Introduction: ゴジラ, Gojira, or Godzilla
Gojira, or Godzilla, has been one of the most enduring and iconic kaiju (Japanese giant monsters) in popular culture. Undoubtedly, the the monster created from an H-bomb blast has captured the imagination of people around the world. The Toho Company, which produces the Gojira films, has released 29 live-action films and 3 animated films over the last sixty years.
The kaiju has even crossed the Pacific Ocean onto the American silver screen. The 1956 Godzilla: King of the Monsters! film, starring Raymond Burr, enthralled the American imagination. Seven years later, Toho Company and Universal Studios released a new film called King Kong vs. Godzilla (Japanese title: Kingu Kongu tai Gojira). More recently, Gareth Edwards directed the popular 2014 Godzilla film that starred Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, and Elizabeth Olsen. The monster has even been repeatedly parodied by The Simpsons in episodes like “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo” and “Treehouse of Horror XXVI.”
Today, many people, especially outside of Japan, view the kaiju as a light-hearted character that saves Japan and see the franchise as a standard monster movie. However, the original film has its roots in the pacifist, anti-nuclear movement and reflected Japan’s fear of nuclear annihilation. Gojira itself originally was never meant to be a light-hearted character or a savior of any type. Rather, it began as an overwhelming, uncontrollable force bent on destroying everything in its path. Its origins are steeped in tragedy: first, with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then the effects of U.S. H-bomb testing in the Pacific.
Setting the Scene: Castle Bravo
On March 1, 1954, the United States tested its most powerful and first deliverable H-bomb at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Bravo Shot of Operation Castle. Castle Bravo was a fission-fusion-fission device. The first fission reaction (splitting of uranium-235 atoms) propelled the fusion reaction (joining of hydrogen atoms), which would drive the second fission reaction. For the fusion reaction, scientists used lithium deuteride, a lithium and hydrogen-2 compound, and used lithium-6 and lithium-7 isotopes. [i]
Scientists estimated that the thermonuclear device would have a yield of 6 megatons of TNT, or about 400 times larger than the Little Boy device used on Hiroshima. However, they were gravely mistaken.
Early in the morning, the black sky lit up like it was midday, and the device yielded 15 megatons of TNT, almost 2.5 times larger than initially estimated. The scientists originally assumed that the lithium-7 used in the fusion reaction was inert, or would not have a chemical reaction, and only the lithium-6 would react. However, the lithium-7 did react. This unanticipated reaction caused more hydrogen atoms to join together to form hydrogen-3 (tritium) and created high energy neutrons that caused a “fast fission” reaction in the secondary device. As a result, the yield of this H-bomb was about 1,000 times larger than Little Boy.[ii] The U.S. military initially designated a 57,000 square mile “Danger Area” to maintain the test’s secrecy.[iii] However, the bomb’s unexpected power and strong winds caused fallout to spread beyond this area.
Act I: 第五副竜丸, The Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon No. 5
About 14 miles away from the Danger Area, [iv] an unsuspecting Japanese fishing vessel was caught in the fallout. Seven minutes after the initial blast of light, the fishermen of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) heard “a double clap of thunder.” Two hours later, there was “a rain of white dust.” The ash was “coral dust sucked up by the bomb blast and coated with U-238 fission products.” As soon as it landed on the men, it caused burns. The men returned to Japan and were diagnosed with radiation sickness.[v] The tuna caught by the Daigo Fukuryu Maru was so contaminated by the fallout that the government buried them. However, contaminated fish caught by other fishing vessels were sold in markets. Once people discovered that the fish was radioactive, fishing in Japan practically came to a halt . [vi]
The radio operator of the Lucky Dragon, Aikichi Kuboyama, died a few months after the incident. However, the cause of his death was disputed. The Japanese government claimed that he died as a result of the H-bomb testing. The American government countered that he died from a botched blood transfusion.[vii]Before he died, Kuboyama implored, ““Please make sure that I am the last victim of the bomb.” [viii]
Act II: Creating a Monster
Almost three months after the Castle Bravo test, Toho Co. released a groundbreaking film that drew inspiration from the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Incident and called it Gojira. The film captured Japanese fears of nuclear annihilation.
