by Chloé Pélata
edited by Léa Baillargeon
Shin-Godzilla (2016), a film directed by Anno Hideaki, is the thirty-first movie out of the thirty-six that constitute the Godzilla franchise. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972), directed by Misumi Kenji, is the first film in six. Where the former revolves around the governmental response to the resurfacing of a radioactive monster in 21st century Japan –– “in a seeming reference to the actual incompetence of the government in dealing with the Fukushima nuclear disaster” –– the latter focuses on a former executioner’s quest to avenge his wife’s murder and his clan’s honor, in Edo Japan. At first glance, these two works appear unrelated to one another; one is a commercial monster film and the other is chanbara, a sword-fighting movie. However, upon further analysis, these works significantly relate to one another with regards to the role of governance. We will establish how, in both works, the existing system of control is painted in a negative light and is questioned. We will first see how this is the case in Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance through the Shogunate then we will explore how it is so, in Shin-Godzilla, through the Japanese bureaucratic system.
In the 1960’s, gekiga, the genre of the manga version of Lone Wolf and Cub, was growing “in tandem with Japanese counterculture” and “the popular closely intersected with the political, synchronically corresponding to other radical cultural praxes and movements in other parts of the globe”. The critiquing and questioning of the Shogunate in 1973, in the film version of Lone Wolf and Cub, thus in itself already introduces an underlying commentary, by extending the legacy of the Japanese 1960’s counterculture movements. Indeed, Misumi Kenji’s critique of this governance is made clear within the first minutes of the film. Let us remind ourselves that the beginning scene opens with a frame of the child Daimyō (a Japanese feudal lord), holding a man’s hand –– presumably his caregiver’s –– and walking to his execution, performed by the protagonist, Ogami Itto. Although we are first confused as to why such execution is taking place –– for a child, the symbol of innocence, an unnamed narrator promptly contextualizes the situation, stating: ”the shogunate took an iron-fisted approach in controlling the Daimyō lords […]. Any sign of disagreement could cost a lord his title and his family land”, leading us to conclude that the little boy must fit this category. This scene, therefore, sets the stage for the ubiquitous critique of the archaic, unfair, and rigid feudal system. By depicting a child Daimyō and by simultaneously stating that “any sign of disagreement” could lead to their execution, viewers cannot help but see the clear wrongdoings of the Shogunate –– begging the question: how can such a young boy be accused of expressing a “disagreement” towards the system of power, when he is barely even capable of speaking at such an age? The director emphasizes the Shogunate’s abusive enforcement of customs and tradition above reason or common sense and does so within the first five minutes of the film, which serves as a microcosm for all of the unfairness seen throughout. As scholar Derek Johnston accurately summarizes: “The feudal system is therefore repeatedly shown to […] have largely lost contact with any ideals which it may theoretically have embodied”, explicit of its outdatedness and its consequent questioning. This injustice and questioning of governance style are also further accentuated through sound. Where the first ten seconds of the movie are in complete silence, faint noises of vassals weeping are introduced gradually, heightened to enumerative exclamations such as “Our lord! This is unjust!”, “Not our young lord!”, or “My lord!”—the cries and exclamations invade the silence like the Shogunate invades the peace, symbolic of the reigning unfairness. Furthermore, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance calls into question the Shogunate and portrays it in a negative light through Retsudo Yagyu’s abuse of power. Indeed, although he is already the leader of one of the agencies of the Shogunate, Retsudo Yagyu desires to steal the post of the Executioner held by the protagonist by framing him of treason to gain even more authority. To do so, the Yagyu continuously exploits the loyalty of his inferiors, outrageously using the Bushido code of samurais as an excuse to force four of his samurais to commit seppuku and to send a dozen of his men, including his best sword fighter, to die in the hands of the “lone wolf”, all in the name of loyalty and honor to the Yagyu clan. Even when Retsudo Yagyu winds up alone, with all his men dead, he continues to exploit others, saying: “The Yagyu exists because of the Shogunate, and the Shogunate exists because of the Yagyu […] I’ll make sure the Shogun settles the matter” –– in which the chiasma particularly accentuates feudal Japan’s brokenness and corruption, reinforcing Johnston’s claim that the Shogunate has entirely lost contact with its original ideals. Even the outcasted ronin bandits are aware of the samurai’s moral decline, calling them “disloyal and traitorous bastards”: here, the samurai, normally allegorical of virtue, is just as degenerate as the bandit, which goes to show the extent of this chaos. As such, it is made evident that the feudal system is painted in a negative light and is questioned: Misumi Kenji defends the claim that Japan must emancipate itself from this long-established, yet expired, status quo.
