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Godzilla and the Second World War

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A Study of the Allegorical Meaning in “Godzilla” and “Godzilla Raids Again.”

The Beginning

Tomoyuki_TanakaTomoyuki Tanaka sat in his seat during the flight back to Tokyo a worried man. Ordinary looking, having inherited the short stocky build characteristic of many Japanese men, he had just celebrated the passing of his forty-fourth birthday, and was about to celebrate his tenth year as a producer at the Toho Motion Picture Company. Until now he had done quite well for the studio. “On the plane ride back to Tokyo, I was desperate,” Tanaka recalled. “I was sweating the whole time1.” The year was 1954, and the film was to have been In The Shadow of Glory, co-produced in cooperation with the Indonesian government, the plans for the film fell through when Tanaka could not get work permits for the film’s stars. Having a budget for a war film, but having no film to shoot, Tanaka agonized at the prospect of loosing face in the eye’s of his company. But it was during that plane ride that “desperation became his fried…and would lend him an idea that would develop into something far larger and more enduring than the project he left behind.2”

Fans of the Japanese science fiction/fantasy genre around the globe celebrated the “King of the Monsters” 40th anniversary on November 3rd, 1994, for it was on that date in 1954 that Toho Studios unleashed Godzilla on an unsuspecting public. However, one could argue that the true date of Godzilla’s birth was not November 3rd, 1954, but August 6th, 1945, the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

At the end of the war Japan was devastated, physically, politically and financially, and although the Japanese reaction to this defeat is evident in their present anti-nuclear policies, their feelings have never been fully understood. But perhaps a partial understanding can be achieved by looking into two important Japanese films released in 1954 and 1955, Gojira, and Gojira no Gyakushu3. Japans post war industries made one of the most remarkable recoveries in the history of the modern world. One of their most vital was their film industry, which started back in 1896 when the first Edison Kinetoscopes were imported into the country.

The Background

In 1912 the Japan Cinematography Company was founded, and by 1932 a man named Yasuji Uemura founded Shashin Kagaku Kenkyu-jo (Photo Chemical Laboratories), which produced Japan’s first musical Intoxicated Life (1933), directed by Sotoji Kimura and sponsored by the Dai-Nippon Beer Company (thus a film to drunkenness). P.C.L’s success at musicals attracted the attention of Japanese railroad magnate Ichizo Kobayashi, who in 1935 absorbed P.C.L into his own expanding entertainment empire. In 1936, after having acquired J.O. Studios and Osaka Mainichi Talkie Newsreels, Kobayashi united the three film companies into one distribution company, Toho, which was the abbreviation for Tokyo Takarazuka. Then in 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China, and Japanese films became an extension of Japan’s fascist propaganda unit, the Office of Public Information. Now Toho company’s facilities would be employed to produce such propagandistic smash hits as The War At Sea from Hawaii to Malay (1942). The company’s facility with the war genre was thanks in large part to the efforts of Iwao Mori, who was instrumental in developing the studio’s visual effects department. Upon Japan’s defeat, and the following American occupation, Mori was exiled from the industry by the U.S. Army’s Civil Censorship Division (SCAP), due to his involvement in Toho’s war propaganda films. But in 1950, plagued by strike and tax difficulties, Toho was tottering on its last legs. Something had to be done, and that something would be the rehiring of Mori. Mori was once again a chief executive at the company, and had almost single handly reverse the company’s postwar fortunes entirely.

In March of 1954, Japan suffered from another nuclear disaster, though far smaller in scale than the 1954 bombings. Tuna caught off the coast of Japan were found to carry high levels of radioactivity after a fishing ship, the Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon), accidentally sailed into an American test site, contaminating the entire crew. One crew member eventually died of what was reported as radiation poisoning and the Japanese press pointed the finger towards American irresponsibility. The debate centered on whether the ship’s crew was at fault or whether the radius affected by the test far exceeded the estimated range and had in fact caught the ship. The incident was dubbed “The Second Atomic Bombing of Mankind” by the Japanese press.

It was this situation which inspired the Toho Company to make its first movie monster a radiation-mutated sea creature terrorizing mankind, and planted the seed in Tanaka’s mind on how to replace In The Shadow of Glory. Tanaka had impressed Mori with his idea to replace In The Shadow of Glory with his idea about “a monster that invades Tokyo the way King Kong attacked New York,” and without Mori’s support it is doubtful that the project would have ever have gotten off the ground. With Mori’s support, the task of accomplishing this was assigned to Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya.

