An essay on Godzilla and the stories we tell
Whenever misfortune threatened his people, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov would retreat to the forest, light the fire, say the prayer and the misfortune would be avoided. In the passing of time this task fell to a second rabbi who knew both the place in the forest and the prayer but not how to light the fire. Nevertheless the misfortune was avoided. A third rabbi knew only the place; the prayer and the fire had been forgotten. But this too was enough and the misfortune was avoided. Finally the task fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn who knew neither the place nor the fire nor the prayer. All he could do was tell the story.
And it was sufficient.
(Hasidic Tale, retold by John Shea for Commonweal Magazine)
On the morning of August 6, 1945 the world changed. The United States, in an attempt to bring about the surrender of the Japanese and the conclusion of the Second World War, dropped the first ever atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima at 8:16AM. The bomb, nicknamed ‘Little Boy’, exploded 1900 ft above the city, creating a blast of intense heat, momentarily reaching up to 1 million degrees, and a city wide firestorm with a wind speed velocity of 65 kms/hour. In an instant 12 squared kms of the city was reduced to a nightmarish wasteland. Exact casualty numbers have been difficult to determine; but best estimates place them around 70,000 - 90,000 killed with about the same number injured.1 It was unprecedented mass destruction. The surviving people of Hiroshima simply had no categories for understanding the horrors that they experienced. Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, a survivor, reflected: “The entire population had been reduced to a common level of physical and mental weakness… They were so broken and confused that they moved like automatons." The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, described the main reaction to the bomb as “uncontrolled terror.” As the blast’s mushroom cloud ascended up to 50, 000 ft, the American copilot of the plane that had dropped the bomb looked back in shock and horror and gasped, “My God, what have we done?” Everyone who witnessed Hiroshima were made aware that a whole new horror had just been unleashed - and there was no going back. On this random morning in August the sky opened up and engulfed an entire city in flames.
Then three days later it happened again.
If you were living in Japan in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how were you to describe what had just happened? Two cities destroyed, thousands of citizens dead and injured, with many more suffering from the long term effects of radiation. Panic, fear, loss, the paranoia of another attack - how do you make sense of any of that? Studies have shown that there is an important relationship between our ability to tell stories and how we make sense of our world, especially following a tragedy. It is a necessary part of our mourning process - as both individuals and communities However, for Japan in the decade after the war, the ability to work through the communal shock and pain in any meaningful way was stonewalled. After Japan surrendered, the U.S. took military occupancy of the country in order to “establish a peacefully inclined and responsible government.” As a part of that occupation, America actively kept many of the effects of radiation a secret as an attempt to keep public opinion favourable towards the further development of the atomic bomb. From the outset, as Japanese medical experts arrived on the scene and began treating the victims, American officials confiscated their findings and put restrictions around what could and could not be printed in any official sense.* This censorship limited Japan’s ability to self-reflect and make meaning out of this shared national tragedy. So, the story had to be told in an alternative form.
Nearly ten years after these events, Japanese moviegoers saw the release of a film that would not only frame the narrative in a way that helped their country tell the story within their borders; but would also become a huge success in America, bringing both sides of this tragedy into a subversive sort of dialogue - in a way that only good storytelling can achieve. The film - Gojira (Godzilla) - initially panned by critics, would go on to inspire a series of 29 Japanese films and two American remake attempts to-date, making it the longest running film series in history. Although in today’s popular opinion, Godzilla may be relegated as a campy sci-fi B-movie, the somber ideas that propelled the original film forward are rooted in communal meaning-making. Noted author and scholar, William Tsutsui, suggests in his book Godzilla on My Mind, that
The original Gojira was a sincere horror film, intended to frighten rather than amuse, which engaged honestly - indeed, even grimly - with contemporary Japanese unease over a mounting nuclear menace, untrammeled environmental degradation, and the long shadows of WWII.
From its opening scene, in which a group of fishermen on a boat witness a bright flash of light and are destroyed by some unknown horror, the tone is set for what this movie is ultimately about - mass anxiety, fear, and panic.2
In case you’re not familiar with the movie, let me obsess for a moment. Gojira is a giant prehistoric sea creature that is awakened by offshore nuclear testing and made even more terrifying and powerful as a result of the exposure to radiation. It is a cautionary tale dressed up as a ‘creature feature’; yet, to write it off as nothing more than a mere moral metaphor is to misunderstand the relationship it had with the context into which it was delivered. Running through the narrative of the film are several key themes that give it its power as a meaning-making story in post-war Japan. The first, and perhaps most overt, is the way Gojira is a manifestation of humanity’s hubris in creating the atomic bomb. The creature acts as a stand-in for the unfathomable, almost otherworldly destruction that the creation of the bombs wrought. Says Tsutsui, “death and suffering are depicted matter-of-factly in Godzilla’s attacks; radiation is not something mysterious, antiseptic, or theoretical in Gojira, but is an unrelentingly lethal force unleashed against nature and humankind alike.” The message is clear: humanity meddled with forces they didn’t understand and in doing so unleashed a new horror upon the world.
