GODZILLA AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

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Submitted Date 05/01/2019
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It was sometime during middle school - I think it was sixth grade - when I began going to Star Trek conventions. More than anything else, it was a good excuse to get away from my parents and dress up in costume. It was during one of these trips to Geekville that my friend and I noticed a sign outside a conference room. It said, "Japanimation." Curious, the pair of us walked in, took a seat in front of a bank of televisions, and had our lives changed forever.

They were showing a movie called Akira. It was violent, bloody, and strange; three perfect lures for my teenaged mind. My friend and I spent at least six months talking about it afterward and drawing our recollections of the scenes, crude renderings in colored pencil and nail polish. The film was made all the more mysterious to us because, back then, the only way to watch it was via fourth-generation bootleg videotape. No English voiceovers, no subtitles, just the original Japanese broken by the occasional static glitch. Remembering it brings back a fond nostalgia.

I became subsequently obsessed with "Japanimation" or what's now referred to as anime. The comic book version of anime is called manga. Since there were very few American companies at the time reprinting manga in English, we had to collect the original version from the Japanese video store downtown. Owing to the aforementioned obstacle with the anime and the lack of English reprints of manga, it soon became clear that we had to learn Japanese.

It's no surprise that I became obsessed with such a big part of Japanese culture when I did. The late 1980s were awash with imported pop culture. Saturday mornings, we could watch amine masquerading as just another cartoon series in the form of Voltron, Robotech, and G-Force. Our movies were full of ninja, geisha, samurai, and stiff Japanese businessmen. I remember coming out of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie thinking that I'd somehow learned martial arts through osmosis. The Japanese economy was booming and we all looked across the Pacific for new consumer tech, financial success, and cars.

My grandfather was less than thrilled with my obsession and my decision to major in Japanese when it came time for college. He had been in the Navy during WWII and served at Pearl Harbor. At the time, I couldn't fathom why he had such a problem with it. I didn't understand much about the war and certainly hadn't imagined the horrors he'd experienced fighting against the Japanese. For me, WWII was ancient history and not one I was particularly interested in. Being the child of hippies, in my later high school years, I was all about tie-dye, Led Zeppelin, smoking pot, and peace. It's kind of odd to me, looking back, that Grandpa was the one who introduced me to Godzilla.

I'm no longer an anime fanatic. I pretty much left that when I left high school. My desire to learn Japanese had taken more of an international business turn by then. But, one thing I'm still a big fan of is Kaiju films. Kaiju, if you don't know, is the Japanese word for "strange beast" and describes the genre of giant monsters. It includes Godzilla, Gamera, Gorgo, Mothra, Negadon, Cloverfield, and Pacific Rim. I'm totally stoked about the upcoming Godzilla movie starring Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things. Not long ago, I had a large tattoo done featuring the King of the Monsters himself, along with Mothra and King Ghidorah. It was to honor my grandfather.

Throughout all my years of Japanese inspired fandoms, one thing bothers me to this day. I've met a lot of anime fans and Godzilla fans and some people who are just tangentially curious about these pop culture phenomena. But, even among the truly obsessed, there's a stubborn lack of linguistic understanding. When someone says, "meyn-ga" it's hard to fight the urge to slap them. Likewise, the mispronunciation of anime as "an-ee-may" gets my dander up. In the Japanese language, the letter that represents A is pronounced like the A in "ah-ha." It's the only way to pronounce that letter and there exists no A as pronounced in "ache." So, anime should sound like "ah-nee-may" and manga should sound like "mahn-gah." It's a silly thing to get upset about on the surface. Many people just think, "poh-tay-toh, poh-tah-toh." The reason it upsets me so much is that some people who proclaim to be huge fans of pop culture imported from another country have apparently taken no time to understand and appreciate the cultures they came from. It represents a lack of respect in my eyes.

