A Monstrous Burden

The original Godzilla illuminates the plight of  Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb, but what can it say about the present, about the violence endured

Although the American remake scrubbed the allegorical elements, the Japanese original is a warning about the perils of the nuclear age. (Entertainment Pictures/Alamy)
Although the American remake scrubbed the allegorical elements, the Japanese original is a warning about the perils of the nuclear age. (Entertainment Pictures/Alamy)

Before watching Godzilla for the first time, in the spring of 2021, I had expected a hokey, formulaic monster movie, the kind of breezy entertainment typical of the genre, with its cartoonish plots, B-movie acting, and schlocky special effects. But Godzilla, released in Japan in 1954 and the first of what would become a franchise of 36 films, strikes a markedly different tone. It is a somber and mournful movie, I quickly realized, and distinctly unschlocky.

It opens with a close-up on the wake of a boat followed by brief scenes of the sailors onboard, young Japanese men who are about to fall victim to what we later realize is a nuclear blast—a blinding light, a fire. Other Japanese ships at sea begin to disappear. At first, these disappearances are a mystery. But soon the source of their destruction becomes known, as an enormous prehistoric lizard emerges from the depths. Gojira, as the creature is called in Japanese, has been living in a hidden sea cave, but repeated underwater hydrogen-bomb tests have driven him to the surface, not only angering him but also making him highly radioactive and giving him his characteristic atomic breath. Over the course of the film, Godzilla rampages across a rural island and then, more menacingly, across densely packed Tokyo. He crushes buildings underfoot; he lifts train cars full of terrified passengers and smashes them between his reptilian hands. The city he leaves behind—structures leveled, detritus charred black, the air full of smoke, with small pockets of fire burning everywhere—looks like Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the detonation of the atomic bombs.

This striking resemblance aside, Godzilla only obliquely references World War II and the two atomic bombs. And yet, those twin traumas underlie every frame. At one point, a woman fleeing the monster says, in what seems like a perverse understatement, “I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki—and now this.” As Godzilla rampages, another woman clutches her child, cowering against a building and sobbing. “We’re going to join Daddy,” she tells the child. “We’ll be where Daddy is soon.” We learn nothing else of this woman, but the inference is clear: the father died in the war.

Many critics interpret Godzilla as a villainous stand-in for the United States and the violence wrought by the atomic bomb. I, too, had assumed all this time that Godzilla was the villain. But the movie’s atomic allegory is much more complex. Despite the mass destruction and death that he causes, Godzilla is not a stand-in for the United States but rather a victim himself of the bomb. He has been torn from his prehistoric state and thrust into the science-fiction future, his body mutated by weapons beyond his understanding. He is a symbol not only of destruction but also of survival: machine guns don’t harm him, nor do cannons, missiles, or fighter planes.

“Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived,” says one of the characters, paleontologist Kyohei Yamane. “What could kill it now?”

On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb code-named Little Boy on the city of Hiroshima. The bomb was dropped from about 31,000 feet and fell for 43 seconds, exploding 1,900 feet above the ground. It detonated with the force of approximately 15,000 tons of TNT, forming a mushroom cloud about 60,000 feet tall and flattening almost every building in a one-mile radius. Eighty thousand people were killed instantly; another 60,000 are estimated to have perished from the aftereffects of the bomb—burns, suffocation under rubble, radiation poisoning—bringing the total death count to 140,000, more than a third of the city’s population.

The day after Hiroshima, Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia sent a telegram to President Harry S. Truman, imploring him not to pursue a “soft peace” with Japan, but rather to continue dropping atomic bombs. If “a sufficient number of atomic bombs” was not available, the senator wrote, then “let us carry on with TNT and fire bombs until we can produce them.” Two days later, on August 9, 1945, Truman received quite a different telegram. A Protestant clergyman named Samuel McCrea Cavert urged that no further bombs be dropped on Japan until the Japanese had “ample opportunity” to reconsider surrender, warning that the use of atomic weapons set an “extremely dangerous precedent for the future of mankind.”

In response, Truman made two seemingly contradictory moves. Replying to Russell’s telegram, he wrote: “I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can’t bring myself to believe that because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in that same manner.” But that same day, August 9, Truman also authorized the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The explosion killed nearly 40,000 people instantly; it’s estimated that another 34,000 died in the bomb’s aftermath.

Truman’s response to Cavert came on August 11: “The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nonetheless true.” In just two days, the Japanese had gone from beasts who didn’t deserve to have more bombs dropped on them to beasts who did. Either way, Truman’s belief that the Japanese were beasts was unchanging.

