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March, 2004 : Criticism:

The Revenant of Tokyo Bay

Godzilla and the Japanese Ghost

Tales of ghosts and haunting have been part of the Japanese popular imagination since at least the time of Murasaki Shikibu's eleventh-century The Tale of Genji. Death, in Japan, is hardly a final act. Ghosts of relatives, loved ones and even strangers must be pacified and honored on their long journey to the land of the dead. Ghosts must be purified and appeased—if they are not, their grievances may make them haunt the living. This belief is quite simply part of a Japanese cultural logic that manifests itself in many everyday practices—like the maintenance of Buddhist shrines to family members or the performance of rituals at prescribed times after a death. Failure to perform these rituals carries the real threat that the ghost will want to exact revenge—that its discontent will make it a revenant. Generally, the ghosts that are most likely to become revenants are those that died under harsh circumstances—like the courtiers killed in a grisly battle in the traditional Japanese story, Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi (Hoichi No-Ears), or the disfigured, murdered wife Oiwa in the Kabuki play Yotsuya Ghost Story. In Yotsuya Ghost Story, Oiwa haunts her husband, the one who specifically caused her wrongful death, but this is not always the case. In Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi, ghosts of an ancient court come to haunt a famous blind lute-priest because of his particular skill at relating the tale of their final battle. Not knowing the ghost personally or not having been responsible for its death do not exempt the living from their obligation to appease the vengeful revenants of the dead.

[I]n many cases, the witness is an innocent passerby who is simply assaulted by a ghost whose uncontrollable passion results from the way he died, or the fact that the proper rituals were not observed in her behalf. But from the Japanese perspective, the apparently innocent victim may not be entirely exempt from involvement, for he or she is a member of the living, that group of people whose obligation it is to celebrate the souls of the dead...anyone alive is fair game for the approach of a ghost. (Iwasaka, 18)

In other traditional Japanese sources, sometimes merely stumbling upon the resting ground of a troubled ghost (or disturbing a kami or some other supernatural creature) singles the hapless passersby out for revenge. As Shinto (the traditional Japanese religion) teaches that the body of the deceased is impure—and the actual site of burial is often shunned for a memorial even in modern Japan—the gravesite is a potent area for disturbance and the awakening of a revenant.

Though monsters in Japan became increasingly commercialized during and after the Edo period (1600-1868), the new monstrous creations still had a connection with this cultural logic of past Japanese tradition. In some cases, this creation involved reinventing traditional monsters for commercial purposes (like the Kappa, which moved from being a mischievous and sometimes dangerous water-goblin to serving as the cute, cuddly mascot of the Japanese postal service). Even when production companies created entirely new monsters, however, they still functioned in much the same way as their traditional antecedents, albeit on a far larger scale.

Godzilla—that most famous of latter-day Japanese monstrous creations—is generally interpreted as being a modern monster, an embodiment of a social critique of nuclear power that was gaining momentum in Japan in the 1950's, when the original Godzilla was being filmed (the original film, entitled Gojira, was released in 1954, two years before the American version). Chon Noriega argues that "[t]he films transfer onto Godzilla the role of the United States in order to symbolically re-enact a problematic United States-Japan relationship that includes atomic war, occupation, and thermo-nuclear tests" (Noriega, 61). While this description is mostly accurate, it ignores the essentially traditional function Godzilla serves as a revenant—one far more ancient and totalizing than any before it.

To fully understand this interpretation, one must first pay attention Godzilla's state before Hydrogen bomb testing awoke it for the first time. As Dr. Yamane explains in both the American and Japanese versions, Godzilla is one of an ancient species of dinosaur that can live in both the land and the sea. It was buried along with its fellows presumably during the mass extinction and had remained undersea until it was awoken by an atomic disturbance. Given this history, it is unimaginable that Godzilla could have been anything other than dead before being awoken by nuclear testing. Godzilla, then, is a creature once dead whose resting place was disturbed by a violence that rejuvenated it (in a slightly different, radioactive form—as no ghost is exactly the same as its living antecedent) and led it to seek revenge on the living creatures that committed the crime. In this context, it is clear that Godzilla is not merely a ghost-figure, but also a revenant. In the Japanese cultural tradition, it is the duty of the living—in both traditional ghost stories and in this film—to appease and somehow pacify the ghost, no matter their relation.

