For most movie-watching audiences Godzilla is something of a caricature representing the hokiness of Japanese giant monster cinema.
Watching dudes in rubber suits awkwardly smash model buildings isn’t exactly high art but it’s had a lasting pop culture effect on the film landscape that has stuck with the fans of these movies for decades. There are more Godzilla movies than there are James Bond movies in fact; a testament to how popular these giant monster films are with audiences in one way or another. Most of the G-man’s filmography depicts him as either something of a superhero fighting the new monster of the month in the form of a kaiju like Gigan, King Ghidorah, or the “Smog Monster” and other times he’s the bad guy/heel that another monster or the Japanese SDF has to stop from destroying Tokyo.
The point is it’s un-shocking that the popular view on the “King of the Monsters” is largely that these films are just dumb monster flicks. This isn’t an entirely incorrect view as, again, most of Godzilla’s films are deeply unserious as Toho Studios deliberately marketed many of them that way in order to sell toys to kids. It’s easy then to forget, however, that the film that kicked off this entire franchise is hardly a superficial exercise in suitmation cheese. It’s a dark and thought-provoking story on man’s hubris and violence and how that creates (in this case, actual) monsters.
1954’s “Gojira” isn’t just some silly kaiju flick; it’s an allegory for what the US did to Japan in World War II, spawned from the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There is a clear and obvious reason Godzilla is depicted as having a breath of atomic fire…
A lot is told about the atomic bombs and the decisions that went into dropping them in US classrooms. We are told that this was a “complicated” decision, that Japan was never going to surrender at the close of WWII without force, and that the US made the “tough” decision to drop both bombs not only to end things quickly but to “save lives.” The reality is Japan was going to surrender before President Harry Truman decided to initiate the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and everyone knew it.
In the weeks leading up to the drops, surrender was clearly going to happen for Japan. This isn’t the observation of some leftist historian btw; the US’s own military generals had these observations before the bombs were dropped. We are told that both drop sites were military targets but the vast majority of the blast sites were populated largely by women and children who overwhelmingly were the main victims of both attacks. The US generals and military leaders knew this and even saw it as a gross immoral use of violence on a civilian population. Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s own chief of staff, wrote in his memoir (“I Was There”) that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.… In being the first to use it, we…adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.” (source)
Perhaps more damning of the entire event is this quote by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimetz:
“…the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment…. It was a mistake to ever drop it…. [The scientists] had this toy, and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it…”
The point here is this wasn’t some small philosophical outlier even back in 1946. The US knew and more specifically their own military knew what they were about to do, knew it was wrong and immoral to unleash such immediate massive death on Japan, and did it anyway. The result was at best deeply unethical and at worst barbaric and downright evil (I know where I stand…). President Truman gave the order so the US could flex on the Red Army of the USSR at the cost of approximately 226,000 Japanese, most of whom were, again, women and children.
The point of the atomic bombs wasn’t about bringing peace or ending the war quickly to “save lives;” It was about enforcing American global hegemony and telling the rest of the world what would happen if anyone dared stand against them.
The people of these cities suffered mightily from this event. If they didn’t die in the initial hellfire, they either succumbed to the slow painful process of radiation poisoning from its fallout or were maimed by its hot light and burns for life. For almost a decade it was something of a taboo to talk about it within Japan. With the US taking control of the country’s rebuild and its government (creating a de facto vassal state in the decades to come), the Japanese were understandably uncomfortable broaching the subject at all in most spaces.
But in 1954 an event occurred that would shake the country into reprocessing their trauma and create the inspiration needed for director Ishiro Honda to birth one of pop culture’s most iconic monsters.
On March 1st of that year, a Japanese fishing boat called Lucky Dragon No. 5 was hit with radiation in the fallout from a hydrogen bomb test off the coast of Bikini Atoll. The perpetrators were again the US. The nuclear fallout from the incident contaminated the crew’s catch, with many of its members falling sick and one dying due to radiation sickness. There was a panic in Japan over fears of radioactively poisoned fish and reasonable outrage over the US’s negligence during their testing. The event helped spur the Japanese Anti-Nuclear movement at the time with many going as far as to call it Japan’s “second atomic bombing.”
The events of Bikini Atoll brought much of this suppressed pain from the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the surface.
Honda, who had been working on an idea for a monster movie in the same vein as “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” that same year found something truly dark he could work into the script with the Bikini Atoll fallout. The event proved to be the inspirational foundation of his title monster; “Gojira” aka Godzilla.
Later in 1954, Honda was able to finish and release his monster film to Japan and eventually the rest of the world. The plot of this film is fairly simple but nonetheless poignant as it touches on the feelings and anxieties of Honda and the Japanese people of the period, depicting an ancient subterranean dinosaur awakened and mutated by the fallout of a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific ocean. The film even opens with another fishing crew succumbing to the nuclear blast of this terrifying new monster.
