Several years ago now, I was interviewed by Dani Burlison for the fantastic, but short lived, Petals and Bones zine/website. Since this interview is no longer available on line, I’ve decided to post it again, here. I’m fairly certain that the self-portrait above was the author image affixed to the original interview. Sadly, the words “I’m still working on my doctoral thesis” have not been nullified by time.
Petals and Bones interview w/Trane DeVore, by Dani Burlison
- Can you give some background on your life as a writer/photographer? How did you come to be a writer? What kinds of projects have you completed? Did you get a degree in journalism or an MFA?
The first book I ever made consisted of scribbled drawings of reptilian creatures with laser beams shooting out of their eyes, photos of my dad and I flying a kite at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, and a few misshapen attempts at spelling. The book was called Dad, Prot, Cat. Even though I could barely read or write at the time I was already totally fascinated with the incantatory power of language — its ability to call thoughts and ideas to mind simply by sounding out the marks on the page. I can still remember a time before I could read when I wanted so desperately to make the language work that I sat down with a copy of the novelized version of Star Wars in my hand and thumbed through just about every page hoping that if I just concentrated hard enough the text would come to life for me and replay the images in my head that I had seen on the big screen not too long before. Though my pre-literate mind never did crack the Star Wars code, I do have a distinct memory of the moment when I understood how the silent ‘e’ works. Suddenly the word that I was looking at — “there” — went from being so many letters on the page to appearing immediately in my mind as a word/concept. It’s really hard to describe exactly what that moment of realization felt like because it’s difficult to reconstruct the pre-literate version of my own consciousness, but if I had to venture a description I would say that it was as if I had been looking at a dead page when suddenly a worm or vine wriggled right out of it. It felt absolutely miraculous. A similar revelation occurred one time when my grandfather and I went to visit the poet Larry Eigner. Larry was an incredible poet and absolutely fascinated by language. Because he was born with cerebral palsy it was a physical struggle for him to read and write, and on the particular day that my grandfather and I visited he was poring over an enormous dictionary with a giant magnifying glass while investigating a series of words. He called me over to show me a word that he felt was particularly interesting – I have no idea what it was anymore — and he explained to me about the linguistic roots of words and the way that the meaning of a word changes over time, even as the word still contains within it — like a living ghost — the traces of all the past meanings that structure the way the word is used today. That idea — the notion that a word isn’t simply a pointer to an idea or an object, but rather a kind of living archeological site replete with hidden meaning — really blew my mind.
I suppose it isn’t much of a surprise that I became a writer since I’ve been surrounded by writers, artists, and musicians for my entire life. My grandfather was the poet Robert Creeley; my grandmother, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, writes novels, short stories, and prose memoirs, as well as theatrical monologues; Darrell DeVore, my father, was an experimental musician who created his own instruments; and my stepmother, Cecily Axt, is a wonderful collage artist who was a weaver and clothing designer associated with the Art to Wear movement in the 1970s and 80s. I myself started writing poetry seriously sometime in junior high school. The three main influences for my early work were a bizarre combination of the poetry and songs in Tolkien’s Lord of the the Rings trilogy, the Black Mountain vernacular of my grandfather’s work, and John Lennon’s songwriting. By the time I was in high school I had discovered Romantic poetry, and written plenty of horrible knock-off verse, and then later I was influenced by the modernist experimentalism of poets like Eliot and Pound. It was at about this time that I ended up hanging out with an amazing crew of young creatives — musicians, photographers, actors, and writers. We arranged several fairly large-scale poetry happenings, including one event where we convinced the local movie theater — The Plaza — to let us host a poetry and music event at their expense. We also once held an unauthorized candlelight reading, for about 35 people, in one of the larger storm drains that runs underneath Petaluma, the town I was living in at the time. Two of the most important intellectual and artistic collaborators for me from that era were a poet I worked with named Sean Sullivan, who was a kind of mentor to me, and my friend Daedalus Howell, with whom I published a very, very short-lived literary journal called Deluge 6. Eventually I ended up at Sonoma State University where I became fast friends with D.A. Powell, David Bromige, Christopher Reiner, and Cydney Chadwick — all stalwarts of Sonoma County’s small but vibrant experimental poetry scene. Cydney was, at that time, the publisher of an influential magazine of experimental writing called Avec, and would later become the publisher of both of my books, series/mnemonic (1999) and Dust Habit (2005).