It is important that nuclear testing—the destructive product of scientific inquiry—is the catalyst that propels this supernatural disturbance. Nuclear technology, the films seem to say, is a devastating force with far too much power and far-reaching consequences to ever be used safely. Not only can it destroy millions of human lives, it is capable of re-awakening older horrors that should never have been able to exist. It blurs the lines between death and life for creatures who should have been put to rest a millennia ago. It gives these revenants of an older earth the highest power of its latest dominant species—Godzilla can not only crush buildings with a sweep of its tail, it can now breath radioactive fire.

This sheds some light on how the American re-make of the film (Godzilla: King of Monsters, 1956; complete with a superimposed American journalist narrator played by Raymond Burr) de-emphasizes not only the nuclear theme, but also Godzilla's status as a revenant, a creature with a culturally understood purpose and trajectory. One of the most striking aspects of the Raymond Burr narration is his emphasis on the "unknown." As the camera pans over the images of destroyed Tokyo in the beginning of the American version, Burr's voice intones: "Tokyo, the smoldering memorial to the unknown." This statement seems strange, given that every person in Tokyo must know what was responsible for the destruction. Perhaps Burr was referring to how Godzilla was revived—but the movie also explains that quite clearly. Maybe what is truly "unknown" to the American observer is not who Godzilla is or how it was revived but simply why it chose to wreak such destruction in the first place. The American film's inability to truly comprehend the nature of a "disturbed ghost" is highlighted at the very end of the movie, when Burr says: "The menace was gone. So was a great man. But the whole world would wake up and live again."

In fact, this seems to indicate that the American adapters understood some of the nuances—the world could "wake up and live again," as a creature resurrected—but not in the way that the Japanese film intended. The Japanese version ends on a far bleaker note, with Dr. Yamane thinking that though they have destroyed Godzilla this time, another nuclear disturbance could awaken it again. Though the oxygen destroyer has disintegrated Godzilla's body so thoroughly that not even bones remain, the famed paleontologist suspects that the monster can come back, that the world we live in is no longer safe from revenants. This is a far cry from Burr's hopeful declaration of finality, the secure knowledge that the world can wake up and live again—not the monster. Burr's presence in the film allows it to categorically deny that the dangers of nuclear power can awaken forces that cannot be killed (a dangerous and potentially subversive thought for McCarthy-era Americans). That is, of course, one of the fundamental characteristics of a revenant, which Dr. Yamane seems to understand. How can something that was already dead be killed again? Revenants can be pacified or appeased, but they can never be killed—and they can certainly be re-awoken.

Though critics generally see Godzilla as a thoroughly modern monster, with roots in the consumer science fiction culture that was gaining popularity throughout Japan in the years after WWII, the radioactive dinosaur that terrorized Tokyo is actually a revenant, part of a long tradition of Japanese monstrosity. Comparing the original Japanese film to the American re-make makes this clearer. In the American film, Godzilla is a terrifying creature of destruction, in danger of throwing us back "into the world of two million years ago." The quest is simply to destroy it so that the world can "live again." The Japanese relationship with Godzilla, however, is more ambiguous. Noriega asks, "why do the Japanese sympathize with him as a tragic hero, while Americans see him as little more than a comic icon?" (Noriega, 56). The answer possibly lies in Godzilla's revenant status. No matter what destruction a displaced spirit wreaks on the human world, complicated Japanese feelings of mutual obligation place much of the responsibility on the living. The destruction of Tokyo was not truly Godzilla's fault, though it was the actor—the fault lies with the humans who were complicit in the nuclear testing that awoke the revenant. Though they try to pacify it, they cannot vilify the monster with the aplomb of Burr's Western narrator. Godzilla is a ghost of their past, and their responsibility.

