Haukamp on Bogue, 'Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967'

Author: 
Mike Bogue
Reviewer: 
Iris Haukamp

Mike Bogue. Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967. Jefferson: McFarland, 2017. Illustrations. 316 pp. $19.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4766-2900-1; $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6841-3.

Reviewed by Iris Haukamp (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies) Published on H-Japan (May, 2019) Commissioned by Martha Chaiklin

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53561

A giant mutant is about to throw a school bus into an abyss, Godzilla attacks a radio tower, tentacles and mushroom clouds are hovering over the Hollywood sign: the cover art of Mike Bogue’s Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967 successfully captures the fascination of the films covered on the following three hundred pages. Bogue, a prolific writer of articles on and reviews of monster and science fiction films, tackles the discrepancies in representations of the nuclear threat in US and Japanese genre films of the early Cold War. This time period, according to Bogue and Allen A. Debus, who provides the foreword, constituted the high point of (cinematic) interest in the devastation connoted with atomic power, which was overshadowed subsequently by the Vietnam War, calmed by the possibilities of rapprochement between the US and the Soviet Union, and eventually silenced by a “nuclear apathy” caused by the conviction that, if a nuclear war ever happened, all would be lost anyway (p. 283).

In his preface and introduction, Bogue frames the book within his own childhood in America of the 1950s and 60s, at the peak of Cold War anxiety, and his fascination with these genre films, constituted by and constituent of his matter-of-fact conviction that “a major nuclear war would occur by 1970” (p. 3). Richly illustrated with amazing and amusing stills from many relatively unknown films, posters, and PR material, the book is structured into three topical parts, intriguingly titled “Mutants” (humanoid), “Monsters” (non-humanoid), and “Mushroom Clouds” (serious treatment of nuclear war). Each part consists of a section dealing with selected American films, providing extensive cast and crew lists, a plot summary, often a discussion of the production background, and Bogue’s analyses of the film within the Cold War context. This is followed by a similar section on Japanese atomic kaijū (“monster”) films and a conclusion that compares and contrasts the meanings brought to the screen through these creatures and events on the two sides of the Pacific. Bogue ultimately argues that, in the 1950s, when the genre emerged and generic conventions were formed, there was a marked difference between its vernacular permutations. American films generally ended with the threat being averted by the authorities; often the creature is killed by the very nuclear power that had created it, clearly reflecting the ideology of atomic power being a necessary means to contain Communism. Japan, on the other hand, is characterized by a distrust—understandably so given the country’s direct experience of the bombs—in the possibility of neutralizing its power. Godzilla returns despite all efforts in the franchise’s first installment (1954), in which the only weapon able to destroy the creature is subsequently destroyed by its creator, due to a deep distrust in humanity’s potential to use it responsibly. From the 1960s, however, the genres began to converge, demonstrating fear and fatalism regarding the potential of nuclear power to usher in the end of the world, with films such as Dr. Strangelove (1964) approaching the negative attitude of the Japanese films.

Apocalypse Then is an intriguing read, fueled by Bogue’s in-depth knowledge of the genre and his engaging writing style. For instance, his matter-of-fact statement that “unlike their American counterparts of the same era, Japan’s atomic age movies never leave the viewer with the optimistic feeling that ‘Gosh darn it, we can lick this atomic thing yet!’ Instead, they leave the viewer with the pessimistic notion that gosh darn it, this atomic thing will lick us yet” is a refreshing take on film and cultural studies and conveys the 1950s zeitgeist (p. 87). And this is where the book really shines; Bogue’s love for and knowledge of the genre comes through clearly and not only makes it enjoyable to read but also hits home to readers of a different generation the omnipresence of the atomic thread in the early Cold War period.

