A Brief History of Godzilla, Our Walking Nuclear Nightmare
Ever seen the original "Godzilla"? The seminal monster flick is a bleak, powerful metaphor for nuclear power that still endures today.
Here's the thing about the original Godzilla movie: It's an unflinchingly bleak, deceptively powerful film about coping with and taking responsibility for incomprehensible, manmade tragedy. Specifically, nuclear tragedies. As such, Godzilla isn't just the best monster flick I've ever seen. It's arguably the best window into post-war attitudes towards nuclear power we've got—as seen from the perspective of its greatest victims.
And it still rings brutally true today. There's a reason that, after the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daishi reactor, Google searches for 'godzilla' spiked in Asia. The world's most famous kaiju—Japanese for 'strange creature'—remains for many the cultural embodiment of nuclear hubris, and they returned to him perhaps to be reminded of what seemed at the time an unheeded warning. Because that's clearly what Godzilla was: A somber, cautionary tale about nukes.
Let's clarify. I'm talking about Gojira, Ishiro Honda's original 1954 Japanese cut. It screened at the Film Forum this week, where I watched it for the first time. I was expecting a Mystery Science Theater 3000-type setting, with a giddy crowded theater making wise-cracks at the shoddy special effects and bad acting.
Maybe that's because I was only familiar with the version popular here in the states, Godzilla, King of Monsters! (1956). That film features some of the same footage as the original, but Hollywood studios cut large chunks out to make room for a new plot following an American reporter in Tokyo. The result is a goofy, disjointed film that was nonetheless extremely popular—it was Godzilla, after all.
But the original is different. While there were definitely moments where the crowd chuckled at hammy lines and some particularly model-rific special effects, for the most part, the theater was silent. That's because Godzilla is not just groundbreaking as the genre-defining 'giant beast terrorizes city' film; it contains the most successful—and most severe—monster-as-metaphor in cinema history. Everyone already knows that Godzilla was a stand-in for atomic power gone awry, but I had no idea how bluntly or brutally the film hammered the point home.
First, some background. Godzilla was made in the early-to-mid-1950s. The nuclear bombs the American armed forces dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki left an open, festering wound in the fabric of Japanese society. But it was an incident that occurred six years later, in 1954, when Americans accidentally tested an hydrogen bomb too close to a Japanese fishing vessel, that inspired Godzilla.
The bomb drenched 23 men in fallout, making them the first civillians to be subjected to weapons-grade radiation in peacetime. It was also a reminder to occupied Japan that the bomb was still very much alive. The atomic nightmare wasn't relegated to World Wars; it was an omnipresent threat.
So it makes sense that Gojira begins with a fishing vessel appearing to spontaneously combust. The explosion, the flames, seem to come from the sea itself. Before the sailors know what's hit them, they're gone. Also striking is how the film opens to an almost casual quietude; not a premeditated lull so common in the thrillers of today with their desperately premeditated calm, but quick, disjointed shots of the daily routine on board, paired with a seaman's plaintive guitar pluckings. Then the nuclear burden explodes.
Right from the beginning, we're treated to not-so-subtle metaphors about Godzilla. We're told almost immediately that the beast, which resembles a cross between an ape and a T-rex, and whose Japanese etymology actually suggests as much, has been awakened by H-bomb tests. Then, Godzilla's footprint is monitored for radiation, and it's off the charts. Lodged within it is an ancient trilobyte, long thought extinct—nuclear power has unleashed somthing terrible and primal. Something that should not be.
From there on out, there's no concealing the bomb-as-Godzilla allegory. At first, he just terrorizes small seaside towns. Then he storms Tokyo—destroying buildings and literally breathing flames down the streets. Newscasters commenting on the destruction repeatedly describe it as a "sea of flames," recalling Hiroshima and Nagasaki directly.
The film's most harrowing scenes recall those disasters directly. I was flat-out stunned watching Godzilla breath his first flames onto the civillians of Tokyo, as the special effects emulated their being wiped away in a body-disintegrated blast. One scene lingers on a tearful woman, clutching her two children, as she tells them, mantra-like, that they'll be seeing their father, who presumeably died in the war, soon. Then Godzilla torches them. It's absolutely brutal.
Godzilla destroys not just lives, naturally, but the modern infrastructure that supports them—bridges, power lines, and, perhaps most famously, trains.
Expensive stuff that has to be painstakingly rebuilt. It will take years.
After Godzilla flees Tokyo, it gets even heavier: Scene after scene depicts the carnage. Bodies carried away on stretchers. Wreckage-lined streets. And worst of all is the scene where a doctor is administering Gieger counter readings to small children. He monitors what appears to be a 4 year-old boy, turns to his mother, and solemnly shakes his head. Nuclear Godzilla just gave this kid fatal radiation poisoning. Again: brutal.
Godzilla is unlike most other monster movie in this regard. We see people suffering, really suffering, and feel pity and remorse instead of the gleeful schadenfraude today's horrormeisters aim for.
