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#77. Godzilla (Gojira 1954) & #78-79. The Host - Review

TohoScope bannerThe monster movie, or what the Japanese call daikaijueigai films, is a long standing genre that successfully elicits fear in the audience, while at the same time projects a deeper symbolic meaning onto the screen. From the moment King Kong fell to his death from atop the Empire State Building, directors have been taking advantage of the monsters found in this genre to sympathetically manipulate audience’s expectations and emotions. This paper will examine both the 1954 Japanese film Godzilla (Gojira in Japan) and the 2006 South Korean blockbuster The Host, study the history of each country, and attempt to discover how these films employ their respective creature to embody tragic events from the past to better understand the present.

Godzilla film posterGodzilla opens with only shadows. The faceless screams of men and women are terrifyingly blended with the metallic wails of the yet unseen monster. Godzilla, like so many monster movies, is nothing more than a physical manifestation of some turmoil. Godzilla could be understood as representing the United States. The screams heard during the opening moments of the film are the final death cries of the thousands that lost their lives during and following World War II at the hands of the United States. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war in the Pacific, the United States retaliated with such unimaginable force as to completely devastate and retard an entire nation and culture. On the morning of August 6th, 1945, the nuclear bomb lovingly coined ‘Little Boy” was released from the belly of an American B-29 bomber and fell effortlessly towards the city of Hiroshima. According to author Colette Balmain 68-percent of the city was destroyed by the nuclear blast. The initial explosion instantly killed some 70,000 Japanese citizens, and with the ensuing fallout the death toll rose to around 200,000 due to radiation sickness. After fire-bombings on Tokyo and a second nuclear bombing on the city of Nagasaki, the amount of Japanese lives lost during WWII was devastating. Godzilla film poster

After the initial screams, the film properly begins with an explosion, and then the fishing boat Eiko-Maru comes into view on screen. The fisherman on board are terrified, the vessel is on fire. Baldmain comments that during this sequence several associations are made between the nuclear bomb; which is the explosion seen on screen, nature; the wild ocean the men are desperately trying stay clear of, and that of human suffering; the fisherman screaming for their lives. A major influence for this scene was born in March 1954. Even after the bombings, the United States continued to test nuclear and atomic weapons on Japanese islands for years. In the same year Godzilla was to be released, “… the United States exploded a fifteen-megaton H-bomb that unexpectedly sent substantial fallout across a 7000-square mile radius.” (Noriega, 65) Baldmain goes on to explain that hundreds of military and civilian members were exposed to high amounts of radiation, including a tuna trawler named Lucky Dragon. Many of the fishermen on the trawler eventually died from radiation sickness, and although the United States accepted blame, it incited a public protest against nuclear testing. Godzilla began shooting soon after this horrific event, and by the time the film was released, “The image of fishing boats caught up in a nuclear explosion would have been all too familiar to Japanese audiences.” (Baldmain, 33)

It is the explosion during the opening scene that awakens the prehistoric monster Godzilla. After the monster attacks a small village in Odo, a team of scientists lead by Professor Yamane (Takeshi Shimura) is sent to investigate. After finding high amounts of radiation in a footprint left by Godzilla, Yamane eventually surmises the same atomic weapons that guaranteed Japan’s defeat in WWII in fact birthed the creature. Yamane is only interested in studying the monster, not killing it. He considers Godzilla to be a “past object emblematic of a new type of scientific knowledge.”(Baldmain, 33) Mark Anderson describes Yamane as being sympathetic to the creature, that both the man and the monster are connected as victims of the war. Within this context Godzilla is then in fact metaphorically Japanese. Just as Yamane symbolizes Japan’s past imperial structure, so to does the monster.

GodzillaAs Godzilla’s humongous feet trample famous buildings and businesses throughout Japan’s major cities, a tangled love-triangle between Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), her scientist fiancée Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirato), and the Navy officer she really loves Ogata (Akira Takarada), slowly comes to a head.  To understand the profound symbolism of Emiko and the melodramatic subplot that takes up the majority of the film, it is important to first understand the historical context. Following the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American military began a seven-year occupation in Japan. Enforcing a democratization of Japan, there were radical changes in the social, political, and economic structures of the country. Noriega explains that America forcibly ‘dismantled and rebuilt the Japanese family and society in such a way as to ensure that Japan could never again become a military threat to the Allies.’ These reforms included giving females full legal rights, ended the authority of the clan, and extended compulsory education to nine years. Baldmain elucidates further, “American capitalism invaded Japanese feudalism, bringing with it the ideal of the bourgeois nuclear family.” (36) If Yamane (and therefore Serizawa, which would be the professor’s natural successor for Emiko) represents the old Japan, with the strict clan hierarchal structure where the father is honored first and before the husband, than the brave and hansom Ogata symbolizes the new American restructuring. If Dr. Serizawa is considered to be symbolically associated with Godzilla, then like the monster he threatens the true love between Emiko and Ogata, and therefore should be considered “emblematic of the nation as a whole.” (Baldmain, 35)

The Host film posterThroughout the film Godzilla is employed to represent both the United States and Japan as a culture and a country. For the role of the United States the monster represents a tumultuous relationship between the two countries that has included military and atomic war, nuclear testing, and an intrusive and culturally dismantling occupation that effects Japan to this day. The abominable Godzilla, having been created by the American nuclear bombs, can also be seen to embody the face of Japan. Like the giant lizard, from the ten years that came between the bombing of Hiroshima and the release of Godzilla, “Japan in 1954 is a transnational monster caught between the imperial past and the postwar industrial future,”(Noreiga, 68) instigated and created by the nuclear bombings and H-bomb tests the followed them.

