silver screen stories

How history and politics blazed a trail through East Asian cinema: Atomic Nightmares in Japan
Film+TV | 22 December 2020

Godzilla in a scene from the film. © Toho Co. Ltd. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Above image: Still, Godzilla by Ishirō Honda (1954)

When Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, it not only marked a crowning moment for South Korea’s film industry, but a long overdue recognition of East Asian cinema’s rich and dynamic history.

Far from a homogenous product, cinema in East Asia reflects the complex, mutating network of geopolitics and national discourses that define the region’s past and present. These forces are in perpetual motion – their ebb and flow demanding continuous investigation through beautifully expressive films that pioneer new genres.

Still, Children of Hiroshima by Kaneto Shindō (1952)

Many are considered cornerstones of global cinema yet despite their international appeal, East Asian films address local issues and shared histories, salving old wounds and externalising national psyches. In this sense, the current prosperity of South Korea’s socially conscious cinema is no different to similar periods of success in China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, whose world- renowned national cinema’s trace the region’s ruptured history over the last 70 years.

Civil war, revolution, censorship, migration, dictatorships, and martial law form repeating patterns that have moulded cinema in East Asia, at times wielding it as a political weapon and at others encouraging boundless creativity. The sheer scale of these events has left indelible imprints on the films they helped produce, many of which tell universally human stories that preserve a record of time and place.

By considering specific films, periods or trends alongside historical events that precipitated them, the true brilliance of East Asian cinema is revealed, reminding us of the unique power of film and the significance of this latest breakthrough.

Atomic Nightmares in Japan

Within East Asia, few countries can rival Japanese cinema for historical prestige. Since its Golden Age of the 1950s, shaped by key directors Yasujirō Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, Japanese cinema has led the region’s global success, accumulating more Oscars for Best International Feature Film than any of its neighbours. The towering contributions of Kurosawa continued throughout the 60s and 70s, opening up Western audiences to Japanese cinema for the first time and inspiring numerous Hollywood remakes.

Since the 1980s, the rise of anime has built on this globalised success, with directors including Katsuhiro Otomo, Satoshi Kon and Hayao Miyazaki helping define the genre with their respective classics: Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Spirited Away (2001). More recently, Japanese horror films have brought significant commercial success, with Ring (1998), Dark Water (2002) and the Ju-On (1998–2003) franchise transforming an underground genre into some of Japan’s most successful cinematic exports.

Still, Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo (1988)

Nowhere is the impact of historical events on cinematic narrative and style better demonstrated than in Japan during the 1950s. Following defeat in the Second World War and the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cinema became a vehicle for collective introspection and national mourning. Those whose lives had been irreversibly altered by the atomic bombings were known as hibakusha, literally translated as “bomb-affected person.” The term became an artistic genre in its own right, encompassing music and literature as well as film.

Key among hibakusha films is Ishirō Honda’s 1954 Godzilla, whose mythical status and countless adaptations have somewhat blunted its initial potency as the first kaiju (monster) film ever made. Unlike the more explicit hibakusha references to nuclear war in Kaneto Shindō’s powerful 1952 docudrama Children of Hiroshima, or Takashi Nagai’s first-person account in The Bells of Nagasaki (1949), Godzilla tapped into Japan’s national psyche, embodying the nation’s collective fear and survivor’s guilt.

Still, Godzilla by Ishirō Honda (1954)

In 1954, months before production on the film began, a fifteen-megaton thermonuclear bomb was tested by the US at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. It was the largest ever artificial explosion at the time and a terrifying spectacle of man’s growing capacity for armageddon. What followed became known as the Lucky Dragon 5 Incident, in which the crew onboard a Japanese fishing vessel became exposed to lethal doses of radiation from the blast, reawakening the fear of nuclear holocaust in Japan and memories of 1945.

The event is mirrored in the opening half-hour of Honda’s classic. Once Godzilla is roused from his ancient slumber in the South Seas by US underwater hydrogen bomb testing, he initiates his siege of Tokyo with an attack on a fishing boat, but this time, no one survives. Godzilla not only embodied the destructive power of the atom bomb and memories of war, but also its victims. In Japan, the South Seas are mystical heartlands of colonial utopia, where the souls of those who died abroad are kept in limbo, unable to rest and return to their homeland.

By arriving from the South Seas, Godzilla confronted Japan with its fallen dead from the Pacific War, who had returned to wreak their vengeance on those who survived and now prospered in a new democracy. Interestingly, the US remake of the film two years later (Godzilla, King of the Monsters!) harnessed the same historical trauma that had resonated so strongly in Japan but inverted it to rationalise the atomic bombings and pacify any sense of American guilt. Both versions end with Godzilla’s destruction by a special weapon that also kills its creator, but unlike the portentous message of the Japanese original, the US version uses Godzilla as evidence of the exceptional circumstances under which the use of atomic weapons are justified as the only option to ensure world peace.

Originally published in HEROINE 13.

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