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Will the Real Godzilla Please Stand Up?

The 'King of the Monsters' has been stripped of its nuclear past.

Words: Rachel Emond and Deverrick Holmes
Pictures: Alex Cherry

Almost everyone has heard of Godzilla, even if they’ve never seen a Godzilla movie. What most people don’t know is the famous monster’s connection to nuclear weapons. Sixty-five years and 35 movies after its 1954 debut, Godzilla is still a mainstay in our summer movie rotation, but its origins have been all but erased. At the same time, the general public’s awareness of nuclear threats has decreased. With nuclear tensions on the rise around the world, there’s no better time to get reacquainted with the real Godzilla.

The origin of Godzilla centers around a real-life nuclear incident that took place on Bikini Atoll in March of 1954. A Japanese fishing boat called Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) was in the worst possible place at the worst possible time — right in the fallout path of the Castle Bravo nuclear test. The fishermen were outside of the designated testing area marked off by the United States, but the test was twice the size of what was initially planned. The combination of the massive explosion and an unexpected shift in wind meant the sailors on the Lucky Dragon were in fallout range of the largest explosive nuclear test in US history. The crew all suffered radiation poisoning with one member dying a few months later and others remaining hospitalized for more than a year. The fishermen on the Lucky Dragon were not the only ones exposed to the deadly fall-out. When nuclear debris fell on nearby atolls, children played in it like it was snow. Radiation sickness, cancers, and death followed. Radiation-related cancers persist in the Marshall Islands to this day, after the nation endured 55 other explosive US nuclear tests.

The Castle Bravo nuclear test took place at the beginning of the Cold War, when nuclear fears were widespread. Hollywood took full advantage. From threats by otherworldly inhabitants displayed in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to the killer eight-foot-tall ants seen in the movie “Them!,” atomic terror was projected onto movie screens everywhere. But no other radioactive monster would have as lasting an impact as the Japanese creation, Godzilla.

The original 1954 film by production company Toho, titled “GOJIRA,” opens with a dramatic reenactment of the Lucky Dragon accident. The film clearly explains that hydrogen bomb testing by the United States is what caused the disaster; the explosive atmospheric test awoke and irradiated a giant green sea creature who arose from the water to wreak havoc on Japan. Less than a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, anti-nuclear sentiment can be felt throughout the film. Godzilla itself is a metaphor for the carnage brought by nuclear war. Fundamentally, “GOJIRA” is a bleak tale about what would be at stake if the world continued to test and possess nuclear weapons.

The producers of the film felt that a debate by Japanese politicians of the morality of US nuclear policy would upset World War II veterans — they also decided that including an American would make the movie more palatable.

A shift away from the anti-nuclear narrative happened immediately with the next release. In 1956, “GOJIRA” became Godzilla when the giant monster landed on American shores. The movie titled “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” was an editing mashup of the original 1954 film with a few new American actors. It is essentially the Japanese original minus the anti-nuke message, narrated from the American perspective. An active decision was made to remove strong criticism of nuclear weapons in the 1956 Hollywood remake, and not to blame the United States for the Castle Bravo incident. The producers of the film felt that a debate by Japanese politicians of the morality of US nuclear policy would upset World War II veterans — they also decided that including an American would make the movie more palatable.

Though the anti-nuclear tone was missing, not all mentions of nuclear weapons were removed. Hollywood had recently found success through other nuclear monster movies, so it was important to make it clear that Godzilla was definitely radioactive. In this Hollywood adaptation, Godzilla was no longer an abomination created by the foolishness of the United States; rather, it was the result of general H-bomb testing from an unknown source. Many Americans were unaware that both the movie and the monster were Japanese creations, and believed that the 1956 Hollywood film was actually the original.

The drastic difference in the clarity of Godzilla’s origin and intentionality of the message between the 1954 Japanese version and the 1956 American version was explicit in the last line of each movie. Both films end when the only weapon that can kill Godzilla is deployed and takes the life of both its scientist creator and Godzilla. In the final line of “GOJIRA,” a serious warning is provided. The man who discovered Godzilla’s origin says solemnly, “If we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world, again.” Conversely, in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” the American narrator ends with a message of hope: Even though this tragic event has occurred, “The whole world [can] wake up and live again.”

The different perspectives are not surprising; the citizens of the United States and Japan felt completely different fears after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 1945 nuclear strikes on Japan killed somewhere between 150,000-250,000 people and served as the final blow before Japan’s surrender in World War II. The Japanese experienced the terror of nuclear weapons firsthand, and Castle Bravo only solidified existing fears. The American public’s focus on atomic weapons was vastly different. The American narrative was that it was necessary to deploy atomic weapons to save lives and end the war — that the United States acted simultaneously benevolently and in the name of self-defense by using such weapons. The discussion of the negative impact of the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan was limited to small circles.

Politics and history aside, the Godzilla franchise has remained a successful piece of culture in both the United States and Japan since its original debut, but in the 30-plus iterations that have come to life since 1954, American productions have avoided a return to the monster’s true origin story and to the message behind its destruction.

