Metaphysical Monsters: Gojira and Akira in Science, Art, and Revolution
“…What we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Werner Heisenberg
Nowhere is the effect of science’s most recent revolution felt as deeply as in Japan. Here, science and the implications of its discoveries are, for better or worse, known beyond the everyday realities of lab experiments and abstract theory. Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Bikini atoll may be temporally distant but continue to resonate in the spaces of Japanese art and culture. This tangibility is powerfully expressed in two of Japan’s classic examples of the science fiction genre.
In Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light, Leonard Shlain claims that physicists’ work shares the quality of being an investigation into the nature of reality with an unlikely counterpart – revolutionary art. He proposes that
“…the radical innovations in art embody the preverbal stages of new concepts that will eventually change civilization...visionary art alerts the other members [of a society] that a conceptual shift is about to occur in the thought system used to perceive the world.” (Shlain, 17-18)
A challenge to our paradigmatic worldview is conspicuously lacking in most science fiction films. More often than not films in the science fiction genre “…emphasize gadgets and special effects to the neglect of conceptual complexity.” (Sanders, 1) Oshiro Honda’s Gojira (1954) features a giant radioactive monster whose scarce appearances in the film do not distract from the complexity of the content; similarly, while a live-action version of Katsuo Otomo’s 1988 animated epic Akira would constitute a glut of technological machinery and/or special effects rendering, the content of the story – if it remained the focus, as it is in the anime – would eclipse these considerations as any radical art does of the tools required for crafting it. “Many of the best science fiction films are thought to be allegories and have been interpreted symbolically.” (Sanders, 4) In both of these films, science is not the great savior of man, but is exposed as the source of mankind’s potential destruction of itself. In this essay, I will interpret the allegorical and symbolic character of these films in relation to the scientific revolution from Newtonian classical mechanics to quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theories of relativity, demonstrating how that shift reflects itself in Gojira and Akira. First, I will explore postwar fears of technological and political change as illustrated by Gojira, connecting these anxieties to ideological conflicts sourced from the scientific revolution. Next, I will demonstrate that the crumbling foundations of scientific rationalism rest on its innate reliance on the split between subjective and objective reality. I will then approach Akira’s epic depiction of the implications of the unity of space, time, matter and energy through its peculiar uses of light. I will conclude my investigation with an attempt to redefine the nature of power and draw out its implications for our collective reality.
Scientists prefer to think of themselves as dispassionate, passive observers, merely collecting data and measurements to understand nature. There has never been a greater challenge to this idealized role than the development of the atomic bomb in which the world’s foremost physicists allied themselves with the United States through the Manhattan Project. “The scientists had faith that…they would, as a group, never allow their discoveries to be used by nation states against humanity…they had their higher allegiances, whose purposes transcended those of petty polities…” (Rotter, 11) This way of thinking is expressed in Gojira through the character of Serizawa, a researcher who discovers his own weapon of mass destruction. He claims that his development of the oxygen destroyer is “purely in the interest of science” but also realizes the implications of its misuse, making himself a martyr to destroy all traces of the knowledge he carried. This demonstration of wise subjectivity brings into focus the implausibility of a scientist-savior in the military-industrial world; as Serizawa says, “we human beings are weak creatures.” In the film, there are repeated attempts by the Japanese government and military to destroy Gojira by conventional means – weapons made possible by classical mechanics – to no avail. Serizawa senses that regardless of good intentions or objectivity, his discovery of a new kind of energy, a new kind of substance, would be the next on the list of coercive weapons with disastrous consequences for humanity. While the force of raw power determines what is right, governments will inevitably appropriate the means necessary to create weapons of war. For our times, those means are scientific and technological knowledge used in the pursuit of control.
There are secrets held in closed chambers at the bottom of the sea in Gojira and in the sea of the unconscious mind. Investigations into natures at its most minute scale yielded an unimaginable source of power, one that was only yet to be found. “The bomb, like the war, like death itself, was something over which no one had any control; something which could not be helped; what we mean by an ‘act of God’.” (Richie, 20) Emiko, symbolic of nature, cannot keep Serizawa’s secret forever – she must respond to the prods of inquiry. That Gojira was retitled Godzilla in English is an interesting phenomenon. “The accidental awakening of the super-destructive monster, who has slept in the earth since prehistory, is, often, an obvious metaphor for the Bomb.” (Sontag, 46) But this metaphor reaches much more deeply into the unconscious seas of the mind. Chaotic, intractable, unpredictable, affecting every member of society, Gojira functions as a symbol not just of the bomb but of the power of and within the nature science so desperately seeks to know and control. Its effects can be seen, like bloody victims in hospital wards following Gojira’s landfall, but can also but insidiously unseen, like radioactive poisoning and paradigms. Power manifests itself not just through the Bomb and artifacts like it, but in the ideas that make them possible.