A second theme, connected to the first, is centred on the post-war paranoia around the long term effects of radiation alongside of the fear of another attack. In the aftermath of the bombs, those that were fortunate to have survived but had been exposed to radiation were known as ‘Hibakusha’ (roughly ‘bomb-affected person’). Many of the Hibakusha developed burn scars and other symptoms which led to them being discriminated against and left untreated amidst public paranoia of further exposure. In the film, one of the characters, Prof. Kyohei Yamane (a palaeontologist) is convinced that Japan has been given a rare opportunity to capture a creature who seems immune to radiation. “Right now our priority should be to study its powers of survival,” he argues with those seeking to put an end to its violent rampage. Through Yamane, the filmmakers are voicing the public tension between the immediate fear of attack against the long term desire to defend themselves from radiation sickness.
A third, and more complicated theme, addresses the burdens of guilt and loss that Japan was struggling with in the aftermath of the war. The question of who bears the responsibility for the horrors that have been unleashed echoes deeply throughout the film. Certainly the story climaxes with the triumph of Japanese science over the threat. Tsutsui refers to the ending as a “highly charged revision of the outcome of WWII.” There is also a feign of moral superiority displayed in the self-sacrificing Serizawa, who chooses to die rather than to ever let his ‘oxygen destroyer’ be used for evil. That being said, to assume that the filmmakers are simply painting America as the villain misses some of the nuance of the storytelling. Within the narrative is also a wrestling with Japan’s post-war loss and mourning. As Stephen D. Sullivan, a science fiction author, writes:
Godzilla, both the character and the film, are a reflection on the Japanese experience at the end of World War II: destruction beyond imagining, and a lurking sense that “we brought this on ourselves” somehow, even without meaning to. In the film we see both the guilt, the feeling that the punishment perhaps outweighs the sin, and the striving for redemption, all of which are typical for such stories.
Debates around the ethics and necessity of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki exist in spades; and treading those waters is well beyond the point of this short thought-piece. However, it is worth momentarily considering the degree to which some of Japan’s meaning-making in the aftermath of the bombs may have been tied to their own sense of complicity in the war and what they might have “woken up” with their attack on Pearl Harbour. The mass casualties of war weighed heavily on the soul of the world and throughout the post-war period each nation had to reconcile their involvement and wrestle with their own responsibility for those losses. Ifukube Akira, the music director for Godzilla, suggests that he saw in Gojira “the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific Ocean,” returning as a haunting reminder of Japan’s wartime losses. The film is eerily introspective in this way, allowing the full weight of that post-war perspective to come crashing in. It’s no surprise that Japanese audiences would often sit in total silence while watching - and even leave in tears afterwards.
It is helpful here to appreciate that it was this unique cultural climate from which it emerged that gave Godzilla its lasting power as a story. Void of that particular context, the film loses its credibility, slipping into the fringe realm of B-movie horror. When Godzilla initially came to North America, the studio that purchased the rights to it, cut out almost one-third of the original and rather skillfully edited American actor Raymond Burr into the plot. Certain dialogue was removed, the ending was altered, and the tone was shifted to appeal to a “shallower” viewer base. Rather than challenging its audiences, the American recut sought to mindlessly entertain. In trying to make the monster work for a different audience, the film - and character - were robbed of their storytelling power.3 The two later American remakes (1998 and 2014) further illustrate this contextual dilemma. While both attempted to repurpose Godzilla as a serious, big-budget monster movie, each failed because the monster did not find its footing with the same sort of cultural climate that the original release found in post-war Japan.4 Simply put, it meant nothing to its audience. A good story can rarely transcend its context.
It was stated earlier that the reason we tell stories is to make sense of our world. Our brains are hard wired to do this, using narrative to connect events and fill in the blanks. Our myths, legends, folktales, and lore are the history of unique communities of people struggling to make-meaning out of their surroundings. They are an act of survival as a species. We tell stories to preserve our past, find a place in our present, and to shape our future. We continue to tell stories because they are often all we have available to us when the rest has been taken away. We will always tell them because, as author Neil Gaiman writes, “without our stories, we are incomplete.”
That’s not including those who would later die from radiation poisoning. Recent studies put the total casualties around 200, 000. ↩︎
Shortly before the release of the movie, a fishing boat called the Lucky Dragon was contaminated by radiation as a result of American nuclear testing over the Bikini atoll. All 23 men and their fish were exposed. This ignited a mass public scare, in which millions of people refused to eat fish, for fear of contamination. ↩︎
The original film was actually largely unseen by North American audiences until 2004 when it was re-released for a limited theatrical run to celebrate its 50 year anniversary. ↩︎
The 2014 remake was actually pretty good and it largely works as a big monster movie. However, it fails to have anything worthwhile to say. The 1998 one is a complete mess and was disowned by Toho entirely. Contrast these with Cloverfield, a found-footage monster movie in which an unknown threat destroys New York that found a particular resonance with a post-911 American audience. The use of a camcorder made this story particularly compelling. Similarly, Toho Studios released their own remake in 2016 that found its inspiration in the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and Tōhoku earthquake/tsunami. Monster movies can be truly brilliant as a way of asking their audience to reflect, but they need to be rooted in a context that connects with their intended audience. Failing that, the most they can hope for is mindless entertainment. ↩︎