By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published April 1, 2016
Some of my dearest childhood memories are filtered through static and fuzz.
I don’t mean that I’m suffering the onset of middle-aged memory loss, nor am I referring to the terrible and debilitating diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
I am literally describing the blur of Atlanta television that plagued suburbia until the advent of cable TV.
If you grew up in the 1970s, as I did, you probably have similar memories: rabbit ears wrapped in tinfoil, vertical and horizontal hold knobs on television cabinets, the pounding boots of a frustrated father on a rooftop trying yet again to aim the antenna to the mystical source of a UHF signal.
I don’t think I really believed that the Atlanta Flames hockey team existed until I actually saw a game at the Omni; the players existed in my mind as grey flickering ghosts.
Yet even in the technical backwater of the 1970s, we children were able to look past the snap and crackle of our most beloved television station—Ted Turner’s Channel 17—and discover treasures that remain cultural hallmarks of our collective childhood.
Before it morphed into the “Superstation” of the Cable ’80s, Channel 17 was a sort of corral for the shows almost no one would watch except children. And on every Atlanta street, it seemed, there was at least one family who received a clear signal. Woe to that family during after-school hours, for the family room would be invaded by neighborhood children desperate for entertainment.
Channel 17 is where most of us first saw the cartoon version of the “Amazing Spiderman.” It’s where we believed for at least a few years that wrestling was real. And it’s where we encountered the amazing fantasy imported from Japan: “Speed Racer,” giant monsters, “Ultraman.” To this day, a summer afternoon thunderstorm reminds me of the secret hours I spent with friends watching these marvels from across the world.
One of the great joys of raising young children is that the parent gets to relive his or her own childhood. So it is that over the past several weeks, I have delighted with my boys in revisiting the wonder of “Godzilla,” “Ultraman,” and their contemporaries through the static-free miracle of DVD and Blu-ray discs.
Even more fun than watching these films the way they were meant to be seen has been the opportunity to learn more about the creative genius of the men who made the movies. Without a doubt, the most remarkable of them all is the special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, who I have learned—not really to my surprise—was a Roman Catholic.
To say that Japan is not a Christian country is a tremendous understatement. Only about 1 percent of the population identifies itself as Christian. Yet Tsuburaya was born in 1901 to a family with Catholic roots. The death of his mother when Tsuburaya was only 3 years old ended any hope of a Catholic childhood however, and the boy spent most of his youth in and out of various relatives’ homes. Only until later in life did Tsuburaya reconnect with his Catholic identity. His wife was a Catholic, and he converted fully to the faith. At his death at the age of 68, Tsuburaya was given a Catholic funeral and burial as well as a public Catholic memorial service at the famous Toho Studios.
In many ways, the attempt to recover both his sense of childhood innocence and his Catholic sense of meaning represents the guiding principle of his life and work. As Tsuburaya said a few years before his death, “My heart and mind are as they were when I was a child. Then I loved to play with toys and to read stories of magic. I still do. My wish is only to make life happier and more beautiful for those who will go and see my films of fantasy.”
As a child, Tsuburaya loved to make models, and he was fascinated by all things mechanical, particularly the developing world of aviation. By the time he was 18, he had begun working on special effects in the new Japanese movie studios, and he would go on to work on over 250 films throughout his life.
For most Westerners, however, Tsuburaya’s work really begins in 1954 when he collaborated with director Ishiro Honda to create one of the most iconic characters in cinema history. For over 60 years, the kaiju eiga, or giant monster Godzilla, has thrilled people of all ages all over the world. The monster is probably the most recognized film character ever to appear on screen; what Colonel Sanders is to chicken, Godzilla is to the movies.
And he deserves to be taken seriously. Like many people, Tsuburaya was entranced by the appearance of the American King Kong in 1933; the giant ape that terrorizes New York City immediately captured his imagination, and along with his Japanese colleagues, he began conceiving of an Asian counterpart to Kong. Any immediate responses, however, were thwarted by the events of the coming decade. As fascism swept Europe, and as Japan itself moved toward an alliance with the Axis powers, the film industry in Japan went into decline. By the onset of World War II, Tsuburaya was still working in film, but his talents were increasingly used for propaganda films and wartime documentaries.
In 1945, Tsuburaya witnessed firsthand the firebombing of Tokyo, a bombardment of such ferocity that over 100,000 people were burned by napalm. Later that year, like all Japanese, he was horror-struck by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though the entire world was stunned by the cruelty of this new weapon, the Japanese in particular were forever changed by the atomic attacks.
When horrific events occur, art has a crucial role in providing understanding, comfort and healing. The creation of Godzilla was a direct response to the psychological aftermath of the bombings of Japan. For nearly 50 years, American audiences knew only the severely cut U.S. version of the film, which stars Raymond Burr and which removes scenes crucial to the film’s plot and themes. Now, however, we can see the film for what it was really meant to be, a scathing indictment of military power abused by irresponsible people and a lament for the innocent who suffer the consequences of the destruction. “Godzilla” demonstrates unforgettably that human beings have a responsibility to maintain the balance between science and nature; when our arrogance deceives us into vanity, the world suffers. While “Godzilla” may not fully transcend his “creature feature” status in the West, for the Japanese he remains a powerful cultural symbol of collective suffering and redemption from that suffering.
From a purely cinematic standpoint, “Godzilla” endures as an amazing blend of creativity, ingenuity, and craft. Tsuburaya was above all a craftsman, a careful and technical artist who believed deeply in the Japanese tradition of the handmade. The success of “Godzilla” spawned many sequels and new monsters in the kaiju eiga genre, and all of the best films made up until 1968 feature the meticulous, and real, craftsmanship of Tsuburaya and his crew.
Rodan, Mothra, Ghidorah, Gamera—Tsuburaya conceived and designed them all, and then in 1966 Tsuburaya introduced “Ultraman” to television, where the character eventually crossed the world to delight American children. All of these creatures and characters achieve Tsuburaya’s great dream of entertaining an audience and allowing that audience to escape for a time the very real troubles of the world.
To make the fantastic appear real, as so many creators of fantasy have tried to do in literature, film, and the visual arts, requires above all the capacity for belief. The artist whose belief in a creation grander than his own will ultimately be more successful in achieving what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation.” Likewise, the audience who believes in something greater than itself will be more enchanted by the work of the artist.
Tsuburaya has been praised around the world as perhaps the greatest special effects artist in cinema. Almost all filmmakers who work in the fantasy or science fiction genre acknowledge a debt to him, and they profess as well a love for his work. Though there will always be those who denounce his films as preposterous or absurd, those who appreciate “real” filmmaking will always recognize the brilliance of his art as opposed to the sterile CGI digital effects we see today.
When Martin Scorsese was a young man in New York City, trying to discern whether or not he had a vocation to the priesthood or to filmmaking, he would often travel all over Manhattan in search of a Godzilla film screening in an arthouse or revival theater. Perhaps he was seeking escape, perhaps affirmation. Either way, the films of Tsuburaya taught him to suspend disbelief.
As a Catholic artist, Tsuburaya knew that clarity—even in static—is always possible for those who believe.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.