While the 1954 film Godzilla made a statement on the post-WWII American occupation, Bong Joon-Ho’s 2006 film The Host was, among other assertions, a direct expounding on South Korea’s subservient relationship with the United States. Where the Japanese monster movie opens with a title screen and credit sequence accompanied by the terrified screams of Japanese citizens, and then begins the picture proper with the attack on the Eiku-Maru; The Host skips with the dramatics and immediately opens with the instigating action. Similar to Godzilla, the eerie opening sequence is based on true events. In the film an American mortician is unhappy with the amount of dust that has collected atop several dozen bottles of formaldehyde. He orders his South Korean subordinate to haphazardly dump the contents of the bottles down the morgue’s drain, which leads straight to the Han River. Klein argues this scene profoundly centers the film on Korea’s relationship with the United States, with the crazed American mad-scientist and his South Korean Igor. The author believes the opening prologue’s ‘subtle horror’ is derived not from the deranged American, but from the South Korean lackey who so effortlessly surrenders to his boss’s orders, even though he is well aware his actions could bring devastating harm to Seoul, and the millions of South Koreans that depend on the Han River for their survival.The Host film poster

This subservient acquiescence is a major theme throughout the film. Scene after scene The Host shows South Koreans in important and powerful positions (police officers, doctors, military personal, etc.) consistently crumble in submission to whichever American official is in the room. This is true regardless of the American’s appearance, reputation, or common sense.

“For some, the monster embodies the monstrous liberal capitalism thriving amidst memories of the economic miracle of the Han River.” (Lee, 351) After the film opens, and the disgusting creature kidnaps the young girl Hyeon-seo (Ko Ah-sung) and escapes into the Han River. The creature hides the girl in the sewers below Seoul, while the victim’s family is taken by the government and held hostage for fear of a virus the American government believes is spread through contact with the monster. When the girl calls her father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) with a cellular phone, the family unites to attempt a rescue. It is this moment in the film that director Bong Joon-ho begins his investigation into “Seoul’s bureaucratic and capitalistic modernity.” (Klein, 888) Once Gang-du informs the authorities of the phone call he received from his daughter, he soon realizes the lack of respect or sincerity the government and upper/middle-class has for the working class. There are several sequences within The Host that further supports this hypothesis; the deceit of the government, the police state enacted at the hospital the family must pay criminals to escape from, and in one scene Klein calls, “sharply critical.” In this scene Hyeone-seo’s out of work uncle, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), is betrayed by an old colleague from his “radical student days… who traded in his political idealism for a high paying job in a telecommunications firm.” (Klein, 889) Nam-il unwisely believes his old chum will assist him in finding the location of Hyeon-seo’s cell-phone. The man escorts Nam-il to his cubical located within a lofty skyscraper that looms over all of Seoul, “a setting evocative of Korea’s vaunted economic success.” (889) Nam-il’s friend does help him locate Hyeon-seo, but also alerts the police to Nam-il’s (now a fugitive) location, explaining how he needs the reward money to help pay for the credit card debt he has slowly collected. Klein goes on to explain, “Through these and other episodes, Bong satirizes the very notion of Korea as the Miracle on the Han,’ recasting the economic ‘miracle’ as a mutant monster and revealing the high financial, social, and moral costs of modernization.” (889)

The Host film posterPerhaps the most interesting, albeit far-fetched, symbolic reading of the monster in The Host comes from Lee and her study of Barbara Creed’s work on the “monstrous-feminine.” Lee argues the monster in the film embodies what Creed describes as the “archaic mother.” The author describes in detail how the monster hides in a dark, damp sewer system that fits Creed’s “description of the mysterious black hole that signifies female genitalia which threaten to give birth to equally horrific offspring as well as threatening to incorporate everything in its path.” (Lee, 351) Only mentioned briefly in the film, but Hyeon-seo’s mother abandoned her and Gang-du, and when considering Lee’s argument, then the monster spawned from the Han River could symbolically be a manifestation of the returning absent mother. The mother then kidnaps the daughter from the “family members who remain mentally and socially immature (including the aunt who looks just like a young girl –i.e., and immature woman).”(Lee, 351) Once the young orphaned boy is introduced into the plot, the young Hyeon-seo instantly matures, transforming into the mother figure and replacing the absent mother.

No matter what socio-political-economic embodiments are superficially transferred onto the symbolically expressionless creatures, the monster movie genre is ripe for both study and hypotheses. Asian daikaijueigai films take full advantage of the genre; therapeutically reliving traumatic events of the past to better understand the present. In both Godzilla and The Host, the monsters are used for their blank-slate appeal, easily projecting the figurative symptoms and parabolic representations of momentous occasions from the past onto the destructive physique of the creatures. Godzilla, a nuclear abomination birthed from the atomic ashes of war, can be understood to symbolize the brutal military might of the United States. The monster is seen leveling Tokyo as easily as “Little Boy” leveled Hiroshima in 1945, going further to replicate the emotions of the film’s protagonists after living through American occupation. The giant lizard can also represent Japan itself, a country that at the time was caught in an intense identity struggle between the feudal system that once defined them and the industrial era that would soon follow. The more globular appearance of the creature in The Host is just as easily painted with the troubles of the past. The creature could represent the subservient relationship between America and host country South Korea, or the economic opportunities sprung from the depths of the Han River and the ensuing capitalistic modernity, or even still the disgusting monster could represent the deep seeded fears of woman. Whatever cause or event the monsters in this genre of film are said to figuratively embody, there is no doubt moviemakers across the world will take full advantage of these sympathetic creatures for years to come. 

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