Godzilla in Japan: Monstrous Symbolism

The surfacing of the heavy stomping Godzilla (Japanese: Gojira) out of the waters of Japan signaled the launch of kaijū eiga, or the creature-feature genre. The monster‘s post-war sybolism reflected the collective memory of the Japanese, who were still in the throes of post-war trauma. To better understand the trepidation that Godzilla evoked, it’s crucial to remember that Japan is the only country to have experienced a nuclear attack in the history of humankind.

Explosive origins

What’s interesting is that, contrary to popular belief, the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t responsible for the creation of Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954), at least not directly. It’s a little known fact that in 1954, Japan suffered from another nuclear disaster, though nowhere near as grave as the two previous events in history. On March 1, the fishing ship Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon”), with its twenty-three-men crew, sailed unknowingly into the range of an American hydrogen bomb test site.

The “Bravo” hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll was apparently 85 miles away from the peacefully sailing fishing ship. The blast was reported to have been 750 to 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and twice as powerful as US scientists had led everyone to expect. For many hours after the explosion, the sky kept sprinkling white ash on the deck of the ship. Before nightfall, everyone on board fell ill.

Hydrogen bomb
Hydrogen bomb (image by WikiImages)

It was Washington’s attempt to keep its ongoing nuclear tests a secret that further strained relations between the United States and Japan. And though the US extended an apology and paid the Japanese Government 2 million dollars in compensation, Japan’s throbbing wound had been aggravated, leading the event to be dubbed “The Second Atomic Bombing of Mankind” by the Japanese press.

Between the lines

It’s no wonder, then, that Godzilla is a radiation-mutated sea creature. Seen as a retelling of World War II through the eyes of the Japanese, the 1954 film contained many blatant anti-American sentiments. Naturally, when it was being edited by American distributors, a 40-minute chunk of the most politically-charged footage was left disconnected and lifeless on the cutting-room floor. Unfortunately, because of this change, the American version of Godzilla lacks the central, and explicit, anti-nuclear message.

The film’s pacifist director once stated,

“Believe it or not, we naively hoped that the end of Godzilla was going to coincide with the end of nuclear testing.”

– Ishirō Honda quoted in Monsters are Attacking (1998)

His film King Kong vs. Godzilla (Japanese: Kingu Kongu tai Gojira, 1962) probably illustrates the tension between the two countries better than any other at the time. In it, King Kong, representing America, battles Godzilla, representing Japan, at the base of Mount Fuji. Huffing and puffing, the two monsters end their struggle in a draw.

Godzilla vs. King Kong

Curiously, there is a fresh American version of the scuffle, in the form of Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), though the film seems to embrace action and thrill more than any residual symbolism.

American rendering

In 1992, Tristar studios attempted to procure Godzilla‘s copyright. Alas, an accumulation of problems, such as a demanding budget, design issues with the American Godzilla and departing production crew members, created a pile too high to be mounted. In 1994, Tristar canceled the production of the Hollywood movie.

The script, however, lived to be canonized online, and provides a glimpse of what we could have expected to see on-screen. In it, Godzilla was stripped of its nuclear forging, and instead rose to life as a bioweapon engineered from a mysterious mix of dinosaur genes. When the Gryphon, a creature sent to Earth by alien colonizers to annihilate mankind, loomed as a threat, Godzilla threw itself into a heroic battle for the preservation of life on Earth.

Gojira nuclear ray

Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998), the first truly American-made version of the film, drifted slightly closer to home with its message. In it, Godzilla is spawned as a result of a nuclear test bomb conducted by the French Government. While the choice of the accidental antagonist is somewhat baffling, the filmmakers managed to slip the original, though somewhat burnished, message into the plot. That’s because, without pointing an accusatory finger at America, the film conveys the dread of nuclear power.

J.J. Abrams’ tribute to classic monster movies, as evidenced by Cloverfield (2008), showed a clever approach to Godzilla’s metaphorical value. Rather than exploit the creature’s bestiality, he redefined the context of its horrifying existence, linking it to a “post- 9/11 world”.

Infantilizing Godzilla

The suburbanization and rise of various hobbies throughout Japan in the 1960s led to a significant decline in movie attendance, as John Berra points out. It proved to be a trying time for filmmakers, who suddenly found themselves with the task of appealing to school-aged children.

Understandably, the mighty Godzilla endured a physical deformation. By the 1970s, the monster appeared rather cartoonish, with its large eyes, a pug nose, an inflated head and a long, snake-like tail.

The gravity of memory

Godzilla functions as a “rhetorical expression of post-war anxiety” when all of its layers are peeled back. Many of the scenes in the film are filled to the brim with a concoction of guilt, anger, pain, powerlessness and fear. And as Stevens notes, the more loaded the narrative becomes with emotion, the more suggestive it seems.

What’s interesting is that not only is Godzilla perceived as a means of dealing with the nation’s collective PTSD, but it also appeals to some of the renounced aspects of the self that “continue to haunt the American conscience relative to the use of nuclear weapons”.

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