The degree I received from Sonoma State was a degree in English literature, rather than a degree in creative writing, but for myself literary theory and analysis are intimately connected with the way I think about the practice of reading and writing. I think there’s a myth that “too much analysis” can get in the way of creativity, but I think that this is an entirely false opposition. Of course there are cases where a piece of work can be overthought and end up feeling lifeless and devoid of feeling; on the other hand, there are any number of works out there that really should have had more thought put into them before being released for public consumption. I have a lot of friends who went on to get MFA degrees in creative writing, but although they almost all had universally good experiences I never felt the need to enter an MFA program myself. After taking a few years off from school, I entered the graduate program in English literature at Berkeley from which I received an MA in 2005 (I’m still working on my doctoral thesis). For me, being at Berkeley was an absolute creative gift when it comes to poetry — I was put in touch with so many amazing writers that it would be ludicrous to even begin to compile a list. The San Francisco Bay Area has been one of the major sites of creative poetic production in the United States for the last 70 years or so. It’s a history that includes such diverse movements as the avant-gardism of the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beat happenings of the 50s and 60s, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, the hip-hop poetics of East Bay poetry slams, and the political commitment of projects such as June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. This incredible historical confluence has created an unbelievably rich cultural field that, if it were to be compared to an ecosystem, would be as biodiverse as a coral reef or a rainforest.
- How do you stay motivated to be creative? Where do your ideas come from?
Staying motivated to be creative isn’t really a problem that I’ve ever encountered — I think the world as it exists is an endless source of creativity and ideas. The real issue for me is how to find the time to channel that creativity into aesthetic production. Since I’ve moved to Japan I’ve found that time to sit down and do serious writing has been hard for me to come by. Part of this is because holding a full-time academic position demands a level of professionalism and responsibility on my part that takes a great deal of time. The other part of this, however, is that I’ve ended up finding myself in such an amazingly rich environment when it comes to culture, art, music, and history that it’s extremely difficult to drag myself away from it isolate myself in front of the computer. In addition to the thousands of temples, shrines, and festivals that are central to Japanese culture and history, there’s a tremendously vibrant contemporary arts scene in Japan, and Osaka — where I live — has one of the the world’s more interesting experimental/underground music scenes. Especially when I first moved to Japan and couldn’t speak very much Japanese (much less read or write), I found music and the visual arts the be the easiest aesthetic forms to engage with. With the exception of Elfpit, an epic poem that I’ve been collaborating on with the poet Liz Young, I didn’t do much writing at all during my first four years or so in Japan. Instead of writing, I spent a lot of time exploring, which, for me at least, is a key creative resource. But exploration doesn’t just entail moving through space and seeing new things — in order for exploration to become inspiration, various types of work are required. Especially important in terms of the way my own consciousness works is the interrelationship between research and experience that forms the jumping off point for worthwhile thinking. What that’s meant for me here in Japan is learning as much of the language as I can in the limited amount of time that I have, and reading as much as I can get my hands on in terms of culture, history, and place. It’s one thing to go to Nara and be impressed by the size and gravity of the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), but it’s another thing entirely to understand how important this figure is within the history of the spread of Buddhism in Japan, to know that Nara was once the endpoint of the Silk Road, and to realize that the impressive size of the statue was intended to help consolidate the imperial power of the court during the Nara Period. It’s also nice to know that the hole in the post that all the children are crawling through is the same size as the Great Buddha’s nostril, and that crawling through this hole guarantees good health or (the accounts differ) some form of enlightenment.
While I may not have done as much writing as I might have wanted since moving to Japan, I have ended up taking a ton of photographs. I might even go so far as to say that photography has almost become an alternate mode of thinking for me. I’ve never formally trained as a photographer, although a friend of mine had his own darkroom when I was in high school and we used to spend hours there developing black and white film and making prints. Although I have several friends who are professional photographers, I’ve never thought of becoming a professional photographer myself. I guess that I like feeling unconstrained in my photographic practice, free to follow my own interests when it comes to photography without any deadlines or constraints in terms of subject matter and style. If photography were to become ‘work’ for me — if I was no longer free to follow my photographic pleasure — then I think I would eventually become disaffected with photography and turn to something else. That much said, I have had a few magazines and websites pay for the use of my photography (the upcoming issue of National Geographic Traveler will use a photograph of mine), though just as often I let non-profit entities use my work for free if they ask nicely. The most important thing for me, however, is that the camera functions as an amazing technology of perception that allows images and moments of time to be pulled out of their everyday context and framed in such a way that they become objects of aesthetic contemplation. Carrying a camera is, weirdly, like carrying a portable museum. One of the ways that museums function is by creating zones of display that generate a more focused, contemplative type of seeing. This is why an everyday item, ripped out of its context, can become so interesting in the museum setting — I’m thinking especially of Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymades,” but Yoko Ono’s famous apple also serves as a fine example. Since the camera acts as a technology that also requires particular types of focus and contemplation, using a camera regularly has resulted in a situation where I don’t even need the camera anymore to see the world in this way. It’s almost as if the camera has become not only an instrument to capture images, but also a projector that allows me to broadcast the experience of being inside a museum onto the world itself.
