Japanese Nationalism in the Tohoverse


Cinematic expression of the nationalistic impulse has traditionally been limited to certain genres – notably the war film and the spy film – which by their nature deal intrinsically with the idea of conflict between nations. On occasion, the issue of nationalism has crept into genres such as the musical, as in Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942), or the comedy, as in Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius, 1949), but this has generally been in times of war (as with Curtiz’s film), or in a film concerned with wartime and its conditions (as in the Ealing comedy Pimlico). Rarely has nationalism crept into the realm of horror and science fiction, at least in American and European film.

Such is not the case, however, in Japan, where the “science-fiction, fantasy, and horror” meta-genre has, particularly during the past two decades, produced many examples of motion pictures with potent nationalistic subtexts. This is especially remarkable given that nationalism has been considered an anathema in postwar Japanese culture, blamed as it is for the country’s precipitous fall into military dictatorship and war, with devastation as the result. Perhaps this is why such subtexts have only begun to appear with great frequency since the 1980s: a new generation of filmmakers, speaking to a new generation of Japanese, has begun to shed the guilt of the past and to test the waters, however tentatively, of national pride.

Two Early Cases: Atragon and Yamato

While nationalism in the Japanese SFF&H meta-genre has become truly apparent only in the past twenty or so years, there were some early rumblings that portended just such a movement. One of the earliest of these was the film Atragon, produced – like most of the rest of the films I will discuss here – by Japan’s famed Toho Studio, and directed by Ishiro Honda, the man known as the “Orson Welles of Japanese monster movies,”  in 1963. The plot of Atragon is as follows:

“…a submarine captain in the Japanese Imperial Army (sic) defects shortly before the surrender so as not to face the humiliation of defeat at the hands of the Americans. In hiding, the captain constructs a super-submarine called Atragon. An invasion force from the sunken Atlantislike continent of Mu, along with their horrible monster-god Manda, threaten to take over the entire world. Only Atragon can save the world from this fate, but the captain refuses to allow his weapon to be used for this purpose. The captain is blunt: his Atragon was built for the sole purpose of retaliating against Japan’s enemies and restoring Japan’s prewar glory. He rejects the idea that he has any obligation to the world: his only motive is zealous Japanese patriotism.”

Atragon becomes all the more remarkable when one reflects on the fact that it was released a mere eighteen years after the end of World War II. At the time, few – if any – other Japanese films touched upon the issue of Japanese resentment of America’s victory in the war. Atragon proves, however, that such feelings existed, no matter how well they might have been hidden beneath the outwardly penitent exterior of the Japanese psyche.

Another blatant, if less pernicious, display of Japanese nationalism came in 1973, the year which marked the premier of the anime television program Space Cruiser Yamato. This program, which ran three seasons and spawned one made-for-television and four theatrical motion pictures, concerned the adventures of the crew of the titular spaceship, built from the wreckage of the World War II-era Japanese battleship of the same name. It is worth noting that the real-life Yamato, along with its sister ship the Musashi, was the largest battleship ever built, and a source of considerable national pride to the Japanese then and today. Equipped with main guns with an eighteen-inch bore – a full two inches larger than those possessed by the largest American battleships, such as the Missouri – the real-life Yamato was a fearsome harbinger of Japan’s postwar penchant for technological wizardry.

In its fictional incarnation, the Yamato became a Japanese pop-culture phenomenon on the order of Star Wars. Space Cruiser Yamato, however, was more than a mere space opera: it was imbued with a potent sense of reverence for Japan’s militaristic past. One scene, included in both one of the early first-season episodes and the first theatrical motion picture, is particularly telling: it is a history lesson for those unfamiliar with the true story of the Yamato. The scene depicts the battle of Okinawa, where on April 7th, 1945, the Yamato was sunk by the United States Navy. Wave after wave of American planes are shown attacking the proud battleship, and when the vessel finally sinks – to strains of mournful music – the American commander is shown saluting his valiant enemy. When the initial two seasons of Space Cruiser Yamato were telecast in the United States, under the title Star Blazers, this scene was removed. In addition, while the American version initially identifies the ship as the Yamato, it is immediately renamed the Argo, thereby replacing the World War II reference with one from the more remote – and politically neutral – world of Greek mythology.

