From the scary thuds and mysterious roars that accompany the no-frills titles to the bizarrely poignant final image of the monster, alone at the bottom of the ocean, Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Godzilla is all business and pure dream.
Amid a flurry of urgent news-bulletin references to nuclear contamination, fallout, bomb shelters, and the wartime incineration of Nagasaki, a gigantic, hyperdestructive dinosaur lizard rises from the depths of Tokyo Bay. Magnificent and absurd, the humongous radioactive reptile known as Gojira—Godzilla, to us—is the great movie monster of the post–World War II period, in part because Honda seems to have conceived this primordial force of nature as a living mushroom cloud.
Initially, as Donald Richie writes in an essay on the representation of Hiroshima in Japanese cinema, the atomic bomb was considered one more catastrophe in a catastrophic war. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just two of many ruined Japanese cities—the firebombing of Tokyo had been no less horrible. Hiroshima was not an “atrocity” but a “tragedy.” The 1950 Hiroshima, a documentary made up of newsreel clips, and several follow-ups—Nagasaki After the Bomb and Pictures of the Atom Bomb (both 1952)—conveyed a resigned and elegiac attitude. The same was true of the first feature on the subject, Kaneto Shindo’s 1952 Children of Hiroshima, a somber melodrama about the after-effects of atomic radiation, shot on location in the half-rebuilt city a month after the end of the U.S. occupation, and finished in time for an August 6, Hiroshima Day, world premiere.
Although a popular success in Japan, Children of Hiroshima was criticized as insufficiently anti-American by Japan’s left-wing teachers’ union (which would finance a more polemical movie drawing on the same material). Shown at Cannes in May 1953, it was overshadowed by the existential powerhouse The Wages of Fear, with its visceral allegory for nuclear obliteration. Children of Hiroshima attracted little foreign attention. Then, with the end of the American occupation, came two Japan metaphors that would be impossible to ignore: Godzilla and its art-house twin, Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (1955), both produced by Toho Studios, with overlapping casts, and both articulating a new attitude—namely, an acute nuclear anxiety regarding the possibility of collective extinction, or what, in his review of I Live in Fear, Parker Tyler calls “atomophobia.”
Addressing nuclear doomsday from the perspective of the only nation in the world to have suffered an atomic bomb, and produced in light of the newly developed hydrogen bomb, these movies were highly topical (and hence hardly irrational). Radiation was in the air. The United States successfully exploded an H-bomb in late 1952; the Soviets followed a few months later. In 1954, the U.S., the UK, and the USSR were all testing in the Pacific. Japan’s experience of atomic weapons would now also include nuclear fallout from this.
In March 1954, an American H-bomb test irradiated a seven-thousand-square-mile area around Bikini Atoll. A Japanese fishing trawler, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), inadvertently cruised within eighty-five miles of the site and was showered with radioactive ash, and the entire crew developed radiation sickness. This, not surprisingly, was a much bigger deal in Japan than in the U.S. And Godzilla opens with a version of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident, with one freighter and then two more vanishing in a sea of flames. It’s like a crazy documentary. I Live in Fear, by contrast, opens like a sci-fi cheapster: distinctively weird, moody music—theremin mixed with saxophone—underscoring overhead shots of heedless, perhaps doomed people in the streets. The possibility of nuclear destruction seems present in nearly every scene.
Each in its own way, Godzilla and I Live in Fear introduced the idea of a postnuclear monster—or mutant. In popular mythology, mutant is the term and the metaphor for those changes nuclear weapons inflict upon our species—not just sickness and deformity but mutated consciousness. For Kurosawa (child survivor of the 1923 Tokyo-Yokohama earthquake, which killed an estimated 140,000 people), the atomic bomb was less a political issue than a psychological problem. His protagonist, Kiichi Nakajima, a successful industrialist and the head of a large family, is played by Toshiro Mifune as a kind of cracked King Lear, or rather a combination of Lear and the fool. Mifune contorts his face like a kabuki mask, and there’s a simian quality to his fearful, hypervigilant posture. Tyler compares the old man’s transformation to that of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa—“a dreaded stranger in his own house”—reduced to pleading with his family to flee with him to Brazil. (Finally, he creates his own holocaust, destroying his factory.)
As Mifune’s character articulated society’s repressed fears, Kurosawa showed what postnuclear Japan had perhaps become. Nakajima was an “us”; Godzilla, however, was an “it.” Honda showed what postnuclear Japan had and could overcome. The film allowed Japanese audiences to eat their cake and have it. And while I Live in Fear was a box-office failure, Godzilla was tremendously successful—its spectacle of total destruction externalized what might be taking place inside the atomophobe’s fevered brain.
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At once audaciously lurid and fearsomely somber, Godzilla was its own sort of mutant and even something of a show business H-bomb. It initially seemed a Japanese imitation of the American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), also incorporating aspects of King Kong (rereleased in 1952, and even more successful then than in 1933). But Godzilla was also something new—the first Japanese monster sci-fi film, as well as the most expensive movie ever made in that country. It cost almost a million dollars, ten times the amount of the average Japanese feature.
In some ways, Godzilla was a patriotic movie—Japan’s postwar rebirth, economic miracle, and reassertion of a national self in a supercolossal package. As popular entertainment, it was a break from the movie industry’s long period of mobilization, when it served first Japanese militarism and then the presumed interests of the American occupiers. And it was a monster hit. This thing would not, could not die. Godzilla appeared in twenty-eight sequels over forty years, battling King Kong himself in 1962. (And then there was Godzilla’s progeny: the giant moth Mothra, the monstrous pterodactyl Rodan, three-headed Ghidorah, Hedorah the Smog Monster . . .)