- What advice do you have to someone who wants to be more creative or bring more creativity into their work?
“Don’t stop ’til you get enough.” I guess it’s a bit trite to drag out a pop chorus to try to answer a question about creativity, but really I think there’s no better way to remain fresh and open to new ideas than to be constantly engaged with interesting intellectual, aesthetic, and creative encounters as a practice of everyday life. I don’t mean this in terms of having a work discipline — the purpose of art is not to justify itself by imitating the 40-hour work week — but instead in terms of a general attitude toward the world. This means carving time out of your day for reading, listening to music, viewing art, and engaging in artistic practice yourself. The important thing is that you can’t just do these things in the background, as a consumer — “reading” doesn’t mean spending a bit of time surfing the net, and “listening to music” doesn’t mean turning on the iTunes DJ while you drive to work. During the 2008 Liverpool Biennale, members of the art collective Freee pasted up anti-consumerist billboards. One of them carries the slogan “Advertising wants to convert our desire for a better life into a desire to buy something.” A lot of contemporary consumerist ploys work in a similar fashion when it comes to mining the creativity vein; they take our desire to be more creative — to add aesthetic vitality to our lives — and they use that desire to sell us something that makes us feel as if we’re engaging with creativity while in fact we might as well be spending an evening lapsed out in front of the television. If you can forget about whatever it is that you’re doing in the process of doing it, or if what you’ve just finished doing immediately drops out of consciousness, then you need to find something different to do. An authentic engagement with thought or art should take us away from whatever everyday situation we find ourselves in and put us somewhere else for the duration.
Also, always keep a notebook handy. It’s surprising how many good ideas just disappear into the ether because they weren’t written down.
- How important is discipline to your creative output? How important is idle time/relaxation?
My biggest problem is that I’m a lazy perfectionist. I’m never fully satisfied with my work, but I can also never quite get up enough steam to actually sit down and put immense amounts of effort into it. It’s the worst of all possible worlds. Actually though, I think the real problem isn’t that I’m truly lazy, but rather that I’m easily distracted. In T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he writes about the poet’s “necessary receptivity and necessary laziness,” a reference to cultivating a particular state of mind in which thinking is allowed to take place in a haphazard, unstructured manner. The mind is able to make startling connections or produce sudden unexpected moments of insight not because the poet is working hard, but rather because the poet is hardly working. “You’re allowing your mind to wander” is a phrase that we often associate with a domineering grade-school teacher or an overzealous boss, but allowing the mind to wander isn’t just a negative — allowing the mind to wander allows us to escape from the constraints of everyday thought and trip through unexplored territory. In this instance, idle hands allow us to escape the proverbial Devil’s workshop, if just for a little while. Of course, if idleness is all that there is then you may end up in your own beautiful pleasure dome, but you’re not going to get anything substantive accomplished. I think my best creative work involves periods of (relatively) concentrated labor followed by periods of drifting (but creatively engaged) indolence. My grandmother once described to me how she can often go for six months without writing much at all, and then suddenly a burst of activity gets triggered and she ends up producing a new book. The important thing is that in her off time she doesn’t just sit around twiddling her thumbs, but instead spends her time making collages, reading, writing letters, and the like. There’s a host of aesthetic activity surrounding what, to someone else, might appear to be nothing but dead time.
- What does a typical day look like for you?
It’s hard for me to describe what a typical day looks like to me, since I tend to have three sorts of typical days here in Japan. The first would be a typical work day, where I spend time in the office, teaching classes, grading homework, and hopefully doing a little bit of research as well. I’m usually pretty beat after a full day of work and don’t have much extra energy to be aesthetically productive, though I do try to fit something into the day. The second type of day I have is a full day off with nowhere to go. These are pretty rare for me, but if I do get one of these I almost always try to listen to an album or two, study Japanese, and get some writing done. The third type of day I often have is a day that’s free from work, but mostly gets spent away from the house. This usually involves going to a museum, gallery, concert, performance, or festival somewhere in the Kansai area (the area that includes Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe). Often enough, however, I end up leaving the Kansai area and traveling somewhere for a few days. Just after New Year’s Day, for example, I’ll be going to Hiroshima for three days. I’ll stay at a friend’s family home and will visit Itsukushima Shrine and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, ride around on street cars, and eat lots of oysters (a local specialty).
