By Dustin Jayroe // Photography by Jamison Mosley
A tranquil night in Tokyo has been disturbed by panic. As October’s full moon began to rise above the skyline at dusk, climbing high above the stories-tall buildings, something below the surface of the sea also began its ascent. A creature far more nefarious than a Halloween’s gloom; more shuddering than the 13th on a Friday, towering at a rivaling height of the skyscrapers. With each lumbering step, a seismic vibration. With each swing of its reptilian tail, a domicile decimation.
Shrieks of terror and a stampeding crowd in flee ripple chaos and pandemonium through the streets. Some saw firsthand what emerged from the depths — its scales the size of trucks, feet the size of city blocks — others merely reacted to the screams. But all have heard enough stories to know that when this monster’s name is uttered, flight is the only choice worth considering. Godzilla.
Conway resident William “Bill” Tsutsui has been an educator for nearly all of his adult life. The Harvard- and Princeton-educated product spent almost two decades in the history department at Kansas University before becoming a dean at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and, ultimately, president of Hendrix College. But beneath the surface of the many letters that succeed his name — A.B., M.A., M.Litt., Ph.D. — lies something perplexing and curious. The historian is infatuated with a particular lizard of lore.
He was just a boy when he first laid eyes on who would become his lifelong love. An outsider in his time and setting, he was born in New York City in 1963, but spent most of his adolescence growing up in Bryan, Texas. He recollects that his family was one of only two Japanese-American families in the city at the time.
“Folks really didn’t know what a Japanese-American was,” he says. “In the sort of imaginary of Bryan back then, you were either white, Black or Mexican. So, when my father, who was from Japan, would walk down the street, people often spoke to him in Spanish — because he wasn’t white, he wasn’t Black, so he must be Mexican.”
As some of the townsfolk began to slowly learn that the Tsutsui family was of Japanese descent, there was a little less racial confusion, but plenty of problems still. In elementary school, Tsutsui was an outcast — bullied and mocked. He looked much different than the other children and had a “funny name.” Tsutsui recalls being derided and teased often about Pearl Harbor; although the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base had occurred 30 years prior, those memories still begat misunderstanding and prejudice from many Americans.
But everything changed when Godzilla emerged.
Tsutsui can still picture vividly the memories of his first experience with the kaiju, lying on the shag carpeting of his parents’ bedroom one Saturday afternoon. He was glued to a television screen that lacked the crispness and clarity of today’s standards, but he had no trouble making out the larger-than-life figure featured in the program — a monster, powerful and strong, walking through Tokyo, making chemical plants explode and knocking over skyscrapers.
“On the one hand, I was a kid, right. I wanted to be the monster. I wanted to be big and mean and angry and destructive,” Tsutsui says. “But I also saw an opportunity to have a more powerful understanding of Japan and my Japanese-American identity. Godzilla was something that my friends recognized was ‘sort of cool.’ And so I embraced that and, in the process, became a little bit more confident about where I came from and who I was.”
An unprecedented threat has befallen New York City. Calls have been overwhelming emergency hotlines for more than an hour, reporting sights of something unfathomably large swimming toward the harbor, with its fin-like spines protruding from the sea’s surface like a shark’s dorsal fin. But this is no fish; it’s a monster.
By the time it arrives in New York, the U.S. Army is waiting. Godzilla is a well-known figure in Japan; in America, he’s an immigrant, foreign, alien. Infantry fire on this prehistoric force of nature, but no damage is done to the beast. Peculiarly, Godzilla does not retaliate, instead setting his sights on the real threat — looming above, shrouded by the clouds. A bellowing screech precedes the downward swoop of a pterodactyl-looking creature with a 900-foot wingspan, just as menacing and cretaceous in appearance as Godzilla.
For what seems like hours, the two spar across the city, fighting for the rights to the planet; Rodan a destroyer, Godzilla a protector. The humans can only helplessly watch, hoping that the victor will be more an ally than a foe.
At long last, Rodan concedes to his opponent, head bowed in an unspoken yet understood agreement. With a flap of its wings, Rodan retreats to hibernation at Isla de Mara, off the eastern coast of Mexico.
Godzilla silently returns to the depths of the ocean, a toppled city in his wake, but a utilitarian service provided. His status challenged but unchanged: King.
As Tsutsui’s adoration of Godzilla grew, so too did the common interest between him and his peers at Davey Crockett Elementary School. On the playground, the imaginative comrades would role-play scenes from the Japanese monster movies. Their steps exaggerated as building crushing stomps, arms flapping like wings. They would wrestle with all their might, clashing like the titans each was embodying.
“The beauty of Godzilla is the series created all these monsters — Mothra and King Ghidorah and Rodan and so forth,” he says. “And, of course, the movies are very physical. It’s like pro wrestling in monster suits. So, if you’re a kid, you just want to copy that and do it.”
And just as Tsutsui began to find himself with the help of a monster, he found acceptance and friendship – two things that any child who is chronically on the outside looking in yearns for. But of course, Tsutsui always called dibs on playing as Godzilla. Which worked out perfectly, because his best friend loved King Kong. “We were a match made in heaven,” Tsutsui jokes.
