Nicholas Driscoll: I like to start out my interviews with a few kind of standard questions about fandom-related things, just to make things fun. What’s your favorite Godzilla film? Favorite Godzilla suit design? Favorite kaiju except for Godzilla? If Godzilla and Gamera had a chili-making contest, who would make the most delicious stew?
William Tsutsui: I am a big fan of the original 1954 Gojira. I cannot count how many times I have seen it (more than 50, and perhaps more than a hundred) but I get something new out of it on every occasion when I watch it. I also always get choked up at the end every single time: I find Godzilla’s victimization by H-bomb testing and his suffering from the oxygen destroyer to be very moving.
I love all the Showa suit designs for a variety of different reasons. I have come to appreciate the more humorous suits over time. DaisensoGoji may be my favorite and it never fails to bring a smile to my face.
I am not deeply invested in kaiju beyond Godzilla, though I will admit a fondness for Baragon and considerable admiration for the Heisei Gamera.
I am a little concerned that Gamera might use beans in his chili, which is an absolute no-no for me as a Texan. Godzilla is all about the meat and the heat.
Driscoll: Amongst the Godzilla community you are probably most well-known for two of your books—Godzilla on my Mind and In Godzilla’s Footsteps. Let’s take a look at the first one of these. Personally I really enjoyed this book. Can you tell us a little bit about its genesis and how you came to write it?
Tsutsui: In about 2002, I was talking with my University of Kansas colleague Michiko Ito and we hatched the idea of doing a scholarly conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gojira. Soon that idea mutated into a whole constellation of Godzilla events, from a film festival to theatrical performances (of one-act plays about the monster) to museum exhibitions. We ended up having about a month of festivities around Godzilla in Lawrence, Kansas in October 2004 and the town really got swept up into the spirit of things. We had scholars from around the world at the conference and we received international media attention, which we never really expected but was a lot of fun.
From the start, we wanted to publish the papers from our conference and I started talking with editors. I knew of one at Palgrave Macmillan who happened to be a Godzilla fan and he immediately was enthusiastic about the idea and signed us up for what became In Godzilla’s Footsteps. One day, he called me up and said, “Bill, I was talking with my publishing director and we think it would be great to commission a mass-market book on Godzilla that could appear in time for the 50th anniversary. We are considering asking a journalist who works on Japan (like Ian Buruma or Pico Iyer) to write it. What do you think?”
“Ian Buruma! Pico Iyer” I replied. “What do those guys know about Godzilla?! I should write that book.” The editor was not immediately convinced, but he asked me to write something up. The next weekend I sat down and wrote what became the introduction to Godzilla on My Mind. The editor and his publishing director loved it and sent me a contract for the book, but on a very tight schedule. I ended up writing that volume in less than two months, mainly over the Christmas vacation in 2003-2004. It really was a labor of love, and I really like to think that it was created with the same kind of slapdash energy that went into the Showa Godzilla features.
I have written or edited eight books now, with a ninth on the way. Not only was Godzilla on My Mind the most fun to write, but it has also outsold all my other books combined.
Driscoll: Some of my favorite aspects of the book was just how much ground it covered, and little nuggets like the translation of the posturing speeches from King Kong and Godzilla from the King Kong vs. Godzilla advertising campaign. What were some of the most interesting things you learned about Godzilla when you were writing this book?
Tsutsui: What is amazing in retrospect was that the internet was still in its infancy when I wrote Godzilla on My Mind, so I depended primarily on hard-copy books, magazines, and academic journals. I watched all the Godzilla films in order (up to 2003) before I started writing, and in those days they were all on VHS. I also watched giant monster movies from around the world, many of which (like Reptilicus and Pulgasari) I had never seen before. It was all very eye opening and a lot of fun.
Twenty years ago there was almost no academic literature specifically on the Godzilla movies. Authors like Susan Sontag, Chon Noriega, Susan Napier, and Yoshikuni Igarashi were real pioneers, but honestly you could have read all the scholarly work on kaiju films in English in the span of an afternoon back then. What I was really struck and impressed by was the volume and quality of the work done by film experts and members of the fan community: I made lots of use of pioneering works by Stewart Galbraith, David Kalat, Steve Ryfle, Guy Mariner Tucker, Armand Vaquer, and many others. I also ordered up a big pile of back issues of G-Fan magazine which were a treasure trove of insights, trivia, and passion. As part of my research, I made a trek to G-Fest in Chicago in 2003, which was a real treat and revealed the wonderful diversity, intensity, and quirkiness of American Godzilla fandom.
I honestly wish I could go back and rewrite the book now, using the incredible wealth of resources currently available on the internet and the more recent works by folks like Anne Allison, Jason Barr, Mike Bogue, August Ragone, Steve Ryfle, Ed Godziszewski, Meghan Warner, and many more.