The constants for me on any given day are these: 1) I absolutely have to read something, every day. Even when I travel I need at least a copy of the London Review of Books with me, or a novel. If I don’t read something for more than a day, then I get cranky. Reading is non-negotiable. 2) I always, always carry at least one camera with me. I don’t take photographs every day, but I like to have a camera with me in case the opportunity shows itself. The biggest problem is choosing which camera or set of cameras to take with me, since there are about ten that I shoot with on a quasi-regular basis. 3) If I’m going to be riding a train, or walking a considerable distance, I often listen to podcasts — usually This American Life, or Stuff You Should Know, or (my guilty pleasure) Football Weekly. One of the best podcasts that I’ve ever listened to is finished now, but still available for download, and I would recommend it to anyone — the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. 4) I spend quite a bit of time on the internet everyday — writing mail, uploading and commenting on photographs, and adding to the blog. However, I try not to check my mail more than twice a day, and I try to avoid aimless surfing if at all possible. Similarly, I try to avoid watching too much television, though these days I don’t find much that holds my interest anyhow. 4) I try to get at least seven or eight hours of sleep a night. Not sleeping enough is just about the biggest killer of the creative instinct that I can think of, especially because not sleeping enough usually means that I don’t end up spending enough time dreaming. I love dreams (I keep a dream journal) and, as Blondie says, “Dreaming is free.”
Filed under: culture, Japan, Osaka, personal, photography, poetry, sweet story of Trout Monroe, writing | Leave a Comment
Tags: Cecily Axt, Christopher Reiner, Cydney Chadwick, D.A. Powell, Daedalus Howell, Dani Burlison, David Bromige, Elizabeth Young, influences, interview, Larry Eigner, learning to read, Petals and Bones, photography, poetry, Robert Creeley, San Franscisco Bay Area poetry, Sean Sullivan, Sonoma State University, Trane DeVore, writing
I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking about this trip to Hikone, which took place about four years ago, so much lately. Perhaps it’s because my last two entries both had to do with cherry blossoms and snow always rhymes visually with those white blooms of spring for me. Or perhaps it’s because the temperature has dropped recently and it’s beginning to feel a bit like winter. Or perhaps it’s because Trump’s election has given me an enormous case of nostalgic escapism and I’m dreaming of returning to a time when the idea of Trump as president was nothing more than a Simpson’s gag. And perhaps it’s because I’m thinking of snow and hoping that there will be some left after Trump’s four years of eviscerating the climate.
In any case, I went to Hikone with my friend Lea when she was out visiting from the States. We had planned a trip to visit Hikone Castle, but we hadn’t planned for the perfect snowfall that landed just before we did and then cleared off to leave behind blue skies. It was a perfect day to visit the castle and the surrounding gardens, and we even stumbled across a snow sculpture of Hikonyan, the samurai cat mascot that makes sure the castle is kept cute.
(All shots taken with either a Fujifilm GF670 Professional loaded with Kodak Portra 800 or Fuji Provia 400, or a Voigtlander Bessa-L with 15mm Heliar lens loaded with Fuji Superia 400.)
Filed under: architecture, history, Japan, Kansai, photography, sweet story of Trout Monroe, travel | Leave a Comment
Tags: 15mm Heliar, ひこにゃん, 雪, film photography, Fujifilm GF670, Hikone Castle, Hikone-jo, Hikonyan, snow, Voigtlander Bessa-L, 彦根城
All photographs taken with a Holga loaded with Fujifilm Professional 400 film. These shots were taken during springtime walks around my neighborhood in Toyonaka, Osaka. I have it on good authority that the car in the bottom photo is a Toyota Levin type TE-27.
Filed under: Japan, Kansai, Osaka, photography, sweet story of Trout Monroe | Leave a Comment
Tags: analogue film, お花見, cherry blossoms, Fujifilm Professional 400, Holga, Japan, medium format, ohanami, Osaka, sakura, spring, TE-27, toy camera, Toyota Levin, vintage car, walking, 大阪, 日本, 桜
A selection of my favorite photographs from the 2016 cherry blossom season. Most of these photographs were taken in Toyonaka, which is in the northern part of Osaka Prefecture, but a few of the mistier ones were taken on Yoshino Mountain in Nara, on a beautiful rainy day in spring.
