Over everything—up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks—was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. The bomb had not only left the underground organs of the plants intact; it had stimulated them.
– John Hershey, Hiroshima
It’s not saying anything new to point out that America loves to destroy its own cities. Since the very real planes of September 11, 2001 crashed into the World Trade Center there has hardly been a lack of Hollywood recreating the spectacle of the American metropolis being smashed to bits by a hostile alien force. New York alone has been flooded by a giant tsunami, invaded by aliens, reduced to a wasteland by the zombie apocalypse, torn apart by a mutated sea monster, obliterated by a giant naked nuclear blue man and transformed into the battle ground between the Norse god of mischief and its own designated defenders. That’s not counting the similarly wanton destruction of Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles (among others) and the severe beatings taken by the barely fictional cities of Gotham and Metropolis. Furthermore that’s discounting the even more unrestrained thrashing these cities took before 9/11, including a visit by Roland Emmerich’s own Godzilla in 1998.
Philosopher and academic all-rounder Slavoj Zizek has done numerous studies on the American fantasy of destruction, diagnosing it as stemming from, among other things, a feeling of guilt, that Western privilege can only be enjoyed under threat of being taken away. The question that then arises is, why has disaster imagery (no longer a distinct genre but a widely seen trope in most action movies) become such an accepted standard after 9/11? Perhaps the event, once the initial shock had subsided, merely added fuel to the fire. Now that Americans know the effect of two skyscrapers being destroyed they have a starting point for when General Zod destroys fifty. If an American city was completely leveled the way that modern movies so frequently show would it still be so eager to project them onto the big screen?
The fact is that this has been done before, and by the one country to have a major city completely erased from existence. A mere nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wiped off the face of the earth, taking the Japanese empire with it (and only two years after the Allied Occupation officially ended), one of the top ten grossing films of the year (including foreign imports) featured an irradiated mythological beast utterly decimating Tokyo in a way King Kong and its American off-shoots never dared. Godzilla is now a cultural icon, having made millions through films, toys, comic books, t-shirts and everything else that comes with a property of its stature (no pun intended). It’s worth stepping back, then, before the clutter of sequels, remakes and spin-offs and asking why, in 1954, such a vivid recreation of Japan’s own nuclear nightmare would be seen in a popular film?
The first part of this question lies in the now accepted assumption that Godzilla was a metaphor for nuclear warfare, that the 1954 film featured a pacifist subtext beneath its B-Movie trapping. Re-watching the original Japanese cut, I now see that this is not the case. There is nothing subtextual or metaphorical about Godzilla’s relation to the bomb; it’s all quite explicitly stated by the movie.
In March 1954, eight months before Godzilla was released, America made its first successful H-Bomb test in Bikini Atoll, in the Northern Pacific Ocean. Failing to properly warn Japan about its intentions, the test was conducted dangerously close to a straying Japanese fishing boat, in a case of cruel irony it the boat was named ‘Lucky Dragon’. All the fishermen developed radiation sickness and one of them died making the only fatality caused by a hydrogen bomb, like the atomic bomb, a Japanese citizen. Godzilla daringly opens by recreating this event almost exactly. A group of fishermen are caught in a mysterious flash of light off the coast of the fictional Odo Island, with only a handful of men surviving. According to the superstitious local population, the dreaded mythical sea-monster Godzilla is responsible and unsurprisingly the as-of-yet unseen force of destruction returns and reaks havock on the island, including killing the surviving fisherman. Like the real fatality of Bikini Atoll, an encounter with Godzilla is a mark of doom, just as ‘surviving’ a nuclear attack merely delays the pain, Godzilla will return and finish the destruction it promises. Yet while Godzilla, as we see the setting of Geiger counters and marks of radiation burns, is undoubtedly a radioactive creature it seems odd that he is also a folkloric creature according to the Odo natives. Is Godzilla meant to be a terrifying manifestation of modern science or a dormant mythic creature, a sort of Japanese Loch Ness monster? Thus the curious contradictions of what Godzilla, the film and the monster, represents comes into focus.
To say that the shadow of World War II hangs over Godzilla is a severe understatement; characters frequently allude to the history repeating themselves before their eyes. In one of the most striking moments, a minor character complains that they just barely escaped the bombing of Nagasaki, as if it was merely another inconvenience that they had to put up with during the war. Indeed Godzilla doesn’t trample a particularly occupied Tokyo, it’s a largely barren, abandoned metropolis, almost as empty as the balsa wood sets made to resemble it. The stereotype of the Japanese citizen fleeing Godzilla’s path while pointing up in awe didn’t come into the film until much later, following quite a detailed evacuation sequence. One of the most striking things about this sequence is how weirdly subdued the fleeing extras are, a far cry from the mass hysteria that populates at least couple of Hollywood films each year. The terrifying thing about Godzilla’s arrival isn’t that it catches the city off-guard but the startling efficiency with which Tokyo is abandoned.