In 1998, Hollywood decided to try its hand at a Godzilla movie without the help of Toho, in the first completely American-made “Godzilla” movie, directed by Roland Emmerich. This iteration of Godzilla barely nods to Godzilla’s origin. As the movie begins, we learn that nuclear testing has inadvertently created an overgrown, radioactive lizard that has attacked a Japanese fishing boat. Who, though, was testing nukes? Well, the French, of course. Now, the Americans have to clean up their mess and save the world.

The original film’s message that Godzilla was a metaphor for nuclear weapons was erased in Emmerich’s adaptation. Aside from crediting nuclear testing practices with creating a destructive monster, the film missed the point. The movie ends with Godzilla trapped on the Brooklyn bridge as United States Air Force F-18 Hornets—aka supersonic fighter jets — shoot at it until the creature dies. Aside from the fishermen attacked in the very beginning, not a single person seems to die over the course of Godzilla’s siege of Manhattan. Though neither of us seek to be death-mongers, death is the unfortunate reality of nuclear weapons.

In the most recent Hollywood production, a 2014 release also titled “Godzilla,” those nuclear tests in the Pacific weren’t tests at all; they were attempts to kill Godzilla, an ancient monster whose origin is unknown. In a twist, Godzilla becomes an antihero, saving San Francisco from destructive alien creatures known as Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs).

To be clear, there are a lot of plot holes in this rendition of Godzilla, but the biggest is that the only way to solve the MUTO problem is with more nukes. Scientists discover that the MUTOs feed off of radioactive material. Using this information and disregarding the warnings of the scientists, military personnel devise a plan to lure the MUTOs out to sea with multiple nuclear warheads, then ultimately detonate a nuke in the San Francisco Bay. The blast distracts the MUTOs and they are subsequently defeated by Godzilla. Triumphant and unscathed, Godzilla just heads home, presumably, and San Francisco is relatively unharmed. This reincarnation portrays the biggest diversion from Godzilla’s true origin story. Not only is the anti-nuclear message missing, there seem to be no consequences for detonating a nuclear weapon just offshore of a major metropolitan area. Worse, nuclear weapons are displayed as the answer to a national security threat, rather than the threat themselves. Regardless, American audiences loved the film.

After seeing Hollywood’s 2014 success, Toho decided to get back in the game. “Shin Gojira” (or “Godzilla Resurgence” in the US) was released in 2016 and drew from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Though this reboot has its own political messages to convey, the original warning against nuclear warfare is absent. Throughout the movie, we never learn Godzilla’s origin, though it is explained that the monster is, for some unknown reason, radioactive.

In “Shin Gojira,” after the United States launches a destructive and unsuccessful airstrike to take out the monster, the United Nations becomes concerned and warns that if Japan is unable to get the situation under control, it will launch a thermonuclear weapon. (The idiocy of this world-peace organization having nukes could merit its own column, but we digress.) At the last minute, the Japanese government successfully executes a plan to freeze Godzilla, killing a lot of people in the process. The UN calls off the nuclear strike, but makes it clear a thermonuclear weapon will be deployed immediately if Godzilla resurfaces.

Today, Godzilla has become just another fun, summer-movie franchise without much deeper meaning. In an era in which Hollywood, and America more broadly, is trying to take stock of past forays into cultural appropriation, the question is why.

Hollywood has never really accounted for the coopting and erasing of the cultural significance of the original Godzilla story. In 2016, Ben Kuchera, Senior Opinion Editor for Polygon, said, “‘Gojira’ was a product of and response to oppression, and tragedy, and censorship and what this version did was censor the oppression, trivialize the tragedy, and introduce an American perspective to an experience that is very specifically Japanese without understanding it.”

What started as an earnest message to the world about the dangers our decisions have brought upon us has devolved into pure entertainment. This is a missed opportunity to force audiences to grapple with the choices that governments have made in their name.

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, there have been 2,056 nuclear tests and zero giant radioactive lizards (so far). That does not mean the effects of those tests haven’t been incredibly damaging to people across the world, including the fishermen on the Lucky Dragon 5 all those years ago. Their stories — their suffering — are real and worthy of attention. Godzilla can and should serve as a constant reminder of what’s at stake. The destruction of cities is not victimless; the detonation of nuclear weapons is not a casual side note.

Beyond coming to terms with an American penchant for sanitizing past mistakes, there is an actual pressing need for Hollywood to show the real consequences of nuclear weapons. Nuclear-armed countries around the world are upgrading their stockpiles; Cold War-era nuclear arms-control agreements are collapsing; negotiations to control and roll back North Korea’s nuclear program are on thin ice; nuclear tensions in South Asia are on the rise; and efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism might get lost in the chaos.

The nuclear threat is as real today as it was in 1954. That’s why Godzilla is overdue for a reboot that goes back to the actual beginning. We haven’t seen it yet, but based on early reviews of the recent release of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” it seems like the wait will continue.

With another installment already on the books for 2020, the cinematic mega star monster is clearly here to stay. We can only hope that sooner, rather than later, Americans and audiences around the world will finally get a taste of the OG Godzilla.

Rachel Emond is a Scoville Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, focusing on the intersection between gender issues and nuclear policy. 

Deverrick Holmes is an intern at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, focusing on nuclear weapons policy and missile defense. 

Rachel Emond and Deverrick Holmes

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