The Big Picture
- The 1954 Japanese film Gojira heavily referenced nuclear disasters like the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, serving as a metaphor for the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
- The American version of the film, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, removed most references to World War II and the atomic bomb, and added an American reporter to the narrative.
- The difference in how the franchise is handled by both countries today reflects the continued relevance of understanding the history and cultural context surrounding Godzilla.
There are no fewer than 22 references to nuclear disaster in the 1954 Japanese film Gojira, spread across a smattering of phrases like “H-bomb,” “atomic tuna,” “radioactive fallout,” or, most explicitly, “the atomic bomb in Nagasaki.” The heavily re-edited American version, 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, retains a measly four. Japan’s film was a clear metaphor for the dangers posed by nuclear proliferation, and a chance for the heavily censored country to explore its healing on the big screen. The monster at the center of it all was a sympathetic character — a gentle giant turned apocalyptic danger by the horrors of nuclear testing. In Hollywood’s cut, Godzilla became a senseless killing machine, nearly all references to World War II and the atomic bomb were removed, and an American reporter was placed smack dab in the middle of the narrative.
Understanding how and why this occurred remains relevant, largely because the differences surrounding how the franchise is handled by both countries persist today. Moreover, the success of shows like Watchmen and The Terror may indicate that American audiences are demonstrating an unprecedented appetite for ugly truths. Now seems an opportune time to revisit the history behind the iconic Kaiju, and how each culture has chosen to contextualize its existence.
‘Gojira’ Was Inspired by the Horrors of the Castle Bravo Incident
While it’s not uncommon knowledge that nuclear anxieties were an inspiration for Japan’s original monster flick, there’s a misconception that the inspiring trauma was limited to the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In reality, Gojira begins with a direct homage to a more recent disaster: the Castle Bravo incident and the subsequent contamination of the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru. A lesser-known part of US atomic history for many younger Americans is that of the “Pacific Proving Grounds,” a series of locations in and around The Marshall Islands where the US conducted highly secretive nuclear testing between 1946 and 1962. For the Japanese, who are a mere five-hour plane ride away, this meant that the nuclear nightmare did not end when the war did.
The most infamous of these tests occurred in March 1954, roughly eight months before Gojira was released. At the time, Castle Bravo was the most powerful artificial explosion in history, and represented the first of a new type of weapon the US was testing. The detonation resulted in some unexpected reactions, and the yield of Bravo wound up close to 15 megatons of TNT, or 2.5 times the predicted amount and about a thousand times more powerful than either of the bombs dropped during World War II. The resulting fireball was nearly 4.5 miles in diameter and visible over 250 miles away.
Tragically, this also meant the “Danger Area,” where destruction or exposure could be harmful to living things, was also much larger than anticipated. A fishing vessel called the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) was about 14 miles away from the anticipated “Danger Area” at the time of the explosion, and heard what sounded like a loud clap of thunder before being showered in a rain of radioactive coral dust. The men on the boat were immediately burned, and then diagnosed with radiation sickness when they finally made it back to shore. One crew member died a few months later, while the rest were hospitalized for over a year.
After a series of denials, the US ultimately acknowledged that the contaminated area needed to be expanded and encompassed roughly another hundred fishing vessels. Though Japan eventually received $15 million as part of a compensation settlement, by the time enough information was out to take action, a good amount of contaminated fish had already made it into the marketplace.
‘Gojira’ Depicts the Reality of Post-Nuclear Japan
The Castle Bravo incident led to the growth of a passionate anti-nuclear movement in Japan, and also served as direct inspiration for Toho producer Tanaka Tomoyuki, who had already been contemplating a Japanese version of the 1950s monster movie trend. After another project fell through, Tomoyuki pitched an idea with the working title The Giant Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea, which was approved by executive producers in April 1954 according to Steve Ryfle‘s book Japan’s Favorite Mon-star The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G.” Though the reputation of sci-fi as cheap popcorn fare made finding the right director a challenge, the studio and Tomoyuki eventually landed on Ishiro Honda, who they felt not only had the talent, but the required pacifist mentality to properly capture the serious tone of the anti-nuclear sentiment.
Gojira’s story, Ryfle’s book claims, was initially penned in 11 days by sci-fi writer Shigeru Kayama and later fleshed out by Honda and Takeo Murata, does certainly take this theme seriously. At a high-level, the plot reads as follows: large monster attacks fishing vessel; government — with the help of a brilliant professor — discovers that monster is a prehistoric, radioactive animal; monster wreaks havoc on village and Tokyo; conflicted mad scientist is convinced to use his secret, dangerous technology to defeat Godzilla, but sacrifices himself in the process. Omnipresent throughout this now recognizable template of a disaster-film narrative are direct references to the reality of living in a post-war, post-nuclear Japan.
Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura), the paleontologist brought on by the government to help sort out the situation, develops a reluctant sympathy for what he perceives as an innocent animal corrupted and deprived of its “sanctuary” by nuclear testing. He remains resolute in his belief that Godzilla should be studied as a potentially valuable key to ensuring humanity’s survival, beautifully stating: “Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived.” When young protagonist Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) challenges him on this point, asserting that “Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head,” Yamane pushes back: “Then shouldn’t we unlock the secret of how he survived exposure to such high radiation?”
