Tokyo Must Be Destroyed
Dreams of Tall Buildings and Monsters: Images of Cities and Monuments
Introduction: City of Lenses
Let us, just for one brief moment, rewrite the history of cinema in
terms of our cities; of centres and spectacles, monuments and disasters. We are
coming to the end of so many things in the closing half of this decade that
greater demands than this will be made upon us before the end of the millennium.
We could begin, for example, with the Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja'far
al-Mansur, the original founder of the ancient city of Baghdad, who conceived of
his vast new seat of government as being walled around with fortifications and
completely circular in shape. At its exact centre, he decreed that a palace and
a great mosque should stand together. Before starting on this undertaking,
however, the Caliph ordered his army of labourers to dig a vast circular trench
in the sand which was to follow the intended outline of the city's foundations.
Oil was poured into the trench and set alight. The Caliph then watched the
blazing spectacle from a vantage point overlooking the great river Tigris.
Who knows what hallucinatory visions of power arose out of that
shimmering circle of flames? Cities emerge out of the haze as mirages on the
desert plains. Monuments and landmarks function as lenses bringing them into
focus, reducing their size, increasing their clarity.
The towers of Las Vegas ripple in the heat: Caesar's Palace, the great
pyramid of Luxor, the Excalibur, the Imperial Palace and the MGM Grand. Did
anyone ever suspect that the earth would be called upon to support so much
history? Monuments don't require grandeur, merely drama: a change of light. "Do
you think Robert Venturi was on drugs when he wrote that book about how great
Las Vegas was?" Andy Warhol once asked, after seeing it in daylight.
This from a man who made a notoriously static movie starring the
Empire State Building as "an eight-hour hard-on." But even he admitted that
Vegas looked better at night, but then so did the Empire State Building:
It's so beautiful. The lights come on and the stars come out and it sways.
It's like Flash Gordon riding into space.
In August 1989, Saddam Hussein decreed that his Victory Arch - two
gigantic arms, modeled upon his own, bursting forth from the ground clutching
crossed scimitars cast from the steel of melted-down Iraqi weapons - be
presented to the people of Baghdad:
The ground bursts open and from it springs the arm that represents power
and determination, carrying the sword of Qadisiyya. It is the arm of the
Leader-President, Saddam Hussein himself (God preserve and watch over him)
enlarged forty times. It springs out to announce the good news of victory to
all Iraqis, and it pulls in its wake a net that is filled with the helmets of
the enemy soldiers, some of them scattering into the wasteland.
In September 1990, while the Great Satan imposed Resolution 666 upon
the United Nations, restricting the importation of food and medical supplies
into the Republic of Iraq, an archeological expedition was using radar equipment
to pinpoint large objects buried in the desolate, shifting sands of the Central
California coastline believed to be sphinxes.
Beneath these dunes, members of the expedition claimed, were the
actual remains of Ramases the Magnificent's palace; a monolithic movie set
which, in 1923, Cecil B. De Mille had commanded to be built in preparation for
Hollywood's first biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. As Operation
Desert Shield slowly gave way to the final preparations for Desert Storm, it was
announced that a full excavation was scheduled to take place, under the
direction of a professional archaeologist, to search for these legendary
monuments. Chariot wheels, plaster horses, ceramic decorations and statuary,
they said, lay scattered on a vast plane of ruins, waiting to be uncovered.
Back in 1956, De Mille had expressed the hope that in a thousand
years' time, the discovery of his film set would not lead scientists to the
sensational, if erroneous, conclusion that Egyptian civilization, far from being
confined to the Valley of the Nile, had extended all the way to the Pacific
coast of North America.
As if the Ancient Egyptians had ever been that adept in the use of
concrete, nails and plaster of Paris.
The War of the Cities
In these cities constructed as vast movie sets within which the
populace, like so many extras, re-enact endless variants on the same crowd
scene, what is on show is less important than the way in which it is viewed.
Where, for example, the grand frivolities of Las Vegas are focused and reordered
in the camcorder lens of the wandering tourist, Saddam Hussein's Baghdad has
become reconfigured for Western audiences by the optical telemetering of the
Either way, the image ends up on your TV at home.
For the spectator, a cruise missile is nothing but a point of light in
the night sky. The digitized flight plan contained in its memory is running a
continuous movie of the terrain over which it is traveling. As the missile nears
its target, moving from relief map to floor plan, its nose-mounted camera
prepares to transmit a live, broadcast-quality, image of the impact. Thus, the
cruise missile becomes a complex piece of hardware designed to be an eye-witness
to its own destruction.
