Godzilla and Postwar Japan

Godzilla and Postwar Japan
A Treatise by
Jon Inouye

Originally published in Japanese Fantasy Film Journal Issue #12 – 1979


Coherent fears and fantasies of mass destruction are found in all cultures. One need only study Greek, Germanic or Japanese mythology, for instance, to conclude this. These primeval fears, multiplied million-fold by modern technology, have yielded new monsters, new mythical demons to take the place of the devils of old. These new creatures of death and darkness swarm not the uncharted oceans, but the uncharted subconscious of modern civilization. Our modern-day cyclops, television, exploits our everyday fears of possible chemical, biological or atomic extinction. The monsters of the Greeks are still with us, but in different and diversified forms.
A case in point are the many monster films appearing throughout the industrialized centers of the world during the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and the post-industrial, social revolutions which evolved from this conflict. Although our initial fear of nuclear war has lessened today (we have different fears presently, e.g., the energy crisis, as this is being written), one must recall the intense paranoia of the times and the opportunity for American studios to exploit these fears. The results were, predictably, horror films such as THEM, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and so forth.
All were monsters somehow unleashed by technology.  But a unique and very revealing phenomenon was to occur in Japan. A form already intact in American theaters was transported to a country ravaged by the first atomic bombs.  Ingrained fears of nuclear weaponry and mass destruction, stronger than the American counterparts, plagued the Japanese theaters for more than a decade: the cities as yet to be completely rebuilt, the physical residue of bombing and destruction still apparent to the common theatergoer.
GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (GOJIRA in Japan) was the starting point, the first attempt by a major Japanese studio (Toho) to exploit public fears in the box office. The film has revealing qualities when seen today, qualities lacking in later efforts by director Ishiro Honda and special effects man, Eiji Tsuburaya. The mood of post-war Japan is starkly set upon the viewer, perhaps in greater detail than other non-fantasy films to date. This might be GODZILLA’s sole value to cinematic history, other than mere spectacle.  The film, similar in plot, but not style, to the many international film monsters roaming the earthlands, involves a prehistoric carnivore somehow put to sleep for millions of years, awakened by an atomic test in the Pacific islands near Japan.
To untrained Western eyes the film may at first appear as a routine monster movie. Yet, there is some quality that sets this film aside from other creature films, both American and Japanese, of its kind.  There is a bizarre, heavily stylized, black and white, bleak photography, typically and intentionally Japanese — the sea and landscape are photographed almost as if they are from an ancient woodcutting: the initial appearance of the dinosauric monster. “Godzilla,” as called by super-stitious islanders off the coast of Japan, filmed as if some nightmarish creature from the darkness of the mythological tall-tales of feudal times. Thus, through photography, the audience experiences a gloominess and mystery characteristic of the “kabuki” (the most important theatrical art of Japan originating in the 16th century, combining strong elements of stylization. music and dance). The viewer is uncertain whether this dinosaur is a mere figment of superstitious natives or whether this monster really exists.
An American correspondent in Japan, Raymond Burr, arrives after several mysterious sinkings of tankers off the coast. While investigating the tall-tales of the natives in a radioactive village supposedly attacked by “Godzilla” the previous night, the gargantuan beast appears briefly.  Upon this appearance the mythical elements are readily apparent — the sound of footsteps, kabuki-style drum beats, rhythmic, as if to symbolize the earth-shaking power of this dragon from the sea. Constantly we hear this almost nauseating beating prior to the appearance of each sequence involving death and destruction, and in the absence of these “footsteps” a similar low-keyed piano note, almost frightening in its Poe-like pounding, is heard. These sight-sound elements, even if overlooked, add a certain air of strangeness lacking in the later films of Honda and Tsuburaya.
Godzilla is then the fears of both modern and ancient Japan — the subconscious racial traits, inescapably hereditary, as described by Nietzsche, found in all generations of a race, no matter how geographically diverse or how separate in time. Godzilla is the fear of the sea — fear whose roots stem from the endless struggles of sailors centuries ago in tiny ships voyaging to islands far away; fear of earthquakes and tidal waves which has not faded; of typhoons which have sunk many a ship, including the iron giants of World War II. Godzilla, as if some dark myth supposedly lost thousands of years ago, rises from his resting place to haunt, in fact to test, man’s capacity to survive in a microcosm of cities and technology.
