Monday, December 23, 2013

The Monster Plot in Gojira and the Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem is a peculiar thought experiment that philosophers have invented to explore certain aspects of moral reasoning. It’s so peculiar that some wonder whether or not anything of value is to be gained from thinking about such problems – see comments in various discussions at Crooked Timber. However that may be, I’ve realized that Gojira, in effect, presents a somewhat elaborated version of the Trolley Problem. Let’s start with the Trolley Problem and then consider Gojira.
Note: Like my previous post on Gojira, this one is going to involve a description of who said what and when that you might find tedious. I sympathize. I found it exhausting to write. But I don’t see any way of getting around it. If we are going to understand how movies work in the minds of those who watch them, then we have to attend closely to such things. If we’re going to understand why this film has a ring form structure, we need to attend to just what happens and when it happens. In this case, the question is: why is an assertion of parental authority the central scene in the film?
The Trolley Problem

Here’s how the Wikipedia presents the Trolley Problem, using a formulation by Judith Jarvis Thompson:
... a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
In Gojira the monster plays the role of the trolley, Japan plays the role of the five people, and Dr. Serizawa plays the role of the fat man. The film solves the problem by getting the “fat man”, that is Dr. Serizawa, to agree to suicide.

In the abstract, the makers of the film had free reign in getting rid of Gojira. That they should choose to eliminate him in this way, albeit elaborating and disguising it quite a bit, is interesting.

What Serizawa Knows

Let’s consider the situation of Dr. Daisuke Serizawa as it was at the beginning of the film. His research led him to the invention of the Oxygen Destroyer, which would allow the creation of a weapon so powerful that, if it fell into the wrong hands, it could cause great evil in the world. For that reason Serizawa was keeping his invention secret.

But we don’t know any of this at the start of the film. We don’t even see him until well into the film and it isn’t until the last third that we learn about the Oxygen Destroyer. But simple reflection makes it obvious that both that research and his ambivalence were in place when the events of the film began. Let’s take a look at how our awareness of this information unfolds.

We first see Serizawa at about 16:55, when he’s standing on the dock with the crowd that’s watching the investigation party set sail for Odo Island:

2 serizawa

Ogata and Emiko, who are in the party, notice him, but don’t tell us anything about him. At about 34:24 A reporter, Hagiwara, is with other reporters who’ve just gotten a newspaper in which Professor Yamane urges that Gojira captured and studied rather than killed. Yamane’s view on the matter has come up before in the film and I assume that anyone watching will have at least registered the matter and maybe even have formed a quick on-the-fly opinion.

It’s a practical and moral issue that the film does confront, one of several. I’m interested in how the film presents them to the audience. Back to the story...

Hagiwara’s boss interrupts that conversation and asks Hagiwara to interview Serizawa, mentioning that he’s also Yamane’s future son-in-law. We’ve now learned two things about Serizawa: 1) that he’s a scientist who’s done some research that may somehow be relevant the Gojira crisis, and 2) that he’s engaged to Emiko. The first is just information. The second is a bit of a shock: What WAS he thinking standing on the dock as Emiko and Ogata stood together on the boat?

Just after this there’s a scene where Emiko and Ogata are taking about their relationship [34:56]. Given that Emiko and Serizawa are already betrothed, Ogata feels a bit guilty about it and Emiko tells him that she’s always thought of Serizawa as an older brother. At this point the reporter is ushered into the office and asks Emiko if she’ll introduce him to Serizawa. Emiko agrees and indicates to Ogata that she’ll bring up that other business with Serizawa as well, though she does so in a way that the reporter can’t know what she’s talking about.

They meet with the Serizawa [37:04]. Hagiwara him that the Germans believe his research would be useful in “anti-Gojira operations.” Serizawa denies it and refuses to talk about his research. Emiko sees the reporter out and then rejoins Serizawa. She asks about his research [38:40], presumably on the way to bringing up her relationship with Ogata and Ogata takes her into the lab. He shows her his research; tells her about the Oxygen Destroyer; and we see her horrified reaction [41:14].

What the Audience Knows

At this point we now know that Serizawa has discovered something that might be relevant to the Gojira problem, and Emiko’s reaction indicates it is terrible whatever it is. What Emiko knows, because Serizawa told her, is that the discovery could kill all life in Tokyo bay (including, we infer, Gojira). We’ll see this part of the conversation later in the film, but at the moment we don’t know it happened. All we know is that there’s something there; Serizawa and now Emiko know, but we don’t.

But, we’ve also seen an intended conversation become displaced by another conversation. Emiko intended to bring up her relationship with Ogato. Instead Serizawa showed his research to her and that made her forget her original intention. Something like this will happen again.

Emiko returns home, where Ogata is helping Shinkichi (an orphan the Yamane's have taken in) with his studies. She tells him that she couldn’t bring up their relationship with Serizawa, but says nothing about the research [43:53]. Gojira then attacks Tokyo for the first time. Meetings are held, preparations are made: weapons and defenses readied, families evacuated.

Ogata tells Emiko that HE will broach the matter with her father [51:00]. But when he approaches the Professor the conversation is about Gojira [52:03]. Ogata thinks he should be killed. Yamane disagrees, of course, he asks Ogata to leave the house.

This is the second time a conversation about the relationship between Emiko and Ogata has gotten displaced by a something else. The first displacement was a revelation about a terrible weapon. The second displacement was a quarrel about whether or not Gojira should be killed.