The moment of impact is also the moment at which the camera goes off
Who can survive the shock of being seen in such a fashion? The
collapse of the eye is rendered as a complex, instantaneous inversion of the
last image seen: black fades rapidly into white, and white instantly turns to
black. Sight pools in an informational gravity well. Cities carry within them
the blueprints for their own ruins.
Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein has announced the construction in Baghdad of
what will be the biggest mosque in the world. Built to his own design, it will
stand in the middle of a huge artificial lake fed by the waters of the Tigris,
which, following the pounding which the Iraqi capital received at the hands of
the United States Air Force, has been transformed into a gigantic open sewer.
"We are rebuilding the ruins in record time," The Mother of Battles
Radio announced during the Desert War, "for after the triumph. There is no God
In Waco, Texas, scorched concrete and featureless earth are all that
now remain of Ranch Apocalypse, where the Branch Davidians under the guidance of
their leader, David Koresh, had their latest and greatest Disappointment. Recent
events have reconstructed this haunted patch of wasteground into a rhetorical
platform from which Middle America now declares itself to be under attack from
all sides, and especially from within.
American Gulf War veteran, Timothy McVeigh, who once dominated the
terrain of the KTO as the gunner in an armoured vehicle, now sits in a federal
prison cell, charged with the bloodiest bombing in US history. No one seems to
think it strange, in the wake of the attack on the Alfred Murrah Federal
Building in Oklahoma City, that this outrage should have coincided with the
second anniversary of the ending of the Waco siege.
Such a convergence is not so much political as theological. If either
Ronald Reagan or George Bush had still been in power at the time of Waco, reads
the subtext connecting these two events, perhaps David Koresh's followers would
still be alive today, and he'd be putting the finishing touches to his
commentary on the breaking of the Seventh Seal.
After all, Reagan believed in the Rapture.
Bush yearned for things to be tested by fire. Both presidents were
deeply into the theology of mass-destruction. Under their hands the Star Wars
programme appeared and disappeared; uncommented on, unnoticed and unmourned.
Now, with Bill Clinton at its helm, Middle America finds itself, for better or
worse, approaching the end of the second millennium with a President of the
Union who doesn't seem to understand the meaning of the Apocalypse.
But the signs and portents were all there: in 1994, Los Angeles, that
great city of lenses and surveillance systems, had trembled once more along its
own fault line. After the fires, the uprising, the unrest and the urban decay,
an earthquake was just enough to emphasize the point that the great city of the
twentieth century had only a few years left to go. Then, exactly one year later
to the day, it happened again. This time in Northern Japan.
Welcome to Earthquake Island
Some pretty strange dust started to settle in the media after the
earth shifted so tragically under the people of Kobe and Osaka in January 1995.
As the extent of the damage became increasingly clear, and the casualty rate
soared into the thousands, the international news services struggled to make
sense of it all, revealing in the process a fault line of misunderstanding
running from East to West that was as real as any that might lie beneath the
Commentators, experts and other assorted professionals crowded onto
the airwaves to explain how the Japanese had neither predicted the earthquake
correctly nor prepared for it adequately in advance and that they knew next to
nothing about disaster relief or even how to counsel the survivors. Unfavourable
comparisons were also made between the Kobe and the Los Angeles earthquakes. The
Japanese people, it was implied, were being so obviously and willfully
wrong-headed about the whole thing that they didn't even deserve to have the
earthquake in the first place.
The truth is that the broadcast media tend to confuse their own
reactions to an event with the actual event itself. Such incidents as the Kobe
earthquake have a long history of occurring on the Japanese mainland.
An ancient piece of mythological wisdom has the island of Japan
resting upon the back of a gigantic catfish that lies submerged beneath the
primordial mud. Every so often, about every seventy years on average, the fish
twitches its tail, and that's when the earth starts shaking. Some kind of major
upheaval had been expected in Japan since the Great Kano earthquake devastated
Tokyo in 1925, killing 250,000 of its inhabitants.
All the same, there must have been many in the West who looked at
their video collections with feelings of unease. Wholesale urban demolition has
long been a staple element in anime, and fans of kaiju eiga -
Japanese live-action monster movies - have seen Tokyo reduced to rubble so often
that the city must be permanently associated in their minds with scenes of
destruction. And that is perhaps where the tragedy of Kobe really lies. Everyone
had expected the earthquake to hit Japan much further south; in Tokyo itself.
