bill olsen

Godzilla '14, Representation, & Diversity

To quote Doctor Who’s War Doctor; “For too long I have stayed my hand. No more”. Let me also make clear that Kaijusaurus has thus-far escaped Tumblr’s cruelly warped version of social justice, and it will stay that way. It has no place here. Anyway…

As the release date gets ever closer, debates have been running rampant about the issue of representation and Japanese heritage in Gareth Edwards’ upcoming Godzilla. The majority of arguments centre on concerns about the film’s predominantly white main cast – which I’m not going to make excuses for, nor condemn – and the perceived lack of Japanese representation within it. While a film like Avengers Assemble seems to be forgiven for their lack of ethnic diversity among its leads because it has one (apparently) well-developed female character, Godzilla (which, by the way, counts three women among its credited main cast) has been given an extremely hard time, and I’m afraid - while trying to put my personal feelings and excitement about the film to one side - it’s just not warranted.

The majority of those arguing against the film for a perceived lack of racial diversity seem to be conveniently ignoring (or are ignorant to, which is frankly inexcusable) the presence of a certain Mr. Ken Watanabe. Watanabe is one of the most established, celebrated, accomplished, and recognisable Japanese actors on the planet, and his presence as part of the project is a sure signifier of its quality. However, this is often not enough to satisfy those arguing against the film, who then tend to counter-argue that while it’s great that Watanabe is in the film, his role will be minimal and unimportant, simply due to his ethnicity. This is an extremely harmful viewpoint, and is very nearly self-defeating. What those arguing this point often don’t acknowledge is that Watanabe receives second-billing on the film’s posters (just behind leading man Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This means on publicity material that will be (and has been) seen worldwide, a Japanese actor outranks five white members of the main cast (in terms of billing) of a major Hollywood production. This is practically unheard of outside the action and martial-arts genres.

I recently brought this issue up with a user (who will remain unnamed but if they’re reading this, they’ll know who they are) who was arguing against the film because of its lack of Japanese representation. This user then argued back that if I was making the case for Watanabe being a lead character, I simply must not know what a lead character is. The simple fact of it is this: Watanabe receives second-billing – therefore he is a lead. And if you’ve ever actually watched a film in your life, you’ll know a film can have more than one lead character. Watanabe is billed above Elizabeth Olsen, who is playing Taylor-Johnson’s wife. Let’s reflect on this for one minute: in 2014, a fifty-four year-old Japanese man is billed above a beautiful 25 year-old American woman (whose sex appeal, by the looks of it, is not being played up to in any way – I’m looking at you, Avengers - but that’s another discussion) playing a love interest in a major Hollywood production. In terms of ethnic diversity, again, this is practically unheard of outside the aforementioned genres.  

Watanabe is playing a modern incarnation of Doctor Serizawa, a character originally portrayed in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original by the criminally underrated character actor Akihiko Hirata. You would be hard-pressed to find a Godzilla fan who wouldn’t agree that Serizawa is the single most important human character in the history of the Godzilla canon. That Gareth Edwards realised this and saw fit to respect the character and his legacy by casting a Japanese actor in the role is something that many arguing against the film seem to be ignoring, whether consciously or not. Godzilla is not, in-fact, following the Hollywood trend of white-washing pre-established ethnic characters (hello, Star Trek Into Darkness), as none of the film’s other leads are portraying versions of pre-established characters. Watanabe is, and it’s really a huge shame that it seems to be largely ignored that Serizawa is going to be resurrected by an actor of the correct ethnicity.

Reinterpretation is an essential aspect of our mass cultural consumption. That is why I don’t have any real problem with a Godzilla film set (primarily) in America, starring American actors. Watanabe himself recently starred in an all-Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. This new Godzilla is not the first American interpretation of Godzilla, as outside of the Emmerich-Devlin 1998 film, there has been comic book runs by Marvel, Dark Horse, and IDW, the Hanna-Barbera animated series, and Godzilla: The Series (which followed the 1998 film). It’s an entirely different case to something like the Keanu Reeves-starring 47 Ronin (which I would never defend), as Godzilla has always been portrayed throughout his entire cinematic life as a global menace that threatens all humanity. The mistake that many arguing against the film for a perceived lack of Japanese representation is that they assume Godzilla is defined by his Japanese-ness. He is not, and nor should he be limited by it. The nuclear menace is a threat to all humanity – that’s what defines Godzilla.

Oh, and if you feel like telling me for one second that the film isn’t respecting its Japanese roots, then please bear in mind it will feature a cameo by the legendary Akira Takarada , the star of the original 1954 film, reappearing sixty years after it was released. The simple fact of it is that – in terms of diversity - Godzilla is actually doing so incredibly better than the majority of Hollywood blockbusters. It’s just such a shame that a lot of people seem unwilling to acknowledge that.