The Showa Godzilla Series

When most Americans think of Japanese SFF&H, they immediately think of giant monsters, and the popularity of this subgenre in Japan (and among a select group of rabid fans in America) is undeniable. Known as the “kaiju eiga” (literally, “monster movies”), or alternately as the “daikaiju eiga” (literally, “giant monster movies”), these films are, for many Westerners, the only Japanese cinematic product to which they have been exposed. Out of all the various “kaiju” (“monsters”), the most famous, of course, is Godzilla, whose twenty-fifth film will be released in Japan this year. The Godzilla films in general are subdivided into two distinct subsets: the Showa series and the Heisei series. Interestingly, these terms have nothing to do with the films themselves – they come from the fact that the Japanese give a name to the reign of each emperor, and use that name to denote anything which occurred during that time. The reign of Emperor Hirohito was known as the Showa period, and beginning with the coronation of Emperor Akihito in 1989, Japan entered the Heisei period. Therefore, the Godzilla films from the 1954 original Godzilla to Godzilla 1985 (sixteen films in total) are known as the Showa series. Those from 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante to 2002’s Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (eight films in total, so far) are known as the Heisei series. This custom is similar to the American practice of referring to anything that occurred or was made between 1980 and 1988 as “Reagan-era.”

The Showa series of Godzilla films generally eschewed nationalism, opting instead – at least originally – for a critique of the nuclear weapons policy of the superpowers. This is most apparent in the 1954 original, Godzilla. This film begins with a fishing boat calmly sailing in the Pacific. Suddenly, the men on board see a blinding flash. The men scatter, and we see the ship sinking. Soon, we learn that some men survived the wreck – an attack by Godzilla, of course – but the survivors are poisoned by radiation.

This opening sequence is a cinematic retelling of an actual occurrence, the Lucky Dragon incident. The Lucky Dragon was a Japanese fishing ship which unknowingly strayed too close to an American hydrogen bomb test on March 1st, 1954, in the Marshall Islands. The vessel was contaminated with radioactive fallout, and most of the crew were seriously ill by the time they returned to port. The Eisenhower administration refused to make reparations to the families of the men who died, claiming that “in these tense modern times unfortunate accidents will happen.”  With this incident being recent front-page news in Japan at the time, it is no wonder that Godzilla’s production team decided to make it a part of their film’s story.

By the 1960s, however, any such subtexts were dropped in favor of pure adventure-driven plot lines. While this resulted in some of the most spectacular and enjoyable of the Showa-era films, such as 1964’s Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster, 1965’s Monster Zero, and 1968’s Destroy All Monsters (all directed by the legendary Ishiro Honda), the films of this period were basically devoid of any political content. Things grew worse in the 1970s, when Godzilla himself became a superheroic character who defended earth from attack, usually by alien invaders.

Godzilla would not return to his malevolent roots until Godzilla 1985 (Koji Hashimoto, 1984),  and it was in that film that political commentary became a substantial part of the Godzilla series again. In this film, Godzilla destroys a Soviet nuclear submarine, an act which the Kremlin blames on the United States. The Japanese government then reveals the reappearance of Godzilla in order to defuse an impending superpower conflict. What occurs next, however, varies widely based on which version of the film one is viewing: the original Japanese version, or the Americanized version.

In the Japanese version, an accident caused by Godzilla causes a nuclear missile to be accidentally launched at Tokyo from a Soviet orbital missile platform. The missile is controlled from a Soviet spy ship, and the ship’s Russian captain valiantly (yet unsuccessfully) tries to stop the missile’s launch, sacrificing his life in the process. These events play out much differently in the American version. Here, through the magic of dubbing and some editing sleight-of-hand, the Russian captain is depicted as a loose cannon, launching the missile against orders and then paying for his evil deed with his life. Although this alteration cannot be blamed on the Japanese, the story behind it is intriguing.

Godzilla 1985 was distributed by New World Pictures, a company founded by Roger Corman in the 1970s. In 1983, however, Corman sold the outfit to two entertainment lawyers, Lawrence Kuppin and Harry Evans Sloan. Known for their right-wing political slant, these two men did their best to ensure that New World’s films of the time reflected a pro-American, anti-Soviet, Reaganist world-view. To this end, they re-cut and made dialogue changes to Godzilla 1985 in order to ensure that the Soviets would be portrayed as evil war mongers. Under Kuppin and Sloan, New World also produced many other films cut from the same political cloth, such as the post-apocalyptic science fiction film Defcon-4 (Paul Donovan, 1984).

