The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunt every Godzilla movie.
In the middle of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film Godzilla, we cut to a woman on a commuter train. She’s talking with a fellow passenger following a recent attack by the legendary monster.
“This is awful,” she says. “Atomic tuna, radioactive fallout, and now this Godzilla to top it off! What if it shows up in Tokyo Bay?”
The fellow passenger jokes, “It’ll probably go for you first!”
“You’re horrible!” she scolds. “I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki…and now this!”
Godzilla, one of the most famous Japanese movies ever, was produced a short nine years following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cataclysmic events that killed upward of 300,000 people that ended World War II and changed the world forever.
August 6 and 9 mark the 73rd anniversary of the bombings, and as they fall further into the rearview mirror and as those who lived through them are now in their 80s and 90s, some of the only things left to remind us of these historic tragedies such as World War II and how to avoid repeating them are artistic and cultural works. This is especially true in the Axis nations of the war, such as Japan, where the militaristic fantasies of a few madmen threw their societies and the world into chaos and death. It did take a few years after the war for Japan’s film industry to confront the horrors of the war.
During the occupation after the war, the United States and its allies established considerable censorship in Japan. In cinema, for example, samurai movies were not permitted. Taking place before the 1868 ascension to the throne, these movies were seen by occupation forces as glorifying Japan’s militaristic past. Once the occupation ended in 1952, however, a wave of samurai films appeared, including the most famous samurai movie ever made, Seven Samurai, in 1954.
What also began to appear were movies that dealt with the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1952, Kaneto Shindo’s Children of Hiroshima dealt directly with the aftermath in the story of a teacher returning to her native town four years after the devastating attack. In 1953 Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima addressed the immediate aftermath of the attack and the agonizing deaths of citizens from radiation poisoning. One of the more notable dramas about the fear of the bomb came in 1955 from Akira Kurosawa, who directed I Live in Fear, about an old man’s descent into madness from the paralyzing fear of future nuclear bomb attacks as he attempts to strong-arm his extended family into escaping to Brazil.
No film, however, that emerged from the deadly atomic bomb blasts was more popular or significant than Godzilla (Gojira in Japan).
Godzilla launched a monster franchise that has been enormously popular in Japan and around the world for over half a century. It was also a reaction to the bomb. As horrifying as the prospect of nuclear warfare was to the United States, the Soviet Union and their respective allies, it’s hard to imagine any people were more horrified than the only country that actually experienced the devastating aftereffects of nuclear warfare.
In Hollywood, the 1950s were rife with movies that resulted from tensions surrounding the hydrogen bomb and the Soviet Union’s acquisition of it through espionage. Sci-fi movies such as Forbidden Planet, The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were directly influenced by people’s fear of the unknown in the face of the bomb.
The one U.S. film most influenced by the bomb was Them! It featured ants mutated into giant monsters by hydrogen bomb tests.
In Japan hydrogen bomb testing brought about Godzilla. In the film, Professor Yamane explains Godzilla is a creature from the Jurassic period who was likely exiled from its deep-sea caves and brought to the surface thanks to underwater testing of the hydrogen bomb.
Godzilla is packed with visual reminders of the horrors that befell Japan thanks to the militaristic leadership that thrust them into war. Two freighters are sunk by a mysterious underwater blast, and the inhabitants of Odo Island are swept away by what appears to be a typhoon but what one old man insists is a mythical beast he names Godzilla. When Professor Yamane comes to the island, he finds giant footprints in the ground. When he tests for radiation, the Geiger counter immediately goes berserk. Godzilla has absorbed the radiation from the bomb, and anyone who comes into contact with him will be exposed.
“Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head,” one character says.
We don’t even see Godzilla for the first 45 minutes of the film, as the unseen threat mirrors the invisible imminence of the bomb. When he finally does attack Tokyo, it sets off a long sequence of destruction that, despite the special effects that might look a little quaint today, resonated with Japanese audiences because of not only the threat of the bomb but also the conventional warfare that left so much of Japan in ruins.
Godzilla lays waste to all he sees, walking slowly, surveying the throngs of burning buildings and reducing people on the streets to ashes in shots that evoke what Hiroshima and Nagasaki must have looked like. Shot after shot is meant to remind audiences of the war. In one, a mother cowers against the side of a collapsing building, clutching her three tiny children, crying, “We’re going to join Daddy!” and we know precisely what it was that took Daddy. Another scene takes place in a hospital tent, where we see the wounded and dying. In one shot a doctor waves a loudly buzzing Geiger counter over a small girl, and he shakes his head sadly.
The climax of the film comes as the result of a character named Dr. Serizawa, who has accidentally invented something called the Oxygen Destroyer, which can suck all the oxygen out of the water and kill everything in the sea. Serizawa is pressured to use his weapon on Godzilla while the monster sleeps underwater, and he is tortured by the prospect that other countries will use the weapon as a force for evil. While not referencing the H-bomb directly, it’s easy to see Serizawa as a stand-in for key atomic bomb innovator Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, who spent much of his life tortured by the weapon he had unleashed upon humanity. Eventually Serizawa uses his Oxygen Destroyer, deciding to sacrifice himself in the sea to kill the secrets of his invention with him.
For viewers primarily familiar with the later Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra movies and other Kaiju and Kaiju-inspired films like Pacific Rim, it’s rather shocking to see how deep Godzilla’s story line delves into the fear of the nuclear bomb. The original Japanese version of the film is, aside from the scenes of Godzilla’s destruction, a rather quiet, thoughtful and politically active film. Interestingly enough, until the recent restoration of the original Japanese version, American audiences were familiar with only the retitled Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which cut out most of the political content of the film, 30 minutes in all, and replaced those scenes with ones of Perry Mason star Raymond Burr dealing with the problem of Godzilla.