Freshly awakened from his slumber this monster, whom the locals have named Gojira (later to be more commonly known as Godzilla in pop culture, of course), wreaks havoc on Tokyo and the people of Japan. No matter what the Japanese SDF throws at him the giant atomic fire lizard continues to lumber straight through it all. An unstoppable force of nature and man’s own hubris descending on Japan’s cities like a vengeful God coming to punish the wicked for their sins.
The result is a dark and moody film, almost a horror story in some ways as we watch countless civilians die painful and traumatic deaths in Godzilla’s wake. In one scene we watch a mother cradle her children as the city crumbles around them. She reassures them, through teary eyes as it all happens, “We’ll be with your father soon” undoubtedly referencing that their father may have either died in the war or more fittingly died in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
The aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo is perhaps the most thematic of all the events depicted in the film. Though it’s of course a model set that’s shown in this scene the mood is grim and deeply tragic, meant to invoke the same sense of devastation one would have felt seeing the blast sites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We see overcrowded hospital wards filled with the injured and dead during this sequence, with doctors and scientists running Geiger counters over the patients showing they have been hit with Godzilla’s radiation. In one particular tragic scene we see a child wail as they place a blanket over their dead mother’s face and its hard not to imagine similar innocent lives wracked by actual traumatic moments like this at those same blast sites.
Japan’s trauma is on full display in the third act of this movie. At the time it was one of the first pieces of art to depict what happened to the country at the close of the war and in many ways helped process the people’s grief from that aftermath (though not without some initial controversy, as the topic was certainly sensitive among critics). Japan in no way were the good guys of course during WWII (the Imperial army was in many ways just as bad as the Nazis, maybe worse) but its civilians did not deserve to be punished in such a way for the crimes of their government. If this were the way karma worked in the cosmic universe then the US is VERY overdue for such violence to say the least.
“Gojira” goes a few steps further though than simply depicting the monstrous, evil power of the atomic bomb. In the film there is a character named Dr. Serizawa who, whether intentional or not, is very much a stand-in for a real historical character centered around the atomic bomb; Dr. Robert Oppenheimer. In “Gojira,” Serizawa is a scientist who accidentally stumbles upon the creation of a new superweapon he dubs The Oxygen Destroyer which eliminates all organic material in water sources. Horrified by what he has done, he vows to keep it a secret from the rest of the world lest it falls into the wrong hands.
Dr. Oppenheimer didn’t exactly stumble on the creation of the atomic bomb, of course. He was recruited by the US to create it in what became known as The Manhattan Project.
The Manhattan Project began, a year before the US entered WWII, when President Roosevelt conscripted the Army Corps of Engineers on a project to create a new superweapon. The US was fearful of Nazi Germany possibly developing an atomic bomb before them and quickly worked with German refugee scientists such as Albert Einstein to get the ball moving on the weapon.
It was Oppenheimer who was the real brains behind the project, a theoretical physicist from CalTech, who was able to crack the code on nuclear energy and design the world’s first atom bomb. When, the first successful test went off at the “Trinity” site in Alamagordo, New Mexico he uttered that infamous line from Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita “I am become death the destroyer of worlds.”
Initially, at the time, Oppenheimer was reportedly proud of his accomplishment here and relieved that the test was successful but the usage of the weapon he helped create began to change his perception on the matter. While he was hoping to see the weapon used on the Nazis and did not initially object to the first bombing of Hiroshima, it was the second that shook Oppenheimer’s belief in nuclear proliferation.
President Truman’s use of the second atomic bomb shocked and appalled Oppenheimer, much as it did his generals, so much that he requested a private meeting with Truman to tell him himself that the president had “blood on his hands.” The remark did not go well, of course, with Truman telling a staffer “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in my office again” and his security clearance was shortly after revoked. Oppenheimer would go on to become something of an anti-nuclear activist, campaigning heavily against the creation of the H-bomb, perhaps to assuage a guilty conscience.
For Serizawa, in “Gojira,” his guilt leads to the film’s climactic final act and ultimate message of the story. Godzilla is a stand-in for many things to audiences in this movie; a monstrous depiction of Japan’s own military sins, the wrath of the atomic bombs, and the Bikini Atoll incident, but he’s also a stand-in for man’s hubris and violence toward one another. A depiction of man’s recklessness leading to terrifying results. In the film’s final moments Serizawa reluctantly decides to help Japan’s SDF destroy Godzilla by using his weapon. He then burns his notes and anything related to the weapon in his lab and sets out to unleash the weapon by diving deep into the Pacific ocean where Godzilla slumbers.
But as the Oxygen Destroyer is ignited Serizawa cuts his diving line and sacrifices himself along with the weapon in order to not only defeat Godzilla but ensure that any knowledge of the weapon died with him. It’s a tragic ending but one that drives home the point clearly to the audience that this kind of escalation of violence has consequences and it needs to stop.
Despite the strong words of numerous military generals at the time no such epiphany occurred for the US following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, it very clearly kicked off an age of US imperialist and war action for the remainder of the century carrying over to today.
