Since his debut in 1954's Gojira Godzilla has remained a hallmark of popular culture. From fighting King Kong to space aliens to stomping through model cities Godzilla has a certain perception in the media. However, Godzilla has his origins in a dark part of Japan's history. When we watch the later Godzilla movies we often forget how dark and foreboding the first movie was - after all when Godzilla is destroying Tokyo a mother clutches her sons saying 'We'll be with daddy soon'. Since 1954 Godzilla has represented fears of both the past and future.
Japan Before Godzilla
|The ruins of Hiroshima|
In 1945 Japan's attempt at empire came crashing down. On 16 July 1945 years of work as part of the Manhattan Project succeeded in creating the most destructive weapon in human history: the nuclear bomb. On August 6 the destructive potential of the bomb was shown to the world when 'Little Boy' was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later another, 'Fat Man', was dropped on Nagasaki. A brief flash of bright light precipitated a loud boom and firestorm which tore through the two cities. Twelve square kilometers of Hiroshima and 30% of its population were wiped out by the fires of Little Boy. Meanwhile, Nagasaki burnt as winds pushed the bomb's fires through the city, but due to the lack of fuel density which Hiroshima had no firestorm occurred in Nagasaki. Thanks to the two bombs somewhere between 129,000 and 226,000 people were killed - most of whom were civilians. Despite the destruction of two cities in such a manner it would take until the obliteration of the Kwantung army by the Soviet Union for Japan to surrender.
After Japan's surrender until 1952 Japan was occupied in theory by the Allied powers, but in reality it was just the United States - it can also be argued that as the US has military bases on Okinawa the Occupation is still happening. The Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), George MacArthur, oversaw a radical shift in Japanese society, aided by Japanese officials themselves, to ensure that Japan would never be a threat to primarily the US again. As mentioned Japanese officials often aided SCAP with the Occupation; for example, many politicians were in favor of Article 9 of the Constitution which prevents Japan from declaring war or holding an official army (although the Self-Defense Force is an army in all but name). We could easily devote an entire post to the Occupation but for discussing Godzilla we need to look at one thing in particular: censorship.
|SCAP had this image of MacArthur with Emperor Hirohito distributed The Japanese press tried to censor it but SCAP overrode them|
Censorship was a current during the Occupation. At first SCAP authorities, and Japanese officials, applied censorship only to Japan's imperial past where texts which venerated the empire, and to an extent the emperor, were heavily censored. Although it must be noted that freedom of expression did increase under the Occupation. One key example of SCAP's censoring is the censoring of textbooks. Since 1868 Japan had focused heavily on schools and had used them to basically indoctrinate children. Until new textbooks could be printed entire sections of existing textbooks were blotted out! SCAP was fearful of criticisms of the Allies and the Occupation as criticisms could allow the increase in support for the old Japan, or possibly garner support for communism which had become a major issue for the US in East Asia - especially after the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. As a result negative discussion of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were censored, and when it was discussed it wasn't treated particularly seriously. For example, the 1952 movie Never Forget the Song of Nagasaki features the bombing as a side-note to romance story where a beautiful hibakusha (survivor of a nuclear bomb) overcomes her hatred of Americans when she falls in love with a kind GI. Only after the end of Occupation did criticism of the bombings happen.
On 1 March 1954 the US tested a new thermonuclear weapon in the Bikini Atoll in the present-day Marshall Islands. The fallout through unexpected weather spread outside the danger zone and into the path of a tuna trawler named Lucky Dragon 5. The crew of the trawler were exposed to radiation and the radio operator, Kuboyama Aikichi, died of the poisoning which caused Japan to go into panic. Soon memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came to the forefront and fears over nuclear bombs permeated every section of society. Things were amplified a year later when 12-year old Sadako Sasaki from Hiroshima died of leukemia caused by the nuclear bomb. With memories of the bombs circulating in Japan director Tanaka Tomoyuki became inspired. Tanaka had seen the movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms - a movie about a monster freed from the Arctic ice by nuclear weapons and then went on to attack New York - and had wanted to make his own kaiju (giant monster) movie. He had been in Jakarta trying to get the Indonesian government to release an Indonesian-Japanese movie about the Japanese occupation (which he failed to get approved), and when flying back home he imagined making a movie where a sea monster rose from the depths to attack Japan like the Rhedosaurus in 20,000 Fathoms. This idea blended with the news of the Lucky Dragon 5 to create Gojira. Director Honda Ishiro was brought on board and soon cinematic history would be made.
|Godzilla as a mushroom cloud|
Godzilla was initially envisioned to be a gorilla-whale hybrid and his Japanese name was meant to be a mixture of the Japanese of 'gorilla' and 'whale' (gorira and kujira) but it was changed to be a dinosaur mutated by American bomb tests. Gojira's design was heavily inspired by recent memories of nuclear warfare. His head was constructed was so that at certain angles it would resemble a mushroom cloud and his scales were meant to resemble the burns caused by the bomb on hibakusha. When Godzilla marched around he emitted radiation and the opening of the movie a boat with 'No.5' on the side is destroyed in a white blast. The movie also focuses on dead tuna, poisoned by Godzilla's radiation, as a metaphor for what was happening in Japan. Following the Lucky Dragon 5 Incident Japan faced a tuna shortage as the government banned fishing in case irradiated fish went onto the markets. Finally, Gojira's destruction of Tokyo resembled the destruction caused by American bombing of Japan's cities during the Second World War. Gojira is only killed by an even more destructive weapon than the nuclear bomb, the oxygen destroyer, and its creator went down with the weapon to avoid its secret getting out. When Gojira was released in the US, under the name Godzilla: King of Monsters!, it was heavily edited for an American audience (something common at the time). However, distributors feared a backlash thanks to the movie's allegories so cut out most of the references to nuclear bombs and the Second World War - over thirty minutes were cut out of a ninety-six minute long movie. Despite this Godzilla's fame erupted in both the US and Japan, but this would not be the last Godzilla movie to feature allegories and metaphors.
