An idea familiar not simply to fans of the Godzilla film franchise—wherein a fire-breathing lizard of monstrous proportions makes his destructive way through the city of Tokyo with destructive results—is that the creature is a metaphor for the results of the weaponization of the atom. That is, the monster is the monstrous indifference and the monstrous destructive force of the bombs called Little Boy and Fat Man which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively, three days apart in August, 1945. In fact, the destruction left in the aftermath of the bombs was still present in the minds of those who made the Godzilla movies. It was a marker for them. They endeavored to create, to recapture the look of that destruction when they made the films. It was always present, always a part of the story.
Jim Shepard is certainly familiar with the power of familiar ideas, and could probably take a familiar idea and write a very serviceable short story. But he is Jim Shepard, an undisputed heavyweight champion—and, really, I dare you to dispute me—of the short story. He is Jim Shepard, a master of the great big human tale offered in miniature. So where a merely okay fictionalized story about Eiji Tsuburaya, the Japanese special effects master responsible for multiple Tokyo flattenings at the clawed feet and swinging tail of the King of Monsters, might tell us how the movie was made; and a very good, serviceable story about it might subtly fold in elements of the post-WWII cultural climate—might tease out and languish a little in the metaphors that speckle the literal and figurative fallout that shrouded Japan—a Jim Shepard story will work in a third level. And it will, quite often, familiarize readers with that level early. Sometimes very early. (Because why be coy about giving a look at the thematic foundations, writers? Is it all the story has going for it?)
In Shepard’s Master of Miniatures—a novella published by new publishing house Solid Objects—the cards are turned face-up in the second sentence, when we learn that Tsuburaya has forgotten a celebration: “He’d forgotten that today was the Star Festival, one of his wife’s favorites, and was beginning to wonder at which he was more adept: hurting Masano inadvertently or intentionally.” Tsuburaya has forgotten the festival because Tsuburaya has one thing on his mind. Tsuburaya, realizing his mistake in time to correct it—to return home to his wife to celebrate the Star Festival with her—will not do so because he has one thing on his mind. He is going to work. Because what Master of Miniatures is about, what is written deep within its DNA, is the way artistic obsession—and the striving to create the perfect artistic expression—can be a monster striding through the landscape of an individuals interpersonal relationships, crushing cars under foot, toppling buildings with its arms, and trailing a deep hollow in the ground behind it with its dragging, indifferent tail. And all this damage can be done without the monster noticing, because all these buildings, all these cars, and all these people exist on a scale far too small for the monster to take notice of.
Master of Miniatures reveals all this to us by juxtaposing scenes of the Japanese special effects master at work, detailing the way the first Godzilla movie was produced in 1954, with scenes from Tsuburaya’s marriage and family life. All play out with characteristic Japanese reserve, too, and readers observe the quiet way a monster can devastate the things in its way. Tsuburaya returns home from the studio one night to find his wife in bed, seemingly asleep. When she enquires as to his progress, asks: “So is your monster ready to go?” he responds in a way belying the amount of time and effort he has put into it. “I think he is, yes,” is all he can manage. This section is followed by a look at Tsuburaya’s youth and education, used to show us the young man’s early interest in model building, but also his relationship with his father, who at one point gives him a choice between the destruction of all his model airplanes and a burn on his hand as punishment for his less than stellar grades. Young Tsuburaya, consumed with his miniatures, takes the burn.
When an artist uses as her or his subject another artist, what often happens is that the creator reveals the strengths—and weaknesses—of her or his own techniques. Master of Miniatures is, in a way, an autobiography of Shepard’s process—the craft choices he uses to tell a story. Tsuburaya and his team of model builders make not just the outsides of the buildings they will have their monster crash through, they make the insides as well. Thus, when the monster tears through a Tokyo street and destroys a building, the floors within can buckle, and the furnishings can spill down and out. Shepard tells the story of Tsuburaya economically. He tells it in miniature. So he spends his paragraphs on small, packed observations—Tsuburaya’s love of his wife’s hands, for example.
In another scene, Shepard describes the way the filmmakers made model plane flight seem more realistic. They hung them not from the top, but from the bottom and filmed them upside down. An audience’s expectation—that a model plane hangs from a barely visible wire connected to the top—is thus undercut. A simple trick assists in the suspension of disbelief. A story as short as Shepard’s—one that manages to have the impact of a longer, lingering piece of novel-length prose—relies on this sort of masterful trickery. It requires a writer who is adept in structural complexity. Master of Miniatures moves back and forth in time, looking at Tsuburaya throughout his life and career. It moves back and forth in scale, looking at his movie industry work, his wartime propaganda films, and his intimate relationships with his wife and family. And it moves back and forth in tone, talking seriously and technically, and then more wistfully and personally. But the wires are carefully hidden.