As the last film in the Showa series, Godzilla 1985 marks a turning point in the Godzilla cycle. The subsequent films of the Heisei series would continue to take themselves – and Godzilla – more seriously, and never again would Godzilla cease to be a threat to mankind. Along with the more adult tone of the films came a predilection towards more adult themes, politics and nationalism among them. Perhaps, with the death of Emperor Hirohito – the last of the World War II leaders to remain alive and in power anywhere in the world – the Japanese felt that the time for apology was over, and that they could now be free to take pride in themselves and their nation.

The Heisei Godzilla Series, Part One:
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah

With the premiere of 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante, the Heisei series was born. It was not until the next film, however, that political issues would come to the fore. This was Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (Kazuki Omori, 1991), and its handling of political matters would eventually make headlines on both sides of the Pacific.

The plot of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah concerns time travel. In the film, a trio of time travelers from the twenty-second century – an American man, a Russian man, and a Japanese woman – arrive in 1991 Japan, claiming that they are there to prevent Japan’s future destruction by Godzilla. In actuality, they come from a future in which the entire world is dominated by Japan, and wish to prevent that future from coming to pass. In order to thwart Japan’s rise to superpower status, the group prevents Godzilla’s creation in 1954, and instead causes the creation of the three-headed King Ghidorah, a monster that will destroy Japan now that there is no Godzilla to keep it in check. Godzilla, however, is created anyway – it turns out to be a predestined event which cannot be altered. Additionally, the Japanese member of the team, Emi – who only participated because she was told that the time-travel mission involved convincing Japan to share power with other nations in the future – helps the twentieth-century protagonists to put a stop to the time-travelers’ plan and keep the two monsters from destroying the entire nation. At the film’s end, Emi returns to the future with the parting phrase, “Goodbye, my country” – as succinct an expression of where her loyalties lie as one could ask for.

Emi’s motivation to join the time-travel team are complex. She signed on for the stated plan of creating King Ghidorah to use as leverage to force Japan into agreeing to a more equitable division of power in the twenty-second century, and she rebels only when her cohorts fail to issue their planned ultimatum, opting instead for the more certain method of allowing Japan to be completely destroyed. Emi, it seems, does not want to live in a future in which Japan dominates the other nations of the world. Instead, she hopes for a future in which authority and wealth are shared. She is even willing to participate in the blackmailing of her own country in order to achieve this goal.

Another character with profound nationalistic implications is Yasuaki Shindo, played by Godzilla veteran Yoshio Tsuchiya, who is remembered fondly by fans of the series for his villainous turn as the Controller of Planet X in Ishiro Honda’s 1965 classic Monster Zero. Shindo is one of the zaibatsu, the great leaders of Japanese business and industry whose acumen allowed Japan to “win the peace” and become an economic superpower, if not a military one. Shindo, then, is at least partially responsible for Japan’s future domination of the globe. In addition, he also served his country as a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. While fighting in a battle against American forces on Lagos Island in the South Pacific, Shindo and his men are saved from certain death by the sudden intervention of a dinosaur which attacks and routs the American troops. As the dinosaur lies on the ground wounded in the aftermath of the battle, Shindo salutes him and gives a speech thanking the beast for his help. Unknown to Shindo, it is this dinosaur who would later be irradiated by an American nuclear test, thus becoming the monster Godzilla who would ravage Japan. America’s nuclear arsenal, then, turned the Godzillasaurus (as it is called in the film) from a friend of Japan into an enemy, an irony certainly not lost on the Japanese audience. Godzilla, therefore, is the last volley of American fire aimed at Japan, a third, delayed atomic bombing that proves eventually to be even more damaging than those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah’s director, Kazuki Omori – who also wrote the film’s screenplay – seems ambivalent about Japan’s postwar prosperity. He places Shindo’s office, for example, inside the then-recently built Tokyo City Hall, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Many Japanese citizens dislike this building, considering it “an ugly symbol of Japan’s wealth.”  In fact, Tokyoites generally refer to the building by its nickname, the “tax tower.”  No wonder that Omori seems to take such delight, then, in having Godzilla destroy it. “I feel relieved when he [Godzilla] destroys buildings,” Omori has stated. “It’s as if Godzilla is destroying a city full of gaudiness.”10