The Uncertainty Principle
If Japan rests upon the back of a giant catfish, then the fate of its
capital city belongs with another, equally fabulous, creature. Ever since he
first burst onto the big screen back in 1954, Godzilla has become famous for the
lasting impression he has made on the Tokyo skyline. Returning to the great
metropolis over and over again in well over half of the twenty-one feature films
in which he has appeared so far, Godzilla, the undisputed king of kaiju
eiga, has left it in ruins every time.
A gigantic mutant dinosaur breathing radioactive fire, he was the
unforeseen byproduct of atomic testing in the Pacific Ocean at a time when such
tests were beginning to cause grave public concern. The year which saw the
release of the first Godzilla movie was also the one in which the crew of the
Japanese fishing boat "Lucky Dragon No. 5" were showered with fall-out from the
H-Bomb detonated on Bikini Atoll. Oblique references to this incident were
subsequently incorporated into the film. However, as a true run-away child of
the nuclear age, Godzilla is also subject to the Uncertainty Principle. Just as
it is impossible to determine a subatomic particle's exact position, direction
and velocity all at the same time, the Big G does not allow himself to be pinned
down that easily. Does he represent some kind of dark, unacknowledged obsession
which the Japanese have with their own destruction, or is he just a guy in a
rubber monster costume jumping up and down on a tabletop landscape pretending to
shoot radioactive flame from his mouth?
Godzilla has always been a monster who casts two shadows; one in the
West and the other in the East. His origins reveal a strong mixture of both
Japanese and American influences: conceived as a combination of two successful
Hollywood monsters - Willis O'Brien's King Kong and Ray Harryhausen's
Rhedosaurus in The Beast from 2000 Fathoms - he was presented to
the Japanese public as Gojira; a hybrid name which co-joins the Western word
"gorilla" with the Japanese "kujira", meaning a whale. He was also quite
evidently a man in a rubber suit; an aspect of the kaiju eiga genre which
has never gone down particularly well with Western audiences who tend to confuse
notions of spectacle with those of realism.
Atoms for Peace
O'Brien's King Kong and Harryhausen's Rhedosausus contributed greatly
to the development of a whole battery of photographic special effects - from
stop-frame animation, glass shots and live-action mattes through to the
sophisticated digital processes of today - which have established in the West
the conventions by which cinematic illusions are judged to have become reality.
Godzilla, however, has made an entire career out of failing to meet such
demands, earning for himself in the process a reputation for being cheap,
amateurish and silly among those movie-goers who prefer bigger budgeted affairs
in which the computer-generated dinosaurs look real and the actors behave as if
they were stuck inside rubber suits.
Furthermore, Godzilla's Eastern origins ensured his divergence from
Western notions of reality almost from his very inception. His twin shadows
emanate from a common point; that troubled moment after the Second World War
where East met West on the most uneasy of terms, the American Occupation of
"Ambiguity" is a term that barely covers the confusions and
contradictions that characterized this period. During the immediate post-war
years, the Japanese were encouraged to come to terms with the atomic devastation
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in elegiac, "positive" ways, such as the 1950
documentary film, Hiroshima, with its respectful "March of Time" voice-over and
its American footage of the bomb exploding. In the same year, however, a book
detailing the events of August 6, 1945 as experienced by the bomb's survivors
was printed, bound and then immediately suppressed by the Occupation forces for
being too anti-American. That volume had to wait another ten years, buried in
the depths of Hiroshima City Hall, before it was finally published.
And whatever thinking lay behind American attempts to discourage
traditional Japanese art forms such as Kabuki, with its giant puppets, elaborate
costumes, masks and exaggerated gestures, can only have helped to establish the
equally stylized theatrical traditions that would eventually come to
characterize the Japanese monster movie. Certainly, it is interesting to note in
this context that it was only after the Occupation was over that Kabuki
flourished once again and the first film compilations showing existing Hiroshima
footage were made freely available to the Japanese public.