However, Gojira did not initially start out with this premise. Rather, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka originally wanted to a monster movie like the American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. When he was traveling from Indonesia to Japan in 1954, he flew over Bikini Atoll. Seeing the site of the Castle Bravo test inspired him to create a monster that was born from nuclear testing.[ix] This inspiration is evident with the opening scene of the film.
The film starts with an idyllic scene of fishermen relaxing on their boat as they play music. A sudden thunderous boom disrupts them, and they run to the railings of the ship to investigate. The camera follows their gaze to the ocean, and an eerie glow bubbles beneath the surface. The camera pans back to the confused fishermen. Then, a bright flash, resembling pika-don (the “flash-bang” of the atomic bombs that Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors witnessed), blinds them and the audience. The ship burns from the explosive flash and sinks into the ocean. A radio operator desperately sends a message back to Tokyo as the ship burns and eventually sinks.
Toho Co. hired director and screenwriter Ishiro Honda for the project. Known for his attention to detail, he brought to life a monster whose name comes from the combination of the Japanese words for whale (鯨 kujira) and gorilla (ゴリラ gorira).[x]
Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya could not rely on stop-motion-capture, because that method of special effects would take at least six months to complete. Instead, he resorted to making a miniature set of Tokyo and putting an actor into a rubber monster suit. He also utilized a technique called “optical compositing” to allow the monster and the characters to exist within the same scene. Additionally, he employed animation techniques to create the famous radioactive breath and glowing dorsal fins. Tsuburaya’s innovative style “us[ing] realistic elements to depict imaginary creatures serves as a catalyst that stimulates the audience’s imagination and creates an unparalleled sense of awe and surprise.”[xi]
Gojira paved the way for today’s Japanese pop culture, movies, and special effects. It single handedly created the kaiju no eiga (monster movie) genre[xii] and started the tokusatsu (special effects) style.[xiii] It was also one of a number of post-Occupation films that dealt with the atomic bombings. Other films included Hiroshima and Children of Hiroshima.
Act III: Gojira as a Metaphor
Gojira can be interpreted as a film about nature versus humanity. Gojira the monster embodies mankind’s corruption of the natural world through nuclear weapons. Nuclear testing disfigured the creature and imbued it with radioactive powers. As a result, Gojira seeks to destroy all “symbols of civilisation as if seeking revenge on humankind for creating such technology.” [xiv]
Before the events of the film, Gojira was revered as a deity by the people of Odo Island. During a festival to appease the Gojira, an Odo Island resident explains to a reporter who is investigating reports of a larger monster about the give-and-take nature of Gojira’s and Odo Island’s relationship: “[Gojira is a] giant, terrifying monster. Once it eats all the fish in the sea, it’ll come ashore and eat people. In the old days, if the catch was poor for a long time, we’d sacrifice a young girl... send her drifting out into the middle of the ocean.” This indicates that there was a balance between the people Odo Island (humans) and Gojira (nature). Atomic testing disrupted this balance, and Gojira became “a physical manifestation of the disruption of wa, or the harmony between man and nature.”[xv]
Later in the film, Professor Kyohei Yamane presents his findings to the government. Gojira was a prehistoric creature that lived at the bottom of the ocean. Nuclear testing, however, brought the monster to the surface. Gojia and the destruction it causes are a direct consequence of human hubris. Had humans not perverted nature, Gojira as a monster would not have been created. As a result, Gojira seeks to destroy “symbols of civilization” and all forms of modern technology, not just nuclear technology.
In fact, Gojira does not use its famous atomic breath that it gained from the H-bomb testing until halfway through the film. It only does so when the Japanese government tries to prevent the monster from entering Tokyo by force. First, the government entangles Gojira in a series of live power lines and electrocutes it. Then, tanks shoot at it. Both electricity and tanks can be viewed as modern technology that harms the kaiju. As a direct consequence, it lashes out and seeks to destroy it.