The Production Team

Eiji TsuburayaEiji Tsuburaya was a veteran cinematographer Mori knew was the expert who could produce extravagant films. Few technicians in the field of visual effects have ever achieved his notoriety or respect. Tsuburaya’s particular knowledge of special techniques far outstripped that of any of his contemporaries. Mori knew that, and chose Tsuburaya to head Japan’s film industry’s first special effects department. “I was the only one in the department,” Tsuburaya wrote. “That was pretty weird.” Tsuburaya would work, usually alongside director Kajiro Yamamoto, on highly ambitious war pictures. His special effects being of such high quality that following the war, the American Occupation forces frequently mistook the surviving fictional films for Japanese produced newsreel footage. Unfortunately, like Mori, Tsuburaya would also be exiled from the industry by the SCAP. When the occupation lifted Tsuburaya was invited back to Toho, where he and Mori took up where they had left off, with the first Japanese war picture in eight years, Eagle of the Pacific, which was directed by Ishiro Honda.

Tanaka’s choice for director, Ishiro Honda, had served in the Imperial Army during the war. Before the war Honda had worked under director Sadao Yamanaka, co-directing such work as the subtly antiwar film Humanity and Paper Balloons, (1937) and Tojuro’s Love (1938) under director Kajiro Yamamoto, before being sent to China. Yamanaka died a common soldier but Honda survived to become a sergeant. In 1944, between his second and third hitches in the Impearl Army, Honda returned to Tokyo to work with Yamamoto as second assistant on Colonel Kato’s Falcon Squadron, a wartime-spirit picture made at the time when Tokyo was being fire-bombed by the American Air Force. Eventually he returned to China just as the Japanese regime was collapsing, and spent the last part of the war as a POW in China. In 1946 he returned to Japan, passing through the atomic-bombed shell of the city of Hiroshima. It was then that he became interested in publicizing the horror and devastation of war through his chosen medium. When examining Gojira, it is important to remember that Japan was the only nation in history to have been the victim of nuclear weapons. “When I returned from the war [in China], and passed through Hiroshima,” Honda said, “there was a heavy atmosphere, a fear that the world was already coming to an end4.”

Also as important to Honda were Japan’s attitudes and fears of the early 1950s. The Second World War was less than ten years ended and the Japanese were still laboring under the consequences of their failure and defeat. America had influenced the rebuilding and restructuring of Japan, affecting everything from industry to the political structure. Around Japan the Cold War expanded and nuclear test took place, adding to Japan’s fears for its people, country, and for the world. The shaky post-war situation and the “heating up” of the Cold War, combined with certain specific incidents in the early 1950s, that set the stage for Gojira.
With special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, Honda accomplished a feat unequaled at the time. In the guise of a typical Hollywood style monster movie, they made Japan, and ultimately the world, experience the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki all over again.

The Film

The monster Godzilla is the United States’ atomic bomb, devastating Tokyo and reducing it to a radioactive cinder all in one night. Originally conceived by Tsuburaya as a giant mutated octopus, producers Tanaka and Iwao Mori felt that a giant dinosaur-type creature, mutated through the effects of atomic testing, would have more appeal and be more threatening to land locked civilizations. Honda felt the same, “Every since I was little, I have been fond of the fact that there was once an awesome era of the Earth, when dinosaurs were living in the Jurassic and Cretaceous. When word went out about the production, images of dinosaur-monsters were already brewing in my head5.” To Honda’s conception, the monster Godzilla would not merely be awakened by the bomb, “He would be twisted and mutated by it, into a rampaging uncontainable force; the A-bomb made flesh6.”

To this, the task of designing and constructing the main costume went to Ryosaku Takayama. The result was one of the most inspired creations in film history, combining the appearance of a therapod dinosaur with the distinctive oriental look of a dragon. But it was not only the monster, but the story behind Gojira which set the production apart.
Takeo Murata and Ishiro Honda’s screenplay is a subtle retelling of the Second World War through the eyes of Japan. Unlike typical monster films of the time, the strong character-driven plot and the special effects combined to present a glimpse of the Japanese psyche in a time of war. Gojira opens as the Japanese merchant ship Eiko-Maru disappears below the surface of the ocean as a blinding flash of light explodes from the sea, accompanied by searing heat and an unearthly, deafening roar. As rescue ships are deployed into the area they too become victim of this unseen force. Japan is threatened and the country gears up to defend itself as the suspense builds. Japan “entering” the war is represented by these numerous ship disasters at the beginning of the film. “Many such merchant vessels were literally wiped from the face of the sea by American submarines, and this fact was greatly played upon by Honda7.”