Perhaps because Hiroshima is simultaneously a place and an event, it
must always be approached obliquely. As the effects of radiation sickness become
increasingly apparent, from one generation to the next, the connection between
the two becomes more and more apparent: Hiroshima is a monument that exists in
both time and space. What makes this fact all the more terrible is that Ground
Zero must always remain an imaginary terrain. There is not a soul alive today
who can tell us what happened at the centre of the bombed area. "The great
mysterious monster conquered the city in an instant," Kenzaburo Oe observed in
his Hiroshima Notes - and that instant is really nothing more than
a single frame of film passing through a movie projector's gate.
In Godzilla's Skin
Meanwhile, back in 1950s small-town America, where everything seemed
to be going well and everyone was under attack, atomic science was having a
field day. "People talk a great deal of nonsense about the effects of nuclear
radiation," one of the scientists announces in The Monster That Challenged
the World. Considering that he's appearing in a movie opposite an army of
giant mutant snails hell-bent on invading California, it's pretty safe
assumption that he knows what he's talking about.
While real scientists were secretly injecting very real plutonium into
the bodies of the poor, the sick, the needy and the institutionalized, the
American public indulged itself in a nuclear nightmare of orgiastic proportions.
Atomic-powered spaceships crashed into the sides of mountains, and giant ants
built their colonies out of the very sand that covered Ramases the Magnificent's
dream palace. So far, so familiar. However, things only started to get really
scary when the big cities of America, with their recognizable monuments and
landmarks, were approached by these portents of the future.
The unease with which an audience watched a flying saucer glide over
the Washington Mall at the beginning of The Day the Earth Stood
Still in 1951 turned to shock in 1956, when the reassuring shapes of the
Washington Monument, together with those to Lincoln and Jefferson, and the dome
of the Capitol Building were smashed to pieces by invading aliens in Earth
vs. the Flying Saucers. It shouldn't come as any surprise to discover
that the man responsible for this startling vision was Ray Harryhausen, whose
giant stop-frame mutant octopus tore San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge apart in
It Came From Beneath the Sea in 1953 and whose Rhedosaurus had
rampaged through a very real-looking New York earlier that same year.
Willis O'Brien's King Kong - re-released in 1952 and even more popular
with monster movie fans than he had been back in 1933 also took on New York. And
Carl Denham, however, only got it partly right. It clearly wasn't the
airplanes that killed the beast, but it wasn't beauty either. It was the fall
from the top of the Empire State Building that finally did for the mighty Kong.
Landmarks can kill.
In the 1976 remake, the poor bugger even had to take a dive off the
new, improved and even taller symbol of economic power; the World Trade Centre.
How could anyone have seriously believed, nearly twenty years later, that a
truck loaded with explosive could succeed in toppling what King Kong could not?
Godzilla, who has only ever had to contend with the rather banal
splendours of the Tokyo Tower and the Diet Building, has always managed to
inflict more damage upon Japan's capital city than it has ever succeeded in
causing him in return. One of the reasons for this is that the Uncertainty
Principle places Godzilla squarely outside the "Nature vs. Technology" debate
which has come to dominate the way in which monster movies are perceived.
Possessing a more markedly individualistic personality than the anonymous armies
of assorted giant fauna that rampaged across America during the 1950s, Godzilla
was nature boy, fresh off the boat and ready to get beaten to the ground at the
first instance by the iniquities of urban civilization.
Existing above and beyond the oppositional trends of nature and
culture, Godzilla has also become the victim of a common misconception. His
skin, contrary to popular opinion, is never green - the colour traditionally
associated with plant life and, by extension, with Nature itself - but a very
deep charcoal grey. His impenetrable hide is the same shade as burned stone and
compacted carbon; hard, dense and unyielding. The same colour as the impact of
energy on matter at Ground Zero.
Perhaps placing Godzilla at the heart of Hiroshima's or Nagasaki's
ruins raises more than just questions of taste in the Western viewer's mind. The
truth is, however, that films belonging to the kaiju eiga genre were,
from the very beginning, made to a very different set of criteria. The majority
of them were photographed in an anamorphic wide-screen process which, when
properly projected, lent the images a greater sense of scale and depth. To add
further atmosphere, the films' soundtracks were almost always recorded in
stereo; an innovation which dates back to at least 1957. Presented in such a
fashion, Godzilla's destruction of Tokyo - built in considerable detail at one
twenty-fifth scale and filmed in slow motion to collapse more effectively - took
on a spectacular, almost theatrical, quality. Unfortunately, by the time these
films reached the West, they had been scanned and panned to fit a smaller
format, their soundtracks re-recorded and rearranged, and additional scenes
(usually shot on an entirely different screen ratio) had been inserted. Let's
not even mention the dubbing. What was left appeared as a miserable failure to
achieve a level of cinematic realism which the films had never set out to attain
in the first place.
