Sixty years ago today, on November 3, 1954, a strange little film called Gojira was released in theaters in Japan. Made on a shoestring budget (the equivalent of $900,000 today) and directed by Ishiro Honda, once the assistant to the legendary Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, Gojira was something entirely new to world cinema. Part science-fiction, part horror, part disaster movie and part social commentary, this strange picture about a knobby avocado-skinned 200-foot dinosaur rampaging through Tokyo caught audiences by surprise, and its unexpected runaway success launched a whole new genre: the Japanese monster movie. The film and its saurian star clinched their hold on non-Japanese audiences when the picture was released in the west under its much more well-known title, Godzilla.
The giant-monster-rampaging-through-urban-Japan picture is now thought of, at least by Western audiences, as a staple of bad Saturday afternoon and pre-dawn A.M. television. But seen in its historical context, Godzilla is something entirely different. It could only have been made in Japan, and it could only have been made in the Japan of the 1950s. At its heart Godzilla is not about monsters or fantastic creatures. It’s about the atomic bomb, and the curious nexus between defeat in war and environmental catastrophe that, at least in 1954, the Japanese were the only people on earth who could truly understand.
The film was the brainchild of Japanese producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, and, indirectly, of U.S. military planners. In early 1954 the U.S. military conducted a test detonation of a nuclear weapon at Bikini Atoll, which they had already ruined eight years previously in an appalling disregard for the islands’ inhabitants and their environment. The 1954 test created fallout that rained down across the Pacific. Some fell on unwitting Japanese fishermen in a boat called the Lucky Dragon, and the crew suffered severe radiation poisoning. One man died. Tanaka saw the incident as linked to the Japanese national trauma of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which also caused extreme environmental effects. He was slated to do a picture for Toho, postwar Japan’s major film studio, and when a previous idea fell through he and Honda came up with the idea of a giant monster spawned by pollution and U.S. nuclear testing. The damage Godzilla wreaks upon Tokyo is a direct reference to the annihilation of Hiroshima at the end of World War II.
But Godzilla is more than a monster movie, and does more than traffic in fears, very common in the 1950s, of nuclear war. In trampling Tokyo the creature does more than just knock down power lines and smash buildings. Godzilla, ostensibly a force of nature but brought to the forefront by the activities of man, humiliates Japan. He is the ultimate unintended consequence of a military and strategic action. This aspect of the film resonated with the Japanese in 1954, I think, far more than they did with Western audiences (especially those who watched the version with Raymond Burr, whose scenes were shot specifically for the Western releases). Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War was a deep rebuke to its centuries-long military traditions, so deep that, as a nation, Japan abandoned almost all military activities after 1945–a condition imposed by American occupation forces that rewrote Japan’s constitution, but one that was, for the most part, sincerely embraced by the Japanese people. The humiliation of the defeat in World War II certainly wasn’t healed by the mid-1950s, when Japan had only just emerged from the occupation. Godzilla plays on this insecurity in a subtle way.
The destruction–human, national and environmental–visited upon Japan in 1945 is essential to understanding why Godzilla resonated with audiences in Japan nine years later.
This is not to say for a moment that the United States, the conquering power in World War II, was not to blame for much of Japan’s woe. We can argue whether the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the horrific firebombings of Tokyo and other cities were necessary or moral, but they did happen, and like Godzilla in the film, U.S. forces were unstoppable. But Godzilla paints the threat, and the responsibility for unleashing it, in broader terms. The U.S. used nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Bikini Atoll, but isn’t it the failure of all mankind that unleashed the nuclear menace in the first place? Was it not a global breakdown of institutions–political, economic, and cultural–that gave rise to the war that skewed rationality and reality so severely out of whack that nuclear weapons became not only thinkable and doable, but essential? This may be the true message of Godzilla. We can no longer think in terms of nations. We must think globally. This view of the world, now so essential to our environmental consciousness in dealing with global problems like climate change, was very new in 1954, at least to see on a movie screen on a Saturday afternoon.
Particularly in the West we may think of Godzilla and its many progeny–Gamera, Rodan, Mothra and the like–as cheesy popcorn films full of gleeful destruction and vaguely comic monsters, fit mostly for the entertainment of children. But far from the plastic facade so easily mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and other instruments of pop culture, Godzilla is a pretty profound movie, dealing with issues no less momentous than the life or death of the human family. That’s a lot to carry on the shoulders of a guy in a rubber suit stomping around on a miniature train set.