Published in the Nikkei Asian Review 4/10/2016
Godzilla Resurgence – also known as Shin Godzilla – is the latest addition to the long-running Japanese movie series that began in 1954. It will be released in the United States on October 11th.
Just as the original movie reflected the trauma of the Second World War and atomic bombings, so Godzilla Resurgence reflects Japan’s triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown) of March 2011, as well as today’s geopolitical perils.
“Prime Minister, to prevent further suffering you have to make a decision.”
“What? Decide right here and now? Nobody told me that!”
The decision that Japan’s bumbling, but well-meaning prime minister is being asked about concerns Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Would it be constitutional to deploy them, he wonders as the 380 foot behemoth wreaks havoc in central Tokyo?
In previous Godzilla movies, the question had never been raised; the military merely arrived on the scene and started blasting away. But given the constraints of Japan’s U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution, it is a fair point.
In a 2007 press conference then Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba addressed the Godzilla issue and returned to it after the July 2016 release of Godzilla Resurgence. In his view Japan has the constitutional right to defend itself against invasion by an enemy country, but that would not cover Godzilla, who emerges from underneath Tokyo Bay.
Likewise the Self-Defense Forces can tackle natural disasters, such as the 3.11 emergency, but that hardly endorses the use of tanks, rockets and fighter jets in an urban setting, with heavy collateral damage.
Ishiba’s musings may seem whimsical, but in the face of a nuclearized North Korea, an increasingly assertive China and the looming possibility of an isolationist Donald Trump presidency in the U.S., Japanese audiences understand the political subtext.
Can Japan afford to remain pacifist? Can it rely on its American ally for protection in perpetuity? No wonder constitutional revision is close to the top of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agenda.
As things stand, Article 9 forbids Japan to possess “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.” This seemingly blanket prohibition has been diluted by decades of judicial interpretation, but where the legal line is located is anybody’s guess.
In the summer of 2015, Abe introduced some new security laws that allowed Japan, in certain tightly defined circumstances, to provide military back-up to an ally. Embarrassingly the scholars he called to testify on the bills pronounced them unconstitutional. Indeed many scholars maintain that the very existence of Japan’s 60-year-old Self-Defence Forces is in breach of the constitution.
A HIGHLY POLITICAL MONSTER
As writer Ian Buruma observes, Godzilla was “a highly political monster” from the start. The first and best of the movies closes with the words of an idealistic scientist: “I don’t believe there’s just one Godzilla – as long as nuclear bomb tests continue, others will appear.” Eight months before it was released, fall-out from an American H-bomb test in the Pacific had irradiated a boatful of Japanese fishermen, leading to a crew member’s death. Godzilla himself is an ancient creature disturbed from his slumber by H-bomb blasts. After feeding on dumped radioactive waste he mutates into the monster we know and love.
In Godzilla 1984, made at the height of the Cold War, a Soviet agent accidentally launches a satellite-based nuclear weapon from a spy boat in Tokyo Bay. Fortunately Ronald Reagan’s space-based Star Wars defence system is up and running and an intercepting American missile saves the day.
Nonetheless the fear and insecurity are still there. “When the world is in disorder, convulsions of nature occur and monsters appear,” says one character. “You see this in legends from all over the world.”
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
In 2016 Godzilla is back on the rampage and once more Japan’s prime minister calls on the Americans for military support. They deploy their leading-edge weaponry, but to no avail. Hastily the U.S convenes the U.N. Security Council, with predictable results. “I never wanted to go down in history as the man who sanctioned the third nuclear bombing of Japan,” sighs the weary prime minister. In a possible allusion to the role of Jacques Chirac in opposing the Iraq War, it is France that comes to the rescue, demanding a few more days for the Japanese to devise their own solution.
The Japan of Godzilla Resurgent is no longer the bomb-wrecked pacifist nation of 1954, nor the Cold War American client state of 1984. The world is in as much disorder as ever; the American protector headstrong and unpredictable; the U.N. Security Council, still made up of the nuclear-armed victors of World War Two, remote and unsympathetic.
Japan’s low-key politicians, bureaucrats and military personnel make mistakes and misjudgements, but amidst the chaos they remain grimly determined to take their country’s fate in their own hands. Contrary to Hollywood rules, there are no heroes, no villains, no love scenes, no Top Gun-style hijinks. Teamwork gets the job done.
“This country still has what it takes,” says one politician when he hears that staff are staying at their posts all night rather than go home to their families. He seems ready for Abe’s constitutional overhaul, as may be many of the 4.5 million Japanese who have seen the film over the past three months, making it one of the biggest hits of recent years.
This is important. Changes to Japan’s constitution require approval by a two thirds majority of both houses of the Diet and also a simple majority in a national referendum. While the two other defeated nations of World War Two, Germany and Italy, have revised their constitutions fifty and fifteen times respectively, Japan has not done so once. Change is long overdue – and never have the conditions been closer to being met.
As for the big fella himself, he remains the apotheosis of man’s appetite for destruction. As the last words of Godzilla 2000 put it, “born from the excesses of science, a monster made by humans, Godzilla is inside us all.”
No doubt he’ll be back.