Godzilla on my Mind by William Tsutsui

Early in the book, William Tsutsui writes, "The Godzilla films were made to be engrossing, exciting, humorous, perhaps a little thought-provoking, and -- above all -- enjoyable. That's what I would like this book to be as well." I regret to inform you that, when the last page was turned, it was zero for five. This is the crap that gets published for Godzilla's fiftieth anniversary? Say it ain't so.

GODZILLA ON MY MIND contains about ten pages of cute, whimsical personal anecdotes about Godzilla and the big G's impact on the author when he was a child. The rest of the book, despite reassuring us that it is "based on considerable research in Japanese- and English- language sources," could have been slapped together quickly by anyone with a few of the earlier Godzilla reference books in hand and some passing familiarity with Google. Some chapters, especially Chapter 3, The Godzilla Franchise, and Chapter 6, Godzilla's Spawn, are nothing more than descriptive lists of movies, without any additional insight provided by the author.

I probably shouldn't be reviewing this book. By the time I finished the introduction, I already hated it. My feelings improved a bit toward the middle but dived again by the end.

The introduction. The problem here is that the author seems so god damn embarrassed to be writing a Godzilla book. He has to pile on excuse after excuse. Mr. Tsutsui feels a need to remind us that he is an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas, but then swears off any sort of serious analysis for the book itself. No, this would just be an opinion piece. Most troubling is his assumption that research, such as "analysis of films, survey data," and the like create a "scientific, dry-as-dust academic tome" written with a "bloodless, magisterial voice." I can't help but wonder if Mr. Tsutsui has read any popular histories and cultural studies written in the past few years? They are very much full of opinion. But it is opinion based on careful research, well documented, and incisively described. These books make for riviting reading. Tsutsui's book, on the other hand, is a flabby exercise in self indulgence. And in his near hysterical quest to make sure no reader takes the book too seriously, one ends up no longer caring to hear what he has to say at all.

It's funny, if also sad: Professors who write popular culture books need to pretend they are "slumming" and not taking it seriously. They get published anyway because being a professor automatically confers on them an air of authority, however undeserved. Fan writers, on the other hand, can't wave around their diplomas or their university affiliation to get a book deal. Instead, they must rely on their knowledge of the subject, their command of the facts, and their ability to synthesize the data into a meaningful narrative. Throughout the book, there is a strong but unspoken bias against fan writers, who know more and write more interestingly about Godzilla than Mr. Tsutsui does. When quoting scholars, Mr. Tsutsui drops names liberally, quoting people like Susan Sontag with the slightest provocation. He mentions Susan J. Napier (Japanese lit prof at University of Texas) so many times in the text you would be forgiven for thinking she was the foremost authority on Godzilla. She isn't, but she is an academic, so I guess she suffices in a pinch.

Fan writers, on the other hand, though they are liberally quoted, and in fact appear to form the bulk of the research done for the book, are never mentioned explicitly in the text. You never read, "As Stuart Galbraith IV wrote in his excellent book, MONSTERS ARE ATTACKING TOKYO..." Instead, he writes something like this: "One fan writes..." and provides a little footnote at the end of the sentence so that you can turn back to the endnotes, hidden shamefully at the back of the book, and see that dozens of them refer to Steve Ryfle's JAPAN'S FAVORITE MON-STAR, Stuart Galbraith's MONSTERS ARE ATTACKING TOKYO, and less often David Kalat's A CRITICAL HISTORY AND FILMOGRAPHY OF TOHO'S GODZILLA SERIES. Needless to say, none of these outstanding researchers provided blurbs for the back of the book praising its contents. But Susan Napier did. And a couple Anthropology professors, for no apparent reason other than they, too, were academics.

Quotes lifted from internet sites were even more unprofessionally handled. The last straw was (on page 189) when he lifted a rather long (nine lines) quote from a review of THE X FROM OUTER SPACE from Keith Allison's TELEPORT CITY webzine. He prefaces the quote with the generic, "As one online reviewer described it,..." and in the footnotes, simply gives the URL of the page from which he pulled the quote. Mr. Tsutsui obviously had no sense of context as to where the quote came from. I will take this moment to note that typing in "The X from outer space review" in Google (no quotes) produces a link to the Teleport City review near the top of the first page. Research, ladies and gentlemen. The author's assertion in the introduction that the book has been thoroughly researched using "Japanese- and English- language sources" is a bit of a snowjob. The endnotes reveal a total of two references to Japanese language books. Whatever research was done in Japanese, it wasn't much.

