SciFi Japan

    The Concept of Wa in GOJIRA

    Author: Sean Kotz

    This year, for the first time, American audiences have a chance to see the original Japanese version of GOJIRA on a truly large scale thanks to Classic Media’s new double DVD set. Better yet, with GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS right beside the original, there is good reason to believe many non-Japanese, or gaijin, are making comparisons in their living rooms all across the USA. As has been said numerous times by many writers that while Terry Morse’s GODZILLA is an entertaining B-movie at most, Honda’s GOJIRA is a brilliant anti-war and nuclear protest film of substance. But, the power and resonance of the film for Japanese audiences extend beyond the nuclear metaphor and evocative images of Tokyo in flames. Honda’s original film also visually and thematically stresses a concept at the core of Japanese society called “wa”, or harmony of the group, that the outsider’s eye is unlikely to catch. Simply put, wa is the principle of communal harmony above the individual and it is a central principle that explains much of Japanese culture to befuddled Westerners. Wa literally translates to mean both “circle” and “peace” or “harmony” and culturally, it implies the communal motivation that dominates Japanese social behavior in general. In fact, the word is used to imply anything traditionally Japanese and may be taken as a term referring to the country as a whole. Wa puts perspective on the rapid reconstruction of Japan after World War II, the droves of identically dressed salarymen, and several common motifs in Japanese anime, manga and kaiju eiga. In the case of GOJIRA, the presence of wa as a guiding concept of the film is immediate. Consider Honda’s very first scene in the movie. Japanese sailors aboard the Eiko Maru are conspicuously engaged in two activities that define a group as a civilized society—playing games and music, even playing from sheet music with one sailor as a conductor to harmonize their efforts. Honda crams approximately one dozen sailors into the first scene of the film. They live as a group, function as a group, respond as a group and die as a group. It is a dark, disrupted harmony, but a harmony none the less.

    After the sinking of the Eiko Maru, the shots take us back to mainland Japan and the packed radio control room. A quick cut moves the viewer to the private world of Hideto Ogata and Emiko Yamane, but it is important to realize what actually happens in this scene to see how Honda is insinuating wa even in personal relationships. Emiko and Ogata are preparing for a date—a quartet concert that is meant to remind us of the sailors’ quartet. Ogata gets a phone call that places his company’s interests before his own and his attention turns from his personal desires to the communal need. Emiko goes on her date alone and Ogata goes off to serve his company. For some time after this, these two characters drop into the background, rather than shoot to the foreground as we might expect in an American film. This may not seem like much, but this scene insinuates a wa perspective that pervades the entire film and compared to America’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, it becomes apparent that this is a strikingly Japanese approach. In American giant monster films, the tendency is to quickly isolate the principle characters and their experience very consciously, creating unique heroes that the audience is supposed to relate to sympathetically. In THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, initially only two people witness the rise of the Rhedosaurus, and one of them, Dr. Tom Nesbitt, is also the man who slays the beast in the end... with the very same nuclear science that unleashes the monster. In other words, from the outset, BEAST introduces individual characters to tell the story; GOJIRA introduces the individual characters to emphasize the communal threat. Other interesting echoes of wa psychology develop quickly in GOJIRA. For one thing, the Eiko Maru is sunk on August 13. August 13, 1945 was the day before unconditional surrender and for a Japanese viewer in 1954, this would have significant cultural reverberations. As the Southern Sea Steamship Company struggles to comprehend and deal with the sinking, they do so as a concerted group. Honda spends valuable film time allowing us to see dozens of dutiful workers racing to solve the problem, swarms of family members trying to get information and newspapers reporting the further sinking of several ships. Large numbers of active and emotionally charged people fill these scenes to communicate a group crisis. Honda moves on from here to present truly fascinating scenes on Odo Island, where the entire village is on the beach late at night looking for survivors. It is hard to imagine a similar scene in an American film, even though community involvement in a crisis is realistic in many ways. Films like IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and THEM only allow for the principle characters to discover and/or interpret all the important clues. But rather than project a group of groomed scientists, officials and military personnel on the spot of the events, Honda gives us generations of real villagers. Furthermore, he uses them and their lost fishing, contaminated wells and destroyed buildings to stand as a community.

    The concept of wa moves to a new level when the Odo Island representatives arrive in Tokyo and testify as to their losses. The orphaned Shinkishi is adopted silently by the Yamane family, Emiko and Ogata are seated in the background and Dr. Yamane calls for an investigative team. No one laughs at or questions the veracity of the villagers and there is genuine concern for the community as a whole. By comparison, the first (and often second, third and forth) witnesses in American monster films are often drunk, crazy, injured or otherwise dismissed as unreliable. In reality, a similar situation might require a Congressional hearing, but this would never be shown in a US movie. In other words, Honda shows this precisely because GOJIRA is about the greater community and not the individuals in the story. More demonstrations of community follow throughout the film. The investigation party is sent off by hundreds of well-wishers, showing us that what is about to happen is a national concern and not just an event on some far off island. In fact, it is here that Honda chooses to introduce the “hero” of the film, Dr. Serizawa. He is distinguished by his distinctly somber clothing and his emotionless face, but he is also portrayed as a focal point in a large group. When Gojira first appears on screen, it is worth noting that the whole population of Odo Island runs to project their community as a group. Also, when Dr. Yamane returns with his sobering findings, a very public debate over the release of information develops (mostly along gender lines) and we see scores of people on screen in this process. What we are witnessing is essentially the debate of how to maintain wa, or community harmony, in Japanese society under the worst conditions. Should the truth be released to the people or should the authorities try to protect the people from panic? Similar debates emerge in American films, but never among a large body of representatives.

    This is point is the beginning of real social crisis in the film, and Gojira exerts itself as a vehicle of destruction not only physically but also psychologically. For Japanese viewers, only nine years after the end of World War II, he is an embodiment not only of nuclear war but also the break down of social order and daily life. For Japan, this is terrifying. In a society that stresses a collective consciousness and devotion to group goals from birth, Gojira is a force that tests wa to the utmost. However, Gojira’s devastation also reveals the power of wa and reinforces a cultural ideal of a fully unified society. The big change in fortune in the film comes when Dr. Serizawa watches a television broadcast (and remember... this is 1954 in Tokyo!) that displays two basic images, destruction and community bonding. It is the image of children tending to wounded mothers and the school girls’ chorus and their song of hope that convinces Serizawa to use his oxygen destroyer to save his community and ultimately the world. That montage of fluid images is a portrayal not only of Japan’s losses but its strength and ideals, inspiring Serizawa to sacrifice his life for a higher cause in the tradition of a Japanese warrior. The final lines say a tremendous amount about the intentions and vision of the film. Ogata, repeating what Serizawa has said, points out that in his death, Serizawa wanted he and Emiko to be happy. Furthermore, Dr. Yamane tells us that it is unlikely Gojira was the last of his kind. We are warned that further nuclear test might release another Gojira “somewhere else in the world.” His concern here stretches beyond the personal, beyond the national and into the global community. And just as the film begins with an image of the sea and a collection of sailors on the deck of a ship who represent society, we are presented with a similar collage of people who somberly honor a man who died for a greater good. The wa aspect of kaiju eiga does not end with GOJIRA, of course. Toho (and Daiei) would, over the next twenty years especially, stress the principle of wa in various ways for two decades and beyond. From screaming citizens evacuating cities to the various alien invaders offering order at a price, Japan unconsciously plays out its tremendous desire to create a unified society.

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