Photo data, from the top:
1) Yoshino Mountain. (Voigtlander Bessa-T, 50mm Nokton, Fuji Provia)
2) Toyonaka. (Voigtlander Bessa-L, 15mm Heliar, Kodak Ektar 100)
3) Toyonaka. (Voigtlander Bessa-T, 50mm Nokton, Fuji Provia)
4) Toyonaka. (Voigtlander Bessa-L, 15mm Heliar, Kodak Ektar 100)
5) Yoshino Mountain. (Voigtlander Bessa-T, 50mm Nokton, Fuji Provia)
6) Toyonaka. (Voigtlander Bessa-L, 15mm Heliar, Kodak Ektar 100)
7) Yoshino Mountain. (Ricoh GRD2, digital)
8) Life and death in Toyonaka. (Voigtlander Bessa-L, 15mm Heliar, Kodak Ektar 100)
Filed under: Japan, Kansai, nature, Osaka, photography | 1 Comment
Tags: 15mm Heliar, 50mm Nokton, お花見, cherry blossoms, film photography, Ricoh GRD2, sakura, Voigtlander Bessa-L, Voigtlander Bessa-T, 桜
Riding the Osaka Wheel takes you up above the Expo 70 Commemorative Park and you end up looking down on Okamoto Taro’s famous Tower of the Sun, the centerpiece of the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka, as if from a helicopter. I’ve already written about the way in which the traces of the Expo can be read on the surface skin of the park as a kind of archeological record of future past, but riding the Osaka Wheel accentuates this effect. Looking over at the park its easy to imagine the grounds covered in the futuristic forms of the national pavilions, and crowds massing through through the entrance gates to get a closer look at the Tower of the Sun.
The gondolas of the Osaka Wheel have glass bottoms, so as they lift you out and away from the boarding platform you can look down at the bicycles parked below as they get smaller and smaller, their repetitive shapes forming an inadvertent Andreas Gursky photograph. Looking back in the direction of Expo Park you can see the monorail station and the tracks snaking off into the distance, towards their terminal stop at Osaka Itami Airport. In the other direction Osaka sprawls out between mountain ranges, a congeries of concrete, steel, plaster, and glass that perfectly embodies Manuel De Landa’s figuration of the city as a kind of human exoskeleton. In A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, De Landa writes about the mineralization of soft organic tissue and the aftereffects of this event, including the ultimate appearance of the nodal urban exoskeletons that we live in now:
In the organic world, for instance, soft tissue (gels and aerosols, muscle and nerve) reigned supreme until 500 million years ago. At that point, some of the conglomerations of fleshy matter-energy that made up life underwent a sudden mineralization, and a new material for constructing living creatures emerged: bone. It is almost as if the mineral world that had served as a substratum for the emergence of biological creatures was reasserting itself, confirming that geology, far from having been left behind as a primitive stage of the earth’s evolution, fully coexisted with the soft, gelatinous newcomers.
And slightly later:
The human endoskeleton was one of the many products of that ancient mineralization. Yet that is not the only geological infiltration that the human species has undergone. About eight thousand years ago, human populations began mineralizing again when they developed an urban exoskeleton: bricks of sun-dried clay became the building materials of their homes, which in turn surrounded and were surrounded by stone monuments and defensive walls. The exoskeleton served a purpose similar to its internal counterpart: to control the movement of human flesh in and out of a town’s walls. The urban exoskeleton also regulated the motion of many other things: luxury objects, news, and food, for example.
The sprawling carapace of a city that fills the valley zone between central Osaka and Kyoto is itself a kind of palimpsest, the mineralized expression of the historical trade along the Yodo River that made Osaka a commercial powerhouse, beginning in the Heian period. The paths of this early trade are duplicated in the train lines that run between Osaka and Kyoto today, following the path of the watershed that originates at Lake Biwa and eventually runs out into Osaka Bay. This watershed provides the drinking water for some 24 million people and is the hydrological circulation system that keeps the city alive.
The Osaka Wheel takes about twenty minutes to complete a single rotation, moving your field of vision from Rokko Mountain and the Kobe area, through to downtown Osaka, and then finally to the sprawling zone that extends out towards Mount Ikoma, on the border of Nara Prefecture. There’s plenty to take in.
