When Honda Ishiro’s now-classic monster film Gojira first premiered in 1954, Japan had been freshly shaken to its core by the two American nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade before. The same year of Gojira’s premiere, the United States was testing its 15-ton hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll, near the Marshall Islands.
Nearby, a fishing vessel named the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (or Lucky Dragon) was caught in the blast’s radiation radius. There were no fatalities, except for the ship’s chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, who died less than half a year later due to radiation poisoning. According to Dan Krieger, then-President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Kuboyama’s last words were, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb”.
Gojira’s ties to nuclear fear have long been documented, and the themes aren’t subtle within the film itself. The film opens with Gojira rising out of the ocean and sinking a Japanese fishermens’ boat, much like how the Lucky Dragon met its own mighty monster.
Gojira, or Godzilla, as he’s famously known in the west, is an ancient dinosaur awoken by nearby hydrogen bomb tests. His wrath is incurred and he takes his pain out on the whole of Japan, attacking its most iconic monuments: the bustling Shinjuku Station, the Diet Building, and the Television Broadcasting Tower.
In that sense, Godzilla is an obvious analog to the nuclear weapon in that he represents everything the weapon wielded: near-infinite unclear firepower, unwieldy natural physical force, and a mighty roar that deafens the skies. In a sad sort of way, however, the monster also symbolizes all that Japan had lost: its cry also felt sorrowful and painful, because it too was a victim of the nuclear attacks, and he represented all of the lives lost to the weapon’s unparalleled fury.
“Godzilla was horrifying precisely because he embodied the souls of those who died during the war,” Yomota Inuhiko writes in his essay titled The Menace From the South Seas. “That is to say that the mental image of the casualties of the war was placed in an abject relation to those Japanese who had survived the atrocities and who now enjoyed the prosperity and democracy of post-war life.”
The Godzilla franchise’s popularity would go on to transform it into a pop culture phenomenon. Pretty soon, the first film’s serious socio-political themes would become diluted by increasingly bizarre entries in the series’s canon, such as Godzilla Raids Again, the immediate follow-up to the original that introduced the franchise’s kaiju battle format.
Following that was King Kong vs Godzilla, again directed by Honda Ishiro, which was not without its own serious themes poking satirical jabs at corporatism. King Kong, of course, was a symbol of American pop culture: a hulking giant stolen from its homeland and co-opted by its American captors for entertainment. For Godzilla to do battle with King Kong meant that Japan would be symbolically coming to a head with the very nation that had similarly done them so much harm.
The Godzilla franchise’s relationship with the United States would continue to be transparent - nuclear fear was ingrained into the DNA of the franchise, and no matter how wacky the monster battles got, that very serious theme would always reside in the background. It is important to note, in that regard, that most of the franchise’s films over the next few decades would decline to share a continuity with any of the other films, except for the original 1954 classic, which would continue to remain the constant within every new canon.
There was also a constant fear of the American Superpower that purveyed through the entire franchise. In 1991’s Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, for example, Godzilla rescues Japanese soldiers from American G.I.s. In the same film, a group of radical terrorist Caucasians from the future come to the past seeking to destroy Japan before it becomes a Utopian economic superpower.
In contrast to this transparent anti-American attitude, American adaptations of Godzilla rarely ever even reference the United States’ role in the nuclear arms race. Roland Emmerich’s largely-panned 1998 film, for example, instead chooses to attribute Godzilla’s origin to French nuclear testing, absolving America of any responsibility in the matter. The Gareth Edwards-directed American Godzilla reboot in 2014 made it a point not to remove the nuclear commentary present in Godzilla’s backstory, but it was largely a backdrop to the film’s monster-mash narrative.
“It’s a typical case of American entertainment preferring spectacle without anything politically challenging,” says film critic Alci Rengifo. “Frankly, we can attribute this to a convenient way of also not asking audiences to question the very real, unsettling consequences of American power, or war in general. So while Hollywood loved the idea of Godzilla as a movie monster, they didn’t care for what he had to say.”
In 2016, the most recent Japanese entry in the Godzilla canon premiered. This time, it was directed by Hideaki Anno, a celebrated veteran of the anime industry. Anno had long been a critic of the Japanese government and its heavy reliance on American influence, but it was still a surprise when he took the Godzilla franchise and injected it with anti-bureaucratic themes.
It was the first live action Japanese entry since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, and it had a fitting name to boot: Shin Gojira, which literally translates to “New Godzilla”.
Shin Gojira was meant as another complete reboot of the franchise, but it brought certain themes and social criticisms into the modern day. Much the way 1954’s Gojira was a damnation of nuclear war and irresponsible nuclear testing, Shin Gojira was about Japan’s failure to properly react to the disaster that had hit Japan only a few years earlier.
In 2011, a powerful undersea earthquake caused a series of large tsunami waves to engulf and badly damage several of Japan’s coastal areas. In turn, this instigated a devastating nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Northern Japan the Encyclopedia Britannica calls the “the second worst nuclear accident in the history of nuclear power generation”. In a move that would come to be widely criticized, Japan’s government chose to evacuate a total of 109,000 people from the area, leading to the premature deaths of at least 2000 elderly people, according to Beth Daley in an article for The Conversation.
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, an emeritus professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, likens Japan’s response to the Fukushima Incident to its response to the coronavirus epidemic in an interview for Reuters. “Unless it’s written in law, their brains are paralyzed when something happens… to make this [law that would allow Abe to declare a state of emergency over the coronavirus] effective, you have to practice certain things, like with Fukushima and infectious disease,” he said. “But how to do it in an emergency? I think Japanese bureaucrats have no experience.”
Shin Gojira at once feels like a criticism of the Japanese government’s indecisive nature when it comes to disasters and a criticism of its reliance on outside governments. Ultimately, however, there is a note of positivity in the film’s final chapters when the various branches of government are able to pull through in the endgame and work together to hatch a plan to freeze the creature from the inside. It’s a declaration that attests to exactly the kind of practice Kurokawa refers to: the spirit of the Japanese people can conquer any conflict, so long as they work together.
With this, the newest film is able to tackle themes of disdain for nuclear war and the international pressures that cause it that are as relevant now as they were in 1954.
With mounting pressures between Ukraine and Russia, these themes are as prevalent in the world as ever, according to Alci Rengifo. “Once Putin raised the specter of nuclear war, what Ishiro Honda’s movie symbolized became starkly relevant… Like all major wars, science is involved as well as some kind of dark alchemy. If this escalates into a world war, then new weapons will be developed and technology will be utilized for the purposes of destruction. Like Godzilla, who knows what monstrosities we will be creating that will inspire future screenwriters. That is, if there’s a world left to make movies in.”