A similar situation exists in my new state of residence - Texas. There's a river nearby called the Blanco River. Blanco is the word for "white" in Spanish. In Spanish, it would be pronounced "blahn-koh," but people here pronounce it "blayn-koh." It's only one of many rivers, streets, and towns that are named with Spanish words and are deliberately mispronounced. I have a suspicion that it's partly ignorance and partly racism. Race relations in Texas, being so close to the Mexican border, can sometimes be a bit tense between white and Latinx folks. Being so close to so many Spanish speakers, it doesn't seem to me that it would be difficult to learn the correct pronunciation of Blanco. It comes across to me as an intentional disrespect of the culture we borrowed these names from.

Yes, I learned some Japanese, and yes, I took Spanish in college (on my third go 'round). So, I'm probably a bit partial and have a small advantage when pronouncing words from these languages. But, if I were a super huge fan of Bollywood, I'd make an effort to learn a few phrases in Hindi so that I could refer to things by their proper names and give the culture it comes from some proper respect. No, most people don't have the time to run around learning four different languages just so they can go about saying every foreign word in the English lexicon correctly. I get it. However, if you're as big a Kaiju fan as Godzilla is a monster, you'd better learn to say "Goh-ji-rah."

 

*photo by the author, artwork by Mike Groves.

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  • Kiersten Felch 4 months, 2 weeks ago

    I don't think mispronunciation is a lack of respect. It is usually just ignorance. Also remember westernization is just common. There is definitely a line to draw though.

    • Jen Parrilli 4 months, 2 weeks ago

      I think, for the most part, you're right. For an area full of Spanish speakers that used to be part of Mexico though, I'd think it would be easy to pick up the correct names of local landmarks. And, if a person claimed to be really really into something, but hadn't even learned how to say it right, it seems like willful ignorance to me. It's like saying you're a Marvel fan but not knowing how to pronounce Ironman. But hey, these are just my opinions and I'm certainly open to hearing other viewpoints.

  • Nina Appasamy 4 months, 2 weeks ago

    This is a fascinating piece. I do agree with Kiersten that much of the mispronunciation is due to ignorance. I think mispronunciations happens with many people who are unfamiliar with a language. I do think people should make an effort to be more knowledgeable about other cultures and languages, but, for me, the cultural appropriation that is far more damaging than ignorance about another language is that of appropriating the fashion, cultural symbols, etc. Casting white actors as originally non-white characters has also become a damaging trend in Hollywood. There are very few Asian women who are cast in non-stereotypical side roles, meanwhile Emma Stone was cast in *Aloha* as a half-Chinese/half-Hawaiian woman, and Scarlett Johansson played an originally Japanese character in *Ghost in the Shell*. While I think your argument about language is sound, I think that ignorance about languages is less about cultural appropriation and more about ignorance. There are people who mispronounce English words, just as I would probably struggle to pronounce French or Arabic words, since I know neither of those languages. People should be more culturally aware, but mispronunciations are not malicious in nature. The castings of white women in typically-Asian roles, however, does seem to have a malicious, discriminatory root (even if the actors/casting directors, themselves, are good, accepting people).

    • Jen Parrilli 4 months, 1 week ago

      Hi Nina. Interesting perspective. I think you have some good arguments. I do agree that Hollywood's tendency to marginalize people of color is a far bigger problem than what I talk about in this article. I also agree that mispronunciation is largely due to ignorance. However, the point I'm trying to put forward is that intentional mispronunciation by people who should definitely know better (self-proclaimed fanatics and experts) is a bit lazy and disrespectful. I do think that Godzilla certainly qualifies as a cultural symbol, as he was originally a metaphor about the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  • Miranda Fotia 4 months, 1 week ago

    I agree with you. If people say they are huge fans of anime, they should learn everything about it, including how to pronounce it. I don't claim to be a fan of anything without researching and obsessing about it. If you're a true fan, don't be lazy about it. People half-ass everything these days. It's annoying...

  • Tomas Chough 4 months, 1 week ago

    Very interesting experience! It's fascinating how a certain time in history and culture can influence us. Thanks for sharing!