(You can read Part I of this two-part entry here.)
Filed under: architecture, culture, design, history, Japan, Kansai, Osaka, society | Leave a Comment
Tags: A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Expo 70, Expo 70 Commemoration Park, Expo City, 観覧車, Ferris wheel, Kansai watershed, Manuel De Landa, mineralization, Okamoto Taro, Osaka, Osaka Wheel, REDHORSE OSAKA WHEEL, Taro Okamoto, Tower of the Sun, trade history, urban space, urban sprawl, urbanization, 大阪, 太陽の塔, 岡本 太郎, 万博記念公園
A visit to the Expo 70 Commemoration Park is a visit to the ruins of the future. The 1970 World Expo held in Osaka was one of the last great future-oriented modernist productions held on an international scale. The theme of the Expo was “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” a vision of a united humanity that chimes sympathetically with the contemporary ethos of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek, but feels far, far away from the fragmented and difficult present we find ourselves in now.
Still, I like to think that the Expo 70 Park holds below it’s surface the palimpsestic bones of a future that yet may still be realized, though clearly in a different form than the plastic pop future of washing machines for humans, inflatable plastic pavilions, and the mini-skirted psychedelia of the 21st century as imaged through the conceptual lens of Swinging London.
The architectural models pictured above can be found in the Expo 70 Pavilion, a museum dedicated to documenting the Expo experience. The building itself is the former Steel Pavilion, designed by Kunio Maekawa, and the theme of the building was centered around the idea of a “Song of Steel.” A small orchestra of futuristic musical instruments designed by Francois Baschet was exhibited and a few of the percussive horns, which can still be played by visitors, are to be found in the lobby of the Expo 70 Pavilion. In the center of the building is the Space Theater, which is registered in the official Pavilion pamphlet as “the first stereophonic music hall in the world”: a galaxy of speakers hang from the ceiling of a round auditorium in which a variety of concerts were performed, as well as a pretty psychedelic light show. Unfortunately, the sound system no longer functions.
As you walk through Expo 70 Park you can imagine the fullness of the Expo by the pieces that remain, and through the infrastructural residues that have shaped the surrounding area (I’m looking at you, Osaka Monorail). Just across from the current site of the Expo Park is a new shopping center, Expo City, that is built on the old bones of what was once the Expoland amusement park. Where the Expoland Ferris wheel once stood, now stands the Osaka Wheel, Japan’s largest Ferris wheel. Riding up in the Ferris wheel, already the ghostly palimpsest of the preexisting Ferris wheel, you can see the patterns of infrastructure below — the traces of what has been erased, what remains, and a past that is a future that the future might still become.
(You can read Part II of this two-part entry here.)
Filed under: architecture, culture, design, history, Japan, Kansai, museum, Osaka | Leave a Comment
Tags: architectural models, architecture, experimental musical instruments, Expo 70, Expo 70 Commemoration Park, Expo 70 Pavilion, Francois Baschet, futurism, Kunio Maekawa, remains, retro-futurism, steel instruments, 前川 國男, 万博記念公園
Shin Godzilla (シン・ゴジラ — Shin Gojira), the new Godzilla movie co-directed by Hideaki Anno (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) and Shinji Higuchi (who worked on the Gamera movies from the 1990s), turns out to be a scantily concealed allegory about the failure of the Japanese government to deal adequately with the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region. The screenplay, written by Anno, draws a great deal of attention to the weak decision-making of government officials, as well as the complete lack of adequate systems for gathering up-to-date information, a total breakdown in communication between administrative sections, and an almost willful blindness to the initial severity of the situation. These criticisms almost precisely replicate those put forth in the final report of the Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Company, which, according to an article from The Guardian, concluded that the “The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties.” The final determination of the report was that the disaster had been almost entirely “man-made.”