At the same time, in terms of scope, the book is tilted toward the US. “Mutants” covers twenty-six American and only two Japanese films, “Monsters” fourteen American versus eight Japanese works, and “Mushroom Clouds” deals with twelve films from the United States and only four Japanese ones. Overall, sixty-one detailed analyses of American films stand against fourteen Japanese films. While this is explained in terms of differing production rates, the more problematic issue at hand is that all Japanese films are brought into the US context regarding their reception or remake by American companies—which is an exciting topic in itself—whereas the US films stand on their own, despite many of them having been released in Japan. Integrating their reception into the analysis would have made for a more balanced discussion but was certainly complicated by a relative lack of relevant source material in English. Often, the sections dealing with Japanese films use illustrations from related US films or remakes, likely due to the restrictive stance on copyrighted material in Japan, but again resulting in an American point of view. The inclusion of Japanese-language material is beyond the scope of this book, but it does result in a bias that makes the book less interesting, perhaps, for readers interested in the Japanese side. By the same token, the selection of references sometimes limits the analytical sections. Concerning Godzilla as a metaphor for Japan, Bogue argues that “just as Godzilla is an atomic distortion of the former animal, perhaps postwar Japan is a distortion of its former self, having embraced the Western mindset to the possible detriment of its cultural past” (p. 171). This interpretation of Japan and the giant lizard-creature as both villain and victim is not new, and it holds a problematic discursive heritage. In fact, if Godzilla attacks because its lair was destroyed by the American nuclear tests that (by implication) had injured the crew of the Lucky Dragon Number Five (Daigo Fukuryū), his lashing out because he had been victimized by a Western military force threatening his survival mirrors the postwar discourse on Japanese victimhood as well as the wartime reasoning for military expansion. Furthermore, as Chon Noriega has argued already in 1987, Godzilla was awakened, not created, by nuclear power.[1] Not only does this differentiate this prehistoric creature from American nuclear mutants and monsters, but it also opens an entirely different can of worms concerning postwar trauma, as also explored by the essays in Matthew Edwards’s anthology The Atomic Bomb in Japanese Cinema (2015). Noriega’s sociohistorical reading of Godzilla contains many of Bogue’s main points, such as the differences in attitudes toward the possibility of containing the nuclear threat, toward the bomb as a solution to the problem it created, and toward the official authorities’ capabilities of protecting their citizens. The “impersonal” nature of American creatures as reflected in the lack of names (they are “It” Them,” “The Giant Crab”) starkly contrasts with the Japanese monsters with their names and personalities (Gojira, Mosura, etc.) related to the objective versus subjective experience of being victimized by nuclear power, a statement also made by Noriega regarding the monsters being inserted into Japanese mythology as a traumatic entity to deal with through re-representation.[2] In this context, it would have been instructive to include into the argument the actual ban on references to the H-bomb and its implications in Japanese film under and following the occupation. Despite a lack of reference to Noriega’s article, Apocalypse Then’s theoretical underpinnings in terms of two distinctly different ways of dealing with the nuclear power in genre films have been laid before. Bogue, however, widens the scope toward American films and closely observes this trend in the many individual films covered in his book-length study.

However, while the title suggests a discussion of films dealing with the nuclear threat in general, non-genre and non-narrative films, such as Record of a Living Being (Ikimono no kiroku, 1955, directed by Kurosawa Akira) or Shindō Kaneto’s semi-documentary Children of Hiroshima (Genbaku no ko, 1952), which is only briefly mentioned toward the end together with Sekigawa Hideo’s 1953 Hiroshima, are not covered. The title appears to be a questionable marketing decision, also due to its (unexplained) reference to an entirely different genre and the political context of the Vietnam War. I would also favor a rewrite of the back blurb describing Japan as “the only [country] to have suffered [the bomb’s] devastation.” Former inhabitants of the Bikini Atoll, as well as civilians and members of the military contaminated by the tests on US soil, would certainly agree to disagree.

Despite these points of criticism, I did enjoy reading the book. Apocalypse Then is directed at wide audiences, but for somebody not much conversant in the American side of the atomic monster realm, the book provides much information. Its comparative approach also offers food for thought regarding Japanese films and their context. Within its scope, I would have liked to see both sides being treated more equally, but what the book does very well is to convey the strangely titillating fascination with the impending doom of the third, nuclear, world war. As Bogue shows in his conclusion, these fears were rekindled in the 1980s by frictions between the Soviet and US governments, resulting in a number of films depicting a frightening “post aftermath realism.” Briefly shifting the geographical focus, growing up in West Germany, at the Cold War border and not too far away from Chernobyl, I recall being traumatized as a child by reading the post-apocalyptic “children’s book” The Cloud by Gudrun Pausewang (Die Wolke, 1987) at school and—unwisely—watching Jimmy Murakami’s animated nuclear disaster film When the Wind Blows (1987) one rainy afternoon, one year after the Chernobyl disaster. The sales of Pausewang’s book surged in Japan after the Tōhoku Triple Disaster of 2011. As Bogue (and North Korea) reminds us, regardless of the relative lack of recent genre films, the nuclear threat is not going away. Looking back at the boom years of cinematic discourse on the dangers and possibilities of atomic power during its early stage and thinking about what it meant in two radically different contexts, Apocalypse Then prompts us to question our own “nuclear apathy.”

Notes

[1]. Chon Noriega, “Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When ‘Them!’ Is US,” Cinema Journal 27 (1987): 63-77.

[2]. Ibid., 68.

Citation: Iris Haukamp. Review of Bogue, Mike, Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. May, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53561

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