The conflict quickly escalates as a fishing village on the small island of Ohto is attacked, the horrors of war having hit home on the innocent is portrayed as the faceless enemy destroys the village. Takashi Shimura, a regular member of Akira Kurosawa’s stable of actors and star of Kurosawa’s Ikuru (1952), and Seven Sameri (1954), is introduced and gives a great performance as Dr. Kyohei Yamane, Japan’s leading paleontologist. It is while this disaster is being investigated by Yamane that the face of the enemy is finally revealed. Assisted by his daughter Emiko (played by Momoko Kochi), and her fiancee Hideto Ogata (played by Akira Takarada), the three stumble upon Godzilla’s hulking bulk peering over the mountain tops. Although a product of atomic testing, Godzilla’s symbolization of the atomic bomb is not yet evident.

Japan is now at war; the military buildup, and their attempts to destroy Godzilla with depth charges, are all symbolic of Japan’s military might. Yamane is a scientist torn between his desire to study Godzilla and learn about the creature’s ability to survive radiation, and the need to see Godzilla destroyed before Japan is devastated. This dichotomy is symbolic of Japanese feelings during the war, not everyone was fond of the war time government’s militaristic views, represented by the Japanese Self Defense Force’s quick response in trying to destroy Godzilla. The point is brought further home by the revelation that the love interest between Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko and Naval Officer Hideto Ogata, conflict with an arranged marriage between Emiko and Dr. Daisuke. Serizawa, a long time friend of her family. Their characters represent the many young wartime couples struggling with the often conflicting demands of honor, duty and love. The conflict between Emiko’s engagement to Serizawa, her love for Ogata and her desire to honor her father’s wishes to study Godzilla (even though her own feelings are to see the monster destroyed), symbolizes how the old ways of Japan are coming to an end at the same time as a new and possibly terrible era is about to be born. “Japan was changing,” Tanaka said, “the world was changing, and the youth reflected these changes in abandoning the old ways8.”

As the film progresses, and Yamane, Emiko and Ogata debate on the most likely way of destroying Godzilla, Godzilla attacks the harbor district of Tokyo. His thundering footsteps can be heard throughout the great city, sounding hauntingly similar to the American bombs which exploded in the city ten years before. Honda had been on furlough during the fire bombings of Tokyo, and had witnessed much of the worst destruction. Much of Gojira recalls not only the atomic bombings, but much of the total destruction Japan endured during the war. Honda stated, “It was a matter of getting to the feeling I wanted of an invisible fear that…this technology has now even become an environmental problem9.” Up until this point Godzilla is still just a standard monster; he has not employed his atomic breath. More defense plans are made to stop Godzilla as Japan begins to lose the war. It is at this point that Honda introduces the character of Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, Japan’s leading scientist, wounded during the war, and engaged to Emiko. The Serizawa character pulls the entire story together, and leads to the most direct references to the Second World War. Of all the actors to appear in Gojira, it was Akihiko Hirata’s superb portral of the intense Dr. Serizawa that helps set the film apart from the average monster flick. The Serizawa character most strongly ties the film’s story line to the war. Locked in his Frankensteinesque laboratory, Serizawa is torn between his betrothal to Emiko and the terrible new weapon of his making, the Oxygen Destroyer, which when deployed, will destroy all oxygen in water thus dissolving all living matter10. It is also through the Serizawa character that Honda makes the strongest connection between Godzilla and the war. After Godzilla has destroyed the harbor district, newspaper reporter Hagiwara (played by Sachio Sakai), convinces Emiko to introduce him to Dr. Serizawa. Hagiwara is interested in Serizawa’s work, and questions the doctor intensely about its nature11. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” Serizawa replies to Hagiwara’s question. “Besides, that’s not even connected with my field.” Hagiwara persists: “Well, the fact is that our reporter in Switzerland met with your German friend and heard directly from him that ‘Dr. Serizawa’s project, when successfully concluded, could rid Japan of Godzilla’.” “I have no German friends,” insists Serizawa. His adamant denial of not having any “German friends” suggests a sinister tie between Serizawa’s experiments and the Nazis, symbolizing Japan’s wartime alliance with Germany12. Godzilla attacks Tokyo for the second time and levels the city; the bomb is dropped. Honda said of this section of the film, “What was most special was [the idea of] making radiation visual. By opening his maw and simply exhaling, Godzilla can vaporize an entire building.” Honda thought that “The destruction itself is not singular; as a tangible substance, radiation is probably much like [Godzilla’s breath].” “Ever since those days,” Honda added, “I’ve felt that the ‘atomic fear’ would hang around our necks for eternity13.” The hospital scenes after Tokyo is destroyed show exactly what it must have been like for the unfortunate survivors of the Hiroshima blast. For the first and only time in a kaiju14 film, the suffering of the innocent victims is depicted. Here we see the bodies of the dead, piling up in the halls of the hospital. We see a doctor, holding a Geiger counter to a young boy’s face and shaking his head, as the reading is far beyond the danger point. We are shown a group of children, watching, as a sheet is pulled over their dead mother’s head. They begin to cry as her body is carried away. “I wanted to say that after this disaster [the bombings],” Honda said, “no one could know what might happen in the world15.”


