Monsters, Manipulation, and the Message from Nuclear Films
A sick boy is a metaphor for the disabled nuclear plant in Japan. The video is supposed to explain the incident to Japanese children. (Photo: Kazuhiko Hachiya)
Since the 1950s, films and videos have been produced to inform the public about nuclear energy. John Carroll is a professor of Mass Communication at Boston University. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that the latest video from Japan, Nuclear Boy, is another example of promoting the benefits of nuclear energy and downplaying the negatives.
GELLERMAN: The cult classic, Godzilla, was made at the dawn of the atomic age.
TAPE: "Tokyo. Once a city of 6 million people …. What has happened here was caused by a force, which up until two days ago was entirely beyond the scope of man’s imagination"….
GELLERMAN: Godzilla was born of an atomic blast. It’s a cautionary story from the nation where nuclear weapons were first used.
SFX: "Steve how about that monster story of yours….Well, it’s big and terrible. [MONSTER ROARING]
GELLERMAN: Now fast forward to Japan in March 2011. Another nuclear character makes the scene. He’s Nuclear Boy, born of the crisis at the Fukushima power plant.
Nuclear Boy- 2011
[SOUNDS OF NUCLEAR BOY FILM: TALKING IN JAPANESE]
GELLERMAN: Nuclear Boy stars in an animated video that’s gone viral. He’s a little boy with a stomachache, he represents a sick nuclear power plant.
[FARTING SOUND FROM NUCLEAR BOY FILM CLIP]
GELLERMAN: When nuclear boy passes gas, he’s emitting radiation. And doctors worry that he might poop, which would be a melt down. The video has English subtitles - which is good because I don’t speak Japanese. Nor does my guest John Carroll. John Carroll is a professor of Mass Communication at Boston University. We asked him to help analyze some films from the golden era of atomic energy - and "Nuclear Boy".
CARROLL: When I first saw this I thought this is really a concept with a capital K. But when you put it in context of Japanese society, it actually makes a little bit more sense. And when you put it in the context of playing it for kids, um, then it does a pretty good job of describing what’s actually going on there.
I mean, the language that they use actually, well, on the surface, it actually downplays the danger and talks about ruining your day, smelling up your neighborhood. And the whole bowel movement thing is something I think is pretty foreign to the American public. But I think it’s something that kids can identify with, that kids can understand, and I think that it at least explains what’s happening in general terms, so they have some kind of orientation.
GELLERMAN: Let’s play a little bit more of Nuclear Boy. Basically what they’re saying is that Three-Mile Island was an incident where a lot of gas was being passed - Chernobyl Boy had diarrhea.
[CLIP IN JAPANESE, WITH BLUEGRASS MUSIC]
GELLERMAN: Kind of an upbeat message there, John.
CARROLL: Uh, yeah, it’s basically saying whatever happens it’s not going to be as bad as Chernobyl, so that’s encouraging to everybody. I think that this is, it’s weird until you start to think back in terms of what we had in the 50s, for instance. We had Bert the Turtle in a duck and cover video, which basically said what to do when the atom bomb falls is to duck and cover and try and get under a table.
Duck and Cover- 1951
[BERT THE TURTLE VIDEO: There was a turtle by the name of Bert, and Bert the Turtle was very alert. When danger threatened him, he never got hurt, he knew just what to do. He'd duck and cover. Duck and cover.]
CARROLL: So that was even more ridiculous than what we have here with nuclear boy.
GELLERMAN: But you know, kids back there in the 50s were getting a heavy dose of information at the dawn of the nuclear era - I want you to listen to this one, a familiar tune:
[MUSIC: WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR…]
CARROLL: So there you have the wonderful world of Disney signature tune, and what you’ve got here is a way to try to give kids some orientation, a way to give them a comfort level - they can relate it to Walt Disney.
[FILM - WALT DISNEY:The atom is our future. It is a subject everyone wants to understand, so we felt it was a most important topic, for our Tomorrowland program.]
