Guest Article-Theodore Joshua Ryan Gercke
Godzilla first trampled the streets of Japan on the night of November 3rd, 1954. The enormous cultural impact the movie would have in Japan and across the world was not apparent at the time, but it did leave an immediate impact on the audience that had bought tickets for the premiere. People left the theater crying, especially those who remembered the events that were marked tragedies in the country.
Most people associate Godzilla with an atom bomb or nuclear energy. But the Japan bombings that occurred nine years prior were not the only events to inspire the monster. In fact, for years under American occupation after World War II, Japanese film companies were forbidden from making films directly about the bomb. However, a nuclear accident that occurred in 1954 added to the public’s fears of nuclear technology and contributed to the creation of Godzilla.
On March 1st, 1954, a hydrogen bomb, codenamed Castle Bravo, was tested on an island in the Bikini Atoll. Because of its unique chemistry, its detonation was an astounding success. Its blast yield was calculated to be 6 megatons, but in actuality was 15 megatons—1,000 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb “Little Boy”.
14 miles away was a Japanese fishing trolley called the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5). The crew saw the sky light up like an early sunset, and heard the roar of the explosion after seven minutes. Two hours later, as the wind blew in the ship’s direction, the ship became coated with a fine and flaky white powder, which dusted the ship for three hours while the fishermen collected their catch. It piled up high enough on the deck that the crew scooped big handfuls of it with their bare hands and tossed it overboard. One fisherman licked it and described it as “gritty, with no taste”. They all fell ill within hours.
It took them two weeks to reach back shore. None of the 23 crew members escaped radiation sickness, and one died in September. The news of their radiation poisoning spread through their country, and through America. Newspapers sent reporters both to Tokyo and the small town of Yaizu where the Lucky Dragon docked. The media devoured every aspect of the incident, and became biased because of a disagreement between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the medical division of the University of Tokyo, with newspapers taking sides between both countries, and nearly blowing it up into an international communicative conflict.
However, two figures approached the incident from a nuclear consequences standpoint, as opposed to political one. The crew member who died left these passing words: “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.” The film’s director, Ishirō Honda, was also a veteran of WWII, and an enthusiastic anti-nuke activist. After Godzilla, he went on to direct 24 additional monster movies, including eight Godzilla sequels, as well as having worked extensively as a directorial assistant to Akira Kurosawa, until his death in 1993.
“Monsters are tragic beings. They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy. They are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy. They do not attack people because they want to, but because of their size and strength, mankind has no other choice but to defend himself. After several stories such as this, people end up having a kind of affection for the monsters. They end up caring about them.”
Although Japanese critics were reticent of Godzilla at first, it was a rousing success for Toho Studios. It sold over 9.5 million tickets, and grossed ¥152 million ($2,250,000), on a shoestring budget of $175,000. It was the 8th-highest seen film in Japan in 1954.
Godzilla was a bleak, dark, and anguishing tale of atomic power, filled with an overall sense of dread, and loss. Even the ending has no positive resolutions for anyone involved.
The monster was not shown as an evil force, but as a hapless and woken blunt force. A creature acting out of habit and stimuli—a threat, but not because it actively hated humanity, but because its simple existence and presence was itself death, and loss, and sickness to those watching it, or in its wake. It was even more horrifying than the atomic bomb that it was based on, because Godzilla was literally a slow burn. While with a bomb death is immediate, the bystanders and evacuees and even the Japanese government watched it as it happened. The monster did not blow up Tokyo with one blast of atomic death—it slowly lumbered its enormous body through the streets, ripping down and melting electric wires, trampling the running people under its feet without noticing them, ripping down a clock tower and a radio tower that annoyed it, and the hapless inhabitants could do nothing.
Godzilla was so popular that it inspired dozens of sequels, and the film itself was widely released in America, under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. It has had a visible and direct influence on directors such as Wes Craven and Guillermo del Toro.
In the next few decades, Godzilla’s role in its films developed into a friendlier, almost anthropomorphic superhero character for a time, before being put on hiatus in 1975, and returning to its roots in 1984. Godzilla took on a darker tone, but the films had a distinctly family-friendly and light tone to them until 2014. Gareth Edwards’s 2014 Godzilla film, and Japan’s 2016 response Shin Godzilla, made by Hideaki Anno of Evangelion fame, brought the King of Monsters back to its dark, enormous, gritty, thrilling, and horrifying roots, and this November’s GODZILLA: Monster Planet is set up for a sci-fi environmental disaster film involving the creature.
After decades of light-hearted low-budget monster flicks, the trends for current film and TV of character-focused writing, darker sensibilities and tones, and heavy audience engagement have created a cinematic soil for a film franchise like Godzilla to thrive in the tone it was intended to speak and roar.
Godzilla has survived for decades and is continuing to grow in popularity for more reasons than just good marketing of monster toys to kids. It is the most immediately recognizable movie monster, and the most noticeable silhouette, even if a person has never seen a Godzilla movie. It is a bona fide cultural icon in Japan, has its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was even named a cultural ambassador of Japan. The fictional monster had a ceremony dedicated to it in Shinjuku declaring it a cultural ambassador for Japan, with an actor standing in for it in a rubber Godzilla film suit.
Why has Godzilla inspired this kind of recognition, fame, and overwhelming devotion? What became so important about a fictional fire-spewing thermonuclear dinosaur? Godzilla has transcended the status of film monster or film character. In its simplicity, enormity, and ferociousness, it has become a myth that people innately know about. Godzilla has become a grand myth—it is our gorgon, our hydra, our Tiamat, a Kali. It is a legend of our time, and our culture. The innate fear of humans being wiped out by something they created and can’t control, the old myths in every bygone culture of grand dragons, wartime fears, and fears of death by thermonuclear fire have merged perfectly into an encapsulation of this monster, this myth, this Godzilla.