If I was really surprised by one thing in my research, it was the stories of loving Godzilla shared with me by fans from across America. I wrote to 200 American newspapers (remember print newspapers?!) asking them to run a request from me for memories from fans of the Godzilla series. A number of papers helped me out and I got a big pile of letters, some neatly typed, some written in crayon by kids, from all corners of the country, sharing with me their memories of and affection for Godzilla. I was struck by how many people regarded Godzilla as a personal friend (or, for some women, as a possible date), by how many people associated Godzilla with deeply meaningful personal and family moments, and by how many folks remembered the exact day and hour when they first saw a Godzilla movie. Who would have thought that a movie monster from Japan could touch so many people, from so many different walks of life, so very, very deeply?
Driscoll: How did the follow-up collection, In Godzilla’s Footsteps, materialize? What was it like putting together the first (so far as I know) kaiju-related academic book of essays in the West? Was there resistance to the idea of taking kaiju seriously in an academic context?
Tsutsui: It is remarkable to think about how things have changed over the past 15 years or so. I believe that In Godzilla’s Footsteps was indeed the first scholarly collection published in English about the kaiju genre. It was also one of the first edited volumes in English on Japanese popular culture more broadly: I am betting that there are more such volumes now published in one year than there had been ever been in total up to 2006, when In Godzilla’s Footsteps was released. Just as Godzilla was a pioneer for the globalization of Japanese popular culture, so the academic study of Godzilla seemed to be a bit ahead of the curve in the Western scholarship.
The academic bias against popular culture was strong back then and scholars interested in Godzilla or Pokémon or Hello Kitty were often greeted with rolls of the eyes and dismissive snorts. I recall talking once to a prominent historian of Japanese cinema (who worked on the kind of obscure, cutting-edge filmmaking that scholars love but audiences either hate or know nothing about); I told him that I was working on the Godzilla series and his curt response was “Oh, so you are one of those.” Guilty as charged, I guess: I am not embarrassed to be “one of those” who is interested in a pop culture icon that has charmed audiences around the world for decades and continues to fill movie theaters and create buzz on the internet.
Driscoll: For readers today, what do you think your books offer that other texts do not?
Tsutsui: The New York Times once described Godzilla on My Mind as a “cult classic.” The fact that it still sells remarkably well and is still used in many college classrooms is a pleasant surprise: as it nears 20 years since its publication, I now personally find the book seems more “dated” than “classic.” No one under fifty, for instance, is likely to get a lot of my U.S. pop culture references. Nonetheless, I think the volume still has value as a historical touchstone for Western writing on kaiju films and Japanese popular culture. It also is a very opinionated piece, of course, and it continues to engage and provoke readers, which I think is a good thing. I enjoy the fact that Godzilla on My Mind is a “love it or hate it” kind of book: I have written plenty of boring stuff over the years (banking policy anyone?) and am glad that my writings on Godzilla continue to stir emotions and occasional debate.
Driscoll: What was it like to have Godzilla on my Mind translated into Japanese? Did you have any part in that translation?
Tsutsui: It was a real honor, since the book came out in a very prestigious series (not where you would necessarily expect a volume on Godzilla!). The translator was a seasoned pro from Japan who had worked on several other academic books related to Japanese popular culture. I know that my writing, which can be pretty colloquial at times and pretty scholarly at others, was a challenge to her. She faced some tricky decisions about how to deal with words like “nanu-nanu” (from Mork and Mindy) and “eeeeewww” (which I use to describe my distaste for Freudian analysis). I reviewed the translation but did not have any real suggestions: I can read Japanese quite well but my writing skills are rudimentary at best. It received positive reviews in the big Japanese newspapers, which is probably a testament to the skills of the translator more than to the quality of my work.
Driscoll: What are some of your other writings about Godzilla?
Tsutsui: Over the years I have written a series of journal articles and book chapters on Godzilla, mainly for academic audiences. In “Godzilla vs. the Egghead: Negotiating the Cultures of Fandom and Academe” (which appeared in the Journal of American-East Asian Relations in 2013), I talked about the reception of Godzilla on My Mind among my fellow Godzilla fans and among my fellow scholars, neither of whom proved particularly welcoming of my perspectives as an “aca-fan.” In “Oh No, There Goes Tokyo” (which appeared in a volume called Noir Urbanisms in 2010), I look at apocalyptic popular culture in Japan and argue that forms like kaiju movies, disaster pictures, and catastrophic anime are actually fundamentally optimistic, reflecting a fundamental Japanese faith in progress, modernity, and the resilience of society. And in “The Prehistory of Soft Power: Godzilla, Cheese, and the American Consumption of Japan” (which was a chapter in the 2018 collection Introducing Japanese Popular Culture) I discuss how much of the fabled “cheesiness” of classic kaiju films was actually manufactured by Hollywood distributors who edited and dubbed Japanese creature features for release in American drive-ins and double features. Even though these works seem rather “serious” compared to Godzilla on My Mind, I think they are all accessible and entertaining (as well as, hopefully, being stimulating and enlightening).
Driscoll: I have seen that Jason Barr and others have followed in your footsteps with his academic work, such as in The Kaiju Film and Japan’s Green Monsters, among a number of other volumes. What do you think of these books, and how do you think the academic study of kaiju films has changed since you published Godzilla on my Mind back in 2004?