Tokyo Must Be Destroyed
But how real is real? There is a story about security guards in a
Tokyo department store stopping two suspected terrorists who had been overheard
animatedly discussing the destruction of the city. The dangerous subversives
turned out to be veteran director Ishiro Honda swapping ideas with special
effects expert Eiji Tsuburaya for a scene in what was to become
Gojira, the first Godzilla movie.
Illusions depend a great deal upon not being in full possession of the
facts. To see the kaiju eiga genre as the obsession of a culture
repeatedly seeking to rehearse repressed or unacknowledged fears of nuclear
obliteration or natural catastrophe is to explain little and to obscure a great
deal more. It is also an attitude based upon a very selective view of Japan's
filmic output. For example, in the decade that witnessed the rise of Godzilla,
films explicitly confronting Japan's continuing nuclear nightmare, such as
Kaneto Shindo's Children of Hiroshima and Lucky Dragon No.
5, were also being released. Ishiro Honda himself had visited Hiroshima
in 1946 and had wanted to convey in Gojira some of the horrors
which he experienced there. Unfortunately, the film's references to bomb
shelters, Nagasaki and its pleas for nuclear disarmament were deleted from the
English-language version by its American distributors.
Godzilla, however, had already selected a very different target for
himself. It was a disaster area still waiting to happen, and each time he
returned to it, he became more a part of its future than its past.
By 1945, allied air raids had reduced most of Tokyo to smoking embers.
Its predominantly wooden buildings had burned easily, resulting in the
destruction of three-quarters of a million houses and the deaths of 100,000 of
the city's inhabitants. A further three million were left homeless. Today, as
well as being one of the principal centres of world economic activity, the
greater Tokyo area also houses an astonishing 25% of Japan's entire population.
This vast urban sprawl has come to be regarded by many as the ultimate
megalopolis: the first city of the 21st Century. The planners and engineers
responsible for its safety have also described it as a "disaster amplification
mechanism"; a term which could just as easily be applied to Godzilla himself.
There is, however, something both reassuring and unsettling about the
Tokyo which Honda and Tsuburaya had Godzilla smash so repeatedly. It never
changed. No matter how far into the future the films were set, Tokyo always
returned looking the same. In a universe increasingly populated by alien
invaders, female psychics, killer androids and giant mecha, Tokyo's vast
centre-less sprawl seemed to expand into time and space, eternally rising
unchanged from its own rubble. The more Godzilla demolished it, the more it came
back, determined to survive.
Godzilla in Paradise
Godzilla's career trajectory as an urban destroyer has never been as
smooth as his continuing relationship with Tokyo might suggest. Quite often he
became the victim of his own success. The cost of rebuilding an entire city is
still high, even when it only exists in miniature. Furthermore, his audience was
not only getting larger, but appreciably and enthusiastically younger.
Consequently he was packed off, from time to time, to remote tropical islands in
the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where palm trees were cheaper to replace than
skyscrapers and he could participate in such juvenile romps as Toho's Son
This did not mean, however, that the dark forces which he had come to
represent had also been sent on vacation. It is worth remembering that Japan
produced many disaster films outside of the Godzilla cycle which dealt much more
explicitly with the themes of catastrophe and disaster, most notably Toei
Studio's The Final War and Toho's The Last War (both
about global nuclear conflict) in the 1960s; Tidal Wave, Last
Days of Planet Earth, in the 1970s; and Virus in the early
1980s. As these films would inevitably have utilized similar special effects
budgets and technicians as the monster movies, it is not surprising to find that
they tended to be made when there was a slackening off, either of quality or
frequency, in the kaiju eiga genre. Similarly, Keji Nakazawa's comic
strip, Barefoot Gen, based upon his own childhood experiences of
the bombing of Hiroshima, first appeared in the children's magazine Shukan
Shonen Jampu during the early 1970s, at a time when Godzilla's audience
was predominantly pre-teen.
To transpose Godzilla from his urban habitat in mainland Japan to the
arcadian paradise of an island in the Pacific, if only for the briefest of
interludes, is to place him firmly within the kind of "Technology vs. Nature"
debate which he so effortlessly transcended whenever he was tearing Tokyo apart.