Mirroring Japan’s failure to surrender immediately after the Hiroshima bombing, the threat of Godzilla still exists. However Dr. Serizawa is reluctant to use the Oxygen Destroyer, and when Emiko, the only person entrusted with his secret, informs Ogata of the weapon, the two visit the doctor to confront him. This confrontation between Serizawa, Emiko and Ogata near the end of the film, even after the destruction brought by Godzilla fails to convince Serizawa, clearly represents Honda’s questioning whether the atomic bomb should have ever been used. Although Honda had served during the war, he was opposed to all forms of military operation16. It is only after the sight of Japan’s youth praying for peace is broadcast (indicating the nation’s weariness of war), that Serizawa is finally moved to use the Oxygen Destroyer, but not before burning all of his notes and diagrams, insuring that no trace of the weapons construction can be reproduced. However, in Serizawa’s mind that is not enough, and as the Oxygen Destroyer is set off in Tokyo Bay directly in front of Godzilla, and as Ogata is pulled towards the surface, Serizawa cuts his own life line, telling Ogata, “Be happy together,” his last words. Serizawa’s sacrifice at the end of the film not only illustrates the loyalty and self-sacrifice of the Japanese people (for he knows Emiko is in love with Ogata, not him), but it also demonstrates Serizawa’s willingness to ensure that not only is Godzilla destroyed, but that the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon “more horrible than Godzilla” (the H-bomb?) is never used again17.

After Gojira’s release it was attacked by several quarters for “profiteering from the Lucky Dragon tragedy,” although none of the crew members actually died until September when the film was more than half complete, and later it was determined that the man had actually died because of an unrelated case of hepatitis. However what Honda was hoping to convey was the sense of realism in an unreal situation. “How would people reacted,” Honda stated, “if such a huge monster came to the Japanese islands? How would politicians, scientist, the military react?” “Inevitably under those circumstances,” Honda said, “the film came to feel like a documentary. [Godzilla would have been most successful] if there had been some way to convince the viewer that it was really happening18.”


The Sequel

As Gojira is to the bombing of Hiroshima, then Gojira no Gyakushu (1955), is to the bombing of Nagasaki. Although technically inferior compared to the first film, as this time Honda was not in the director’s seat, the second film in the Godzilla series explores the reaction of the Japanese public both during and after the time of war.
While sequels were as commonplace in Japan as in Hollywood, the success of Gojira took everyone at Toho, especially Tomoyuki Tanaka by surprise, and plans were quickly made to rush a sequel into production. This time Takeo Murata and Shigeaki Hidaka were to pen the script and the special effects were once again supervised by Eiji Tsuburaya. Motoyoshi Oda was given the task to direct, as Ishiro Honda was committed to the company’s Jujin Yukiotoko (Half Human) film project, although Honda was involved briefly in developing the Godzilla sequel. Mere months after the release of the original film, on April 24th, 1955, Gojira no Gyakushu burst upon the Japanese public.