In another example, attracted by flashing lights, Gojira approaches a radio transmission tower and takes a bite out of it. While the tower itself does not harm the monster, it still represents mass communication, a feature of modern technology. These scenes demonstrate the conflict between civilization and nature.
Gojira can also be interpreted as a “grave warning about the folly of nuclear testing and proliferation.”[xvi] In this sense, Gojira becomes a metaphor for nuclear weapons. Honda describes in an interview how his experience during World War II and the bomb inspired Gojira:
"Most of the visual images I got were from my war experience. After the war, all of Japan, as well as Tokyo, was left in ashes. The atomic bomb had emerged and completely destroyed Hiroshima….If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn't know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla."[xvii]
Much like nuclear weapons, Gojira causes chaos and indiscriminate destruction. After being electrocuted, Gojira enters the outskirts of Tokyo and uses its radioactive breath. Immediately, buildings catch on fire. In a bright flash, the unfortunate people in the breath’s path instantly drop dead. A radio news reporter describes the town as engulfed in “a sea of flames.” These scenes are reminiscent of the fireballs that completely destroyed wooden buildings and the instantaneous death of many people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Act IV: The Cold War Shaping the Film
The film never overtly acknowledges the Cold War but it does address the arms race that characterized the period. The Castle Bravo test made the power of thermonuclear weapons apparent to the world. While this was not the first U.S. fusion device (Ivy Mike in 1952 was the first hydrogen bomb test), Castle Bravo was the first deliverable thermonuclear weapon. The United States, at the time, hoped that this test would “pave the way for the creation of more effective weapons, including weapons that could be deliverable by aircraft.” [xviii] For Japan, the development of the H-bomb raised fears about an intensified and accelerated arms race.
This fear comes in the form of Dr. Daisuke Serizawa. Dr. Serizawa, a man both physically and psychologically scarred from World War II, unintentionally invents a device that destroys oxygen molecules and calls it the “Oxygen Destroyer.” He demonstrates to Emiko Yamane, Dr. Yamane’s daughter, the power of the device in a fish tank. The demonstration leaves nothing behind but fish skeletons. He claims that the Oxygen Destroyer is more powerful than any nuclear weapon and forces Emiko to never reveal this terrible secret.
Of course, with Gojira rampaging through Tokyo, Emiko and Hideo Ogata, a sailor in the Japanese Coast Guard, return to Dr. Serizawa’s lab to convince the reclusive scientist to use the Oxygen Destroyer to kill the monster. At first, he refuses and states:
“If it could be put to good use, I’d be the first one to reveal it to the world. But right now, it’s nothing but a weapon of mass destruction….[I]f the Oxygen Destroyer is used even once, the politicians of the world won’t stand idly by. They’ll inevitably turn it into a weapon. A-bombs against A-bombs. H-bombs against H-bombs--as a scientist, no as a human being--adding another terrifying weapon to humanity’s arsenal is something I can’t allow.”
He fears that knowledge of this device’s existence would further escalate the arms race and inevitably cause humankind’s demise.
After witnessing Gojira’s destruction, however, Dr. Serizawa changes his mind and uses the Oxygen Destroyer to stop the kaiju. He destroys all of the plans for the Oxygen Destroyer and kills himself while detonating the device, taking the secrets of the Oxygen Destroyer to his grave. Thus, he prevents his grim prediction of an escalated arms race. His death “symbolizes disarmament and an end to the reckless science that led the world to this fateful point, offering a glimpse of hope amid the sadness.” [xix]
At the end of the film, the main characters celebrate their victory with Gojira’s demise. However, Professor Yamane ends everything on an ominous note: “I cannot believe that Gojira was the last of its species. If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world...another Gojira may appear.”
This warning leaves the audience with a clear message: unless humans stop testing nuclear weapons and creating newer, more efficient weapons, another Hiroshima, another Nagasaki, another Lucky Dragon will happen. However, the next time another Gojira rises, it may not limit its destruction to Japan but the world.
“60th Anniversary of Castle BRAVO Nuclear Test, the Worst Nuclear Test in U.S. History.” The National Security Archive. Published February 28, 2014. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb459/.
