The great reviews keep coming in. Here’s a wonderfully written review by Malcolm Gregory Love of The Current Reader.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this novella by Jim Shepard when it arrived in the mail. When I free-associate about the movie that is central to the story, my mind immediately conjures up Channel 44’s Creature Feature with Dr. Paul Bearer (anyone out there from central Florida?) and its afternoon and late night double feature, which often included the monster in question, Godzilla, as we know it here in the United States. The soundtrack to this reminiscence is, inevitably, Buck Dharma’s lashing solo in “Godzilla” by the inestimable Blue Öyster Cult. Heat rays, Monster Island, Mothra, Gamera, Rodan, on to Ultraman, G Force, Speed Racer, etc., etc.
This book is not about that nonsense.
Instead, Jim Shepard has created an ingeniously-told multi-faceted gem of a book. It is a tight, somber study of post-war Japan as reflected in the life of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects innovator responsible for the science fiction film classic, Gojira, re-titled in the United States release as Godzilla. This imagined telling of Tsuburaya’s life, his education, family and career offers an unusual perspective on a country that had been physically and spiritually destroyed by war.
Yes, there is the lurking bathos of the man in the rubber monster suit stomping on a miniaturized set of Tokyo. Surprisingly, that element of potential comic disruption does little to derail the otherwise unsentimental storytelling. Instead, the story centers on the psychic fractures caused by the war and the alienation that informs personal relations in Japanese society, passed from the survivors of the horrors of the bombings down to their own children, and then in turn to their children’s children, a leaching of toxic suffering that permeates everything. The horror of this brilliantly constructed book is not the physical monster, but the horrors of disaster and warfare, which are the most dominant features in the landscape. The devastating Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 in Tokyo is described in fine detail, echoed later by the firebombing of Tokyo and then Hiroshima, which are then jarringly reproduced in Tsuburaya’s studio. The circularity of events and effects is so beautiful in its replication that the human costs become minor, the suffering incidental. A society, based on such control, that measures out its pain into religious metaphors, seems utterly alien, but the descriptions of its decimated beauty are irresistible.
What is hard to comprehend is how did such a small island nation bring such incalculable devastation upon itself, in such a short time? It is no wonder the survivors looked at their country’s misfortune as retribution from nature, not as the consequence of blind devotion; and this book perfectly reflects the reiterations of history of a people that are bound to tradition.
What is amazing is that Jim Shepard was able to pack so much into such a small container. The story is like a little fugue that changes with each new idea reflecting the ones that preceded it. I have read it four times now and I know I will be thinking about it for a long, long time. Monsters are hard to kill.