Rating: 4.5/5 – My ears were ringing after viewing the illustrations of Godzilla’s roar
Collects issues #1-5 of the mini-series
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” – Alleged quote from the diary of Naval Marshal Soroku Yamamoto, after leading the attack on Pearl Harbor
No man could ever truly conquer the world. Sometimes you will lose. It’s a hard reality that everyone will have to make peace with at some point. No Godzilla story would be complete without representing this theme head-on. And no review of Godzilla: The Half Century War would be complete without setting a setting a grand, epic stage (see quote, above).
There is stark symbolism in Godzilla, as with all of Ishiro Honda’s ‘giant monster’ (aka: kaiju) stories. But this symbolism requires some context for those not immediately familiar with the cultural backdrop of the original story. First, to be clear, there are no shortage of interpretations to take with this material. My own interpretations aren’t of consequence for this review. What is important is that this particular story is ripe with powerful symbolism. That said, my background with this material can’t help but color my review. Allow me to elaborate.
I grew up largely in southeast Asia. Consequently, there were two hegemonic cultural forces that influenced my world from without most strongly: the United States and Japan. Desperate to claim my American identity while growing up abroad, I naturally found myself gravitating towards whatever American forms of pop culture storytelling I could lay my mitts on. Most notable of these stories, at least in the printed realm of pop entertainment: American comic books. I was determined to find any and all American comics to share with my friends who so readily embraced Japanese manga. However, there was one purely Japanese story that completely shattered through my defenses in all storytelling mediums. I was powerless against its might. Which story was this, you might ask? I’ll give you one big monster of a guess!
So you can imagine my particular delight and apprehension in seeing this property tackled from a North American’s perspective (James Stokoe, who both wrote and illustrated this work, is Canadian) A North American tackling these intrinsically Japanese themes invites all manners of potential mishandling, or even insult. Heck, it’s no secret that Godzilla was a originally conceived as an overt symbol of the United States from Japan’s post-war perspective (this is the case, despite what the American edit of the original Godzilla film went through great lengths to edit out!) Indeed, politics, nationalism and all manners of sticky subjects are inherently built into the story. So it can be a little tense whenever a new creator attempts to lend his or her own voice into this tale.
Godzilla, and the kaiju concept of radiated mega-monsters, stems directly from Japan’s unique and tragic relationship with nuclear weaponry. Without getting political, resorting to generalities or trying to make sense of the endlessly complex flow of history, the fact remains that the Japanese psyche following the second World War was completely unique. The transition from following an emperor worshiped as a deity to facing a full-scale and total defeat (that was hammered home with the sudden use of a destructive technology that was previously unimaginable in scale) forced humbleness upon a proud, and geographically isolated, people.
In short, in 1954 Japan, there were influences at play in the day to day lives of the ordinary Japanese people that they were powerless to control. Godzilla attempts to conceptualize those endlessly complex forces in a way that’s much easier to wrap one’s head around than actual events.
Fortunately, The Half Century War isn’t all gloom like the original Godzilla film—which is, admittedly, a product of its time, melodrama and all. Instead, The Half Century War provides quite a bit of the more lighthearted fun that kaiju stories came to embrace after the original film, and it injects this humor without sacrificing the core themes that make the franchise unique and compelling.
The Half Century War wisely centers its narrative around the life of ordinary men. This man—Lieutenant Ota Murakami—grapples with these larger-than-life forces as he is tasked with facing them directly. His mission to somehow ‘stop’ Godzilla effectively becomes the great physical and psychological manifestation of all that is insurmountable in Ota’s life. With this journey driving the plot, I’m happy to report that Stokoe most definitely ‘gets it’, at least, as far as I’m concerned. As a writer, Stokoe taps into this symbolic power of the kaiju and mines it appropriately, even if a bit conservatively.
The story follows the exploits of Ota from Godzilla’s first appearance in 1954 to 2002. The very human, fatalistic underpinnings are explored quite well; and that alone would make this one of the better modern kaiju stories. That said, it is the inspired art smashing through the page that give Half Century War its true power. The monsters seem to tear through the page as effortlessly as they topple the cities they plunder.
Stokoe channels the raw imaginative power of Ishiro Honda’s original vision as few others have. I couldn’t imagine the property in better hands from a visual standpoint—and I’m not just talking about comics here! Aided with an electric wash of color by colorist Heather Breckel, Stokoe lends a level of detail to his work that defies logic. He punctuates the raw power of his creature designs with literally thousands of muscle contours and scales without ever allowing the designs to appear stiff and photo-realistic.
The fully-realized imaginative power on display here is absolutely staggering. And as it’s all moving at a frantic pace, Stokoe doesn’t miss a beat. James Stokoe does the franchise service and dares it to reach an even higher level of vivid and powerful life.
I swear, my ears were ringing after viewing the illustrations of Godzilla’s roar. By the final page, I surrendered to Stokoe.
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