“Japan is the only nation that has experienced a nuclear attack. We must assert, with far more urgency, that nuclear weapons cannot coexist with mankind.” – Takato Michishita, Nagasaki survivor
All art is political, cinema especially, whether intentional or not. It’s impossible for a film to avoid the influences and biases of its creators in the same way that it’s impossible for a person to strip away their psychological and sociological makeup. Our creations reflect who we are and what the world was at the time we inhabited it, and there’s a beautiful simplicity to that which people are often all too keen to deny themselves.
The smorgasbord of films that followed Ishirō Honda‘s 1954 daikaiju picture ゴジラ (Godzilla) ran the gamut from serious to silly, feeding the large demand for tokusatsu (special effects) cinema that Honda’s initial film had created while straying further and further tonally and thematically from their progenitor. Interestingly, the film had been influenced by an American film in the shape of Eugène Lourié’s 1953 stop-motion classic The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, but Godzilla displayed no visible hallmarks of that outside of the peripheral. Instead, it was a direct political response and an attempt at opening a crucial dialogue that is still relevant to this very day. And like before, this discussion has been ignored by those who perhaps need to listen the most.
“I saw a black dot in the sky. Suddenly, it ‘burst’ into a ball of blinding light that filled my surroundings. A gust of hot wind hit my face; I instantly closed my eyes and knelt down to the ground. As I tried to gain footing, another gust of wind lifted me up and I hit something hard. I do not remember what happened after that.” – Fujio Torikoshi, Hiroshima survivor
On July 26, 1945, the Potsdam Declaration was released by the United States, Britain, and China. It was an ultimatum issued to the nation of Japan asking for the complete surrender of their armed forces after their opposition in World War II. It finished with a final warning: “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
Japan did not answer, and subsequently, atomic bombs were dropped by American aircraft on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The victims of the bombings became known as Hibakusha. Around 650,000 people have been recognized as Hibakusha, with around 150,000 still alive but with conditions from exposure to radioactive material. Despite this, there were restrictions placed on what the Japanese people were allowed to know about the events and their aftermath. While Japan eventually surrendered, their press was forbidden from reporting on the bombings, and in public, American military personnel played down the effects of radiation poisoning. It was not until 1952 that this was lifted due to the end of the American occupation.
Two years later, Godzilla was unleashed in Japan. While Honda and Toho Studios were accused of exploiting the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film’s intent is clear: to bring out in the open what was previously under lock and key, to allow a nation still grieving from a horrendous attack and which thousands are literally dying from to be able to process exactly what happened in August of 1945. From this, Godzilla does not come across as your typical special effects extravaganza. The film is bleak and unremitting, with a remarkably simple and clear structure.
The film opens with the destruction of two freighters, both in the same spot off a small island called Odo. The ships suffer the same fate: both are enveloped within a blinding flash and immediately set on fire. Shot in a stark, documentary style, the disasters are over in seconds with only a couple of survivors. They are based on another real-life incident that was a result of American atomic explosions. On March 1, 1954, the same year as Godzilla‘s release, the United States began Operation Castle, a series of thermonuclear weapon tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific ocean. One thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the blast was much bigger than predicted, and its effects were subsequently felt outside of the designated “danger zone” due to the power and weather patterns.
Just outside of that danger zone was the vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), a fishing boat out of Shizuoka Prefecture in Chūbu. The fallout, radioactive calcinated coral from the atoll, fell on the boat and the crew became ill shortly afterward. Incredibly, only one crew member died from the contamination, and four years after Godzilla, the film Lucky Dragon No. 5 was released, directed by Kaneto Shindo, who also helmed the classic Japanese horror Onibaba.
After the ships, Godzilla turns his attention on the island itself, especially as some of the more superstitious islanders believe that Godzilla is coming and a sacrifice should be offered in the shape of a young female (things never change). What follows is a huge storm, all of which is shot from the perspective of the people. Rain shatters down, buildings shake and are eventually ripped apart; men and women panic, and there are huge flashes seen through the windows. It could be lightning, but the sheer terror of the islanders says otherwise. The last shot of the attack is a helicopter breaking apart. It’s a model of course, and it’s somewhat obvious due to the budget, but it still conveys a moment of utter helplessness, with heavy symbolism based on the way it just falls over and crumbles, just like a child’s toy.
Footprints are later found on the island after scientists investigate. Along with a heavy radioactive presence, this is the first actual proof of a potential monster. The first time we actually see Godzilla is in daylight, and it’s a surprisingly matter-of-fact shot as he stands up from behind a hill and utters that famous screeching roar. The lack of a build-up to the reveal is a pointer as to Honda’s treatment of the material. Yes, it’s a monster but here it is, clear as day. There’s your proof. But what do we do? It’s revealed that Godzilla was likely awoken by the Bikini Atoll bomb testing, and questions about atomic weapons are immediately fielded and answered, especially the fact that Godzilla is irradiated itself.
What’s also interesting is that during the press conference announcing the existence of Godzilla, a council member suggests that it would be a terrible thing to reveal that Godzilla was awoken by nuclear testing, as not only would it panic the public but that it would also harm international relations and “lead to uncontrollable economic and diplomatic confusion.” This feels like a pointed attack on both the Japanese and American governments, not only with the journalist ban on reporting on the occasions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also the fact that Emperor Hirohito’s cabinet and the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War took a harsh stance on anyone keeping the leaflets that US Bombers dropped on Japanese cities to warn civilians that their city could be a target.