Tsutsui: I am so thrilled that writing on Godzilla, kaiju, tokusatsu, and Japanese popular culture more broadly has absolutely boomed in recent years. Last semester I taught a course on “Japanese Monsters” at Harvard and was amazed at the depth and quality of material available on Japanese creatures, from the yokai of folklore and mythology, to movie monsters, TV superheroes, animated cyborgs, mascots, cryptids, and UFOs. I wish more of the work on Godzilla being published in Japan was widely available to American and global audiences: Japanese scholars and fans (like their American counterparts) have been very prolific and creative over the past decade and offer perspectives that deserve wide readerships. Happily, there are still so many aspects of the Godzilla franchise and its impact that are crying out for further study: I look forward to a continuing stream of great books on Godzilla appearing through the foreseeable future.
Driscoll: Could you tell us about some of your other work outside of Godzilla that you are particularly proud of?
Tsutsui: I do not blame anyone for not rushing out to read my books on the history of Japanese banking or industrial management: I look through them now, decades after writing them, and have trouble suppressing my yawns. I am really proud, however, of a piece I wrote for the journal Environment History that proposes a new reading of Hollywood’s “big bug” movies of the 1950s, arguing that they were not metaphors for nuclear fears or communist infiltration or Cold War anxieties (as they have generally been interpreted) but instead reflect a post-World War II paranoia about insects and pest control. More recently I have been working on the history of Japan’s relationship with the ocean (inspired perhaps, initially at least, by Godzilla’s aquatic origins). I have written several pieces on the Japanese fishing industry, and its interweaving with environmental and political change, that have proven to be pioneering and have inspired other scholars to do research on “oceanic Japan.” Despite all this, when my obituary is written one day, I expect that it will give a whole lot more attention to my work on Godzilla than to my many and varied publications in Japanese business, economic, and environmental history.
Driscoll: What do you think of some of the latter day Godzilla and kaiju films that you didn’t cover in your books, such as the MonsterVerse films, Pacific Rim, the Godzilla anime trilogy, Shin Godzilla, etc?
Tsutsui: I am really thrilled that Godzilla has enjoyed a global renaissance over the past decade: I was very concerned after the flop of Godzilla: Final Wars that the franchise was genuinely endangered. I think Legendary has done a creditable job with its Godzilla trilogy, I think Toho has gotten much smarter about marketing Godzilla, and I think Shin Godzilla may well be one of the very best kaiju films ever made. Heck, I even like the Godzilla animated features far more than I ever expected to. More than anything, I appreciate the energy and broad appeal that Legendary has breathed into the franchise. I went to see the 2014 Godzilla at a huge multiplex in the Dallas suburbs on its opening weekend: the theater was packed and, by the end of the film, everyone was up on their feet cheering for Godzilla (including my wife, who is no fan of giant monster movies). That was a magical moment for me. I did not go to see Godzilla vs. Kong in theatrical release, but I imagine a similar response from audiences: I was impressed by how well that film captured our needs at this stressful time, when we all could use the cathartic pleasure of seeing a big ape thumping on a big lizard, and then both of them thumping on a big robot. Fine cinema? No. Great entertainment in the tradition of the series? A big, happy yes.
Fans and academics have found a lot to quibble about in the latest additions to the franchise, from Legendary’s politically charged rewriting of Godzilla’s origin narrative to the size and bulk of the new Hollywood monster. I am a bit concerned that Godzilla has grown progressively less Japanese with each entry in the MonsterVerse series and, with Godzilla vs. Kong culminating (dramatically) in Hong Kong, that the monster is being subtly rebranded as Chinese (in an effort to capture what is now the world’s most important audience for movies). Only time will tell, I guess. I am just hoping that someday a “retro” Godzilla movie will be made, using my beloved suitmation again.
Driscoll: Can we look forward to any other articles, books, or projects related to tokusatsu, Godzilla, kaiju, and that ilk in the near future? Any chance for an updated version of Godzilla on my Mind?
Tsutsui:For a number of years I have been collecting ideas for another book on Godzilla, something more in the way of short musings on Godzilla and the monster’s meanings in Japan and globally rather than a broad introduction (like Godzilla on My Mind) or a narrower, more scholarly study. I don’t know if I will ever have time to do it, but it has been fun to think about various angles on Godzilla, from the perennial question of his size to the morphology of his fingers and toes to his association with the oceans and islands. And, of course, the question of what pronouns to use for Godzilla: one wonders if the “king” of the monsters would choose to be called “they” or “zie.”
After teaching a course on Japanese monsters last semester, my wife has been encouraging me to turn my lectures into a short book on the history of monster culture in Japan. There are plenty of books now on Japanese yokai, but not so many sources that look beyond the folkloric monsters to include the creations of postwar pop culture. That too would be fun, but the amount of work necessary to do a good job with the topic is daunting. Perhaps after retirement.
We really need a great book on Ultraman and there is such richness in tokusatsu and Japanese superhero franchises crying out for scholarly attention. I hope someone will take these projects on and do them justice. And I hope that someone will have real passion for the subject matter, as well as a strong grounding in Japanese history and culture.
Driscoll: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview!