According to legend, Godzilla was born aboard an airplane.
It was spring 1954. As the story goes, Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer with the Toho Motion Picture Co., was flying home to Tokyo from Jakarta, where plans for a Japanese-Indonesian co production titled In the Shadow of Honor had just fallen apart.
The movie, the story of a Japanese soldier who fights alongside the Indonesians in their struggle for postwar independence, was to be one of Toho’ s major releases later that year, and now Tanaka was under pressure to come up with a replacement for it- fast. Nervous and sweating, he spent the entire flight brainstorming.
Suddenly, he had a stroke of genius.
Taking a cue from the successful American science fiction film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), in which a dinosaur is resurrected by atomic tests in the Arctic and swims south to terrorize New York, Tanaka decided to make Japan’s first giant celluloid monster, a creature that would not onlybe reanimated by nuclear weapons but serve as a metaphor for the Bo mb itself, evoking the horror of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki holocausts still vivid in Japan’s consciousness. “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the Bomb,” Tanaka recalled decades later. ‘Mankind had created the Bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”
Nine years earlier, at the end of World War II, Japan had suffered a defeat unlike any other nation in history. In August 1945, America’s twin atomic bombs had killed nearly 300,000 civilians, and an estimated 100,000 more lives had been lost the previous March when B-29 planes firebombed Tokyo for three consecutive days. Cities across Japan were leveled, leaving millions dead, wounded, or home- less. Factories that had been converted to military production were now either destroyed or rendered useless, crippling Japanese industry and bankrupting the economy. The country’s massive empire in the Pacific region was lost, and six million repatriated soldiers and civilians returned to a Japan whose mighty spirit was crushed. Then came the seven-yearlong Occupation (1945-1952), in which a nation that had remained unconquered for thou- sands of years suffered the shame of being governed by foreign soldiers and forced to adopt a Western- style constitution that reduced the Emperor to a mere symbolic figure, abolished State Shintoism, and threatened other long-held traditions and beliefs. The late 1940S and early 1950S were a time of political, economic, and cultural uncertainty in Japan.
During the war, the Japanese film industry was booming, due in large part to the government’s use of the movie studios to disseminate heavily regulated nationalist propaganda. Then, after the defeat of Japan’s militarist regime, the Allied powers likewise censored the movies and other media in their efforts to democratize Japan, forbidding discussions of the war, the Bomb and America’s role in the tragedy.
After the Occupation a handful of Bomb-themed films began to appear, notably Kaneto Shindo’s Children of the Atom Bomb (1952), a semi documentary about a schoolteacher who returns to Hiroshima looking for former pupils who were victims at ground zero. Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima (also 1952) was an angrier film that portrayed the atomic bombings as a racist act in which the Japanese people were guinea pigs in a U.S. nuclear experiment. But in the 40-plus years since the American forces left and censorship was lifted, surprisingly few movies have directly addressed Japan’s status as the only nation to be attacked with nuclear weapons. Film scholars cite prevailing feelings of shame, repression, and guilt but are unable to fully explain the Japanese cinema’s ambivalence toward the Bomb, a subject that would seem to be important and compelling movie material.
During the 1950S and ’60s, several Japanese moves made references to the atomic bombs and to radiation sickness, but only two major films tackled the Bomb as subject matter. The most critically lauded of the two was Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (a.k.a. Record of a Living Being, 1955), wherein Toshiro Mifune plays a man nearly frightened to death by the specter of another nuclear attack on Japan; the most commercially successful was Tanaka’s barely disguised allegory of the Bomb, manifested in a gigantic monster.
By 1954, Japan was peaceful and relatively prosperous again, but fears of renewed annihilation were brimming below the surface, fueled by new nuclear threats. Cold War tensions were increasing and Japan was now caught -literally- between the two superpowers’ nuclear-testing programs: the Soviet Union’s on one side, and the Pacific Proving Ground established by the U.S. at the Mar- shall Islands on the other. The Korean War was escalating, raising fears that a hydrogen bomb might be dropped on neighboring North Korea or China and rain fallout over the region. It may have been a divine act or it may have been pure happenstance, but around the same time that Tanaka was forced to quickly invent a major new film, a historic, horrifying event was unfolding in the equatorial Pacific, an event that would forever change monster-movie history.
Early in the morning on March 1, the U.S. detonated a 15-megaton H-bomb -with 750 times more explosive power than the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki -near the Bikini Atoll, 2,500 miles southwest of Honolulu. The explosion, code-named Operation Bravo, was labeled a “routine atomic test” by the Atomic Energy Commission but it proved far more powerful than expected, vaporizing a large portion of Bikini and sending a plume of highly radioactive debris floating eastward over a 7,000-square-mile area of the Pacific Ocean. Into this nuclear night- mare zone errantly wandered a 140-ton wooden Japanese trawler, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (55 Lucky Dragon #5), which was on a tuna-fishing trip about 100 miles east of Bikini. The boat’s 23 crewmen were showered with a sticky, white radioactive ash; within a few hours several men became sick with headaches, nausea, and eye irritation, and a few days later some of their faces turned strangely dark. The ship’s captain, not understanding what was happening to his men, abandoned the fishing trip and returned to the boat’s home port at Yaizu in Shizuoka Prefecture. Six months later, on September 23, Aikichi Kuboyama, the chief radio operator, died of leukemia in a Tokyo hospital. His last words, according to newspaper reports, were, “Please make sure that I am the last victim of the nuclear bomb.” Five other crew members later died from cancers and other diseases that were believed to be bomb- related.
The incident was first reported on the morning of March 16 in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. At first the U.S. government denied it was responsible for the “death ash” that had poisoned the ship; the Americans later admitted the ash was fallout from a hydrogen bomb but accused the Lucky Dragon of entering the restricted testing area on a spy mission. The U.S. government sent the dead fisherman’s widow a check for 2.5 million yen as a “token of sympathy” in an attempt to put the matter to rest. Only years later would America admit that opera- tion Bravo was the most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated and that it caused the single worst fallout incident in the H-bomb atmospheric-testing program.
Throughout 1954 and ’55, the Lucky Dragon tragedy released Japan’s pent-up anxieties about the Bomb- an unprecedented public outcry followed it, including a boycott of tuna and other radiation- contaminated fish, a national ban-the-bomb signature campaign (by August 1955,32 million signatures were collected), the formation of the Council Against A- and H-bombs, and the rise of the Japanese peace movement of the 195O’S.
It also gave birth to the King of the Monsters.