Making radiation visible: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Godzilla

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

 

Promotional poster depicting Godzilla breathing his nuclear breath on a city and destroying a Japanese airplane. The actors are depicted along the bottom of the poster.

Gojira (Godzilla) poster. © Toho Company, 1954. Via Wikimedia. Fair use.

“The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb.”1
– Tomoyuki Tanaka, producer of Gojira (Godzilla)

 

The Third Reich surrendered to the Allies in early May 1945. This did not yet end World War Two, as the forces of Imperial Japan still occupied much of Asia and the islands in the Pacific Ocean. A US government projection estimated that an invasion of Japan would cost the lives of 500,000 to 1,000,000 American soldiers.2 The US succeeded in creating an atomic bomb, based on nuclear fission and capable of releasing an enormous amount of energy. Atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and following Japan’s refusal to surrender, on Nagasaki three days later. It has been suggested that ending the war was not the only reason atomic bombs were used. Russia wanted to get more involved in the war in Asia in order to claim a role in the occupation of Japan.3 The American military may have also wanted to see the bomb’s effect in a non-simulated setting.

The bombing of the two cities caused between 130,000 and 225,000 immediate deaths. In the four months that followed, an equal number of people died from injuries, burns, and radiation sickness.4

The 1954 Japanese film Gojira featured a 150-foot-tall bipedal dinosaur, awakened from his nearly eternal undersea hibernation by American atomic and hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific. He destroys all in his path on his rampage through Tokyo. The film was produced by Toho studios, and its director was Ishirō Honda. The name “Gojira”—later changed to “Godzilla” for the American market—was a combination of the Japanese words gorira (gorilla), and kujira (whale).5 Also in 1954, the US tested a hydrogen bomb on an evacuated island in the Marshall Islands chain. Fallout from this detonation landed on a Japanese tuna trawler, the Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon). The entire crew of twenty-three men developed radiation sickness with headache, nausea, hair loss, burns, and swelling of the extremities. One fisherman died. This “incident” was in the news worldwide.6 Japan thus perceived a continuing threat from nuclear arms nearly a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Woman being treated for severe radiation burns from the atomic bomb

Toyoko Kugata, a severely burned 22-year-old victim of the bombing of Hiroshima. Photo by Shunkichi Kikuchi, October 6, 1945. Chugoku Shimbun Hiroshima Peace Media Center. Via Wikimedia.

Enter Godzilla. He sinks ships at sea and attacks cities at night, much like the B-29 nighttime bombing raids. He starts fires with his “atomic breath.” Americans burned Tokyo by bombing it, and started using napalm in 1945.7,8 The monster destroys cities and leaves injured, burned, dead, and dying Japanese men, women, and children. Director Honda was a soldier in the Imperial Army stationed in China and saw these same scenes as he passed through Hiroshima after his repatriation. Godzilla’s rough skin was designed to remind viewers of the keloidal scars on the bodies of atomic bomb survivors. The shape of Godzilla’s head, in certain views, was meant to represent the shape of a mushroom cloud.9 Thus, the film was a “Japanese warning…intended to evoke both the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons and Japan’s nuclear victimhood.”10

Godzilla is considered, despite the horror he causes, a victim of atomic tests, having been aroused from his long, peaceful sleep. Humans and Godzilla have a common enemy in the atomic bomb.11 Godzilla was a way of “making radiation visible.”12 It is suggested—hopefully with tongue at least partially in cheek—that Godzilla “was not born evil or wanted to obliterate Tokyo out of sadistic choice. He was just a normal innocent dinosaur who had no idea where he got himself into after those nuclear tests.”13 Some Japanese movie-goers cried at Godzilla’s death.14

The nuclear threat (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Fukuryu Maru) was American, and the occupying US Army in Japan (1945–1952) is also criticized, indirectly, in Godzilla. The monster never attempts to destroy the Imperial Palace or temples, but only office buildings, which represent Western influence.15 The US never helps Japan fight Godzilla. Japan can only depend on itself to defend the country.16 The Japanese had problems caused by the occupants’ “rampages”; soldiers committed rapes, assaults, and thefts, but were tried in military courts, not in Japanese courts.17

At least two additional Japanese films feature other monsters who are “awakened or resurrected as a consequence of nuclear explosions” (Rodan, 1958 and Gigantis the Fire Monster, 1960).18 The Japanese are the only people who can tell us firsthand about the horror of thermonuclear war. To not listen is suicidal.

 

References

  1. Steve Ryfle. “Godzilla’s footprint.” VQR, 2005. https://vqronline.org/vqr-portfolio/godzilla%E2%80%99s-footprint.
  2. “Operation Downfall.” Wikipedia.
  3. Daniel Durkin. “Godzilla and the cold war: Japanese memory, fear, and anxiety in Toho studio’s Godzilla franchise 1954-2016.” Bowling Green State University Dissertations Publishing, 2021. https:// proquest.com/openview/25c6d05f54b5623f1f8fe65cd108e5fb/1.pdf?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y.
  4. “Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Wikipedia.
  5. Crînguța Pelea. “Exploring the iconicity of Godzilla in popular culture. A comparative intercultural perspective: Japan-America.” Postmodern Problems 10(1), 2020.
  6. James Yamazaki. Children of the Atomic Bomb. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
  7. Yuki Tanaka. “Godzilla and the bravo shot: Who created and killed the monster?” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 3(6), 2005.
  8. Yoshiko Ikeda. “Godzilla and the Japanese after World War II: From a scapegoat of Americans to a saviour of the Japanese.” Acta Orientalia Vilnensia 12(1), 2011.
  9. John Schneiderwind. “Godzilla as the bridge: The destruction of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima.” Arcadia Summer 2020.
  10. Schneiderwind. “Bridge.”
  11. Pelea. “Exploring.”
  12. Stefanie Maletich. “Godzilla and the changing contract between science and society.” Regis University Student Publications (Comprehensive Collection), 2011.
  13. R. Srivatsan and Mekhale Venkatesh. “Godzilla: A study to examine as more than just a monster movie.” Pioneer 13(1), 2021.
  14. Pelea. “Exploring.”
  15. Pelea. “Exploring.”
  16. Daniel Głowina. “Socio-political aspects of Kaijū Eiga genre: A case study of the original Godzilla.” Silva Iaponicarum 37, 2013.
  17. Durkin. “Cold war.”
  18. Andrew Tudor. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1989.

 


 

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

 

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