What happens next? Gojira attacks Tokyo for a second time, and this attack is much worse than the first.

Serizawa Decides

If Serizawa had used his knowledge about the Oxygen Destroyer, perhaps both of these attacks could have been prevented – at the cost, of course, of revealing his discovery to the world. Now, however, Emiko decides that she can’t keep Serizawa’s secret any longer. She decides to tell Ogata [1:10:45] and we get a flashback of the scene with the Oxygen Destroyer [1:11:50]. The two of them then confront Serizawa and, after much soul searching, he agrees to use the Oxygen Destroyer against Gojira [1:20:01].

I’ve already described that scene in some detail, so I won’t repeat that here. The important point is that he makes his decision while they are listening to a nationally broadcast hymn for peace. That decision will be suffused with the national sentiment that accompanies and is evoked and magnified by that hymn.

Whatever role the hymn may have had in Serizawa’s decision-making, it certainly affects how we, the audience, experience that decision. The Japanese audience would have brought nation-feeling (nationalism?) into the theatre with them. That hymn gives that sentiment a rich objective correlative – to use T. S. Eliot’s old term – in the film. Even if you aren’t Japanese, you respond to the music itself, and the words that appear at the bottom of the screen.

So, Serizawa decides to build the Oxygen Destroyer, and to destroy his notes about his discover. He has also decided to commit suicide. He doesn’t say as much, but the decision seems obvious enough from the expressions that play across his face and Emiko’s, and the fact that she breaks down in tears. We should also remember that suicide has a different valence in Japanese culture than in does in Western culture. There it is accepted, even required, under certain circumstances. Whether or not this is one of those circumstances, I cannot say. I only observe that it is/was recognized as a legitimate thing to do.

Moral Accounting

At this point, to return to our beginning, the “fat man” has agreed to commit suicide in order that the runaway “trolley” may be stopped. But he does so NOT to save five others, or even millions of others. He does so to save the nation. The nation is something else, something more abstract.

The nation includes, of course, the people who are its citizens, and the land, the buildings and so forth. But the nation is also an idea, a history, and a mythology. And the Japanese nation has just been through a rude shock. It lost a war; been occupied by foreign powers; and had a new form of government imposed on it. Just how much of that was in play in the theaters when Gojira was released late in 1954, I cannot say. But it surely must have been somewhat in play, and that is how I am going to count things up.

So, a monster threatens the nation, a Japan that, incidentally, has undergone extreme change. We see a young woman try unsuccessfully to extricate herself from a traditional marriage arrangement. She attempts to tell her fiancé and, instead, he entrusts her with a secret, one that could save the nation from a great deal of destruction. That alone doesn’t persuade her, perhaps because she too fears what would happen if the secret gets out.

Her suitor attempts to broach matters with her father, but gets derailed by an argument about a monster. Now, whereas Serizawa’s information, and decision, has real consequences, Professor Yamane’s preferences about Gojira do not. He was able to raise an issue in public, but he had no power to effect his decision. When officials decided to prepare to destroy Gojira, he could do nothing to stop them.

His preference in that matter thus seems to function as a device that sets him at odds with Ogata and, perhaps, his daughter as well. For the question of Emiko’s marriage is never brought up with him, not even after Serizawa’s suicide. It is simply assumed that Emiko and Ogata will get married and the Prof. Yamane consents. His authority in that matter is never directly challenged.

That is to say, the film doesn’t have to confront that conflict – between marriage by arrangement vs. marriage by couple’s choice – directly. The monster plot has created a way to shunt that issue to one side by getting rid of the old fiancé in a heroic gesture to save the nation. Still, the needs of the nation have resulted in the thwarting of a traditional marriage and the sanctioning of a marriage by couple choice.

That is to say, they have thwarted a marriage by parental authority in favor of one by children’s choice. The old Japan was nominally a feudal monarchy; as such a royal family ruled it, and royal marriages were, of course, arranged marriages. In sanctioning, albeit indirectly, a more democratic form of marriage, this monster movie ends up sanctioning, albeit indirectly and symbolically, a more democratic form of government, the one imposed on Japan by the victorious powers in World War II.

Ring Form

THAT’s what this complex contraption of a ring form plot is about; it’s a device to make that happen. The film’s central scene was an exercise of parental authority disguised as a defense of a rampaging monster. And it was, directly, a man’s exercise of his authority over his house: Yamane tossed Ogata out. But, if Ogata had been able to broach the issue of his relationship with Emiko, what would have happened?

Of course, we don’t know. And I’m arguing that the film’s plot was contrived in part to avoid confronting the problem. That, in turn, implies that the film-makes did not want to confront sentiment in favor of traditional marriage and thus in favor of Old Japan. Instead we get an elaborate contrivance in which an old monster, identified by Old Japan by the Odo Islanders most familiar with it, is killed by new science ¬– kin to the new science that created the atomic bombs that aroused the old monster – in an act by which the agent of that science kills himself. Thereby allowing a new marriage, and a New Japan, to have life.

Does the film then come down a distinction between natural laws, which concern atoms and monsters, and cultural practices, which concern marriages and governments? Is THAT what this is all about?

* * * * *

I can’t help but feeling that this is all too baroque and complex, that there must be a more direct way of stating things. And perhaps there is. But for the moment, this is the best that I can do.

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