Well, it’s taken over 60 years, but Toho has finally made a Godzilla movie that matches the original in the form of Shin Godzilla. This may not sound like such a big deal; after all, we’re talking about a movie franchise centred around people in big rubber monster suits wrestling each other in model reproductions of Tokyo. That description really only applies to the various sequels of the 1954 original and the two American remakes (albeit substituting the rubber suits for CGI of varying quality). The first Godzilla (or Gojira, as it’s known in Japan) is a very different beast: rather than being a campy adventure where the enemy of the week is beaten by a friendly giant lizard, it’s a chilling horror movie where Tokyo is ravaged by a monstrous allegory for nuclear weapons. In fact, the movie gets outright disturbing at some points.
Understanding why Godzilla is meant to be a stand-in for nuclear weapons requires some explanation of the past 75 years or so of Japanese history. To begin with, it’s the only country to actually have been attacked with nuclear weapons so far, with the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being bombed in August 1945 by the US to force the Imperial Japanese government to surrender at the end of World War II (a subject I discussed in some detail in a previous post). As you would imagine, fear of the effects of nuclear weapons were fairly common in Japan afterwards, and is still fairly prominent today. All of this was worsened by what became known as the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon no. 5) incident in 1954, when the crew of the fishing boat was exposed to the fallout of the Castle Bravo nuclear weapon test, all of whom developed symptoms of radiation poisoning, though all but one of the 23 men survived. This incident helped inspire director Ishiro Honda to create Godzilla that same year. The result is a very grim movie, which starts with a fishing boat mysteriously being sunk and builds up to the infamous monster destroying Tokyo, then being killed with a new superweapon (which did nothing to prevent another 30 sequels and reboots, but that’s the movie business for you).
The parallels to the atomic bomb in Godzilla are almost impossible to miss when watching the movie. The destruction of Tokyo in particular is eerily similar not just to the results of the Tokyo firebombing campaign during the war (which actually killed more people than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings combined, with around 100,000 civilian deaths), but to the aftermath of nuclear weapons being used. Apparently Honda had passed through Hiroshima after it was bombed, and drew on what he saw in designing the movie. It definitely shows: when watching the movie, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the photos I saw of the aftermath of the bombings in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum when I went earlier this year, to the point that it seemed like parts of it were actually just footage recorded shortly afterwards. After Godzilla actually attacks, swathes of Tokyo are heavily contaminated with radiation, and the clicking of Geiger counters in a hospital is a sign that many of the survivors, including children, are suffering from potentially fatal radiation poisoning. The main human characters find themselves debating whether or not they should use a new weapon, dubbed the Oxygen Destroyer, against Godzilla, since they worry that governments might decide to use it in future wars (appropriately, it ultimately propels the idea of the monsters being being born from mankind’s destructive tendencies further by creating another monster). Even Godzilla itself is considered a victim of nuclear weapons, since it was mutated by a nuclear weapon test and was deliberately designed to have the same kind of scarring as survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
More than 60 years later, Shin Godzilla goes for a similar anti-nuclear message, but with a few twists. Most notably, there are plenty of allusions to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, which has stoked further nuclear fears in Japan (to the point that most nuclear power plants have been shut down). Rather than being the product of a nuclear weapon test, Godzilla is now created by exposure to nuclear waste, and ends up being an ambulatory nuclear reactor of sorts. The biggest allusion to the Fukushima disaster, however, isn’t Godzilla (who still goes on to devastate swathes of Tokyo), but the behaviour of the Japanese government itself in the movie. Part of the blame for the disaster has been placed on the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, which wasn’t prepared for that kind of disaster, leading to a botched response that was further hindered by poor communications and inter-departmental struggling over jurisdiction. This is basically what happens in Shin Godzilla: when the monster first drags itself out of Tokyo Bay, the Cabinet has no idea how to react, since they never planned for such a thing (admittedly, I’d be worried if a government WAS prepared for a giant monster crawling out of the sea). After lots of squabbling between ministers, it’s finally decided that a state of emergency will be declared and the Self-Defense Force will be deployed, but by this time Godzilla has already wandered back into the water and vanished. There are other allusions to Japanese political issues throughout the movie, especially regarding the country’s relationship to the US, which characters explicitly refer to as reducing Japan to a tributary (not helped by the US plan for dealing with Godzilla, which I won’t spoil here beyond the fact that its mere suggestion horrifies the entire cast). The atomic bomb imagery still remains, and even seems to have been cranked up a notch from the original movie: where the 1954 film calls for an end to nuclear weapons to avoid another such disaster, the reboot instead has characters gloomily express in the ending that the world will just have to learn to live with Godzilla.
The message of the original and new Godzilla films is seemingly obvious: that nuclear weapons are horrifying and their use should be avoided at all costs. This wasn’t so obvious in the 1950s, though, as nuclear weapons were still seen as just being bigger bombs, rather than something wholly different from other weapons. Though this isn’t as much of a problem in 2016, it’s still something of an issue, especially when a certain Republican presidential candidate down south thinks that there’s no problem in countering North Korean nuclear weapons by encouraging Japan and South Korea to get their own (and there are so many problems with this idea that it deserves its own blog post at some point). So maybe we do still need Godzilla to knock down some buildings and breathe nuclear fire once in a while to remind us of a seemingly obvious message. If nothing else, at least we’ll always have the cheesy special effects and some good music.
Mark Haichin is a PhD student with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.
This article is a cross-post from Mark’s Policy Musings.