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah’s not-so-subtle nationalistic subtext was noticed quickly in America when the film was released in Japan in 1991, even though the film was not officially released in the United States until many years later. Various articles about the film referred to its “anti-American” plot, and Entertainment Tonight aired a segment in which veteran and Pearl Harbor Survivors Association spokesman Gerald Glaubitz called the film “very poor taste.”11  A spokesman for Toho issued a reply to the Associated Press, saying, “Of course, I realize it may be unpleasant for Americans to watch….But I think it’s not as bad as those Hollywood war movies that portray Japanese soldiers with buckteeth.”12 Ultimately, though the furor was short-lived, there was a side-effect: no Godzilla film would see American theatrical release until Godzilla 2000, nine years later, a fact which many blame on the “bad feelings” fostered by the alleged anti-Americanism of Omori’s film. In addition, nationalistic tropes of the type featured in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah would not be included in subsequent Godzilla films until even later – 2002, in fact, with the release of a Godzilla film that “rewrote the book” on the monster yet again.

The Heisei Godzilla Series, Part Two:
Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack – referred to as GMK for short – is thhe ninth film in the Heisei series, and the twenty-fourth Godzilla film in all. Released in 2001, and directed by respected Japanese filmmaker Shusuke Kaneko, it is a film that attempts to rewrite the Godzilla mythos yet again, in the same manner as Godzilla 1985: it assumes that Godzilla has appeared only once before, in 1954.13  GMK, while rife with nationalistic overtones, also adds a new twist to the Godzilla legend: a healthy dose of Japanese-flavored spiritualism.

GMK posits a Godzilla who is powered by nuclear energy and imbued with the spirits of soldiers who died in the Pacific during World War II. Godzilla’s anger at Japan is fueled by the resentment of those soldiers towards the nation they feel is responsible for their deaths. Interestingly, both American and Japanese souls are supposedly resident in Godzilla, with the Americans seeking revenge on their old enemy, and the Japanese venting their rage at being lied to and manipulated into giving their lives for a war that was needless and, ultimately, unwinnable. The other monsters in the film – Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Baragon (wwho is not mentioned in the title) – are guardian-monsters of Japan, to be called upon when needed to defend the homeland. Information on these monsters is given to the protagonist of the film, tabloid television reporter Yuri Tachibana (Chiharu Niyama) by an old man, who later proves to be a spirit himself, that of a man who was killed by Godzilla in his 1954 rampage. The inclusion of so much spiritualism of this nature is unprecedented in the Godzilla series. Such ideas have direct ties to Shinto, the native Japanese religion, which is animist in nature, meaning that it deals with the worship of the spirits of one’s ancestors, so these concepts are certainly not alien to the Japanese audience of these movies – in fact, they are far more a part of their culture than ours, in which such notions are relegated to the “new age” fringe.

In a recent interview in Fangoria magazine, Kaneko stated that one of the reasons for his inclusion of the idea that Godzilla houses the souls of soldiers who died in World War II in GMK’s script – which he co-wrote – was that he felt that the Japanese eeducational system overlooked the period of Japanese history which includes the Second World War. His hope was to interest young people in that era, in the hope that the Japanese could get beyond the guilt of what their nation did in the war and begin to look at the past for what it truly is. To this end, he tied Godzilla’s origin in with the history of the war in the Pacific. Whether Kaneko’s wish to interest Japanese youth in the recent history of their country will come true is yet to be seen.


Cinema, in general, tends to be a barometer for the culture that produces it, and the Godzilla films are certainly no exception to that maxim. Like Germany, Japan has suffered under a psychological impediment since 1945. Unlike Germany, that impediment has less to do with what they as nation did during World War II than with what was done to them, namely the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These watershed events left an indelible mark on the Japanese psyche, one that is still imprinted there today, even among those who were born long after the war and subsequent American occupation, and only a nation so imprinted could have created Godzilla. Witness the difference between Godzilla and the radioactive monsters of 1950s American B-movies: while the American creatures were ephemeral, forgotten today by all but the devotees of such things, Godzilla is a cultural icon recognizable the world over.