Secondly, shifting to Anno Hideaki’s Shin-Godzilla, the existing norms are equally depicted in a negative manner, epitomized by the traditional Japanese bureaucratic system. For instance, throughout the film, the long-established respect for seniority comes as a priority, resulting in oversight of facts, and the state’s consequent inefficiency in fighting Godzilla. Such consequences are made clear during the experts and government officials’ first meeting concerning the nature of the accidents in Tokyo bay. Indeed,when the event takes place, three hypotheses are put forth: first, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism claims that incidents were caused by a “new undersea volcano”; second, the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology justifies them by a “large hydrothermal vent”; and third, the young and newly employed Yaguchi Rando, speculates that they are due to “something on the seafloor [like a] colossal creature”. The way each idea is accounted for is particularly symbolic; where both ministers’ ideas are proven wrong by scientific data –– volcanic activity being ruled out by “further studies that show the epicenter to be shallow and just steam”, and the vent being impossible since “past geological surveys would have uncovered it years ago” –– Yaguchi’s hypothesis is the only one uncontested by science. And yet, in direct contradiction to the evidence, officials rule that “the cause is a new volcano, or a large thermal vent. It can’t be anything else”, and Yaguchi is labeled a “rebel” and disrespectful towards his seniors for speaking up, and his idea is deemed “absurd”. Here, Anno Hideaki illustrates the wrinkled Ministers’ seniority as being synonymous with indisputable truth and exactitude –– despite proof of their inaccuracy. As such, facts are disregarded, and where the government was trying to save time by planning a unified response, they only waste it by opposing themselves to any deviation away from the traditional bureaucratic hierarchy. Again, when ministers discuss the likelihood of Godzilla making it to land, the young Hiromi Ogashira, from the Environmental Ministry, shares her belief that Godzilla could make it to land, but, as she is “low-ranking” (and female), she is looked down upon for speaking up and is ultimately dismissed by the Environmental Minister, who takes the side of senior experts. Later, the Prime Minister is caught lying on live television, stating there is “no danger of the creature coming ashore”, right as Godzilla ironically makes his way on land. The director, therefore, satirically criticizes and questions the existing governing style,epitomized by the Japanese archaic bureaucratic system, where younger lower-ranking voices are dismissed by their inefficient and incorrect older male superiors. Lastly, the negative portrayal and questioning of this dominant governance are exemplified by scientists. Indeed, by showing how the scientists that worked on Godzilla –– who represent the exact opposite of the dominant governing style –– were successful in stopping the monster, the director highlights the bureaucratic system’s failure. These scientists evidently differ from the rest of the bureaucracy. Not only are they characterized by a lexical field of ostracization, depicted as “a crack team of lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, academic heretics, freaks, and general pains-in-the-butt-of-the-bureaucracy”, but they have even attributed a separate governing style to that of the bureaucracy: one in which “titles and seniority don’t mean anything […] and you can speak freely”. By depicting these “saviors” as a democratic non-hierarchical group of scientists, free from the rules and constraints of the government, Anno Hideaki undeniably criticizes the older inefficient modes of bureaucracy, arguing for a newer, sleeker version: he presents an alternative form of power in which “only non-consensus thinkers will come up with the right ideas”.
Both Shin-Godzilla and Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance question the status quo, whether the Shogunate or the bureaucratic system, and, in so doing, both works invite us to question our role in society: do labels such as seniority, rank, or age affect our own daily decisions and responses like they affect the characters in Shin-Godzilla? In a world where morals are collapsing, would we exploit others for personal gain, like Yagyu Retsudo, or would we fight against this injustice, like Ogami Itto?
Chloé Pélata is a
1. Morris Low, Visualizing Nuclear Power in Japan: A Trip to the Reactor (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 218.
2. Suzuki, Shige,”Gekiga, or Japanese Alternative Comics: The Mediascape of Japanese Counterculture”, (dir. Alisa Freedman et al.) Introducing Japanese Popular Culture, 2017, https://www.academia.edu/36750791/_Gekiga_or_Japanese_Alternative_Comics_The_Mediascape_of_Japanese_Counterculture_Introducing_Japanese_Popular_Culture_Eds_Alisa_Freedman_and_Toby_Slade_New_York_NY_2017 [accessed on February 22, 2022].
4. Ibid., 00:04:50-00:05:10
5. Derek Johnston, “Transcultural Reinterpretation of the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ Narrative”, 2012, p. 1.
6. Kenji Misumi, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, 1972, 00:01:04.
7. Ibid., 00:01:15.
8. Ibid., 00:01:21.
9. Kenji Misumi, op. cit., 0:26:36-0:27:10.
10. Ibid., 1:12:30 – 1:12:37.
11. Anno, Hideaki Shin-Godzilla, 2016, 00:04:41-00:04:46.
12. Ibid., 0:04:57- 00:05:00.
13. Ibid., 0:05:12-0:05:17.
14. Ibid., 0:04:47- 00:05:53.
15. Ibid., 0:05:01- 00:05:05.
16. Ibid., 0:05:39- 00:05:43.
17. Ibid., 0:06:15.
18. Ibid., 0:05:21.
19. Ibid., 0:12:41.
20. Ibid., 0:14:46-0:14:50.
21. Ibid., 0:31:59-0:32:05.
22. Ibid., 0:31:50-0:31:54.
23. Tony Rayns, “Shin Godzilla”, Sight & Sound, vol. XXVII, no10, 2017, p. 75.
Anno, Hideaki Shin-Godzilla, 2016, 120 min.
Johnston, Derek, “Transcultural Reinterpretation of the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ Narrative”, 2012, p. 1.
Low, Morris, Visualizing Nuclear Power in Japan: A Trip to the Reactor, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, 195-225.
Misumi, Kenji, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, 1972, 80 min.
Rayns, Tony, “Shin Godzilla”, Sight & Sound, vol. XXVII, no10, 2017, p. 75.
Suzuki, Shige,”Gekiga, or Japanese Alternative Comics: The Mediascape of Japanese Counterculture”, (dir. Ali- sa Freedman et al.) Introducing Japanese Popular Culture, 2017, https://www.academia.edu/36750791/_Gekiga_or_Japanese_Alternative_Comics_The_Mediascape_of_Japanese_Counterculture_Introducing_Japanese_Popular_Culture_Eds_Alisa_Freedman_and_Toby_Slade_New_York_NY_2017 [accessed on February 22, 2022]