Engel, Leonard. “Twenty-Three Fishermen and a Bomb.” The New York Times (New York, NY). February 23, 1958.
Ikeda, Yoshiko. “Godzilla and the Japanese after World War II: From a scapegoat of the
Americans to a savior of the Japanese.” Acta Orientalia Vilnensis 12. No. 1 (2011): 43-62.
Miyamoto, Yuki. “Gendered Bodies in Tokusatsu: Monsters and Aliens as the Atomic Bomb
Victims.” Popular Culture 49. No. 5 (2016): 1086-106.
Ridenour, August. “The History and Science of Nuclear Weapons Testing.” (Lecture. The Elliott School of International Affairs—The George Washington University. Washington, D.C. October 10, 2018).
Rowberry, Ariana. “Castle Bravo: The Largest U.S. Nuclear Explosion.” The Brookings Institute. Published February 27, 2014. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2014/02/27/castle-bravo-the-largest-u-s-nuclear-explosion/.
Ryfle, Steve. “Godzilla’s Footprint.” Virginia Quarterly Review 81. No. 1 (2005): 45-63.
Ryusuke, Hikawa. “Godzilla’s Analog Mayhem and the Japanese Special Effects Traditions.” nippon.com. Published June 26, 2014. https://www.nippon.com/en/views/b04001/.
Salaff, Stephen. “The Lucky Dragon.” The Atomic Bulletin of Scientists 34. No. 5: (1978): 21-3.
Sato, Tadao. Interviewed by Criterion Collection. Criterion Collection. 2012.
Wellerstein, Alex. “Castle Bravo at 60.” The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. Published February 28, 2014. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2014/02/28/castle-bravo-at-60/.
[i] Alex Wellerstein, “Castle Bravo at 60,” The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, published February 28, 2014, http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2014/02/28/castle-bravo-at-60/.
[ii] August Ridenour, “The History and Science of Nuclear Weapons Testing,” (lecture, The Elliott School of International Affairs—The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., October 10, 2018).
[iii] “60th Anniversary of Castle BRAVO Nuclear Test, the Worst Nuclear Test in U.S. History,” The National Security Archive, published February 28, 2014, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb459/.
[v] Leonard Engel, “Twenty-Three Fishermen and a Bomb,” The New York Times (New York, NY), February 23, 1958.
[vi] Stephen Salaff, “The Lucky Dragon,” The Atomic Bulletin of Scientists 34, no. 5: (1978): 22.
[viii] Ibid., 23.
[ix] Tadao Sato, interviewed by Criterion Collection, Criterion Collection, 2012.
[xi] Hikawa Ryusuke, “Godzilla’s Analog Mayhem and the Japanese Special Effects Traditions,” nippon.com, published June 26, 2014, https://www.nippon.com/en/views/b04001/.
[xii] Tadao Sato.
[xiv] Yoshiko Ikeda, “Godzilla and the Japanese after World War II: From a scapegoat of the
Americans to a savior of the Japanese,” Acta Orientalia Vilnensis 12, no. 1 (2011): 43.
[xv] Yuki Miyamoto, “Gendered Bodies in Tokusatsu: Monsters and Aliens as the Atomic Bomb
Victims,” Popular Culture 49, no. 5 (2016): 1092.
[xvi]Steve Ryfle, “Godzilla’s Footprint,” Virginia Quarterly Review 81, no. 1 (2005): 47.
[xvii] Ibid., 52.
[xviii] Ariana Rowberry, “Castle Bravo: The Largest U.S. Nuclear Explosion,” The Brookings Institute, published February 27, 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2014/02/27/castle-bravo-the-largest-u-s-nuclear-explosion/.
[xix] Ryfle, “Godzilla’s Footprint,” 57.
Atomic Culture: https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/atomic-culture
Castle Bravo Testing: https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/castle-bravo
Hiroshima and Nagasaki: https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/bombings-hiroshima-and-nagasaki-1945
Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/survivors-hiroshima-and-nagasaki