Godzilla and his kaiju ilk are more than simply grotesque fantasy monsters: they  are the living embodiments of a zeitgeist which mutates slowly over time. In the 1950s, so soon after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and with the Lucky Dragon incident dramatizing Japanese fears concerning America’s usage of the Pacific as a nuclear proving ground, the kaiju were monstrous icons of the threat of nuclear devastation. In the 1960s, as Japan became perhaps more comfortable with its postwar role as an American ally, the creatures became less threatening and began to represent forces of nature, like the typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunami with which the Japanese are already familiar. Although still dangerous and unstoppable, the kaiju were less involved with radiation and its consequences – people no longer were contaminated by radioactivity simply by being in the vicinity of Godzilla, for example. By the 1970s, Godzilla and the rest of the kaiju had become shadows of their former selves: they were kid-friendly superheros, and even the “evil monsters” which Godzilla and friends fought, such as King Ghidorah and Gigan, were neutered of their menace. This change, in all likelihood, was wrought by purely economic factors: the Japanese film industry had suffered a crash, and the demographic of the kaiju eiga audience had been skewing steadily younger for some time. Finally, in the 1980s, after a hiatus of nine years, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka decided the time was right to return Godzilla to the screen in a form more in keeping with his original incarnation. That philosophy has continued to the present day, with some minor variation between films due to the different writing and directing teams involved. It should be noted that the most recent film, GMK, offers a Godzilla possibly more evil and dangerous than the original: the 1954 Godzilla took little or no notice of individuals, while the GMK Godzilla certainly does, eyeing a person running in the street, for example, before using his radioactive breath to incinerate that person and the rest of the people fleeing him.

As each new generation gets the chance to remake Godzilla to their own ends, we are granted the chance to peer through a window into the inner workings of a culture that is, for all its similarities, one of the most different in the industrialized world from our own. This is a rare opportunity – certainly, no series of American fillms comes to mind which offers the same level of cultural introspection to the world audience. For want of a better term, Godzilla speaks, and what he says tells us much about the nation and people who spawned him. Having outlived his creators, with his fiftieth anniversary approaching in 2004, and with new creative blood like Kaneko infusing the series with innovative ideas, Godzilla shows no sign of going the way of the dinosaur.


1 – There are, of course, exceptions, such as Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968), which is charged with the racial and cultural politics of its era, and the propagandistic science-fiction films of the Soviet Union and other Communist nations, such as Aelita (Jacob Protazanov, 1924).

2 – Stuart Galbraith IV, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo (Venice, Calif.: Feral House, 1998), 36.

3 – David Kalat, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997), 27-28.

4 – Kalat, 33.

5 – The American distributor of this film dropped the “o” from Ghidorah’s name, for unknown reasons.

6 – In Japan, this film was released in 1984 and entitled – like the 1954 original film – Gojira (Godzilla). A direct sequel to the first film, its premise is that it depicts the second appearance of the monster, and that the intervening films of the Showa series never occurred.

7 – Kalat, 166.

8 – Jay Majer, “Toho’s Monsters Speak Out,” Cult Movies, no. 7, 1993, 57, quoted in Kalat, 192.

9 – Steve Ryfle, Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G” (Toronto: ECW, 1998), 274.

10 – Ibid.

11 – Ibid., 273.

12 – Ibid.

13 – The previous film, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (Masaki Tezuka, 2000), also reimagined the Godzilla timeline, positing two previous appearances of the monster, in 1954 and 1966.

Works Cited

Galbraith, Stuart, IV. Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo. Venice, Calif.: Feral House, 1998.
Kalat, David. A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997.
Majer, Jay. “Toho’s Monsters Speak Out.” Cult Movies 7 (1993): 57. Quoted in David Kalat, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997), 192.
Ryfle, Steve. Japan’s Favorite Mon-star: the Unauthorized biography of “The Big G”. Toronto: ECW, 1998.

Atrticle © 2003 Christopher Nuzzi/Visagraph Films International.