“The theme of the film from the beginning was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind. . . . As long as the arrogance of human beings exists, Gojira will survive.” — Tomoyuki Tanaka, Producer of Gojira
Although mainly ignored by the first wave of film historians due to its “escapist” trappings, no analysis of modernist Japanese cinema would be complete without pausing to examine the postwar classic that sparked a 20th-century export business unto itself: 1954’s Gojira, or Godzilla, King of the Monsters as it was released in the United States. I confess that it is difficult for me to view the original film today without seeing it through the haze of nostalgia for its copious (and often unintentionally hilarious) knock-offs, so synonymous was the lizard king with cheap Saturday afternoon programming on WTBS throughout the 1980s, where rubber suits wrestled clumsily atop a sea of pagodas and Japanese men in cool skinny ties and horn-rimmed glasses pointed skyward, shouting asynchronous English dubbing. Often he would heroically come to defend Tokyo from some mutated antagonist only to destroy it himself in the next film; this, my young brain could not reconcile. What was wrong with him? He seemed a capricious beast at best, and I never did understand how he ended up with that creepy son.
But before the goofiness of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster or Destroy All Monsters, there was Ishiro Honda’s classic original, Gojira (on a technical note, Godzilla is not an inaccurate American translation but an alternate of Gojira using a different transliteration scheme; Toho Studios themselves assigned the film this title for export abroad, feeling it would be more “pronounceable” to westerners.) The film did not exist in a cultural vacuum and is but one of a long string of outstanding 1950s science fiction films with deep humanist undertones and leftist subtexts–The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to name but a few of the better A-list titles. These films stood as bold counterpoints to the proto-Fascist attitudes that would soon come to embody the great McCarthyists’ witch hunt for Hollywood’s elusive “Bolshevist fifth column.” In fact, burying these allegorical themes within the innocuous escapism of the science fiction genre became one of the few ways for artists, many of whom were highly-politicized radicals, to openly oppose the American political status quo. Gojira, of course, has nothing to do with Communism, or even overt anti-Americanism for that matter. But the film nevertheless asserts its own humanitarian message, and a message that has a surprising amount of complexity and depth, given that it is essentially about a giant lizard stomping on things.
Two separate events acted as catalysts for the film. First, King Kong was re-released to Japanese audiences in 1952, on its 20th anniversary. It was a massive success, and Tokyo’s film studios all began toying with the idea of creating special effects films, then still a very small industry. This goal intensified following 1954’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, whose plot shares more than a few passing similarities with Gojira, albeit with fewer radiation overtones.
But the biggest influence on the film, or at least on how its script resonated with its contemporary Japanese audiences, was Castle Bravo and the fate of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon #5. On March 1, 1954, the crew of this tuna fishing boat watched in shock as a massive atomic mushroom lit up the horizon–so massive that it took a full eight minutes for the sound to reach them. It was the first H-bomb detonated by the United States as part of the Castle Bravo program, from the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands. There was no advance warning. Native islanders of the closest atoll were evacuated, but the blast was twice as large as anticipated, with fallout raining down on at least a dozen inhabited islands officially outside of the danger zone. Lucky Dragon #5 pulled in their nets and headed home, realizing that they would probably be unable to escape the approaching radiation and fallout, which fell upon them several hours later. The boat’s radio operator became sick in the coming days from radiation poisoning and died a drawn-out and excruciatingly painful death over seven months. His dying wish was that no one else on earth die as a result of atomic weapons. The growing resentment at the United States, kept mostly in check throughout the occupation, now exploded in a widespread wave of anti-American rage. The Japanese public was furious that they were given no advance warning of these dangerous tests (the U.S. intentionally kept this a secret lest the H-bomb fail to detonate and embarrass them in front of the world, particularly the Soviets.) To make matters worse, it was learned that the Lucky Dragon was the closest tuna boat, but not the only one in the area impacted, many of whose catches had already been sold to market and entered the Japanese food chain (also mirrored in the script, as other boats “vanish” due to unknown forces.) In all, between 1946 and the partial ban in 1963, the U.S. carried out 105 above-ground nuclear explosions in the Pacific, at which point they were moved to Nevada.
And it is here that Gojira vs. Godzilla becomes its own ideological showdown of sorts. It is a unique moment in film studies, where two products are produced, for two separate markets, both from the same source material, one by the conquered, the other by the conqueror. Unfortunately, for those at the time waiting for a smoking gun of censorship, they were disappointed I suspect. There are passing references to the contaminated tuna, and a striking scene where a Japanese woman tells her three small children, all of whom are about to die, that they are about to “go see Daddy now,” the implication being his death in the war. Most intriguing is a scene showing the open public debate in the Diet (the Japanese parliament) between those wanting to suppress Gojira’s H-bomb origins and those angrily demanding that it be announced to the world, thereby exposing the falsehoods of the bomb-testers. You can sense at once that this scene would be destined for the cutting room floor when edited for U.S. distribution, which it was. Gone also are the poignant hospital scenes where Emi attends to the child victims of radiation sickness. Other references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki are also eliminated, and while some involved have claimed that this was not intended to alter the message of the film, the deleting of all passages that mention past U.S. war atrocities is surely no accident done for the sake of just “tightening a script.” The original references were hardly vitriolic or accusatory, and their paranoid omission clearly says more than the statements themselves. In fact, the American cut of Godzilla does not delete large swathes of content and keeps the humanitarian, anti-nuclear message fully intact. Newly-shot footage of Raymond Burr, as reporter Steve Martin, was shot and included to tie the various plot threads together. This has the added consequence of removing the viewer from the immediacy of the action, and these non-political aesthetic issues are the most common criticisms leveled at the U.S. version today.
After watching Gojira again, I was struck by the sheer scale of its apocalyptic vision, its sense of utter hopelessness and nihilism. Its contemporaries, from King Kong to Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, used stop motion animation and kept destruction to a minimum; a few collapsed buildings, a few dead. In Gojira, Tokyo burns from end to end. And I can’t help but wonder what these visuals did to a citizenry that had just endured the worst incendiary fire-bombing in history less than ten years earlier, torching miles of the city (87% residential) and leaving over 100,000 dead, another million injured and homeless. Given the time and proximity, I would have a hard time classifying that as escapist entertainment.