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Godzilla and The Monsters of Nuclear War

By David Konow

We chat with Godzilla experts to talk about the darker origins of the monster, and how Godzilla helped people come to terms with their fear of nuclear holocaust.

Many of us grew up with Godzilla on TV, and like a lot of classic monster movies, what was once considered frightening is now tame enough to show to kids. So many people consider Godzilla silly--a guy in a lizard suit stomping on miniature buildings, but his origins were much darker. Godzilla reflected the horror of nuclear war, which was still fresh in the minds of millions of Japanese citizens.

There’s an upcoming documentary coming next year, Godzilla and Hiroshima: The Dawn of the Kaiju Eiga, directed by Jonathan Belles, that will take a much more serious look at the real life nuclear holocaust that inspired Godzilla. We spoke with Belles and several other Godzilla experts to talk about the darker origins of the monster, and how Godzilla helped people come to terms with their fear of nuclear holocaust.

It has often been assumed that Godzilla was inspired by bombing of Hiroshima, but the actual event that helped create Godzilla was the Lucky Dragon Incident, which took place on March 1, 1954.

The US had been running nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands for eight years, and leading up to the Lucky Dragon incident, they let off a 17-megaton H-bomb at Bikini Atoll. This blast unleashed 13,000 times the destructive power of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fallout from this bomb reached a Japanese fishing vessel, Lucky Dragon No. 5, which was a hundred miles east of Bikini Atoll.

The opening scene in the first Godzilla film shows a salvage ship being attacked, and was a clear reference to the Lucky Dragon Incident. But the previous nuclear horrors of World War II absolutely loomed large over Godzilla as well. What separated Godzilla from the other sci-fi and horror films of the time was that the other films tried to warn the world of nuclear catastrophe, Japan already went through a real atomic horror.

As Godzilla expert Steve Ryfel explains, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are certainly evoked in the film’s imagery and it’s sense of tragedy. Ishiro Honda, the director of Godzilla, was a soldier in the Imperial Army in China and emerged from his experience with deep antiwar feelings, so it was largely his doing that the monster became a symbol of protest against war and the atomic bomb.”

As Japanese pop culture expert and special features producer August Ragone explains, “After returning to a defeated Japan from China as a POW, Honda passed through the ruins of Hiroshima, and thought to himself that this was surely a sign of Armageddon, the end of the world at our own hands. So this impression was in his mind in making the film, but it came from an overall anti-war stance, that if making kept waging wars, we would eventually commit global genocide.

“Godzilla was produced the year following the end of the occupation,” Ragone continues. “There was economic, social and political upheaval. All of the major cities were razed and were being rebuilt. There was abject poverty, war orphans…the Japanese were working out a lot more than just the horror of war. Director Hondo himself said that Godzilla was the corporeal embodiment of war itself.”

Like the Frankenstein monster, Godzilla was also a victim of his creator. In some Frankenstein movies, the eponymous doctor who created him was the real monster, and Ragone says, “Godzilla was created to be depicted as a victim of the Bikini Atoll testing as well, with his skin covered in keloid scars, and the ability to exhale nuclear death.”

Ishiro Hondo created a huge, misshapen monster that symbolized the senselessness of war.

Jonathan Belles, the director of the upcoming documentary Godzilla and Hiroshima, says, “Ishiro Hondo created a huge, misshapen monster that symbolized the senselessness of war.”

Although there have been a number of nuclear creatures in movies, Godzilla only could have been a Japanese monster. Ryfle says, “It’s impossible for an American monster to have the same nuclear origins because America has never been attacked with nuclear weapons. In that sense Godzilla is a uniquely Japanese because he represents a uniquely Japanese experience, a national tragedy.”

Heavy stuff indeed, but a lot of kids growing up watching Godzilla on TV didn’t understand the depth of the horror that inspired him. To many of us, he was just a cool giant dinosaur swatting airplanes and stomping miniature buildings. Godzilla was inspired by King Kong, and the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and like many monsters of the fifties, the nuclear era worked its way into his creation.

Jonathan Belles saw his first Godzilla movies on television when he was ten. “When I was little, I always liked animal documentaries and natural disaster movies,” Belles says. “I always felt like I was missing an element that combined these two genres together, and they key was a character that captivated me: Godzilla.”

Back in the day, local TV stations in America relied on movie packages that usually had a lot of horror and sci-fi in the libraries. These movies would be shown on programs like Creature Features, and Chiller Theatre. On KTLA, Channel 5 in Los Angeles, there was an annual Godzilla marathon every Thanksgiving. “This saturation on children had big impact,” says Ragone. “During the 70s, Godzilla was hugely popular across the country. The ratings for the films were huge, and there are many fans that all share similar stories of TV marathons, monster weeks, and late, late shows.”

With Belles’s upcoming Godzilla and Hiroshima documentary, he wanted to tackle the direct relationship between the monster and the atomic bomb. “”Godzilla is represented in different metaphors and characters that make messages of peace, and messages against nuclear war.” Belles is also hoping that those who had never seen a Godzilla film, or find the monster silly, will look at him in a new light.

By the late sixties, Godzilla went through a big change. He was now the good guy.

By the late sixties, Godzilla went through a big change. He was now a good guy, a protector of Japan instead of a threat. Belles says, “It was decided Godzilla should be good, and save the earth from various enemy attacks. This was mainly because Japan grew economically in the ‘60s, and the makers of Godzilla decided to give the younger generations a more optimistic view of their country. As a result, the Godzilla saga became infantilized, shattering the seriousness that permeates the first decade of the saga.”

After the dreadful 1998 American remake of Godzilla, there’s still hope that the big guy can be reinvented for long time fans, and make a nice introduction for new audiences. We also feel Belles’s Hiroshima documentary could make a nice companion piece for the new model Godzilla. “I feel the next Godzilla will be very faithful to the original model,” Belles says. “The director (Gareth Edwards) also said that he will respect the Japanese Godzilla.”

Ryfel adds, “What I found very interesting about the teaser trailer for Legendary Pictures' Godzilla remake was the narration, an excerpt from a famous interview with Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer in which he describes the horror of watching the Trinity explosion, the first successful atomic bomb test, which preceded Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Does this mean this Godzilla will make a direct connection between the atomic bombs that America dropped on Japan and the creation of the monster? If that's the case, then perhaps this film will have something interesting to offer. But everything we've heard thus far seems to indicate that a nuclear accident--something akin to the Fukushima disaster--is what triggers the birth of Godzilla and/or the other monsters in the film, which would deflect responsibility away from the U.S., just as the Roland Emmerich film from 1998 did.”