January 2011

Michael Schaub


Master of Miniatures by Jim Shepard

I no longer remember how old I was when I saw my first Godzilla movie, or which one it was, though I do remember it was at the dogged insistence of my brother. It was maybe on Project Terror or Screaming Meemies, two local TV programs in San Antonio, Texas, that played horror movies on the weekends. (If I'm remembering correctly. This was 25, maybe 30 years ago, when I was small, and before local television stations became boring and syndicated.) And maybe the movie was Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, a stupid, unwatchable American version of the original 1954 Japanese film Gojira. (It's the same movie, but with most anti-nuclear references, and any sense of narrative coherency, removed; and English-language dubbing, and, for some reason, Raymond Burr added in.)

My brother would remember. He was the ultimate Godzilla fanboy, had seen every movie -- even the terrible Matthew Broderick one in the '90s, which, were he still alive, he would punch me in the face for even mentioning. I watched every one of the Godzilla movies with him, or every one of the old ones. (He would not want me to say “the old ones.” OK. Every one of the Shōwa era films. See, dude? I did listen! I do remember something!)

I loved the movies because I loved my brother. I mean, I enjoyed them. When I watched them I was too young to argue, anyway, too young to change the channel. But I didn't get them the way he did. As crazy as it is to say -- I know the number of Godzilla fans isn't exactly a small one; hence, perhaps the upcoming new adaptation of the original, which could well be good but will almost certainly suck, though I digress -- I'm not sure anyone got them the way he did. I watched Gojira again, recently. I had questions for him; wished I had listened more closely in the past. I almost wrote the questions down, then I realized I couldn't.

Not long after that, I read this book, a novella by Jim Shepard (Love and Hydrogen, Project X). I waited a few days and read it again. Master of Miniatures is short, and it's understated, and it gets Godzilla, but it also gets his father -- or one of his fathers, Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director who made Gojira what it was (and who later created Ultraman). Shepard's Tsuburaya is lonely. He is wrapped up in work, becoming increasingly estranged from his wife, unable to be anything like a normal father to his sons. His own father burned Tsuburaya's hands as a child as punishment for bad grades; he tortures himself with memories like that one. But:

…Tsuburaya also remembered him taking them on the hottest days for shaved ice, with grape, strawberry, or lemon syrup… He remembered insect festivals in the evenings when the autumn grasses bloomed and the singing insects they'd gathered in their tiny cages were, at an agreed-upon stroke, all freed, and how they waited -- himself, his grandmother, Ichiro, and his father -- for that moment when the cicadas would get their bearings, puzzle out their freedom, and let loose their rejoicing in song.

So he moves on. He goes to work; he hires his son to work with him, over the strong and heartfelt objections of his wife, still grieving deeply for her daughter, who died, as a baby, in her sleep. He abandons her on the day of the Star Festival, “one of his wife's favorites, and was beginning to wonder at which he was more adept: hurting Masano inadvertently or intentionally.” Instead, he goes to work. He constructs a city in miniature. He helps design an icon: “Of course it would have a Tyrannosaur's head, but an Iguanodon's body seemed an easier fit for a stuntman's requirements... And Honda added a Stegosaur's back plates along the spine to ensure their creature would appear distinct from any recorded species.” He makes it move. He creates a monster.

This is a book about Eiji Tsuburaya that might also be -- accidentally, perhaps -- the truest book ever written about Godzilla. He's barely there, of course -- there's the costume, and there's Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka, the stuntmen who wore the 220-pound outfit. But he's there in Tsuburaya -- lonely but not alone, confused, misunderstood by even himself, resigned, victimized by the recent war, gutted by loss. They do what they have to do. It's self-defense. It's work.

It's nearly impossible to know what to say about Master of Miniatures, which departs so radically from Shepard's early work, it doesn't exactly feel like the work of the same author. That's not to say it's any less brilliant; this is probably his best work, along with his chilling 2004 school shooting novel, Project X. If there's a theme, it's this: Jim Shepard writes about alienation, about unbelonging, than pretty much anyone else in America today. It's maybe that feeling that my brother understood. He belonged to us, but he hated belonging to anything else. I think.

And so it ended up that at his funeral, mourners wore Godzilla t-shirts. My mother, almost 60, wore one. It ended up that on his birthday, the first one he wasn't alive to see, I watched Mothra vs. Godzilla with friends. I tried to salvage whatever I could from these hours. I felt lost and alienated, and I wondered if I got it now. I wondered if I should read Shepard's book a third time, knowing I loved it and it would make me sick. I haven't yet. It's there on top of a DVD loaned to me by a friend, the last movie of any kind, I think, that my brother recommended to me: Godzilla: Final Wars, one of his favorites. (How many conversations did I have with him where he didn't mention Godzilla? Not many, and this comforts me.) Eiji Tsuburaya would move on. He would get over it. He would go back to work.

But I know I have to watch it. (Right, dude? I remembered the name this time, even though they all kind of sound a like to me! And I can't move on, man. I can't get over it. But I have to go back to work.)

Master of Miniatures by Jim Shepard
Solid Objects
ISBN: 0984414231
56 Pages