In his Study of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Japenese Culture, John Rocco Roberto writes that "In producing Gojira, special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, and director Ishiro Honda accomplished a feat unequaled at the time. In the guise of a typical Hollywood-style "monster movie," they made Japan, and ultimately the world, experience the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki all over again."
And that was the explicit intention of the film. Claude Estebe, a Japanese visual culture scholar, explains the truly massive impact of the film of the time.
"Japan was occupied by the US army until September, 1952. During this period there was a ban imposed by American forces on information about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings and their aftermaths—namely the radioactivity-induced diseases," Estebe said in an interview. "Gojira was one of the first movies showing and remembering the dramatic experience of Japanese civilians at the end of World War II when atomic bombings and strategic napalm bombings on all the big industrial Japanese cities killed millions of civilians."
Godzilla was not just unusually potent anti-nuclear power propaganda, it was the first major expression in pop culture of the unspeakable tragedy Japan had endured. Watching Godzilla was a mass exercise in catharsis.
"Gojira is a very complex movie," Estebe notes, "mixing scenes of panic and burning cities that could be anywhere in 1945 Japan and scenes showing radioactively-contaminated children in hospital which specifically remind audiences of the atomic bombings. The director of the movie, Ishiro Honda, made it clear in an interview that the monster Gojira was designed to embody the characteristics of a living atomic bomb."
But it's not just explicit shock-and-awe and nuclear nay-saying, however. The film relays the complexity of post-war attitudes about the bomb too. Sure, it mostly calls for its eradication, in repeated and distinctly anti-nuke refrains, but there are a range of sentiments conveyed here, too.
One character, arguing that the monster must be destroyed, says that maybe Godzilla proves that Japan is "still haunted by the H-Bomb" and that destroying him may finally set them free. Another minor character, meanwhile, explains that she's survived Nagasaki, so she's determined to survive Godzilla.
Elsewhere, commentary is leveled at the ongoing nuclear arms race: A noble mad scientist type has built a weapon capable of destroying even Godzilla, but he's determined not to use it for fear that it will make matters worse. The "Oxygen Destroyer" could fall into the wrong hands—maybe America's—and do some serious damage. At the time, the atom bomb had been one-upped by the hydrogen bomb, and it seemed like the trend could only continue on upwards, ad infinitum.
The scientist only decides to allow the Oxygen Destroyer (which is also always capitalized in the subtitles) to be detonated after watching a heart-tugging TV segment of thousands of Japanese schoolchildren signing in mourning after Godzilla's latest rampage. We must use the bomb to destroy the bomb for the children—and a note of futility hangs in the air.
That slow futility creeps through the film's entire runtime—there are no good options for destroying Godzilla, yet man is responsible for his rise. As Owen Gleiberman notes in his 2004 review of the newly restored orignial film, Godzilla "grows more sympathetic as his rampage goes on. The characters talk about him not as an enemy but as a force of destiny, a ''god.'' The inescapable subtext is that Japan, in some bizarre way, deserves this hell."
He goes on to argue that "Godzilla is pop culture's grandest symbol of nuclear apocalypse, but he is also the primordial spirit of Japanese aggression turned, with something like fate, against itself." The first part of that statement is undoubtedly true, but the second manages to sell the film short—that fated resignation doesn't just belong to the Japanese, but to all humanity, Godzilla argues. Man does, in a not-so-bizarre way, deserve some of the hell it has purposefully manufactured in weapons labs and battlefields to bestow on its own.
This powerful undercurrent is certainly why the film has had such unparalleled staying power. Thirty Godzilla films have been produced since the original, there are ten more where the creature appears, and yet another Hollywood-produced installment in the works for 2014. Over the years Godzilla evolved from nuclear allegory into a campy kids' favorite. He did cross-overs with comic book heroes and battled other ludicrous beasts; as Hiroshima and the H-bomb slid further into the past, the monster's radioactive genesis faded from view. By the 1998 American remake, Godzilla was a walking action movie cliche.
This year's Pacific Rim was an homage to Godzilla and the kaiju tradition, and completely eschewed any hint of the monsters' nuclear origins. But perhaps the ongoing disaster at Fukushima, concerns with US's aging fleet of nuclear power plants, and the bluster over Iran's nuclear program have rekindled our atomic anxiety, and the new Godzilla will brings its forebear back into focus. Either way, there's little hope that it will be as strange, bleak, or nuanced as that first stab at awakening the nuclear consciousness with shrieking chimera.
The final scene of Godzilla depicts the two main characters diving into the ocean with the Destroyer to find Godzilla, is perhaps the strangest of the entire film. Set to an elegiac, quietly melodic string score, the divers find Godzilla in the deep. There's no suspense, no will-they-or-won't-they plot tension, just two men seeking out and destroying the prehistoric beast in a cloud of what might be best described as serene regret.
After the deed is done, there's only time for another older, wizened scientist to remark that so as long as we continue to experiment with nuclear technology, we can be sure another Godzilla will arise. There perhaps has never been a truer utterance in all of cinema.