Symbolism in Gojira

When Godzilla opened in Japan in November 1954, it marked the beginning of a new era in Japanese filmmaking.  It was the start of the Japanese monster movie genre, a genre that, despite problems during the 1970’s, is still just as popular today as it was when it first premiered nearly 50 years ago.  Most people in America, however, view the Godzilla films with a condescending attitude and often dismiss the movies as nothing more than a giant monster that lacks depth, substance, and, most insultingly, good technical merits.  These people could not be any further from the truth. Gojira (as was its original Japanese title) is a movie that operates on multiple thematic levels that will astonish the uninformed.  Ishiro Honda’s Gojira is a movie that is not simply a giant monster movie, but a visual metaphor for nuclear weapons, interspersed with scenes illustrating both the immediate effect of a nuclear attack and the aftereffects of radiation. Gojira represents these themes throughout the entire film, in my opinion, by turning the title character into a living nuclear weapon with all of the threatening characteristics of a real nuclear device. However, to fully grasp the depth of Gojira, we should analyze two scenes from the film in-depth to bring these themes to light.
The most prevalent theme in the movie is that of nuclear weapons and the radiation associated with them.  The movie itself opens up with this theme taking center stage. As soon as the credits finish rolling, we are taken to a boat in the South Pacific off of the coast of Japan.  We view the people on this boat relaxing and even taking the time to play musical instruments to try and eradicate their collective ennui.  However, the serenity of the scene that Honda has established is suddenly destroyed. A flash of light is visible, despite the fact that there is no audible noise heard that could indicate why such a light has appeared.  The crew then goes to see what has made this light appear and observes what they consider to be the ocean boiling.  After this image, another more powerful light appears (it is certainly a more powerful flash of light, as we can see several members of the crew use their arms to try and block the light that is overwhelming them with more light than their eyes are able to withstand).  This serves as the audience’s first glimpse of Godzilla, even though we have not yet seen him fully. Despite the fact that this scene is not even complete, we have just seen our first reference being made to Godzilla representing nuclear weapons. Up to this point in the film, a person who did not know about Godzilla could be forgiven for mistaking this opening attack as a nuclear attack that has occurred nearby the fishing boat.  Let us first examine how Godzilla’s attack resembles that of a nuclear attack.
The first indication that something is amiss is a visual reference, not an auditory one.  When a nuclear weapon is detonated, the first thing that can be observed is a powerful blinding flash of light that appears before witnesses.  This occurs before any noise caused by the weapon is heard. The next thing that is seen is the ocean boiling, which can be taken as a visual metaphor as to when a nuclear weapon is first detonated and a mushroom cloud is first being formed by the power of the weapon.  In the movie, this first flash that the crew is going to investigate is actually Godzilla using his “nuclear breath” against the ocean surface.  The flash is meant to create a feeling of uneasiness and tension, since the audience has no idea how powerful Godzilla’s “nuclear breath” is going to be.  This is actually a sly reference to the fact that, by 1954 when Gojira was first released in Japan, the United States had recently tested a nuclear weapon that had dwarfed the power of the first atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan.  People at the time had no idea just how powerful one bomb could be and this is represented visually by the less powerful initial breath that Godzilla used.  In a sense, one could argue that this scene represents two different nuclear weapons being used in an attempt to simulate what it would be like if full scale nuclear war ever took place (this may seem unlikely, but during the 1950s, the United States Army thought it would need more then 200,000 nuclear weapons in its stockpile with the thought that it would be using upwards of 20,000 a day during a major war that would take place in Europe).  The second flash is meant to let the audience become aware of the awesome power of Godzilla’s “nuclear breath” as only its discharge is enough to send the crew of the ship cowering and running in pain from the intensity of the light.  At the same time, we notice that one could say it was the wind blowing across the ship.  This occurrence only helps to strengthen the parallel of this attack by Godzilla to one of a nuclear attack.  The wind caused by Godzilla’s breath is incredibly similar to the shockwave that occurs after a nuclear weapon explodes.  The rest of the scene is meant to depict the immediate aftereffects of a nuclear attack.  After the initial reaction of the crew, we note that the ship is ablaze.  The film then cuts to a radio crew desperately attempting to radio for help, but to no avail.  From this one short scene, the audience will understand that the actions of the crew symbolize the attempts to get help after suffering a nuclear attack.  Unfortunately, since the ship is in the Pacific, attempts to call for help (much like rescue operations that took place right after the blast in Hiroshima) are similar to one putting an adhesive strip on a gun shot wound.  With this said, the next scene that the audience views is the ship sinking into the ocean less than 45 seconds after the attack by Godzilla. After carefully analyzing this scene, it is clear that Ishiro Honda was making a deliberate attempt to show his audience an attack by Godzilla is reminiscent of an attack conducted with a nuclear weapon.
It is no surprise to the viewer that a second attack Godzilla conducts on another ship (one sent out to look for the first ship) is nearly identical.  In the first couple of minutes of Gojira, one is able to witness a thinly veiled recreation of the nuclear attacks on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  One should also note that more time is given to the depiction of the first attack of the fishing ship by Godzilla than to the second one.  This is similar to the fact that more attention is often given to Hiroshima in popular culture and history textbooks than to its counterpart, Nagasaki.
The issue of radiation and the effects that it has on people is also directly tied in with Gojira.  In crafting Godzilla as a living nuclear weapon, Ishiro Honda felt it would be lacking to have Godzilla represent only the immediate effects of a nuclear attack.  Because of this, he attaches radioactive properties to Godzilla that would forever be ingrained in the public’s conception of Godzilla.  The first indication of these properties occurs after Godzilla has attacked an island in the South Pacific. In this scene, survivors from the ship attacks reach land and, in response to their arrival, the Japanese government has sent scientists to the island to investigate what has occurred.  It should be mentioned that, before Godzilla attacks the island, we view a villager discussing how fishing on the island has become more problematic.  Though not directly stated after viewing the scene of the scientist investigating the island, it becomes obvious that Godzilla, with his radioactive properties, has done to the surroundings oceans much like what happened to areas surrounding nuclear testing; this has turned it into an area uninhabitable for any species to survive in such conditions.  After the scientists have arrived on the island, the audience witnesses a scene of massive destruction that has visited the village.  It appears to the audience, at first, that the damage is only structurally based and resembles hurricane damage.  The truth behind the matter is that the damage is actually worse than what one has been lead to believe due to the discovery of radioactive damage. This occurs when a scientist using a Geiger counter detects radiation in the well.  The radiation in it is strong enough that the scientist warns the villagers not to drink from the well. Another radioactive hotspot is discovered in what is later revealed to be a gigantic footprint.  These two incidents help to establish evidence that the island is going to suffer from radiation poisoning.  Thus, Godzilla represents not just immediate and terrible pain inflicted upon the villagers, but also a long-lasting scourge of radiation poisoning; for the villagers, this entails that their ordeal is nowhere near over.
The examination of these two scenes helps to illustrate, in my view, two of the most important themes that are present in Gojira.  The analysis of the opening scene helps to display what I believe was Ishiro Honda using Godzilla as a visual metaphor to recreate the first two atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; he uses the two fishing boats as stand-ins for the cities and the people who lived there.  Honda, as shown before, uses an island to display how an attack by Godzilla leaves radiation in an area that cannot be easily removed.  The two scenes, I feel, indicate that Ishiro Honda created Godzilla to be similar to a nuclear weapon, the powerful immediate effects of a nuclear weapon when detonated and all of the deadly radiation that it leaves behind.