Son of Godzilla illustrates this point extremely well, if only
because it raises the one question to which monster movie otaku have
never been able to supply an adequate answer: who or what exactly did Godzilla
mate with to produce a son?
At the beginning of the film, Godzilla is seen swimming towards
Solgell Island, attracted by a mysterious radio signal. However, he is not the
first interloper to arrive on this tropical paradise. A group of scientists -
all male - have already established a research centre amid its sultry palms to
study the ways in which climatic conditions can be artificially manipulated and
controlled. They, in turn, have to endure an intruder of their own: a pushy,
camera-toting newshound called Goro, also male. As the story unfolds, and it
becomes increasingly apparent that all of this tropical Eden's invaders are
masculine, it comes as no surprise to discover that Solgell Island's indigenous
population are exclusively female. As Godzilla's son, Minya, emerges from his
egg, he is attended by a coven of giant preying mantises who quickly forget
their duties as midwife when they discover that he is a male and true to type -
attempt to devour him. Slumbering deep within the island's depths is another
archetypal female predator from pop culture; the Speiga, a monstrous spider.
Finally there is Reiko, the jungle girl: one of those natural born sophisticates
who always use their first name when they mean "I". She is the orphaned daughter
of Professor Matsumiya, another male interloper - and is the only person in the
film to take any real interest in nurturing the young Minya, pausing every now
and again to hurl cantaloupes into his ever-open mouth. Godzilla's only
contribution to the little mite's development, on the other hand, is to teach
him how to blow radioactive smoke rings. In fact, as a predominantly masculine
science enters into a frenzied discourse with a primordially feminine nature,
there doesn't seem to be much else for him to do. This lack of purpose appears
quite puzzling until Goro, in an unguarded moment, makes a reference to his home
in Tokyo. "Tokyo?" asks Reiko, using the kind of basic grammar favoured by the
inhabitants of tropical islands. "What kind of place?"
"Well," Goro replies, "it's a man-made jungle", and it suddenly
becomes evident that Godzilla has no place in this prelapsarian Eden or the
thematic simplicities it engenders.
Like the gangster, the salaryman and the juvenile delinquent, Godzilla
is a true city-dweller. He needs its ambiguities in order to truly be himself.
As Godzilla's audience became younger during the 60s and 70s, he
quickly slid from atomic destroyer to comic avenger and science-fiction clown.
After so much time spent mucking about in children's bedrooms, Godzilla had a
lot of growing up to do. Literally.
When Toho Films brought him back for the 1984 remake of the original
Gojira, they had to almost double his height so that he could
compete with the rise in Tokyo's skyline over the years. The Japanese capital
had expanded upwards and outwards to an alarming degree, dwarfing its cinematic
"That's quite an urban renewal programme they have there," an American
army major remarks of Godzilla's attack on Tokyo, but he could have been
speaking about the city's actual growth rate. An anarchic process of demolition
and reconstruction, in which houses, shops and tower blocks were continually
being torn down and rebuilt, had resulted in an anonymous sprawl that seemed to
stretch on forever. This prompted further concerns about its safety. Planners
became worried that too much of the nation's future had become concentrated into
its disaster proofed structures. There were calls for a radical decentralization
of Tokyo's functions into other parts of the country, but how do you
decentralize something which has no centre?
Fragile and featureless, caught between expansion and catastrophe,
Tokyo's possible futures came to dominate anime. In Bubblegum
Crisis, Mega Tokyo has been rebuilt from the ruins of the old capital
city after it was devastated during "the second Kano Earthquake". Bigger and
more ungovernable than ever, it is menaced by fearsome cyborgs and corporate
powerplays. The series title hints at the steadily increasing state of
instability that occurs the moment before the bubble bursts.
Neo-Tokyo, the setting for Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, has
been rebuilt after Tokyo's nuclear obliteration into a high-rise labyrinth of
rioting citizens, political unrest, terrorism and full-scale gang warfare.
Readers of the manga version will also know that Tokyo actually has the dubious
privilege of being demolished twice during the course of Otomo's
Even with a complete change of name, Tokyo's ruins are clearly
identifiable. In Project A-KO, the city of Graviton has been
rebuilt into an unstable business community around the waters of a bay punched
out of the Earth's crust by a giant spaceship that plummeted from the sky.
Olympus, in Masamune Shirow's Appleseed, is a city state that rose
to prominence after a devastating global conflict and now staggers from one
near-apocalyptic power struggle to the next. Newport in Dominion,
also by Shirow, is in constant danger of being transformed into a demolition
derby by the Tank Police; the very force sworn to protect it.