In Gojira no Gyakushu (Godzilla’s Counterattack), the basic plot once again follows the lives of three people, and how their interaction with each other, as well as Godzilla, effects their lives. Employed by the Osaka based Kyo Canning Company, Shoichi Tsukioka (played by Hiroshi Koizumi), and his friend Koji Kobayashi (played by Minoru Chiaki) are spotters for the company, searching the ocean in their planes for schools of fish, radioing the position to the fishing fleet when a catch is found. Tsukioka is engaged to Hidemi Yamaji (played by Setsuko Wakayama), a radio operator at the company who also happens to be the daughter of company president Koehi Yamaji (played by Yukio Kasama). It is Tsukioka and Kobayashi who discover the existence of another Godzilla on a small island, as well as a new creature, Angilas, which roughly resembles an Ankylosaurus with no real powers when compared to Godzilla. That Angilas never has a chance is likely the reason why the creature is so beloved. “Other than David and Goliath battles, the Japanese are also fond of characters who are doomed from the start. Often how Japan views itself, especially after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but probably going back as far as the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ships in 185319.”
Concerned over what happened to Tokyo the year before, the military calls in Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura reprising his role form Gojira), who informs the officials of Osaka that there is no way to stop this new Godzilla, especially as the plans for the Oxygen Destroyer perished with Dr. Serizawa.

Japan is once again at war, only unlike the first film, this time the film follows more closely the effects the threat that Godzilla (i.e. war), has on the personal lives of the main characters. The first half of the film represents Japan’s war preparations, and how the threat of war impacts on the lives of the Japanese people. However, unlike the first film, where the bombing of Hiroshima (in fact the destruction of all Japan), is represented by Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo at the end of the film, the bombing of Nagasaki is represented by the battle between Godzilla and Angilas in Osaka, about halfway into the film. And now the characters are left to pick up the pieces again. In fact the focus of this film is much more on the aftermath of the “bombing,” so much so that Godzilla is not even shown being driven out or leaving Osaka after killing Angilas. Instead, Oda uses a scene of Hidemi, simply watching the burning ruins of the city from the window of her family’s faraway country house. The dead silence of the land and the night contrast eerily with the unearthly light hovering over the beleaguered city.

The focus now is on the Japanese principle and work ethic to pull together and start rebuilding, instead of focusing on the dead and dieing. The “war is over,” and it is time to rebuild. We are shown scenes of total destruction, but also see workers toiling to clean out and rebuild Osaka where the characters all work for their living. This is just as it was when the Japanese accomplished the most speedy and thorough economic recovery of the century. These scenes are especially moving and add a sense of realism to the story. Certainly, Japan’s kaiju-smashed cities are rebuilt over and over, but this is the first and only film to show the reconstruction. Godzilla is all but forgotten.

The film also conveys the sense that life goes on, as Kobayashi and the rest of the Kyo Canning Company are relocated to the company’s Hokkaido branch to continue work. Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, is pictured as a winter wonderland, with the workers enjoying themselves and the threat of war long since past. The mood is so happy and serene that Bing Crosby singing White Christmas would not seem out of place. The arrival of the company executives, including Tsukioka, Hidemi, and her father, illustrates the joy of life returning to normal. The fishing fleet is out, the executives are enjoying themselves and Tsukioka and his Air Force buddies are reunited and trading war stories.

Then disaster strikes; Godzilla destroys the fishing fleet, and the threat of war again looms over Japan. “Just as the Cold War had followed the Second World War, and just as the specter of worldwide nuclear destruction had haunted the world in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla remains a force to be reckoned with20.” However, unlike the first film, Godzilla is no longer a threat to Japan and he becomes the hunted instead of the hunter. Military forces track Godzilla and he is eventually trapped on Shinko Island, representing Japan’s determination to never again suffer the horrors of atomic devastation. This determination is never more evident than at the end of the film, when it is revealed that Kobayashi is in love with Hidemi. Her betrothal to Tsukioka sets up another love triangle as in Gojira, but this triangle is never given the chance to develop. As naval forces approach the island with the intention to destroy Godzilla, Kobayashi sacrifices himself, kamikaze style, in an attempt to keep Godzilla from leaving the island until the military arrives. This again marks one of the rare times that a main character and hero of a Godzilla film dies21. Witnessing his friend’s sacrifice, and seeing the effects the falling ice has on Godzilla, Tsukioka convinces the military forces to bomb the mountain side, causing an avalanche, and burying Godzilla under tons of ice for all time22.

It is the combination of many unique symbolic and narrative aspects that make Gojira and Gojira no Gyakushu the best films in the Godzilla series. It is unfortunate that the American versions of these films lose some of their impact when compared with the Japanese originals, but if looked at them objectively the intended premises can still be found.

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