Newtonian mechanics and the classical paradigm were made possible by the metaphysics of French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, best known for his claim of cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. For Descartes it was necessary to split the world into two kinds of substance, one thinking, one material, in order to lend veracity to scientific methodologies of observation and measurement of the material world.
In classical physics science started from the belief – or should one say the illusion? – that we could describe the world or at least parts of the world without any reference to ourselves…this division is arbitrary and historically a direct consequence of our scientific method; the use of classical concepts is finally a consequence of the general human way of thinking. (Heisenberg, 55)
However, Descartes’ mind/body split is just the most recent formulation of the earlier division made between the subjective and the objective, what Heisenberg implied as “the general human way of thinking,” which is, of course, perpetually reinforced by linguistic convention. Werner Heisenberg and other theoretical physicists were well-aware of the troubling implications of the new science they helped to parent – at least in terms of metaphysics. The new science poses a significant challenge to the basis of that paradigm.
The double-slit experiment is one of the most famous experiments in quantum mechanics. Its objective was to determine the nature of light. Some claimed that light was ‘composed’ of waves, immaterial and spread out in space, which had been demonstrated in earlier experiments. Einstein disagreed, claiming that light’s behavior was consistent with other elementary particles – protons, neutrons, and elections – whose movement could be measured just the same as any other discrete material substance. The experiment yielded two surprising, troubling results. Not only can light behave both as a wave and as a particle (just not at the same time), but the behavior it exhibits depends on how the light is observed. That is, if it is measured for its wavelike behavior, it behaves as a wave – for particle behavior, it behaves as a particle. The mysterium tremendum scientists found here was that their own consciousness may influence the results of experiments made in an effort to understand and define objective reality uncontaminated by subjective consideration. “According to the new physics, observer and observed are somehow connected, and the inner domain of subjective thought turns out to be intimately conjoined to the external sphere of objective facts.” (Shlain, 23)
Formulated by the physicists themselves, the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanical phenomena claims that for all intents and purposes, classical descriptions of the world are still essentially correct and ought not be abandoned entirely, Heisenberg going as far as to state that “we cannot and should not replace these concepts by any others…we cannot and should not try to improve them.” (Heisenberg, 43) I not only disagree with this premise, but also propose a resolution – which brings me to Japan’s foremost anime epic, Akira.
Many science fiction films continue to draw from the carcass of the Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm; even Gojira rests on the premise of an external (objective) threat which causes suffering of the (subjective) characters. It reflects something of the attitude of the times; the Copenhagen attitude of Newton-irreplaceable. However, Akira takes quantum mechanics much further, deeper, to a dimension not covered in the familiar three of x, y, or z. Like Gojira it can simply be interpreted as another allegory for the destructive power of nuclear weapons; the story takes place in a post-WWIII Japan wrought by devastation, with a climax easily read as an atomic explosion. “One gets a feeling…that a mass trauma exists over the use of nuclear weapons…most of the science fiction films bear witness to this trauma, and, in a way, seek to exorcise it.” (Sontag, 46) My claim is that Akira, whether its creators intended it or not, attempts to exorcise and purge persistent perceptions of ever-less-relevant classical descriptions of reality.
Again we see the case of scientific and military collusion, the search for answers compelling an impulse for control. Simultaneously we’re shown a growing resistance. The first of many supernatural phenomena is revealed when these conflicting powers collide for the first time. A wounded man from an underground faction has kidnapped that world’s most recent mad science experiment – a young male child, green and shriveled. In a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the protagonist – or is he an antagonist? – Tetsuo finds himself in the crosshairs of the military establishment and their subversive quarry. Tetsuo’s character is complex if not dynamic; he and his best friend Kaneda, both orphans, spend their time resisting school authorities and joy riding on motorcycles, deriving pleasure from technology and gadgetry, welcome distractions from the dystopian consumer paradise gone sour. While Kaneda is shown to be the more dominant and assertive of the two, much lies ahead for Tetsuo. He is taken by the military to the research laboratory after their scuffle to retrieve the kid, his mass measured for a wave pattern in pursuit of one consistent with that of the mysterious Akira.
The scientific prods unleash a revolutionary transformation in Tetsuo. We quickly see the beginnings of a breakdown of subjective and objective worlds in the “Hallucination” sequence; while the potential for a symbolic rendering is rich here – giant teddy bears and toys, the room flooded with milk, fear of the blood spilled on broken glass – the more interesting inquiry for my purposes concerns the shared experience between Tetsuo and the green child, along with two other similarly disfigured children. This is a shared mental experience between Tetsuo and the minds of the three kids; it is more than a hallucination. The blurring boundary separating subjective from objective, what Frances Ferguson defines as the sublime (Freiberg, 95), is about to split wide open to collapse body and mind into a unified field. The power of imagination on the world is made flesh and comes to light, an energy of the purest and most almighty kind.
