This week, University Libraries will host a lecture and exhibition of monstrous proportions, all centered around Godzilla, the giant, radioactive monster that took Japanese cinema by storm more than 65 years ago.
“Beyond the Man in the Rubber Suit: Godzilla, Postwar Japan, and the Global Imagination,” featuring Bill Tsutsui, history professor and president of Hendrix University, will come to Thompson Library Tuesday. Tsutsui’s lecture will be joined by a pop-up exhibition curated by Nate Stover, a fourth-year in Japanese language and literature.
The exhibition will primarily feature Stover’s extensive personal collection of Godzilla memorabilia, with contributions from University Libraries and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum.
Stover said he first became involved in the event through East Asian Literature and Languages 4200 “The Monstrous in Japanese Culture,” a course he took to learn more about the history of his hobby.
Tsutsui, better known as “Professor Godzilla,” said he has been obsessed with the monster since he was about 7 years old. Since publishing “Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters,” a book detailing the history of the radioactive lizard and his personal connection to it, Tsutsui said he has been invited to speak at universities every time a new Godzilla film hit theaters.
“People of my generation tend not to think — tend not to assume — that popular culture is powerful and meaningful,” Tsutsui said. “One of the things I love — talking to younger audiences, to college audiences — is the audience gets it. They know that popular culture really reflects meaningful sentiments within society.”
Stover is no exception. He owns all 35 Godzilla films and countless spinoffs featuring other kaiju, or Japanese giant monsters. He will supply film cases, comics, card games, figurines and a video game for the one-day pop-up exhibition, all of which he has carefully cataloged and researched.
Stover said his fascination with Godzilla started with a classic case of dinosaur-mania at age 5, but his continuing interest is rooted in the cultural impact of the film series.
“At first, it’s all like, ‘Oh, it’s a cool dinosaur. Monsters fighting, cool,’ but as you get older and you understand the context behind Japanese culture and history, especially pertaining to the anti-nuclear message and environmental message, it kinda got me hooked even more,” Stover said.
Stover said that since Godzilla’s silver-screen debut, the towering reptile has been a stand-in for cultural and societal issues that weighed on Japan, from nuclear proliferation to pollution to space travel. He added that in a time when Japan had to tread lightly in its criticism of the United States, Godzilla represented a cathartic outlet for the Japanese public.
Even Godzilla’s enemies can carry cultural impact, Stover said, representing themes such as pollution and greed and sometimes casting Godzilla as humanity’s protector.
Stover said his favorite villain is Godzilla’s primary rival, King Ghidorah, the three-headed dragon. He said he is looking forward to the upcoming “Godzilla vs. Kong” that will pit Godzilla against America’s premiere city-scaling menace, King Kong.
“My boy is gonna win,” Stover said.
Whether it is the poignant cultural commentary or the giant dinosaur battles, Stover is one of many who have developed a lifelong obsession with the king of the monsters.
Tsutsui said he spoke to many super fans in his research for “Godzilla on My Mind,” and he often heard a similar story. He said his talk will focus on the cultural impact of the iconic monster and how it creates a bridge between the U.S. and Japan.
“What keeps Godzilla fresh, though, is that Godzilla’s not just one narrative,” Tsutsui said. “It’s not just a big lizard and the atomic bombs, but over the past 75 years has become a variety of narratives that are relevant to people in different times.”
While the extensive programs surrounding East Asia at Ohio State make it an ideal setting for such a talk, Tsutsui said he finds that his talks always draw a more diverse crowd than a tea ceremony might. Still, he said he isn’t often accompanied by a student who contributes a massive collection of memorabilia to the engagements.
Tsutsui has a collection of his own. He said his current favorite item is a Godzilla humidifier that spouts glowing blue steam from its gaping maw. He hasn’t seen Stover’s exhibition yet, but he said he is encouraged by the next generation’s enthusiasm for his favorite fire-breathing dragon.
“Godzilla’s now an icon, right? And Godzilla is sort of like Superman or Batman,” Tsutsui said. “It’s just one of these characters that is gonna stay around and keep coming back.”
“Beyond the Man in the Rubber Suit: Godzilla, Postwar Japan, and the Global Imagination” will take place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in Thompson Library Room 165 with the accompanying exhibition. More details can be found on the University Libraries’ website.
Clarification: University Libraries is co-sponsoring the event with the Institute of Japanese Studies.