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Hidehiro Nakao

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After 3.11

Hidehiro Nakao
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Pan-pacific literatures and cultures

Public relations films of the nuclear age

Having achieved material prosperity and kept the momentum of winning World War II with two atomic bombs, the United States in the 1950s was conducting unbelievable public relations activities that assumed a nuclear attack from an enemy.

Atomic Alert (1951), for example, is a short movie detailing precautions to observe when encountering a nuclear attack. It mentions radiation, heat waves, and glass fragments as threats from an atomic bomb. Animation illustrates that you are “safe” when you remain in a concrete basement room in a house. Apparently, the film implies that there is no difference among those three threats, and it does not assume a direct hit (Atomic Alert means warning of atomic bomb raids).

The House in the Middle (1954) is composed as a news program featuring images of experiments. While an outer frame shows an anchorperson describing atomic bomb experiments with a grave face and voice, an inner frame plays narrated movies of those experiments.

There are three wooden houses built for experiments. The house in the middle, the protagonist of the film, has well-organized rooms, beautifully repainted external walls, and a neatly arranged yard. The houses on either side of it represent two instances of ill-kept conditions at two levels, “dingy” and “dirty and littered,” with messy rooms, dust drifting in the yard, eroded paint, and so forth.

Then, an experimental atomic bombing is conducted, and the impact of the explosion reaches those three houses. The film confirms experiment results that while both the “dingy” house and the “dirty” house are burnt down—though there is a time difference between them—the “clean white” house “in the middle” is safe!

In the end, the anchorperson in the outer frame concludes that “the reward of cleaning and tidying-up may be survival,” introducing an actual image of children picking up trash in the neighborhood. This film suggests survival skills for the nuclear age.

Happy nuclear families

Although it may sound like a pun, a family structure recommended in the U.S. in the nuclear age was the nuclear family. It was recommended to build a detached house in a new residential area, and full-time housewives were placed at the center of the family in order to accelerate mass production and consumption. This was called the American lifestyle, which was also the dream of post-war Japan.

Life magazine played an important role in the dissemination and penetration of the American lifestyle during this period of the 1950s. This was because the magazine was popular as a large-sized pictorial magazine and therefore its ads had enormous influence. The latest fridges, TV sets, vacuum cleaners, seamless stockings, suits made of new materials, instant coffee, canned soup, cake mix, whisky, beer, cola, cigarettes, tires, gasoline oil, and of course, cars—each of these was an example of material prosperity, and the very targets of these advertisement were nuclear families, and especially full-time housewives.

The March 30 issue of Life in 1953, which was published between the releases of the two publication films mentioned above, features an article entitled “Atomic Bombs vs. An American Home” with pictures reporting the latest experiment conducted in Nevada, where the most frequent atomic bomb experiments in the world had been conducted.

Contrary to the tension felt from the vivid news pictures that the above publication films did not incorporate, the article introduced aspects such as an observation facility that was set up about 10km away from ground zero, with a lunch counter serving hotdogs, sandwiches, coffee and coca cola, and a casino-hotel manager in Las Vegas who said that he “didn’t care about such an experiment unless an impact from an atomic bomb accidentally change an outcome of a cast dice.” The author of the feature article is concerned about the reality where indifference and ignorance prevail, and where even politicians are obtuse about atomic bombs while a countdown to nuclear war is accelerating.

Nevertheless, this grave look was not shared by anyone other than the author of the feature article. The cover of this issue is graced with the elegant style of a countess in an evening dress for the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth, promoting the main feature article highlighting fashion for the coronation ceremony, and the magazine is filled with lavish advertisements depicting examples of the greatest material wealth in the world.

B movies are actually scary

It was undeniable that even full-time housewives in the United States—who seemingly enjoyed the boom of the unprecedented material prosperity—actually had vague but varied dissatisfactions or anxieties. People can seldom be aware of such dissatisfactions or anxieties when they are absorbed in the world’s happiest lifestyle.

In such a situation, the so-called B movies offered a cheap outlet for the negative sentiment that had been quietly forming. From a number of B pictures, here I will introduce Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), which has the dubious honor of being the worst of the 1950s, among others.

A housewife called Nancy encounters an alien, is exposed to a special light, and becomes enormous. The giant housewife chases her cheating husband, who has gone to be with his lover, and takes her revenge. If Nancy were not a giant, the story would be a mean one about an entanglement of jealousy, or a love triangle. As a housewife who is materially rich, her frustrations are only exacerbated, and she turns into a monster full of hate who runs down her husband and his lover. The impact of the vigorous grade-B sensation represents the deeply rooted melancholy, which cannot be removed through the mechanisms of mass production and consumption, as well as the latent anxiety of the nuclear age.

The giant housewife Nancy faces an end typical of B movies, which is totally different from the fates of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Warner, 1953) and Godzilla (Toho, 1954), who were brought back to life by a nuclear experiment and killed by state-of-the-art ultimate weapons. Instead, Nancy—who was also a manager of the latest home electrical appliances that were indispensable to happy nuclear families—is killed by an explosion of electrical transformers for high-voltage lines, the power source of these very appliances. This explosion is caused by an unexpected accident in which the transformer is destroyed by a stray bullet, which was useless when it hit Nancy.

These three episodes in the United States in the 1950s seem highly suggestive to those of us living in the wake of 3.11. It might be a good idea to translate Atomic Alert for us to something like Genpatsu Hokai Keiho, or Warning of the Collapse of Nuclear Power Plants.

Hidehiro Nakao
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Pan-pacific literatures and cultures
Professor Nakao was born in Kamakura in 1956.
He withdrew from the Doctoral Course, Graduate School of Humanities, University of Tokyo, in 1985 to assume the position of Full-Time Lecturer, Tokyo University of Mercantile Marine.
He became an Associate Professor in 1993 and a Professor (his current position) in 1997, Chuo University, after assuming the positions of Full-Time Lecturer and Associate Professor, Meiji University.
His current areas of research are the literatures and cultures of English-speaking countries in the Pan-Pacific region.
In 2009, he studied the visual representation of Indigenous Peoples at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
In Chuo Hyoron magazine, he will finish a serial article entitled “A Flower Way of Pops [Poppusu no Hanamichi]” at the 30th installment in the next issue, and plans to start another serialization titled “Antipodean Portrait Gallery [Sakasama Po-tore-to Gyarari].”