Mad scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), however, is the most direct vessel for Honda’s anti-war sentiments. He shares with Professor Yamane’s daughter and close friend Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) a powerful discovery he’s made: a process that “splits oxygen atoms into fluid,” capable of suffocating all nearby aquatic life within a matter of seconds. The frightening reality of this is only shared with the audience towards the end of the film, when Ogata pleads with him to use his technology to defeat Godzilla. Serizawa’s response is an eloquent pacifist manifesto on the responsibility of the scientific community. Though Serizawa does ultimately relent, he intentionally sacrifices himself in a notably somber conclusion to ensure his knowledge can never be weaponized.
But perhaps the most unnerving scene is a rather mundane one, in which a few ordinary people on a train discuss the unfolding catastrophe. One of the passengers laments: “This is awful. Atomic tuna, radioactive fallout, and now this Godzilla to top it off!” Another adds, “I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki — and now this!” They are universally annoyed at the idea of having to evacuate yet again. Even among the more dramatic images of chaos and destruction, this scene stands out as particularly bleak. It perfectly drives home the un-sexy reality of learning to cope with existential threat on a daily basis; of reaching a point where the necessary precautions are as irritating as they are terrifying.
‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters!’ Removed Most of the World War II and Atomic Bomb References
Not one line of dialogue mentioned above made it into the American version released two years later, the production of which began when Edmund Goldman acquired the film from Toho for $25,000, film historian Ryfle notes in “The Big G.” He later enlisted Joseph Levine and Embassy Pictures to help fund the production of a revised edit for American audiences. A new storyline was crafted, centering around an American journalist named Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) who happened to be in Tokyo and present during all major plot points. Rather than rely solely on dubbing, the American team also added extensive narration provided by Martin and a new Japanese character (Frank Iwanaga) to occasionally translate. The entirety of the American footage was filmed in only three days, with all dubbing completed in under five hours. Burr, himself, put in just one 24-hour shift. Even with all the additions, however, the runtime was trimmed down to a lean 80 minutes, largely facilitated by the removal of almost all direct references to World War II or the atomic bomb.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! ultimately grossed $2 million in theaters, about $400,000 more than Gojira had earned in Japan. It also represented the first Japanese film to find commercial success in the US. It’s hard to say if American audiences would have been as receptive to the original story, sans white male American protagonist and with the open critique on nuclear proliferation left intact. Sadly, we’ll never know. Gojira was not even widely available in the US until as recently as 2004, when it finally received a 50th anniversary re-release in North American theaters. Even Japanese critics back in 1954 were skeptical of the film, with some denouncing it as exploitative of the country’s trauma.
However, as time has gone on, critics worldwide have come to see Gojira as a masterpiece of the genre, and an honest, effective expression of the reality of living in an extremely tense, frighteningly vulnerable time and place. With this recent wave of appreciation for the seminal Kaiju film, one might anticipate that newer installments of the franchise would be more bold in their attempts to include a message about the ways in which humanity threatens our own survival.
American Godzilla Adaptations Have Improved, But Still Miss the Mark
For Japan, this assumption would prove largely true. Toho’s 2016 release Shin Godzilla feels much more Dr. Strangelove than it does traditional monster flick, consisting mainly of intimate war-room scenes, sharp satirical dialogue, and no shortage of critiques aimed at both interventionist foreign powers and the country’s own bureaucratic processes that are portrayed as making effective crisis response frustratingly difficult. The film was received domestically as a brilliant return to form, garnering seven Japan Academy Prizes, including Picture of the Year. A version of the film with English subtitles was initially given a one-week release in the US and Canada on 440 screens, but was extended an additional week due to popular demand.
The most recent American reboot of the franchise, Legendary’s 2014 Godzilla, went a different route. While director Gareth Edwards did draw inspiration from the original 1954 film and admirably managed to retain some of its thematic elements, the way in which it incorporates the history of the Pacific Proving Grounds is questionable. It is explained by Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), whose character is an homage to both Ishiro Honda and Gojira’s Dr. Serizawa, that the nuclear tests conducted by the US in the 1950s were actually a failed attempt to kill Godzilla. Though Godzilla is portrayed as a potential savior in the film, thus making this action a misguided one, the convenient recasting of this period in history still feels uncomfortable, pandering, and dishonest to say the least. Perhaps most telling, there is a supposed earlier version of the Godzilla script out there that includes a reference to the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, suggesting they are an integral piece of the puzzle that is Godzilla’s radioactivity. If these references were part of the original story, they were yet again removed before the final cut.
With the rising popularity of both brutal historical honesty and international films across the US, there’s still hope we could see a fascinating tonal convergence of the Japanese and American franchises at some point in the future, maybe in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. It’s safe to say that Godzilla’s probably not going anywhere for a while, at least not as long as humanity is faced with some version of an existential threat and epic monster battles still prove an indulgently fun way to explore it.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is available to stream on Tubi in the U.S.
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