4.0 out of 5 stars A complicated monster
At first glance, an academic study of Godzilla seems at least foolish and at most pretentious. Not everything merits this level of scrutiny, and sometimes a giant monster is just a giant monster. How much can be said about a guy stomping around in a rubber suit anyways? But I was intrigued by the concept. The film holds an important place in both cinematic history as well as Japanese culture, and was probably the first cultural export of Japan.
Make no mistake, this is an academic book, in the same lines as the Japanese monster study Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan, and is probably going to bore to tears any casual G-fan looking for a fun book. Originally presented at the 2004 international conference of the same name, “In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage” collects together thirteen essays from a variety of experts, such as Dr. Mark Anderson, professor of Asian languages and literature at the University of Minnesota and Theodore Bestor, professor of anthropology and Japanese studies at Harvard University.
Each essay focuses on a different aspect of the Godzilla phenomenon, as a piece of film history, as an aspect of modernity, as an aspect of religion. The majority of the focus is on the original 1954 film Gojira, although some of the essays also deal with Mothra and the perceived “menace of the South Seas”, and one essay highlights the Ohashi Yasuhiko play “Gojira” which used the king of monsters in a satire dealing with modern Japan’s lust for status and material wealth.
Some of the most interesting bits for me showed Godzilla as a transitional film, standing between the jungle adventure-themed movies such as King Kong and the next era of Atomic fantasy such as Them!. A creature of both folklore and science, of both the past and the future, Godzilla is a both a bridge and a gateway. One essay linked the rise of the monster with the rising popularity of professional wrestling in Japan, and showed how the two entertainment genres shaped each other. The density of the articles meant that my attention had to be focused, but there was always something new to learn.
A few articles were less successful, and some veered away from Godzilla altogether. The final three articles focused more on Japanese “pop culture” figures such as “Hello Kitty!” and fandom in Hawaii and Russia. While the articles were valid, I personally felt they did not belong in this book, and wish they had been replaced by something more appropriately themed.
I really enjoyed “In Godzilla’s Footsteps”, but I realize it will not be a book for everyone. I personally don’t mind slogging through academic language from time to time, and found a lot here to be fascinated by. Any serious student of Japanese film should probably have this one in their library.