Where the subtext really becomes text is in the various scenes where Godzilla attacks Tokyo. Rising from the ocean, Godzilla enters the bay and just begins laying waste to everything he sees. In the initial moments, he uses his gigantic feet to crush the city and comes across a train, which he smashes in what can be assumed is a nod to King Kong. However, what’s interesting is the difference between the way the destruction is presented. In Godzilla, the rampage scenes seem filtered through a different prism than those in King Kong, firstly because of the differing points of view regarding the creatures and the varying methods in creating Godzilla and Kong, and secondly the cinematography. Whilst King Kong is at its center a tragedy about how a monster falls in love with a human and how he is treated by the humans, Godzilla‘s tragedy is about the pure destruction rained down by the monster.
In regards to the creation of the actual monsters themselves, Kong possesses a curiously human spirit, amplified by the stop-motion work of Willis O’Brien and how the technique allows the subject to be imbued with a greater degree of personality. Godzilla’s lumbering form was created via a suit for actors Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka, both half and full-body, which only gave them so much movement. As such, Godzilla’s lumbering motion has a realistic and frightening feel like that gigantic body is dragging itself along. This ties into the notion of Godzilla as a symbol; he is a primal force of nature and his very self is like a terrible storm. Susanoo-no-Mikoto himself.
Godzilla is shot like a film noir, with a heavy focus on shadows. The monster is a very dark grey, almost black, and when he hits Tokyo at night, only the city lights and military floodlights illuminate him in any detail. This is not only unsettling and a device that allows you to create your own image of Godzilla from pieces but also works around the limitations of the suit. The documentary feel of the film’s visual style comes from the cinematographer, Masao Tamai, who shot many films for Mikio Naruse, director of many acclaimed dramatic films such as Late Chrysanthemums and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.
Godzilla’s second attack on the city is where Honda’s film escalates into a full-blown nightmare and where it truly takes on the horrific imagery of nuclear holocaust. As he again comes ashore, with the low-end pianos of Akira Ifukube‘s score pushing the monster on, he unleashes his radioactive breath weapon. In subsequent color films, this has been shown as blue energy emanating from his gaping maw (and in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon he breathes fire), but here it appears strictly as white energy, unerringly like the mushroom clouds seen over Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the footage taken by the B-29 bombers as they delivered their cargo.
From this, Honda shows Tokyo being consumed by ghostly flames, with the haunting image of Godzilla and the fire towering above the skyline, showing the true scale of the destruction. But the true horror of Godzilla’s fury is the aftermath. Again illustrated in a documentary fashion, the film shows the city in daylight, and the devastation is shocking. And again, it mirrors the films of the real-life nuclear aftermath, especially when interspersed with shots of victims of radiation burns being treated in hospital. Here, the film makes an uncommonly honest plea to humanity, through a song sung by children over the sight of the destruction:
Oh peace, oh light
Hasten back to us
May we live without destruction
May we look to tomorrow with hope
May peace and light return to us
Our hearts are filled with prayer
This we pray
Hear our song
And have pity on us
May we live without destruction
May we look to tomorrow with hope
You don’t have to stretch to put that in the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the film’s final push to open this debate further is in the guise of another weapon of mass destruction, in this case, a potential Godzilla-killing weapon. A scientist named Serizawa has created a device called the Oxygen Destroyer, which is shown to instantly kill any life within its effective radius. The existence of the device is initially kept secret but is revealed when believed that it could put Godzilla down for good.
Here the film presents an internal debate for Serizawa, who wishes he had never invented the device, and through this a larger debate for humanity. Using one weapon of mass destruction to cease another, which itself was essentially created by a previous weapon of mass destruction, follows the oft-described signs of the beginning of nuclear war. Even before this, you only have to imagine how many more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis this would create and how much of a further chain reaction this would cause. Just the bare concept of that is an unbearable thought.
In the case of Godzilla, Serizawa agrees to use the weapon, going deep underwater to the monster’s resting place to set it off with another diver. Serizawa’s final action, however, is to cut his diving mate free before using the weapon and killing himself, taking the formula and his memories beyond the reach of men that might force him to create it again, as he had previously feared. As his death — and the death of Godzilla — are lamented, another scientist named Yamane gives another pointed message as to the political meaning of the film, stating, “if we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world, again.”
At this point in history, there are nine countries in the world said to possess nuclear weapons. The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. Given the often fragile relationships between nations, especially when the elected officials in question often show qualities suggesting they may be willing to use them, the very idea is abhorrent. If someone does again attack with a nuclear weapon, where do we go from there? Do we retaliate with another nuclear weapon? What will the legacy of the survivors be? And are the people making those decisions of sound mind to do so?
And what will our children think of us?
It was a night spent in the basement of a burnt out building.
People injured by the atomic bomb took shelter in this room, filling it.
They passed the night in darkness, not even a single candle among them.
The raw smell of blood, the stench of death.
Body heat and the reek of sweat. Moaning.
Miraculously, out of the darkness, a voice sounded:
“The baby’s coming!”
In that basement room, in those lower reaches of hell,
A young woman was now going into labor.
What were they to do,
Without even a single match to light the darkness?
People forgot their own suffering to do what they could.
A seriously injured woman who had been moaning but a moments before,
“I’m a midwife. Let me help with the birth.”
And now life was born
There in the deep, dark depths of hell.
Her work done, the midwife did not even wait for the break of day.
She died, still covered with the blood.
Bring forth new life!
Even should it cost me my own,
Bring forth new life!
– Sadako Kurihara, Hiroshima survivor, August 1945