But the visceral memory of citywide evacuations isn’t the only shadow of World War II looming over the film. The central conflict of the film is one between the immediate threat at hand (the big giant lizard that stomps on things) and the greater implications of what we see. Ikiru’s Takashi Shimura plays a sympathetic old scientist who repeatedly attempts to persuade the government from destroying Godzilla in the interests of science; as mad as it sounds a specimen that managed to survive an H-Bomb is a pretty useful thing to have and the film frames that argument respectfully. The other main scientist of the film, played by Akihiko Hirata, holds the weapon that could destroy Godzilla (a bizarre ‘oxygen destroyer’ that doesn’t really make any sense) yet attempts to keep it a secret in fear of it merely adding to the arms race and possibly being responsible for the complete annihilation of humanity. Director Ishiro Honda was drafted into the imperial army to serve in China while producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was prosecuted as a war criminal for directing propaganda films. These men had served a duty to their country but were now deemed by the new power as having committed crimes against humanity. Godzilla finds a unique way to sensitively dramatize that struggle by having characters torn between their immediate allegiances to their country (as threatened by Godzilla) and their responsibility to humankind, a distinctly post-World War II idea. Yet even more fascinating is how these motivations sympathize with the American perspective. The dilemma faced by Tanaka pretty explicitly parallels the dilemma of the now-disowned Robert Oppenheimer, a man who created a weapon for his country before abandoning it for humanity. In fact the final act of the film is not a climactic struggle between a rampaging Godzilla and the military but a very melancholy stealth attack on the sleeping monster underwater. No one cheers or seems to feel particularly good about using Tanaka’s ‘oxygen destroyer’ against the sleeping monster they just ‘have to’. Without opening up political debates about the necessity of deploying the A-Bomb, the final moments of Godzilla seems to place the Japanese protagonists in the place of Truman’s America at the end of World War II, destroying a ‘sleeping monster’ not because they want to but because they, supposedly, ‘have to’. Those who come to Godzilla hoping for anti-American polemic will be sorely disappointed, indeed America is never named (only featuring on the side of a plane when international ‘experts’ are called in) and the arms race is talked about in terms of being humanity’s responsibility and humanity’s problem to deal with.
The major question, then, is why did Godzilla become a nationalist symbol when it so horrifically mimics the destruction of the A-bomb? Well one of the reasons will not be found in this film. In the twenty-odd sequels to ‘54’s Godzilla the monster was almost never seen without another creature to battle, a way to reposition the devastating force as a defender for the nation. However, a lot of what Godzilla would become can be found in the 1954 film. As I mentioned above, the H-bomb does not create Godzilla, it is awoken by it. A mythical creature (not an actual Japanese myth, but within the film it’s folkloric) that is both empowered and aggravated by the intrusive forces of modernity. Godzilla is a feature of the land that preludes the people who occupy it, certainly proceeding the post-war materialist society that had sprung up in the post-War years. Thus it is not as contradictory as it may seem to cheer its destruction of Tokyo while mourning for the victims left in its wake. Godzilla is not destroying the people of Tokyo (though the film goes out of its way to vividly show the collateral damage in traumatic hospital scenes that feel ripped out of a documentary on the Allied bombings), but instead destroying Tokyo, the modern metropolis that symbolized Japan’s current industrial capitalist status. The post-war anxieties of an ‘Americanized’ Japan, are brought to boiling point by an embodiment of the natural environment reclaiming the land, destroying every material structure in its wake. While Godzilla is not anti-American per se (at least not as much as it could have been) it certainly speaks to the post-war identity crisis the nation was facing.
So we are about to come full circle with the nation that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that bombed Bikini Atoll, that originally awoke Godzilla, now reawakening him fifty years later to wreak havoc on their own nation. Toho’s original film boldly suggested that everyone held responsibility for the atomic age but Hollywood don’t have the luxury to suggest otherwise now. 9/11 was the culmination of increased opposition to America’s role as the world’s police, a role assumed when they ‘won’ the war by converting two Japanese cities to nuclear dust. For Godzilla to succeed in America, Garth Edwards and co. have to confront head on that it is a force for vengeance. Its world was destroyed so that America could have its own, now the most traumatic giant lizard in cinema is paying it back.
The Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray of Godzilla is the best available release for looking back at the original feature and David Kalat‘s commentary track on that disc was an immense help in the creation of this piece. This essay is also the first part of a series looking at the history of Godzilla on film, more will be published upon the release of the upcoming Gareth Edwards film.