After the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a new group of people emerged in Japan. These were the hibakusha, survivors of the bomb. The term hibakusha translates to “bomb-affected people,” which includes those exposed directly to the bombs, those exposed to nuclear fallout, and the next generation, exposed in utero. For many hibakusha who were exposed directly, whatever they were wearing during the flash of impact became imprinted on them, the striated marks burned permanently into their skin. It was as if their bodies had fused with the bomb. Bleeding gums, fatigue, hair loss, and high fever were some of the immediate effects of radiation poisoning. Bomb survivors who were exposed in utero experienced increased mental disability. Many suffered impairment in physical growth. But the greatest long-term effects were mutations in the DNA of living cells. A year passed, and then two, the radiation taking its time. Then, in 1947, incidences of leukemia began to rise, peaking another four to six years later. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation estimates that those exposed to the bomb were 46 percent more likely to develop leukemia than the comparable unexposed population.

The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as John Hersey put it in his landmark work, Hiroshima, were “the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power.” They were largely civilians: factory workers, tram operators, doctors, nurses, seamstresses, clergy members, shopkeepers, schoolchildren. Following Japan’s surrender, General Douglas MacArthur issued an occupation press code that prohibited Japanese journalists from writing anything about the bombings or the lingering radiation. With very little official information, rumors spread in Japan that the mysterious illness causing the symptoms among the hibakusha was contagious. Seventeen days after the bombing of Hiroshima and 14 days after Nagasaki, the Japanese government issued a report describing radiation poisoning as an “evil spirit.”

Meanwhile, the United States attempted to contain stories about radiation’s effects. The first foreign journalist to visit the bomb sites, an Australian named Wilfred Burchett, sent his report to London’s Daily Express by Morse code to avoid the censors. Photography and video footage of the bombings and their aftermath were confiscated. In November 1945, with news of radiation sickness spreading despite attempts at censorship, General Leslie R. Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project, was called to testify before a U.S. Senate committee. No longer able to deny that radiation sickness was real, he shifted tactics. “[A]s I understand it from the doctors,” he told the committee, “it is a very pleasant way to die.”

In 1952, with the end of its occupation of Japan, the United States lifted its ban on stories about radiation’s effects. But many hibakusha began to censor themselves, keeping their status as survivors hidden for decades, both out of shame and for practical reasons: they were denied access to the public baths, they were discriminated against in hiring, and they saw their marriage prospects diminished—this was particularly true of female survivors, as it was widely believed that hibakusha carried serious diseases that would be passed on to their children. One hibakusha said that he wore long-sleeved shirts year-round, even during Japan’s sweltering summers, to hide his keloid scars—the irregular patches of raised scar tissue that are the visual marker of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.

These were the scars that inspired the mottled texture for Godzilla’s skin, scars that were prominently visible on his towering 165-foot body.

The most famous hibakusha was not a human at all, but a monster.

The clearest allusion to the atomic bomb in Godzilla is in the form of one of the film’s main characters, the reclusive Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, who has secretly invented a terrifying weapon: the Oxygen Destroyer, which uses a corrosive chemical to destroy all the oxygen in its vicinity, violently asphyxiating its victims. A figure in the mold of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Serizawa fears that his research will become public, setting off a global arms race; he agrees to deploy the Oxygen Destroyer only after Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo, and even then, he remains conflicted about the morality of using such a powerful weapon. At the end of the film, he destroys all his research materials so that no one can ever replicate the weapon, and he sacrifices himself as well, remaining in the depths of the ocean with Godzilla as the Oxygen Destroyer is activated—his knowledge perishing along with him.

In addition to Dr. Serizawa, the paleontologist Dr. Yamane is meant to be the film’s voice of reason as well as its moral center. Throughout the film, Dr. Yamane argues in vain that Godzilla be studied for his “incredible powers of survival,” not destroyed. While everyone else celebrates Godzilla’s demise from the Oxygen Destroyer, Dr. Yamane sits alone in the film’s final frame. Nothing in his disposition is joyful. He seemingly speaks to himself: “I cannot believe that Gojira was the last of its species. If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world … another Gojira may appear.” The film’s message is clear: humans must stop nuclear testing and weapons development before another disaster occurs. Dr. Yamane’s hard-earned wisdom has been gained at the expense of hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives.

