It’s alive!

Christopher Tayler

  • Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters by William Tsutsui
    Palgrave, 240 pp, £8.99, December 2004, ISBN 1 4039 6474 2

When Toho Studios released Gojira in November 1954, Japanese audiences, according to William Tsutsui, watched its scenes of destruction ‘in respectful silence, sometimes leaving the theatres in tears’. Gojira – or Godzilla, as he came to be known in English – was a fire-breathing dinosaur played by a man in a latex suit, but his destruction of Tokyo wasn’t played for laughs. Ishiro Honda, who directed the movie, had passed through Hiroshima after the war, and Godzilla, he said, was a way of ‘making radiation visible’. On 1 March 1954, the US tested a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, showering 7000 square miles of the Pacific with fallout. Along with 28 military personnel and 239 Marshall Islanders, 23 men on a Japanese tuna boat – the Lucky Dragon No. 5 – were exposed. Their contaminated catch had already been sold when they were hospitalised with radiation sickness. Not surprisingly, there were vigorous protests in Japan (even the emperor stopped eating fish). The ship’s radio man died on 23 September; there were claims that the American authorities had misled his doctors in order to protect their nuclear secrets. Six weeks later, Gojira went on general release.

Godzilla, a scientist in the movie explained, was a deep-sea survivor from the Jurassic period, transformed by nuclear testing into a 50-metre giant with radioactive breath. He was not the first of his kind. In a low-budget American picture called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), a stop-motion dinosaur thawed by the Bomb lays waste to lower Manhattan before succumbing to the American military’s nuclear know-how. Gojira started out as a rip-off of The Beast – the project’s working title was apparently ‘Big Monster from 20,000 Miles beneath the Sea’ – but soon took on a life of its own. The movie begins with the destruction of a fishing boat, clearly modelled on the Lucky Dragon, and the screenplay isn’t shy about voicing Japanese resentments. ‘Radioactive tuna, atomic fallout, and now this Godzilla to top it all off,’ a commuter complains before the assault on Tokyo begins. ‘We’ll be joining your father soon,’ a young widow tells her children as the Ginza district collapses around them, and we sense that her husband probably died in the war. The film also puts an unusual emphasis on the aftermath of the monster’s attacks – little girls being scanned by crackling geiger counters, and so on. And, unlike his American counterparts, the inventor of the weapon that vanquishes Godzilla chooses to die with the monster rather than let politicians of any kind learn the secret of the fearsome ‘oxygen destroyer’.

In other words, Gojira was an impressively exploitative horror film, stirring memories of the war and fears of nuclear catastrophe but providing a certain nationalistic uplift. Akira Ifukube, who wrote the score, was known for his rousing wartime marches, and he composed similar music for the film’s many sequences showing a heroic Japanese army mobilising against the atomic beast. At the same time, however, Godzilla is a ‘strangely innocent and tragic monster’, as a character puts it in one of the numerous sequels. True, pity for the creature was nothing new in giant monster movies: King Kong (1933) – re-released in 1952 – is an obvious template. But for an exercise in ‘cultural scab-picking’, as one anonymous fan has called it on the internet, Gojira seems peculiarly concerned to invest its star attraction with pathos. In the eerie final sequence, in which Godzilla and his antagonist perish at the bottom of Tokyo Bay, it’s not easy to tell who we’re meant to feel more sorry for. Ifukube said that the monster was ‘like the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific Ocean during the war’. ‘I went to the very first screening of Gojira,’ a cast member recalled. ‘I shed tears. Godzilla was killed … but Godzilla himself wasn’t evil and he didn’t have to be destroyed. Why did they have to punish Godzilla? Why? He was a warning to mankind. I was angry at mankind and felt sympathy for Godzilla, even if he did destroy Tokyo.’

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[*] ‘I was looking through Godzilla pictures one day, and that’s when it hit me,’ writes the proprietor of a website, http://download.lavadomefive.com/members/BigClawz/, which focuses ‘on providing herpetophilic and macrophilic material to the world’. ‘I realised that I was interested in Godzilla films for the sole reason that I thought Godzilla was sexy, and I liked his feet and I liked the stomping and whatever.’