In 1956, the American rights to Godzilla were acquired by Joseph E. Levine, who released it in a reedited, dubbed version titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters, which would be shown all over the world. Levine cut forty minutes from Honda’s movie, including references to Nagasaki, contaminated food, and wartime bomb shelters, and shot nearly as much new material, adding a narrative framework that provided an American perspective. “As though there are not enough monsters coming from Hollywood,” New York Times critic Bosley Crowther began his review of what he deemed “an incredibly awful film.” Columnist Walter Winchell was more charitable, writing that “several episodes are banzai-worthy.” Neither man seemed to grasp the implications of a Japanese movie on the subject of nuclear annihilation.
Through the magic of montage, Godzilla, King of the Monsters starred Raymond Burr, a year after his turn as the killer in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Although the spectacle of a North American television star in the ruins of Tokyo is a sort of surreal precursor to Forrest Gump, both versions of Godzilla are predicated on creative geography. Burr is an insert—but then so is the monster. Sharing space with Godzilla isinconceivable—as opposed to King Kong, who was made to interact with humans and even fall in love. Godzilla is like a Matthias Grünewald altarpiece where the humans are shown in perspective but the monsters are garish and flat. As in the Defiguration paintings of situationist Asger Jorn, two wildly clashing representational codes are present on-screen.
For the Japanese audience, however, Godzilla successfully dramatized the monstrous rupture of World War II and its aftermath by integrating the fantastic and the everyday. Much of the movie is coded naturalism, specifically the emphasis on civil defense and collective solidarity in the face of purposeless mass destruction. Godzilla is filled with images of panic: children evacuated, tanks in the street. The monster not only sets Tokyo aflame but leaves mass casualties, including orphans and crying babies, in makeshift hospitals. The scene in which various government officials argue the Godzilla problem evidently echoes an actual debate in the Japanese Diet concerning the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons. “This is no play or movie,” a reporter explains, asking, “Will the world be destroyed by a two-million-year-old monster?” The movie’s distinctive modernist score, composed by Akira Ifukube, brings back the recent past in suitably uncanny fashion. Toho enjoyed a close connection with the Japanese military during the war, and Ifukube drew on the studio’s sound archive: Godzilla’s havoc was synthesized from samples of Japanese fighters, firearms, and bombs.
Godzilla was a way to imaginatively portray—and even exorcise—not just the atomic attack but also World War II in general, and to assuage more contemporary nuclear fears. As noted by Japanese film critic Toyomasa Kobayashi, recent anxieties were a factor in the movie’s appeal: “For people finally experiencing economic recovery after a war that decimated the country to burnt land, the spectacle of Gojira’s urban destruction was exceedingly realistic. Without doubt, this was one of its major charms.”
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Like King Kong, Moby Dick, or the shark in Jaws, Godzilla is a nexus of threats and associations. The monster is clearly the objectification of nuclear war, but just as the epidemic in Camus’ The Plague is not simply the German occupation of France, it’s also something more.
Godzilla has been called the greatest star the Japanese movie industry ever produced, with a star’s magical ability to reconcile contradictions. Combining the Japanese term for whale (kujira) with the English loanword gorira (gorilla), the name Gojira has a subtly foreign flavor—and is written with the characters the Japanese use for loanwords. The cultural anthropologist Anne Allison refers to Godzilla in psychoanalytic terms, as a symptom. The monster may initially appear as an “alien element,” but it is ultimately experienced as intrinsic to Japan’s national identity—specifically, Japan’s new national identity.
The bomb triggers Godzilla’s aggression, transforming an innocent Jurassic creature into a force of primeval destruction. Godzilla resolves the past with the future, the Japanese with the foreign, the aggressor with the victim. The destructive impulses that brought the Pacific War and the bombing of Japan are externalized and then reembraced as evidence of Japan’s martyrdom. Some thought Godzilla the vengeful ghost of martyred dead soldiers.
The mutant Godzilla is the object of atomophobia; the similarly radiation-scarred Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Godzilla’s unwilling nemesis, is the subject of atomophobia, suffering from it. Serizawa equates his “oxygen destroyer” with the H-bomb and is persuaded to use it—against the H-bomb, as it were—only by a television spectacle of schoolgirls singing a peace hymn. As this music is reprised in Godzilla’s last moments, it associates the monster with its human victims.
Both destroyer and victim, the monster inspires terror and empathy—perhaps even admiration. In subsequent movies, Godzilla becomes a beloved savior and ultimately a mascot. Plush stuffed Godzillas are a staple of Japanese toy stores. The monster mutates into a teddy bear—but perhaps it always was. Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects, which consumed one-third of the movie’s budget, involved actors in latex costumes trampling a miniature city. American kids may have found this “suitamation” ridiculous—even as they loved it—but Japanese audiences responded differently. In part because real people were used, the monster became sympathetic, even poignant. Godzilla’s movements and destructive nature were, as one contemporary reviewer put it, “strangely humanlike.”
Thus, Godzilla transformed the trauma of the war into fun—or art. Ultimately, Honda’s movie belongs with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976) as a daring attempt to fashion a terrible poetry from the mind-melting horror of atomic warfare.
J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for the Village Voice and the author of 2003’s The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and its 2011 prequel, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War.