As time would go on, his life would continue to be a similar juxtaposition of the very monster he adores. As an adolescent, Tsutsui was misunderstood on the basis of racial ignorance, as has Godzilla been in many plotlines (not a villain, an anti-hero). And just as the young Tsutsui loved to mimic Godzilla in elementary school, as he got older and the schools absent of playgrounds, he took another card out of the monster’s playbook: hibernation.
“I discovered when I went to high school and college that loving Godzilla wasn’t actually that cool,” he says behind a laugh. “You don’t get many dates from loving Godzilla. So, my affection for the monster went underground for a number of years.”
Ironically, it was after Tsutsui joined the workforce that Godzilla would resurface in his public-facing persona.
“When I started teaching Japanese history, I thought one day, ‘You know, there’s a lot to learn about Japanese history and culture from these old movies, I’m going to try using them in class,’” he recalls. “My students absolutely loved them. And I found it was the ultimate sucker punch in teaching because absolutely no one watches a giant monster movie thinking they are going to learn something meaningful. And yet my students could have fun watching the monsters fight and also learn about the economy, the politics and the culture of post-war Japan at the same time.”
Godzilla’s first appearance in any medium was in the 1954 Japanese film, Godzilla, directed by Ishirō Honda. In the film, it is believed that Godzilla was awoken from H-bomb testing and is virtually unkillable. He terrorizes, destroys and kills his way around Japan, using both his atomic breath and sheer might. But this version of Godzilla was not written as a mindless menace, rather, a metaphor for the detriments that humanity is capable of unearthing. And, of course, in post-war Japan, this monster capable of destroying on the scale of the same atomic bombs that had been dropped on the country was the most terrifying yet reality-inspired story imaginable.
In the modern day, many academics have found agreement about the social and political undertones that lie within the movie, which allowed Japanese audiences to connect to and even relate to the monster. Many viewers could easily view Godzilla as a victim in the film, with a backstory that was not dissimilar to the experiences felt post-Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It is also looked back on now as a potential cultural coping mechanism that created a parallel to taking responsibility for man-made destruction, and how to move on from that.
In America, Honda’s film would not be made widely available until 2004. A very edited version of the film was released in the United States in 1956, which included new footage from a different director, and had trimmed out nearly all of the motifs and metaphors. It was essentially just a monster movie, having lost the depth originally intended. This altered version was the one released on the broadest scale; the one that introduced Godzilla to most of the world.
“Americans never realized how serious Godzilla could be and how it really offered meaningful political commentary on some of the biggest issues of the post-war world,” Tsutsui says.
The radioactive lizard quickly became an icon of popular culture everywhere but was often misinterpreted and redeveloped outside of the original film’s essence.
As soon as Tsutsui identified a path of instruction through pop-culture, he fully embraced the idea — and his favorite monster — again.
At the time, Tsutsui was also an author, having written multiple books, mostly on the topic of economics. But Godzilla is a much more fun subject to write about, especially for an obsessive such as he. In 2004, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the original film, Tsutsui wrote “Godzilla on My Mind: 50 Years of the King of the Monsters,” which was regarded as a “cult classic” by the New York Times.
After the success of that book, Tsutsui became a bit of an icon himself, even developing his own nickname, which would have made his 7-year-old self very proud: Professor Godzilla. Although, he does relent that at least part of why he was bestowed that moniker is simply because his students had difficulty pronouncing his last name. (Tsutsui: suit-sooie. “Suit of clothing and calling the Hogs … perfect for Arkansas.”)
The Godzilla part of him remained when he was named the new president of Hendrix in 2013, all the more ironic yet endearing as ever. Tsutsui graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, received his Ph.D. in history at Princeton, and was dean of the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at SMU. He served as president of the Kansas Historical Society and was on the Kansas Humanities Council’s board of directors. After moving to Arkansas to helm Hendrix, he occupied board spots at the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. This year, he was named to the Japan-United States Friendship Commission. The list of his accolades is sprawling, and the number of organizations who covet his presence even more so. All the while, his office is littered with Godzilla memorabilia. When he retired from his podium at Hendrix at the end of 2019, he estimates that artifacts of the monster accounted for 10 boxes worth when he cleaned out his office.
“My wife, of course, won’t let me display any Godzillas in the house. She’s a very sensible woman,” he jokes. “So I’m just waiting until after the pandemic’s over, and I have an office again. Then I can break out the monsters.”
But his retirement isn’t an ushering in of the end of Professor Godzilla — far from it. After leaving Hendrix, but still from his home in Conway, Tsutsui became the Edwin O. Reischauer Distinguished Visiting Professor at Harvard, teaching in the departments of Japanese studies and East Asian languages and civilizations. In the spring, he is teaching a course on Japanese monsters, which will include talk of cryptozoology, comparisons between the monsters of the east and west, monsters in religion and literature, and, of course, Godzilla.
“I don’t think I would be so comfortable in my skin as a Japanese-American without Godzilla, and definitely I would not have had the success I’ve had as a scholar without the big guy to help me along,” he says. “When my obituary is written, I guarantee it will use the word ‘Godzilla’ more than ‘Tsutsui.’”