Japanese faith in the military, so shattered during World War II, is low. Modern aircraft, battalions of tanks, battleships and destroyers constantly pound the radioactive reptilian to no avail. Wars of aggression have previously been popular in Japanese psychology. That the Army and Navy with advanced equipment cannot stop a beast from the ancient past implies that simple-minded action will not deter the evil of a dark, mysterious and hostile Nature.  This mood, typical of the immediate post-war period, is further evidenced by the martial music, warships of the sea dropping depth-charges and tanks pounding shell after shell with no effect.  The power of the city itself, the very veins and blood of modern civilization, is helpless to stop the monster. Electricity, symbol of modern light and energy, is used to shock the reptilian beast from life. When this fails, Godzilla destroys the metropolis in what appears to be a recreation of the fire-bomb raids of 1945. Air-raid sirens sound in an almost exact simulation of World War II, with the exception that the enemy is a fire-breathing giant intent upon laying waste to the structures of civilization.
In a simultaneous sequence a young scientist, somewhat disfigured and disillusioned during World War II, develops a revolutionary new Weapon. This weapon, as it is revealed, is the only method in existence able to destroy the monster.  But the scientist, afraid that the weapon may fall into the wrong hands if used, initially refuses. As millions of civilians are cremated, as the television cameras broadcast the death and destruction in what seems to be a symbolic reminder of Hiroshima, the young scientist, finally yielding to emotion, agrees, but on only one condition — that he be the sole user of the “oxygen-destroyer” against the Godzilla dinosaur. Destroying the years of research data, he takes the sole model and with an accomplice descends from a ship to unleash the weapon on the sleeping, undersea reptilian.
This sequence, supposedly the anti-climax, is, I believe, the most impressive of the film. It is Honda’s masterpiece. In no other film by Honda have I found such a unique synthesis of sound, of obscure underwater images, of smoothly floating music. At its best, this sequence approaches an almost ballet-like beauty, an ethereal and never again duplicated fragment. Honda, when unmarred by the necessity to create films solely for children and American audiences, demonstrates that he is capable of cinematic artistry closely approaching that of the pure narrative styles of both Jack Arnold and Akira Kurosawa.
The two divers descend, floating in a scene with the gracefulness usually reserved for the kabuki theater. The music, hauntingly appropriate, almost makes one forget that a giant dinosaur with God-like capabilities awaits below. The scientist, planting the cylindrical weapon on the ocean floor, activates the oxygen-destroyer. Rather than reveal his secret to the world, he cuts his umbilical cord, killing himself like the kamikaze of old.
The death of the monster and the parallel death of the disillusioned young scientist mark the end of an era in Japanese history: the final termination of dark, destructive and corrupting fears in a defeated country; the arise of insecurity over weapons capable of mass destruction (add to this the uncertainty pervading Japanese refusal to possess nuclear bombs today); and the end to the post-war era itself.
Although other films were to be made by Honda in the Fifties, films of notable worth (e.g., THE MYSTERIANS in 1957), the Honda/Tsuburaya team would never again match GODZILLA in terms of its moody stylisms, its revealing visual summation of post-war feelings and its uniqueness as a film commodity in worldwide movie theaters. Toho, cashing in on its greatest financial success, hacked out dozens of monster films as did its American competitors. But as usual, the first effort, unhampered by clichés, fresh and as yet free of necessities to merely “sell” at a predictable market, is the best. There can never be another GODZILLA.  The country is to be repaired, we are told in the final sequence, and life shall go on.
Historians interested in this dark era of recovery might find the film of extreme worth. If stripped of all ridiculousness, the film would mirror the frame of mind of a post-war Japan. It has been said that films reflect the times, and that often their only intrinsic future worth lies with this fact. It could not be stressed more.  The cycle of destruction by fire and ice, by A-bombs and mythological dragon flame, by cold ignorance and dark, disillusioned reluctance…this cycle now complete, the self-determined spirit of the defeated is revived.  In the eyes of the defeated, war has always been some Godzilla, some evil, dark devil rising mythically, almost magically gifted with irrational destructive power, haunting technological man who has somehow convinced himself that he is civilized and superior to mere an animalistic violence and swift, unpredictable death.

Article © 1979/2004 Jon Inouye.