In contrast with the somber, reflective tone of the Japanese original, the American version of Godzilla introduces the schlock factor. Released in 1956, it was retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (complete with exclamation mark). This heavily revised version intercut scenes featuring a new character—the American journalist Steve Martin—with the original footage, thereby introducing a Western protagonist into the story. The film was cut from 96 minutes to 80 minutes, with much of the political allegory edited down or removed. The American film ends not with Dr. Yamane’s somber warning but with pure jubilation, the newly inserted Martin reflecting that now the world can “live again.” Whereas the original movie had a clear metaphorical subtext in critiquing the nuclear age, the American remake was a triumphant cartoon.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was the only version of the film available in English until 2004, when the original film ran in limited release (with English subtitles) across the United States, to commemorate its 50th anniversary. The official censorship of Japan may have ended in 1952, but the film was still effectively censored for decades.

Descriptions of the bombs’ effects tend to focus on the physical: the burns, the mutations, the scars, the birth defects. When they touch on the emotional, they generally deal with the survivors’ feelings of shame and guilt. But what about anger? What about rage? Godzilla—a monster who does not feel the burden of human shame, of human history, of human society’s expectations and constraints—is full of rage: rage at being made into an object of experimentation, rage at the disproportionate and inhuman violence he has been forced to endure. Because he is a monster, a science fiction, he can express the rage that Japan was not allowed to voice. One of the film’s complexities is that Godzilla, whose great anger has been provoked by the United States, lays waste not to America but to Japan. To me, this reads as a conflict between rage and compliance: the monster expressing the rage that the defeated nation, still highly dependent on American resources to rebuild in the post-occupation age, could not publicly express—was not allowed, by Japanese societal norms and for reasons of practicality, to express.

As I watched Godzilla for the first time, a wave of anti-Asian violence was sweeping across the United States, with Covid-19 having unleashed a torrent of hate. Just a few weeks before, I had seen footage, taken with an apartment building’s security camera, of a Filipino woman named Vilma Kari being kicked repeatedly on a New York City street while the attacker cursed at her and told her that she didn’t belong in this country. I watched as the building’s security guards pretended not to see her, one of them closing the door on her as she struggled to stand. Asians were once again being made into something not quite human. And I wondered, too: Who is allowed to express rage? And how? Who is expected to stay silent?

Asian Americans, long deemed a “model minority” in this country, are expected to be silent and invisible. The myth of the model minority perpetuates an image of Asian Americans as uniformly successful and the narrative that, because of this perceived success, Asian Americans do not experience racism or bias. After a shooter killed six women of Asian descent (and two others) in Atlanta, authorities were hesitant to label the attacks a hate crime, with a sheriff’s spokesman explaining to reporters that the killer had had a “really bad day.”

The Atlanta attacks filled me, an Asian-American woman, with sorrow and with terror, but with another emotion as well. The authorities’ initial reluctance to declare the shootings a hate crime filled me with rage. Watching the video of the woman being beaten in New York filled me with rage. Reading the ongoing reports of anti-Asian hate crimes across the country fills me with rage. Rage, in all cases, is a common denominator.

I am, of course, not alone. And there has been some progress. The Stop Asian Hate movement has led to rallies and protests across the country. More than 130,000 people have participated in bystander trainings led by Asian Americans Advancing Justice. In 2021, Congress passed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which aims, as its name implies, to make it easier to report hate crimes related to the pandemic. And yet, a 2022 report from the Asian American Bar Association of New York found that just seven of the 233 reported anti-Asian attacks in New York City in the previous year led to hate-crime convictions—a rate of three percent.

In 2022, Asian Americans are not exactly voiceless, but neither are we exactly heard.

When I watch Godzilla, I do not see a villain. I do not see a monster. I see a being who refuses to be silent in the face of injustice and harm, a being fighting for survival, a being unafraid to express rage.

At the end of the film, Godzilla writhes under the sea in his final moments, shocked to have encountered anything that could damage his seemingly impermeable flesh. His body is left lying on the ocean floor, a bare skeleton, his bones denuded. Godzilla the monster, with his unmitigated rage, with his almost limitless ability to act on that rage, had to be stopped. As Dr. Yamane had predicted, Godzilla comes back, time and time again, for 36 films spanning about 70 years, but his nuclear message has been dulled and distorted, his rage redirected from his human tormentors to other monsters: Ghidorah, Mothra, Kong. And yet, when I watch him in the original film, his power remains undiminished: he refuses to submit to a world that is so hostile to him.

I watch as he lays waste to the warships and military jets that seek to destroy him. I watch as he breathes his atomic fire. He is uncowed, his story not yet sterilized.

I watch as he forces the world to contend with his keloid-scarred body, as he forces the world not to look away.

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Claire Stanford is the author of the novel Happy for You. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Rumpus, The Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from UCLA, and she is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno.


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