Histories of Horror: Godzilla

Welcome to Histories of Horror, a column in which we will be diving into the origins and inspirations behind some of your favourite horror creatures, characters, and more, from the infamous to the more obscure. Join us as we examine the roots and themes that have helped these stories and characters evolve from the humblest beginnings to becoming, in many cases, cornerstones of pop culture. This edition looks at Godzilla.

There are fewer joys in this world than watching behemoth creatures destroy cities and engage in almighty smackdowns with each other. That said, giant monster movies offer more than popcorn thrills and action-packed spectacle. Sure, that’s a big part of their appeal, too. However, the genre has a history of tapping into real-world fears and anxieties, and Godzilla has probed these concerns better than most monster franchises throughout the years.

The King of the Monsters has caused chaos and defended the Earth from countless chaotic threats in all forms of media for almost 70 years. In that time, various creators have put their own spin on the material and reinterpreted what the monster symbolises. But at his true terrifying core, Godzilla represents the horrors of war, nuclear terror, and the past reinstating itself on the present.

That’s why the first film, Godzilla, directed by Ishiro Honda and released in 1954, remains one of the best horror movies ever made. It’s a truly harrowing piece of work that’s as thematically enriching as it is horrifying. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the history and pop culture that informed the first iteration of the King of the Monsters.

Godzilla’s Nuclear Origins

Godzilla breathing fire

The first atomic bomb test was carried out near New Mexico in July 1945. This served as an experiment before the United States dropped the bombs on Japan the following month, killing an estimated 100,000 citizens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most of whom were women, children, and the elderly. Not only were these incidents two of the worst massacres in history, but they also created a sense of nuclear panic that was palpable across the globe. And cinema responded accordingly.

Hollywood entered a science fiction boom period shortly after, releasing hundreds of feature films that were born from the panic surrounding the threat of a nuclear eradication. Monster movies were a huge part of this trend. The first live-action giant monster movie to highlight the dangers of nuclear detonation was Eugène Lourié’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Boosted by the outstanding stop motion effects of the iconic Ray Harryhausen, the film revolves around the destructive rampage of a Rhedosaurus that is awakened from its icy tomb by nuclear testing.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms provided a blueprint that many subsequent monster movies used — namely, nuclear fallout causing creatures from the past to go wild. Godzilla is no different. Big G is a more complex beast than the Rhedosaurus, but his first cinematic outing essentially sees him wake up following a nuclear incident and wreak havoc on a city. Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer with Toho at the time, cited Lourié’s film as a key inspiration in the development of Godzilla. But Toho wasn’t out to copy Hollywood by any means. Japan knew the horrors of nuclear fallout better than every other country in the world. And it was all too fresh in the nation’s memory when Tanaka came up with the idea for the King.

On March 1st, 1954, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Number Five) fishing boat was caught in the crossfire of a U.S. hydrogen bomb test. This caused the crew members to suffer from radiation poisoning, though the after-effects weren’t limited to the sailors. The ocean’s fish were poisoned and sold afterwards, which led to the collapse of the Japanese fishing industry. Naturally, this added more tension to the relationship between the United States and Japan, which had been turbulent since World War II. Furthermore, the United States tried to brush the nuclear incident under the rug and refused to pay the reparations Japan was demanding for its economic losses.

An anti-nuclear sentiment also gained momentum following the tragedy on the boat. In August of 1955, a national petition calling for an end to nuclear testing in Japan was signed by 32 million citizens. The Atomic Energy Basic Law was also established that year, making military use of nuclear energy strictly forbidden. The nation’s artists also wanted to express these concerns in movies, but strict censorship laws imposed by American governance during the post-war occupation banned acknowledgements of military-orchestrated tragedies in entertainment. However, that only meant that creative types had to disguise their social commentary, and what better way to do that than a creature feature like Godzilla?

The eponymous creature’s destruction of Tokyo in the original movie is an allegory of nuclear devastation. Even as the franchise evolved and Godzilla took on a different role in the media, his nuclear origins remained intact. Every time the monster breathes atomic fire from his mouth, we’re reminded of the real-life atrocities that led to his creation in the first place. Of course, nuclear terror isn’t the monster’s only link to Japanese history.

The Past Bites Back in Godzilla

Godzilla destroys Tokyo

While the nuclear aspects of the movie are front and centre, there are more spiritual elements at play in Godzilla that are equally fascinating. It’s a movie about Japan’s spiritual identity in conflict with the country’s post-war westernisation as the zeitgeist was changing.

During the U.S. occupation, long-held Japanese traditions and beliefs were abolished as the country was forced to adopt a constitution that abandoned Shintoism and the old ways. In Godzilla, the beast is a symbol of Japan’s past returning to remind a contemporary society of its heritage. This theme is commonplace in the Toho monster universe, as evidenced by the folklore aspects that can be found in many of the films.

Godzilla is reminiscent of many giant creatures that populate folktales — especially dragons. As Yabai noted, Japanese mythology tells of serpent-like dragons that live in the water. They’re also regarded as gods. Sound familiar? Godzilla is a giant reptile who emerges from the sea and breaths fire. The “God” in his name alludes to ancient deities. The parallels are uncanny.

However, Godzilla also boasts similarities with other supernatural creatures told in Japanese legends — the yokai. In his book, The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore, Michael Foster describes these strange creatures as “an age-old part of belief [simultaneously] at the cutting edge of knowledge and contemporary expression.’’ Yōkai emerged from polytheistic culture as manifestations of fears and superstitions that are linked to the past. Godzilla certainly isn’t a yokai in the traditional sense of ghosts and demons, but what he typifies is similar to the mischevious rascals.

Godzilla Is a Movie About War Guilt

The scientist in Godzilla 1954

Godzilla is certainly critical of the United States’ involvement in the advancement of nuclear weapons, but the film also lambasts Japan’s own war crimes. There is a common belief that Japan hasn’t properly atoned for its atrocities during the conflict, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the country shares that opinion, nor did they in 1954. Godzilla addresses the undercurrent of national guilt that existed in Japanese society following World War II.

In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) kills himself because he doesn’t want the government using the serum he created to kill the monster. That’s because he’s aware of the nation’s own fascination with chemical and biological research, which was carried out in an inhumane manner during the war.

According to Grunge, the Unit 731 project was a covert division of the Japanese Imperial Army that performed a number of cruel experiments on human guinea pigs between 1935 and 1945. Their procedures included infecting their subjects with plague, anthrax, cholera and other diseases. Some of the more horrendous experiments included vivisections and pressure chambers which caused people’s eyeballs to explode. When the operation became public knowledge after the war, many of the key people involved were pardoned by the United States and compensated for their findings.

Serizawa’s sacrifice in Godzilla, to ensure that the “information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands,’’ evokes memories of Unit 731. The scientist doesn’t want another dangerous creation being used to hurt more people. However, his suicide can also be interpreted as Japan’s way of dealing with its own shame for its involvement in World War II. If Godzilla tells us anything, it’s that no side is ever innocent when it comes to combat.

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