1. Godzilla and nuclear catastrophe
The original 1954 Godzilla (ゴジラ — Gojira), directed by Ishiro Honda, introduced Godzilla to the world as an explicit metaphor for atomic devastation. Godzilla’s rampage and the destruction wreaked upon Tokyo was intended to reflect the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla may have all the destructive force of a natural disaster but is, in fact, fundamentally man-made — a radioactively mutated gorilla-whale that is the product of of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
The creature in Shin Godzilla (which literally means “new Godzilla” in Japanese) is also man-made — this time a product of barrels of nuclear waste dumped into the ocean by the United States (the US was far from alone in this practice — and Japan itself is responsible for dumping its fair share of radioactive waste into the ocean). Anno’s decision to refer to the creature as “new” Godzilla functions in two ways. First, Anno is signalling a break from the evolutionary arc of the Godzilla franchise, in which Godzilla is initially featured as a chaotic force of destruction but rapidly transforms into a benevolent, and at times even goofy, protector of Japan. It’s not much of a stretch to draw a parallel between this representational trend and the way in which the threat of the atom bomb was ‘domesticated’ in the form of nuclear power under the auspices of the Atoms for Peace program. In this sense Anno’s “new” Godzilla can be seen as a new version of the original Godzilla, a reemergence of a cinematic ethos that was meant to be chaotic and terrifying rather than comforting and entertaining. Secondly, Anno’s “new” Godzilla is meant to be new in the sense of iteration: the first Godzilla was Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and nuclear testing in the Pacific, while the latest Godzilla wears havoc in the guise of the reactor core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
What’s remarkable about Shin Godzilla is the way in which the the trajectory of the movie so closely matches the timeline of the meltdowns at the Daiichi plant. First there is an explosion at a tunnel that runs under Tokyo Bay, but rather than doing anything about such a potentially catastrophic event all of the parties involved — including Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line transit officials, the mayor’s office, regional safety officials, and representatives of the national government — end up in a series of round-robin meetings in which everyone keeps repeatedly assuring each other that everything is under control while, outside of the meeting rooms, everything is spiraling further and further out of control. When Godzilla first appears on land — in the form of a mutated sea creature that looks a bit like a giant confused chicken carcass with lots of teeth that’s spewing a red, blood-like substance everywhere — the official response is for everyone to sit around and watch events unfold on television while doing literally nothing. Godzilla destroys neighborhood after neighborhood on the waterfront while those in charge of disaster management sit and watch it happen, in much the same way that the Kan government waited for three days after the meltdowns had already begun to convene a panel of nuclear experts. The description of the communication breakdowns and delays surrounding the Fukushima disaster is worth reading in full if you want to get an idea of just how badly the disaster was mismanaged — and just how incompetent the response to Godzilla’s first foray into Tokyo is portrayed as being in Anno’s film.
The scenes showing the destruction of the waterfront district of Tokyo are exacting recreations of the damage caused by the tsunami all along the coast of the Tohoku region and the landscapes of piled rubble left behind by Godzilla’s rampage could be from a 2011 photo documentary.
In the end, Godzilla is stopped by, essentially, being frozen. A team led by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (if the opaqueness of his title doesn’t give you some idea of the bureaucratic convolutions involved in this movie, then nothing will) ascertains that Godzilla’s blood works as a kind of cooling system and they speculate that if they add coagulant to the system it will trigger a reaction that will cause Godzilla to freeze. The scenes of the water trucks surrounding the prone Godzilla and pumping coagulant into the creature’s open mouth may look hilariously like some kind of complicated maneuver in a dental office but these scenes also mirror the initial emergency response to the overheating reactors at the Daiichi plant in which a fleet of trucks with cranes and water canons filled the reactors with sea water in an effort to cool them enough to keep them from exploding. The plan to save Tokyo by freezing Godzilla also recalls Tepco’s ice wall — the underground barrier of frozen earth constructed in a (failed) effort to limit the amount of groundwater seeping into the Daiichi site and keep releases of contaminated water from entering the Pacific ocean.
In the final sequence of the movie, Godzilla — skin blanched white with frost — looms over what remains of the Tokyo skyline, frozen mid-attack in an aggressive stance that figures dormancy as threat. Godzilla’s enormous unmoving bulk radiates an inescapable static menace that is the tangible analogue of the crisis at the Daiichi plant that remains largely out of sight and out of mind — temporarily neutralized, but with the chronic potential of returning explosively to life.
2. Let’s have a meeting: Verfremdungseffekt
If Anno’s critique of the managerial incompetence surrounding the 2011 nuclear crisis was limited to the hulking metaphor of Godzilla as harbinger of radioactive doom, then Shin Godzilla would be, in many ways, a remake without much of a difference. However, on a formal level what Anno does with Shin Godzilla is remarkable. Unlike any action movie I’ve ever seen, Shin Godzilla is characterized by the way in which the flow of action is constantly interrupted by meetings. These meetings involve a great deal of discussion; in fact, there is so much dialogue in these scenes that the actors are forced to deliver their lines at an unnaturally fast pace in order to fit them all in within the running time of the film. The lines are generally delivered in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, and sometimes accompanied by supplementary informational text that covers significant portions of the screen, often to the point where the speakers themselves start to disappear behind a veil of language. The meetings are interminable and make up perhaps 50% of the total screen time of the movie.
