Director: Ishiro Honda
Notes: “Godzilla,” the infamously campy re-edit, was released in the USA in 1956.
TLDR: Radiation from nuclear weapons testing wakes a prehistoric monster from its sleep off the coast of Japan.
Gojira as Nuclear Disaster
The original, Japanese version of Gojira opens with a disturbance in the sea.
Within 15 minutes, the disturbance has spread inland. A tsunami spreads chaos on the coastlines. The Earth rattles and shakes buildings to the ground.
For all its campiness, Gojira is difficult to watch in the wake of the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear crisis at Fukushima, because the monster is all three. Scenes of a radiation crisis that nothing can stop hit close to home. Scenes of children weeping for their parents in temporary shelters are unbearable.
These images were meant to evoke memories of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, it uncomfortably evokes the situation in Eastern Japan.
This much is obvious. Whenever there’s a crisis in Japan, crass jokes about Godzilla are easy for anyone who can’t transcend easy jokes.
But Gojira was created during a post-war conversation about Japan’s nuclear role, and strongly advocated for nuclear power. It’s worth looking at the film in that context today.
Gojira vs Fukushima
Gojira is described as the result of “recent experimental nuclear detonations” that “drastically altered” the “natural habitat” of Japan. The entire film was an allegory against nuclear and atomic weapon tests.
In case the metaphor was too subtle, on character asks, “Isn’t Gojira a product of the atomic bomb that still haunts many of us Japanese?”
Throughout the film, the hero – scientist Kyohei Yamane, played by the genuinely brilliant actor Takashi Shimura – insists on studying the creature, rather than killing it.
“All they can think about is killing Gojira,” Yamane complains. “Why can’t they try to study him from a radiological perspective?”
The anti-hero – Dr. Serizawa, a scientist who develops a weapon so powerful that he keeps it secret, despite its energy potential – saves the day by boiling the ocean around Gojira with a fission-based weapon. But it’s a bittersweet victory that moves the noble scientific aims of his work to the sidelines.
His weapon uses radiation to boil water – an “unknown form of energy,” he explains – and that’s basically the cooling process of nuclear reactors. The material is too powerful for him to trust: “Just a little piece of this, dropped into the water, could turn all of Tokyo Bay into a graveyard.”
Ultimately, Dr. Serizawa is convinced that Gojira is a bigger threat. His internal anguish is paired with scenes of destruction, radiation burns, orphans and bodies set to a children’s somber choir song.
What is melodramatic in 2011 was actually pretty edgy in 1954. For Japanese audiences, these scenes were a grim reminder of nuclear threats. After the audience watches these scenes played in Dr. Serizawa’s mind, he’s converted. He’ll use the power to kill Gojira.
Atoms for Peace
Gojira’s message mirrors the goals of the “Atoms for Peace” program launched by Eisenhower just a year before the film’s release. The program was dedicated to peaceful applications of atomic research, an agreement the Japanese government eagerly participated in.
That same year, several fishermen were accidentally exposed to radiation from an atomic bomb test on the Bikini Atoll, The Lucky Dragon Incident:
The plight of the fishermen, one of whom died within six months, captured the imagination of Tokyo housewives in particular, and led to the formation of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. – history workshop
In Eisenhower’s speech announcing the Atoms for Peace program, he pledged America’s “determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma – to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”
This forms the central tension of Gojira: What should Japan do about nuclear energy?
“I believe I can find a use for the oxygen destroyer that will benefit society,” Dr. Serizawa says.
In 1955 – just one year after Gojira was released – Japan had already started the National Nuclear Research Laboratory “to develop indigenous power technology.” Japan built its first experimental reactor ten year later. By 1980, a quarter of Japan’s energy was nuclear.