GELLERMAN: Walt Disney was a big proponent of nuclear power.
CARROLL: I think he was a big proponent of the future in general. The future was good for business for him.
[FILM -WALT DISNEY: We made plans to build an exhibit at Disneyland to show you atomic energy in action…]
GELLERMAN: Well, let’s call it manipulation, or propaganda, I guess, right?
CARROLL: You could call it propaganda to some degree - I mean, it’s not that it was entirely untrue, it’s just that there was this sort of techno-optimism that they evoked all the time. It puts things in a context that downplays the potential dangers, and plays up the potential benefits of atomic energy.
GELLERMAN: Hey, John, did you every see Ready Kilowatt, that was the industry’s commercial for promoting nuclear power back then.
[SONG: I was and dry your clothes, play your radios, I can heat your coffee pot..]
CARROLL: I love Ready Kilowatt!
[SONG: I am always there, with lots of power to spare, cos I’m Ready Kilowatt!]
CARROLL: He was just the kind of guy that was an excellent mascot, and, I can say, he was always welcome in our home.
[MUSIC FROM FILM]
GELLERMAN: Well, this was a film from the 50s by the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. And basically it was kind of downplaying the medical concerns people had about radiation exposure.
[FILM: The estimated dose to bring about permanent sterility exceeds the lethal dose, so obviously sterility by radiation will be just obviously incidental, a matter a dead man wouldn’t worry about…]
Nuclear Aspects of Nuclear Radiation- 1950
CARROLL: That’s very comforting, isn’t it? Don’t worry, you’ll be dead way before you’ll be sterile…
CARROLL: Ah… the tone of this video is very odd - it’s very insider-y, it’s very joke-y. I mean, they say at one point is the best protection against atomic explosions is to be somewhere else when they happen. You know, that’s setting the bar pretty low there.
GELLERMAN: The United States isn’t alone in producing these films, by a long stretch. I want you to listen to this… I know you don’t speak Russian, but you don’t need to know what it’s saying, I think to get the message. This is from 1977 and it takes place in Ukraine, Chernobyl.
[RUSSIAN FILM PLAYS]
CARROLL: Yeah, yeah, there I’m picking up the phone and calling Charlie Schwab and saying, you know, buy me some futures in Chernobyl. I mean, that kind of thing is how these enterprises always start out - they always start out with this optimism, with this sort of sunny-side up view of what’s going to happen, and sometimes they play out and sometimes they don’t. I’m sure Three-Mile Island had a nice little groundbreaking too.
GELLERMAN: John, what were we thinking back then? Were we more gullible, were we more naive?
CARROLL: I think we were more trusting, for one thing. I think there was a trust in the government in particular - in major institutions that we don’t have now. There wasn’t that much competition back then. So they could have essentially established a narrative that would take hold because there was no counter-narrative that was being put forward.
If you put some of this stuff out now, what you would have is Greenpeace all over them, you would have the blogs critiquing them, you would have parody videos on youtube. I mean, what you had back then was much easier to go out and establish a context and to convince people to see things from a particular perspective, because of the way the media landscape was constructed.
GELLERMAN: What do you think would be an effective way of talking about nuclear energy today?
CARROLL: There are a couple of ways. I mean I think one of the interesting things about Nuclear Boy, over in Japan, was that it was crowd-sourced. That it was something that didn’t come from some authority figure; it was something that came from the people, and to solve a particular problem. And I think that if you had more of that sense - more of that sense of things coming up from the bottom, rather then coming down from the top, you could establish some kind of credibility. But I think that that's the way to go, is to create a conversation, and try to go from there, rather than this sort of authoritarian voice that no longer has the credibility, no longer has the authority and no longer has the trust of a large part of the American public.
GELLERMAN: Well, John, it’s always a pleasure. Thanks a lot.
CARROLL: Thank you, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: John Carroll is a professor of Mass Communications at Boston University. His blog is Campaign Outsider dot com.
[SFX – FILM FROM THE 50s: Remember, just plug in. I'm ready!!]
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