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It’s Godzilla! SMU dean brings historical insights on pop hero Mary Jacobs, Jun 10, 2010
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
DALLAS, Texas—Run for your lives! Southern Methodist University has a new dean—and he’s an expert on Godzilla!
William M. Tsutsui, who will be the new dean of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences starting July 1, brings more than academic expertise to his new role. As the author of Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (Palgrave, 2004), he brings a nearly obsessive fascination with that pop-culture monster-hero.
His interest in the big lizard dates back to his childhood in central Texas, where he recalled watching his first Godzilla flick at age 8. During the early 1970s, he said, there were not a lot of role models there for Japanese Americans.
But Godzilla, he added, gave him “something about Japan and my Japanese heritage that I could be proud of, that my friends could relate to and that meant something.”
Today, he gives lectures on Godzilla at events ranging from academic symposia to pop culture confabs, and has been called on by National Public Radio, the BBC World Service, Australian National Radio, and other media outlets around the world to talk about the king of monsters. He works from an office festooned with a collection of Godzilla figures.
History, business expert
Godzilla, of course, is just one piece in the range of scholarly expertise boasted by Dr. Tsutsui, who has degrees from Harvard, Princeton and Oxford. He joins SMU from the University of Kansas, where he has been associate dean for international studies in the College of Arts & Sciences and professor of history. A specialist in Japanese business and economic history, Dr. Tsutsui’s books cover topics ranging from banking policy to the film icon.
His interest in Godzilla, he pointed out, actually dovetails with his interest in Japanese history. With 28 Godzilla movies made in Japan over 50 years, it’s the longest-running film series in world history, he said.
And it reflects changes in Japanese culture and society since World War II. The first movie in 1954, for instance, “really was all about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said, and reflected Japan’s sense of vulnerability during the Cold War.
“The monster exemplified those dark threats to Japan’s security,” he said.
As Japan’s economic and political outlook improved, however, Godzilla’s role morphed from destroyer of cities and pursuer of terrified mobs to hometown hero.
“Godzilla changes over time from being this hostile force toward Japan to being a friend and defender of Japan,” Dr. Tsutsui said. “In most of the movies that people in America are familiar with from the 1960s and 1970s, Godzilla is defending Japan from monsters from outer space or from under the seas.”
In researching his book, Dr. Tsutsui wrote to newspapers around the U.S., asking them to print a plea for Godzilla fans to write to him about their memories of the monster movies. Hundreds of fans responded, including a handful of ministers who had even referenced Godzilla in their sermons.
He credits Godzilla’s lasting popularity to the fact that people want to see a hero. And Godzilla movies—with no blood, no guts and no swearing—“transport people to a simpler time, when the world was not as cynical as it is today,” Dr. Tsutsui said.
“He wasn’t a complicated hero. There were no sex scandals. He just stood for what was right. He fought for it and he won,” he said. “People liked that simple, moral narrative. I think that in the complex world in which we live, this is very appealing.”
And don’t forget the special effects, Dr. Tsutsui adds. While notoriously simplistic, the pre-computer era films nevertheless offer fans a more personal connection with the giant lizard.
“These are the cheesiest, cheapest special effects you can do, and yet they’re hilarious and they’re human,” he said. “Special effects that are all electronic are no longer human. But you feel a connection to Godzilla. He’s a guy in a rubber suit walking through toy cities that explode. Who doesn’t love that?”