© Toho Company LTD
The monster is, of course, a U.S.-dropped nuclear bomb in a lizard suit. Two things about Japan and the bomb: first, in the junior highs, all of World War II is taught in a single day: "The Americans dropped the bomb on us and we suffered terribly." You want to roll up a newspaper and whack them on the nose.
Second, the woman who taught you to swear in Japanese—abaoke, conchikusho—was from Hiroshima. A week or two before the bomb, her parents sent her into the countryside, a mountain away, to stay with relatives. Forty years later, she said, she could still remember the sound of the explosion, of people on fire.
And that one maybe makes it wrong that your first and biggest impression of Japan was the radiation glow of Saturday morning TV—that first glimpse that's at some fundamental level responsible for why you packed up and moved here, so you could hear not explosions but the tonic A of temple bells, meditate under the drifting chants of monks, walk through the streets of Kyoto where bonsai twist around themselves like the back sides of fireworks and the women occupy a kind of sine wave of elegance, no matter that they're walking down streets like the one where the mouse crawled out from under a Coke machine and died right at your feet.
All that comes back to exactly this, happening again and again:
"There is no need to panic," the voiceover says while men in white shirts and ties, girls in blue department store uniforms and the grey skirts of office ladies run down stairs that lead to the river where you never go for lunch because it is guarded by flocks of pigeons whose wings sound like skin being pulled back from sunburn. Men carry closed cardboard boxes, because even the film's producers couldn't decide what you'd take if you just found out you were about to be stomped by a radioactive monster. Apparently you don't save family photos, but you do save your pet box so that it will not end up glowing like an old watch dial.
The oddly monochromatic city landscape, the question of why everyone is running up or down stairs, but no one is running down the quite wide avenues. People running not from any actual thing, but only from fear, from fear of crashing debris, fear of size a billion feet, fear of airplanes coming down like mosquitoes at a bug zapper, fear of everything that comes next, fear bigger than an evacuation zone, and you have to wonder, you have to fear, if it's anyone you know running. Did the office girls you work with every day, the one you more than work with, dream a future where that will not happen because there is no time in these movies, only the present progressive, did she leave on time?
Really, the only true question. Is everyone you love safe? Can you keep them that way always?
And that's it. Judging from the light, it's mid afternoon as Yodo gets evacuated, but the serious stomping won't begin until after dark, the dark hiding your hand in the endless softness of the small of her back, a night whose dark hides the fact that the producers don't need to build quite as many details on the soon to be destroyed city that way.
And so now, ever now, you think back to this story at the end of the world, this story about the time the world ended, looking at the running crowd, dodging bricks and tables and desks and shoes and textbooks that try to shift it all to the simple past, lesson 28 in the blue book, "Everyone was afraid."
The monster always walks away from the ruins. As you've not told anyone you're about to do yourself. Being an expat is like holding your breath, but when you can't do it any longer, it blazes out like fire, taking entire lives away with it, the furry smoke of nostalgia.
The monster goes back to the sea. You will go back to where the grocery stores make sense and do not smell of fish and things that shouldn't have been pickled but are.
Because fear makes you so afraid, so afraid that when you hug for the last time at the train station, kiss for the last time at the airport in a city you will forever be unable to return to because it's haunted, it really is the hopelessly vast last time, so you watch these movies over and over and maybe still again now hoping to understand that retreat because you know exactly why these buildings have to come down time after time until the world is a clean slate, why you will forever get on new airplanes to only new places and look down to see what remains below, if it's waiting for the matchstick sound of the end, because here's what you really fear, why you're so afraid right before you run with your suitcase like a pet box, understanding, truly understanding why all those monster suits have been stolen, you fear the release of pure irrevocable destruction of an entire world, the moment when she says she will wait forever and she doesn't.
Edward Readicker–Henderson is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Sierra, Modern Bride, AARP, and dozens of others. Edward has won a Lowell Thomas Award for cultural writing, a Northern Lights award for the year's best travel story on Canada, and has been short–listed in Best American Travel Writing.
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