Einstein’s 1915 General Theory of Relativity can be expressed as “space is time equals matter is energy.”(Shlain, 327; author’s emphasis) With this revelation in mind, Tetsuo’s bizarre transformation from mind-empowered hooligan to pitiful chaotic mass of uncontrolled impulse can at least be mentioned for its innovative representation of the unity of mass and energy, and how their behavior shapes and regulates the behavior of space-time. Max Planck’s response to his own groundbreaking discoveries of quantum mechanics was the fear of its social consequences. “Freeing the fundamental constituents of matter from the rules of proper behavior might seem to free people from responsibility and duty.” (Rosenblum & Kuttner, 60) Social consequences hold little sway on Tetsuo; society has ultimately abandoned him. He has no use for authority except mild observation of it for the sake of preservation; with the awakening of his power, this is no longer necessary. “The power given [to Tetsuo] enables revenge against adult authority figures but produces horrific mutations to his psyche and body, causing great personal suffering.” (Freiberg, 100) His conflict, read allegorically, is the conflict between subjective needs and the enemies it finds in the priesthood of classical dualism, scientific and state authorities representing an elite priesthood serving the enthroned God of Reason.
Thales, the Ancient Greek thinker often credited as the first scientist, was said by Aristotle to have stated all things are full of gods. (Heisenberg, 60) Could it always have been the case? In Akira, the climax consists of Tetsuo’s reunion with Akira, the first and most powerful of the children-turned-experiments, who is revealed to be the source of the nuclear style event that capitalizes the beginning of the film. But nuclear is not quite right here. Rather, this is a post-nuclear event based on a post-nuclear development and conceptualization of power and energy, the Akira story-world’s rendering of a future Manhattan Project birthing a parallel ‘bomb’. The lessons necessary for evolution went unlearned after the first explosion; Akira’s climax is the required catharsis of old habits and failing ideas. Space, time, energy, and matter reunify along with Tetsuo and Akira in quintessential light, absorbing the residuals of discord and offering an opportunity for rebirth and renewal. “In the final few minutes of the film, we experience [with Kaneda] the erasure of the boundaries between past present and future, between exteriority and interiority, between fantasy and reality, between body and spirit. Here is the ultimate spectacle of the cosmic hyperreal…” (Freiberg, 101)
Takao Suzuki clarifies the important difference that “…Western culture is based on the distinction between the observer and the observed, on the opposition of the self vs. the other,” while “Japanese culture and sentiment show a strong tendency to overcome this distinction by having the self immerse itself in the other.” (Noriega, 60) Japan’s non-Western response to the Bomb is reflected in Gojira’s sympathetic treatment of the Other in contrast to steadfast opposition. In Akira, however, the Other is a different beast – shown to be not only a threat from without, but also within. Science, in posturing itself superior to all other forms of inquiry, alienates and subjugates art and therefore imagination, creativity, and eventually play. This is the nature – metaphysically speaking – of science’s God, Reason. Reason plays the Other in both films; rather than helpful and constructive, it is either insufficient to deal with novel threats or so powerful that it tyrannizes society collectively as an external force for order while individuals bear this offense within themselves.
One author laments, “unfortunately, science fiction films have associated science, the future, the different, and the unknown with nothing but irrational fear.” (Hodgens, 90) There is nothing irrational about the fear except that by being afraid of it you get Gojira – the fear of God, and the probable perpetuation of its misleading authority; whereas, if challenged outright, one must face one’s own daemonic Akira. There is nothing irrational about the fearing our future with science if it continues birthing weapons like the hydrogen bomb, multiplies by Planck’s constant and performs a quantum jump in its ability to destroy and offer power to tyrants. These films, as art, give us the privilege to decide for ourselves how we look through the paradigmatic lens. Even this variety of justified fear deserves catharsis; we need not fear if we recognize that opening ourselves to the vulnerability of absolute freedom transforms us into beings of infinite potential. We ought to find ways of redefining power as something other than dominance over submission, resolve the rifts and source power for peaceful and inspiring acts. Art can and does reclaim the machinery of technology and reason and encourages these kinds of inquiries into the Self and the Other, the subjective and objective worlds, the mind and the body. We have much more than science or mere reason to guide us forward for a glimpse of revolution: we have cinema, the art of light itself.
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Akira. Katsuo Otomo, 1988.
Gojira. Oshiro Honda, 1954.