Silent Moebius takes place in a Tokyo which has managed
to survive into the twenty-first century without having to undergo either
serious destruction or a name-change, but has swollen to enormous, unmanageably
overcrowded proportions. Seriously polluted, plagued with unbreathable air and
acid rain, it has also become the arena for demonic incursions from another
dimension. Wicked City, Urotsukidoji and Doomed
Megalopolis (which features the original Kano Earthquake) all pursue
similar themes of supernatural invasion. The origins of the
Patlabor series lie in the threat to a vulnerable Tokyo of rising
tidal waters caused by the Earth's global warming. Then there's Cyber
City, Tokyo Babylon, AD Police... the list,
like a streetplan of Tokyo, seems to go on forever.
The Ruins of Cyberspace
In all these visions of the future, Tokyo is depicted as a major
conurbation entering the 21st Century having already run out of time. It is also
a city of glowing colours, rapid edits break-neck narratives and dizzying
perspectives. Whereas in the kaiju eiga genre, Tokyo was a city of
details and effects, of collapse as a theatrical spectacle, anime has
transformed it into a place made out of pure velocity. A product of the video
age, its depth and its structures are now created by the speed of an electron
moving across the flat plane of a television screen. Both versions, however,
depict Tokyo as a featureless urban mass. Landmarks are so rare that their
appearance arouses suspicion. In the 1992 remake of Godzilla v the
Thing, Mothra cocoons Tokyo's Diet building in an ironic comment on the
political scandals of the time. Its fictional counterpart, the Genom Tower,
broods over Mega Tokyo in Bubblegum Crisis, and in the manga
version of Appleseed, the huge Tartarus arcology appears in frame
after frame; a series of futuristic Views of Mount Fuji.
Tokyo's real landmarks are its imaginary ruins, a point well
illustrated at the end of Shinya Tsukamoto's manga-influenced live-action movie,
Tetsuo II, where the salaryman protagonist and his family wander
like tourists, sight-seeing among Tokyo's devastated towerblocks. The ambiguous
feelings which Tsukamoto has expressed towards the city - enjoying the security
of its utilities while yearning also for the wide-open spaces created by its
destruction - have a counterpart in the thinking of Japan's more radical
designers, such as Toyo Ito, who see Tokyo as a city whose life does not reside
in its structures but in the energies that surge through them. Its true
architecture, they argue, exists in the limitless profusion of temporary forms
thrown up by computer links, information flows, networked images and disembodied
voices. Computer animation, videogaming and the technology of data processing
have all conspired to take destruction beyond mere physical limitations. Tokyo
won't become decentralized: it will dematerialize itself instead.
Paradoxically, serious questions are now being raised about what form
such a dematerialization might take. As the standing ruins of the Alfred Murrah
Federal Building in Oklahoma City are being razed to ground, the American public
is being warned that the extreme right had begun to infiltrate the Internet. In
Japan, it has now been revealed that the Aum Shrinrikyo cult, accused of the
Sarin gas attack upon a crowded subway train during the morning rush hour in
Tokyo, appropriated themes and imagery derived from popular manga and
anime series in developing their paranoid visions of the forthcoming
While otaku use the sprawl of the Internet, a communications
system originally designed to survive a nuclear attack, to swap esoteric
factoids about Ultraman and Hello Kitty, there is still someone present whose
influence is unmistakable.
Having been there at the start of it all, he will not be quickly
One of the most immediate responses to the Kobe Earthquake was that
the Nikkei Index fell by over 1,000 points in a single night. This was the
result of nervous speculators fearing that Japan was about to start withdrawing
capital from its investments overseas to finance the rebuilding programme. If a
series of checks and balances had not previously been introduced into the system
- just after the crash of 1987 and immediately before the start of Operation
Desert Storm - in order to discourage dangerous fluctuations in the market,
Japan's economy would have probably dropped right through the floor, taking the
rest of the world with it. Godzilla, it seems, is alive and well and rampaging
through cyberspace. Consider yourselves warned.
Ken Hollings lives in London. He is the author of
"Electronically Yours, Eternally Elvis" in The Last Sex, Arthur and
Marilouise Kroker, eds., St. Martin's Press, 1993. He recently completed a
manuscript entitled Destroy All Monsters.
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