To this day the US has 3,750 nuclear warheads. To put it in perspective with our primary “adversaries,” China has 350 and North Korea has 45. Japan also wasn’t the only time the US considered dropping atomic bombs on an Asian country. During the Korean War, where an estimated 20 percent of North Korea’s population was killed through fire bombings and shooting alone (yes, you read that figure correctly), Truman again considered dropping a hydrogen bomb to force surrender. In Vietnam, as northern communist revolutionaries began winning the war of attrition against the US’s occupying invading force, nuclear weapons were again in play to force victory under General William C. Westmoreland called “Operation: Fractured Jaw.” To President Lydon B. Johnson’s credit, he did reject this idea.
The point here is the US likes having these weapons of mass destruction in their arsenal because it enforces their dominance across the planet but also cause they will never have to see the death they caused up close. We often ignore civilian casualties in war as simply an inevitable side effect of battle, but it is not an excuse for a military to attack targets indiscriminately across a country. Again, we all know Imperial Japan was as bad if not worse than the Nazis but if you want to hold an entire country’s people responsible for the violence inflicted by its evil government then Americans are suuuuuuper over-due for a reckoning here.
The US has committed countless war crimes across the world since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As mentioned approximately 20 percent of North Korea’s civilian population was wiped out by the US military during the war. Regardless of how you feel about that country, they are justifiably wary of surrendering their only means of defense (those warheads) to the US after such a genocidal event like that occurred. In Vietnam the US had a policy of “kill anything that moves” in “free-fire zones” as they called them, napalming indiscriminately across the North AND the South, spreading Agent Orange across the jungles causing birth defects and mutations that are still happening to this day. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we make a big thing about the US casualties during these conflicts but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to civilian deaths that tally officially around 373,000 but are more likely closer to a million. We then wonder why the entire region is destabilized, radicalized, and fell apart within days of the US’s departure. Like Hiroshima and Nagasaki we didn’t do it for “humanitarian” reasons; we did it to flex on our adversaries and line the pockets of wealthy businessmen and it has terrifying and tragic consequences. The trauma becomes generational across entire cultures because of such death on a mass scale and it’s all because of the inherent violence of US imperialism.
So, Godzilla, at least in his initial original story, is not just a silly monster for audiences to point and laugh at as a dude in a rubber suit stumbles his way through model city sets. The original King of the Monsters is a grim depiction of an entire nation’s collective trauma born out of the devastation of one of the US’s greatest war crimes. Godzilla’s origin is a reminder that the US’s bloodthirst and need to enforce its dominance across the world has grave consequences for the people it directs its crosshairs on. Art has a way of expressing deep traumatic emotions that simply talking about it can’t sometimes and Godzilla is a great example of an entire country’s artistic depiction of such violence.
The US tried to even whitewash this depiction in its US release of the film; editing out large chunks of the film’s more pointed criticism of nuclear proliferation while splicing in an American protagonist in the form of actor Raymond Burr. It’s actually a decent B-movie in this form, but like the actual ways the US teaches history around Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s a form of America once again creating propaganda to hide its grievous war crimes from society.
As our congress debates how they can make even less use of our tax dollars to build infrastructure, healthcare, a robust education system, and COVID relief packages, no such discussion will ever be made of our bloated military budget. You might think $5 trillion over the course of a couple of decades is a lot of money for “Build Back Better” or whatever they are calling it now but compare it to our bloated military budget of $766 billion we spend in a YEAR and it’s a tiny drop in the bucket. And for what? To murder and terrorize black, brown, and indigenous people overseas for oil and other resources? To help fund apartheid and fascist governments that happen to support the American Empire in the Middle East, Asia, and South America?
As our economy continues to crater as more people live paycheck to paycheck or worse during an unprecedented global pandemic, American citizens need to start waking up to the fact that this country has stolen from us in order to fund war crimes overseas and create new Godzillas around the world.
Every minute, day, week, month, year, the US is creating untold amounts of trauma on people, destabilizing entire regions of the world, because this country just does not give a damn how much blood it sheds so long as it can make money and maintain its power. The US is trying to gear up for another war as we speak, this time with another Asian country in China, and regardless of how you may feel about what that country has or hasn’t done the blood on its hands is incomparable to us. We have no right to lecture ANYONE on human rights.
Our new Cold War is little more than the last death throes of an Empire that chose military might over its own people. In many ways, it has created its own Godzilla because of it as we are all feeling a collective trauma from that negligence during this period. This growing anger within our populace will eventually hit its breaking point, make no mistake.
“Gojira” may have eventually become a mostly cheesy monster movie franchise but its initial film is a reminder that the violence and terror inflicted upon these countries by the US has devastating consequences and very real victims. Our schools may not teach it this way but it’s the raw and dark truth of it all.
Godzilla may be King of the Monsters in the pop culture world, but it should be clear who holds that crown in the real one…