Allegories since '54
During the 1960s and 1970s the Godzilla franchise was geared firmly at a family audience with Godzilla becoming a friendly defender of humanity represented by a man (Nakajima Haruo) in a rubber suit. 1971's Godzilla vs. Hedorah largely continued this trend but decided to adopt a darker tone as it brought in the issues of the 1970s. Other than the LSD-inspired party, with a random cat, vs. Hedorah features a major issue of the 1970s: environmentalism. One of the movements to come from the 1960s was environmentalism and many were inspired to act by Rachel Carson's warning about DDT in Silent Spring. The 1970s green politics started to become a factor and if a green party didn't exist there would be significant support for it among the public. Japan's industrial economy proved to be a fertile breeding ground for green politics and environmentalism. Yokkaichi in Mie Prefecture was known for high rates of asthma caused by air pollution. Hedorah was a kaiju from space which grew to gigantic proportions by feasting on Japan's pollution. Later, in 1984's The Return of Godzilla Godzilla once again came to represent nuclear fears. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan was president and with him came a conservative campaign built on intense anti-communism. Reagan took a hard stance against the Soviet Union and at times of his early presidency there were genuine fears that nuclear war would break out; it is no surprise that this was shown in the media with 99 Luftballons by Nena and the movie WarGames being released around this time. In Return Godzilla destroys a Soviet submarine which almost escalates to nuclear war when the US is blamed for it. Meanwhile, in the 1990s reaction against nuclear power started growing, especially in Japan, and this was again shown in Godzilla vs. Desotroyah. In this movie it is revealed that Godzilla's heart is a biological nuclear reactor and is going into meltdown which potentially could destroy life on Earth. Several nuclear incidents during the 1980s and 1990s had turned many against nuclear energy with 1986's Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine hitting many with the fear that nuclear energy could potentially wipe out humanity. In Japan this blended with memories of 1945 and 1954, and then again in Godzilla.
|Godzilla going into meltdown|
Since the 1980s memory in Japan has shifted. By the 1980s the generation which grew up under the militaristic/fascistic governments of the 1930s and 1940s started coming to prominence in society, and this mixed with virtual uninterrupted rule of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party since 1947. Since the 1980s casting Japan as a victim of the Second World War, something which began in the 1950s according to historian James Orr, began more and more mainstream. Among this was the ongoing textbooks controversy where Japan's war crimes, including the Rape of Nanjing and 'comfort women' (women forced to be sex slaves for the military), became downplayed or overlooked. Hiroshima and Nagasaki became symbols of Japanese victimhood, although nothing was done to actually help surviving hibakusha. A virtual culture war over history is still going on in Japan comparable to the memory of the Confederacy in the US, Churchill in the UK, or the History Wars in Australia. Vitriolic debates between sections of society who wished to downplay/whitewash Japan's role in World War Two, and those who argues that it should be acknowledged. This is still happening: the current prime minister, Abe Shinzo, is firmly on the denial side. Godzilla eventually waded into this debate, and then very firmly on one side. In 2001's Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack the new Godzilla is actually the souls of all those who died thanks to Japan during World War Two which are seeking revenge for Japan's denial of its past.
|Godzilla in GMK|
Finally, we have the two most recent movies: the Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014) and Shin-Gojira (2016). Quite interestingly Godzilla mixes Godzilla's fictional origin with his real-world origin: the 1954 thermonuclear tests were really an attempt to kill Godzilla. Edwards treats Godzilla as a force of nature and watching the aftermath of the San Francisco battle stark images of Hurricane Katrina can be seen. People queue for medical aid, water damaged buildings are seen everywhere, and thousands wait in stadiums for aid. Like Katrina Godzilla is a force of nature which humanity cannot hope to match. Shin-Gojira treats Gojira as both a force of nature and humanity's mistake. Memories of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 caused by the earthquake is evoked in Shin-Gojira. Gojira evolves rapidly causing a wave of destruction like an earthquake that emits radiation. The endless meetings and quibbling of bureaucrats in the movie is reminiscent to the government's lethargic reaction to Fukushima. One can read Shin-Gojira as an either left-wing movie or a right-wing one. Military attacks on Gojira make matters worse, (especially US intervention), the government (heavily based on the Liberal Democrats) are portrayed as being more concerned about their own position than the loss of human life, and that Japan's greatest threat is itself. Meanwhile, continued international (i.e. US) intervention is needed to ensure Gojira doesn't return, the Self-Defense force are the ones to defeat Gojira, and the movie definitely lacks the anti-war message of 1954's Gojira. Abe Shinzo has even praised the supposed nationalism in Shin-Gojira.
Over sixty years after Godzilla's debut he has consistently represented the fears of the day and memory of the past. From the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Fukushima disaster Godzilla has always been the kaiju in the shadow of history.
Thank you for reading. For future blog updates please check out our Facebook or catch me on Twitter @LewisTwiby. The sources I have used are as follows:
-Jason Barr, The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema's Biggest Monsters, (Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2016)
-William Tsutsui, Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
-James Orr, The Victors as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001)
-Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa times to the Present, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
-John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II, (London: Penguin, 2000)