Unlike movies centered around a conflict among government officials in which the conflict itself becomes the source of drama, here the possibility of drama is curtailed by the lack of dominant personalities and the slow pace of the meetings, which purposely drain momentum from the film. These are meetings that often seem to go nowhere and result in nothing getting done. The meetings that involve the Prime Minister are the most damning. In meeting after meeting the Prime Minister listens to a variety of opinions, and each and every time ends the session by replying “I understand,” a phrase that soon becomes evacuated of all meaning as it becomes clear that ‘understanding’ isn’t helping at all with the formulation of a decisive and effective plan of action. The Prime Minister’s repetition of this phrase becomes almost robotic, a pro forma exclamation that gets uttered simply because the Prime Minister knows that what’s expected of a Prime Minister is the performative utterance of just such phrases.
The stark aesthetic shifts between Godzilla’s grandiose destruction of urban infrastructure and the sterile boredom of the workaday meeting spaces where the emergency discussion sessions are held — shifts that completely break down the dynamic rhythms that have come to be associated with a typical action film — end up functioning almost as a kind of Brechtian alienation effect. Verfremdungseffekt — also known as the ‘alienation effect’ or ‘distancing effect’ — was a concept that was developed by Brecht, along with a series of accompanying staging techniques, with the intention of keeping audience members from psychologically identifying with the characters in a play (or movie). By preventing psychological identification, the audience members are able to approach a work on an intellectual level rather than an emotional level and draw their own conclusions about the content of a performance, rather than reading that content through the emotional lens of a particular character’s point of view. If there’s one thing that can be said about Anno’s depiction of the bureaucratic officialdom that forms the human core of Shin Godzilla, it’s that none of the characters are depicted with psychological depth — nor are we given any significant background about the characters’ personal lives, not even the kind of hasty shorthand that is often used in contemporary action movies to provide the ersatz emotional substance that is intended to make the heroic protagonists “relatable.”
It’s almost impossible to identify on an emotional level with any of the characters in Shin Godzilla, but that’s not the only way in which Anno’s film holds the viewer at a distance. Shin Godzilla almost entirely avoids the usual forms of sentimentality that are deployed in an effort to tug at audience heartstrings. There are no weeping hobbits here, or parents who are under the impression that their child has just perished in a collapsing apartment building only to subsequently discover the child happily playing away in a nearby sandbox. There is also a distinct lack of monster movie gore porn. Instead Anno gives us the anti-melodrama of clinical scenes of destruction that keep away from the type of operatic overload that has become the hallmark of so many contemporary action films. This is not to say that there is not plenty of dramatic destruction, but rather that the destruction is mostly framed objectively rather than through the panicked point of view of an observer in the thick of things, and it is not overly aestheticized. Anno often provides tactical aerial views of Godzilla carving paths of destruction through Tokyo that seem to call on the audience members to make sense of the patterns of Godzilla’s movement, as if asked to take on the role of objective kaiju scientists . . . or the role of critically engaged viewers, busily mapping the allegorical patterns of the film against the social and political analogs that link Shin Godzilla to the melted cores of reactor units 1, 2, and 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
3. A sting in the tail
At the close of the movie, the camera zooms in on the frozen tail of Godzilla, which is held high in the air. Emerging from the skin, seemingly in pain, are a series of humanoid forms that look something like skinless human mutations with fin-like protrusions sticking out of their backs. What are these humanoid forms? The movie doesn’t say. Are they a humanoid mob of radioactive zombies that are intended to be at the center of an upcoming sequel? Or are these humanoid figures just another example of Anno’s famously oblique storytelling? Perhaps these humanoids are bits of DNA picked up by Godzilla’s rampaging tail that have, through some kind of radioactive synthesis, resulted in a mutation. Or perhaps this is another metaphor, a message about human activity in the Anthropocene and the way in which we are all a part of of the natural disaster now.
Filed under: cinema, culture, film, Japan | 1 Comment
Tags: alienation effect, anti-sentimentality, ゴジラ, シン・ゴジラ, Bertolt Brecht, Brechtian, distancing effect, Fukushima Daiichi, Godzilla, Godzilla Resurgence, Hideaki Anno, nuclear disaster, political allegory, radiation, Shin Godzilla, Verfremdungseffekt