As if all of this isn't bad enough, the writing is incredibly amateurish, and his opinions about the movies are a bore -- once you decide they are "just for fun," it sort of leaves you without much else to say. What he does say, he says over and over again. He uses the word "cheese" constantly when describing the films, though I don't think he understands the dictionary definition of cheesy is "of poor, shoddy quality," and is not generally considered a term of endearment. Still, at least he gets more creative in his use of "cheese," even if he can't think of anything else to say:

"The movies, which now number twenty-seven...have also become cherished icons of camp and cheese..." - p. 8

"...the Godzilla series was (and is) simple, unadulteraded, good clean fun. Ahh...the power of cheese." - p. 44

"In those cheesiest of films at the end of the Showa series, the king of monsters did indeed look like a veritable plush toy..." - p. 54

[Over 100 more pages of the same later...]

"Lactose-intolerant viewers should take care when watching YONGARY, MONSTER OF THE DEEP: this film comes with a triple helping of cheese." - p. 197

"Conceived by pompadoured dictator, playboy, and film buff Kim Jong-Il, PULGASARI looks like an ill-fated attempt by the great leader to feed his starving people with a rich diet of cinematic cheese." - p. 198

When he isn't using the word "cheese" again, he spends most of the book summarizing a lot of views about Godzilla, but has nothing to add on his own. And he really only brings up various theories so that he can dismiss them, often without justification and even when they only tangentally apply to Godzilla. For example, he quotes Bill Warren, from his excellent book KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES, who hypothesized that nuclear energy in fifties sci-fi movies was simply a convenient "MacGuffin" that replaced electricity as the monstrous catalyst of earlier films, and not used as critique or commentary. This is an insightful observation that is rings true when watching the American sci-fi films of the fifties that Warren's book concerns itself with. But Mr. Tsutsui questions the theory by holding out Godzilla, a unique Japanese science fiction film, as his evidence. Apples and Oranges.

The first chapter, The Birth of Gojira, is among the most interesting, though again he sadly seems unable to say anything new about the original film. Maybe it has all been said already, but I doubt it. In describing the film, Mr. Tsutsui writes (p. 21) "But neither was GOJIRA a cheesy, low-budget, exploitation film, just another example of the 'plethora of nudity, teenage heroes, science fiction monsters, animated cartoons and pictures about cute animals' that the esteemed critic Donald Richie once decried as the stock-in-trade of Japan's popular cinema." While Richie did indeed say that, Mr. Tsutsui seems to be implying that it is relevant to Japanese cinema at the time of GOJIRA's release in the 50's, which it isn't. The quote came from Richie's book published in 1990.

Forget it. I could go on for hours. I just hated this book, it is complete garbage and I don't want to think about it anymore. Geez -- what's the matter with me? I need to just relax. After all, (p. 174) "Godzilla may indeed be little more than a dancing image on a movie screen, a man in a latex suit, a cheesy bit of Japanese cinema for ankle-biters around the globe." Oh, sod it. I'm chucking the damn thing in the trash.


Books you should be reading instead, courtesy Amazon.com:


Monsters are Attacking Tokyo

A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series

Japan's Favorite Mon-Star

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 15, 2005.


Comments

Ha! I had no idea. You know, I wouldn't mind being stolen from if I got more attribution than "one online reviewer." That just hurts.

-Keith, Teleport City

Posted by: keith at February 17, 2006 03:06 PM

I noticed Tsutsui has a lecture coming up at Kansas U., if anyone has interest:

"Sunrise, Sunset: Japan in the American Imagination since World War II"

A public lecture by William M. Tsutsui, Professor of History, U. of Kansas
Monday October, 29 5:30 pm WT Young Library Auditorium

What comes to mind when you think of Japan?
This presentation will survey American impressions of Japan over the past
sixty years, as reflected both in the academic literature and in popular
culture phenomena like Shogun and Memoirs of a Geisha. Although Japan's
"miraculous" economic rise after World War II catalyzed some changes in
American visions of Japanese society, longstanding stereotypes have remained
tenacious and were reaffirmed in the 1990s "lost decade" of recession and
instability.

Professor Tsutsui's current research focuses on the environmental impact of
World War II on Japan, the globalization of Japanese popular culture, and
sports in Japanese history.

Posted by: Trent at October 24, 2007 12:07 PM
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