Works Referenced

Iwasaka, Michiko and Barre Toelken. Ghosts and the Japanese : cultural experience in Japanese death legends. Logan, UT : Utah State University Press, 1994

Noriega, Chon A. "Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is U.S." In Hibakusha cinema : Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the nuclear image in Japanese film, edited by Mick Broderick. London; New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996.

For more traditional Japanese folk tales (including Mimi-Nashi Hoichi):

Allen Louis and Jean Wilson, eds. Lafcadio Hearn: Japan's Great Interpreter; A New Anthology of His Writings: 1894-1904. ("Japan Supernatural") Sandgate, Kent (UK): Japan Library, 1992.

For more about the Kappa

Dorson, Richard M. Folk Legends of Japan. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1962.

Copyright © 2004, Alaya Johnson. All Rights Reserved.

About Alaya Johnson

Alaya Dawn Johnson is a senior at Columbia University, where she majors in Japanese Studies. She has lived in Japan and did, in fact, watch the original unsubtitled Japanese film while researching this essay.


Mar 21, 16:14 by John Frost
Calling all Godzilla fans: what do you think of this interpretation of the monster?
Mar 21, 21:17 by Elizabeth Barrette
I was surprised and delighted by this article. It crystallized in my mind something I've always felt about Godzilla. Now, I've taken a semester each of Japanese language and culture back in college, and still hadn't quite put it into so many words. I always felt that the American interpretations lose something of the original story's point and flavor; the most recent "Godzilla" was a fun giant-lizard movie but a lousy Godzilla. Once you take away the radioactive breath, it's not *Godzilla* anymore.

The whole point, for me, is that Godzilla arose because people abused the tremendous power of nuclear physics; that power was then incorporated into the nightmarish beast and used against humanity. The Japanese version hints that Godzilla is not so easily done away with forever, and indeed, there are a lot of Godzilla movies. American versions rarely seem to capture that sense of responsibility or perpetuity; they just blame the monster, kill it, and expect it to stay dead.

The idea of Godzilla as revenant made *perfect* sense to me, a malicious force that can't truly be killed because it's not truly alive and which has awesome destructive capacity. Well, so: that's what a nuclear bomb *does*. It stirs up trouble that is not easily laid to rest again, if at all. While I usually prefer pro-science to anti-science fiction, I think the warning in "Gojira" is too apt to ignore. Sometimes it's best to let sleeping ghosts lie.
Mar 22, 07:40 by David Gardner
In some of the later Gojira films, the monster becomes a defender of humanity. Is there any parallel to this in the revenant mythology? Do revenant ghosts ever defend rather than harass?

Mar 22, 11:47 by Alaya Johnson
That is an interesting question...I'll have to investigate further. Off the top of my head, I'd say that mostly ghosts return to hurt people--particularly in the traditional tales. I remember in the Ring (the book, not the movies) and this other modern Japanese novel (Strangers), both involved revenants that had come to hurt the protagonists and revenants that had come to save them. So, maybe the answer to your question is that yes, revenant tales have evolved in modern Japan to include the defending scenario, but I'm not sure how common that was before even fifty years ago.

Hope that helps,

Mar 22, 17:31 by Dennis Mahon
I have to say that I never considered the revenant aspect of the Godzilla story; I had always assumed that Godzilla was a modern rendition of the sea-monster myth, with the sea-monster striking back against the corrupting influence of modern society (Nature getting revenge against Man for despoiling the environment). I also seem to recall a legend of a dragon living at the bottom of Tokyo Bay, sometimes awakening to inflict disaster on the people of Tokyo (I believe that it was blamed for the Great Tokyo Earthquake of (?)1923).
Mar 22, 18:10 by David Gardner
So, maybe the answer to your question is that yes, revenant tales have evolved in modern Japan to include the defending scenario, but I'm not sure how common that was before even fifty years ago.

Hope that helps

Thanks for the good information. Another question: I've noticed a lot of anime/manga (hope I'm using these terms right; I'm out of my league here) concerning vampires, and I've always been surprised that the Japanese were so taken with the vampire mythology. Is that also part of the revenant-inspired genre?


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