Jim Shepard’s Gojira, King of the Monsters is out next week from Solid Objects, a New York press recently founded by poet and critic Max Winter and poet and translator Lisa Lubasch.
At 52 pages, the work falls into the murky and, for some reason, often controversial, realm between the “long short story” and the novella.
When I asked Winter how he’d come to be publishing a single short work by Jim Shepard, he said he’d been a fan of Shepard’s for years and contacted him when he and Lubasch decided to start the press. Shepard sent him Gojira, and Winter was “moved and fascinated. One immediate draw for me,” Winter said, “was what you could call the cult of Godzilla [the American-ization of the original Japanese title], an observed, long-standing intense interest in both the Japanese and American versions of the monster and the film. In addition, the movie has always been important historically, as an influence on other movies and as a metaphor for America’s status in the world at the time of its release.”
Set mostly in 1954, Shepard’s novella sticks closely to Eiji Tsuburaya, the real life special effects director of the historic film (known during production as only “project G”), revealing a Japanese man torn, like many, between home and work. “He was falling behind everywhere: in his wife’s affections and in his work’s responsibilities,” writes Shepard. Tsuburaya’s wife, Masano, is unhappy, and seems to shoulder the lion’s share of grief over the loss of their young daughter years before. She’s also not thrilled that Hajime, their 19-year-old son, wants to follow in dad’s footsteps; indeed, Tsuburaya gets him a job working on the film as a camera assistant helping to shoot the miniatures (of which there are many).
The specter of American hegemony informs Shepard’s novella as much as it did the original Japanese film (if not the American version, with its added Raymond Burr framing device, harsh edits, and hyperbolic subtitle “King of the Monsters!”). Shepard writes that “the Americans had detonated a fifteen megaton hydrogen weapon” in the central Pacific in March, 1953. Though warnings had been issued about the test, and fishing boats kept to designated areas, the blast was “twice as large as predicted” and scores of fishermen were exposed. Radioactive tuna entered the Japanese seafood market before the contamination was discovered. “Tabloids called it the Americans’ third atomic attack on Japan.”
And the year before, so Shepard’s story goes, Tsuburaya had urged Tomoyuki Tanaka, Gojira’s producer, to see King Kong. It had made loads of money in international release and Tsuburaya’s hope for Gojira was that he’d get the chance to do the same Harryhausen-influenced stop-motion animation. But “even after every shortcut he could conceive, he was forced to report that to do the job right he would need a little less than seven years.” The producers countered. He could have “two months for preproduction and another two for shooting.” Hence, a man in a (heavy, hot) rubber dinosaur suit stomping his way through a 1/25-scale model of Tokyo.
Given Shepard’s amazing realm of interest, Gojira comes as no surprise. This is the man behind Sans Ferine, from his most recent collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, a story told from the perspective of an executioner hacking his way through the French Revolution all while worrying about banal domestic issues of home and family. And one of the pleasures of this novella is the context Shepard creates for a moment of history that has already attained cult status. By investing all the bells of whistles of fiction in Tsuburaya and his creature, he brings them both alive and gives us a fresh look at the familiar. “Tsuburaya,” says Winter, “is a renowned figure for film buffs, especially those interested in the technical side of film history.” Indeed he is, as is his boss, Tanaka. In fact, Quentin Tarantino, as vocal a fan of Asian cinema as ever there was, named the head of the Yakuza in his Kill Bill films “Boss Tanaka.”
Solid Objects will publish at least three titles a year in fiction, drama, poetry, and nonfiction, and has priced Shepard’s slim, fascinating tale at $12. It’s being distributed by SPD and will be out November 8.