Leonard Smalls approaches Nathan Arizona in his office with an offer to find his kidnapped son. It is Nathan’s desk, but Leonard places his feet on it. He defies the desk, and will not allow Nathan to control him. Nathan refuses to accept Leonard’s offer. Leonard pays Nathan as much respect as he paid his desk and sets out in search of the child anyway, so that he may sell it on the black market.

In No Country for Old Men, the man who hires Anton Chigurh to recover the briefcase is murdered at his desk by Chigurh. The power is reversed. The desk did nothing to protect the man. This action shows just how powerfully evil Chigurh truly is.

In A Serious Man, the supposed power of the desk is subverted. The desk is shown to be but the illusion of power. Larry Gopnik searches for meaning, but the rabbis who sit behind desks offer no good answers. When Larry is at his own desk his hand is forced by his student to alter grades. The teachers and figureheads who sit behind these desks may have knowledge, but lack true wisdom.

A desk is a power struggle. The one sitting before the desk must fight to take control, and the one behind it must retain theirs. It is a symbol that immediately registers with the audience. We all know the feeling of powerlessness when sitting before a desk.