Godzilla is a multicultural icon. If there was a Coca-Cola commercial featuring monsters that sung the national anthem, he'd be singing his part in a mixture of English and Japanese. He's been terrorizing Tokyo for longer than Disneyland has been around. Over the span of 60 years, he's battled Earthlings, space monsters and robots, spawned offspring and chased Matthew Broderick, all while belting out the most iconic roar in film history. He's appeared in 28 Japanese films, a 1998 American film and an upcoming 2014 reboot, countless comic books, novels, video games and TV. That's an astounding feat of sustainability. The daikaiju has nestled in our hearts (and nightmares) carving out a permanent place in the annals of entertainment lore. But even more astounding is Godzilla's secret past. Where did Godzilla come from, and why? In anticipation of Godzilla 2014 hitting theaters May 16 (directed by Gareth Edwards, and starring Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe), here's a brief guide to the monster's origin story. The truth may actually blow your mind.
Godzilla is the original radioactive superhero -- or antihero, in this case. The reptilian giant was born out of a genre of Japanese film called Hibakusha Cinema, developed in the unique cultural climate of post-war Japan. At the time, there were several prominent factors at the forefront of popular thought, a brief examination of which makes it easy to see what exactly led to the monster's development. The first, and most influential, was the fear of radiation and the potential long-term effects of the atomic bombings. Godzilla first appeared in the 1954 film, Gojira, directed by Ishiro Honda. Charlotte Eubanks, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Japanese at The Pennsylvania State University, elaborated on the widespread cultural anxiety at the time of the film's release:
During the U.S.-led occupation, which lasted until 1952, there was a moratorium on any press coverage dealing with the atomic aftermath in any in-depth way. The thinking was that too much attention to the atomic bombings would derail democratization efforts and would undermine U.S. authority, particularly since the U.S. had already begun using Japanese territory as a base from which to launch bombing raids on Vietnam. With the end of the occupation, some activists and journalists started to deal directly with the atomic bombings, but they were not getting much traction. People were more interested in trying to rebuild. But then there was a real game-changer. The U.S. conducted a nuclear test over the Bikini atoll and a Japanese fishing ship, the Lucky Dragon, its crew, and all their fish were exposed to the fallout radiation. When this hit the newspapers, it ignited an enormous scare, as people throughout the country feared that they had been exposed to nuclear radiation through consuming tainted fish. That was in March 1954, shortly before the release of Gojira, the opening scene of which features a fishing crew exposed to an unexplained, destructive flash of light. So, when that hit the big screens, it touched a real nerve with the Japanese public.
The short-term effects of radiation were already clearly visible in the individuals who had survived the blasts but had not been spared from the effects of radiation poisoning. This unfortunate group would become known as Hibakusha, which translates colloquially to "bomb-affected person." Hibakusha expressed a range of symptoms relative to their exposure. Some of them died shortly after the bombings from severe radiation sickness. Others of them developed radiation burn scars, along with a host of other symptoms that went undiagnosed and unexplored due to social prejudices. They would live ostracised lives, shunned by mainstream society. Even now, Hibakusha remain a taboo, and avoidance is the unofficial national policy. The fact that Godzilla is a giant Hibakusha should not go unnoticed. He's a reminder of the destructive power of radiation, and the transformative properties of the atomic bomb's devastation.
Stephen D. Sullivan, author of Daikaiju Attack (a giant monster novel) and numerous other books and comics, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, has this to say about the creature's origin:
Godzilla, both the character and the film, are a reflection on the Japanese experience at the end of World War II: destruction beyond imagining, and a lurking sense that "We brought this on ourselves" somehow, even without meaning to. In the film we see both the guilt, the feeling that the punishment perhaps outweighs the sin, and the striving for redemption, all of which are typical for such stories. In some ways, there's a similar arc in the origin of Spider-Man: radioactive accidental origin, great power used without regard for consequence (personal profit for Spidey), punishment out of proportion (the death of Uncle Ben), and eventual redemption as a hero.
Humanity has long had a twisted fascination spawning from deep-seated fears of a destructive monster, one so great as to annihilate whole societies indiscriminately. The Hindu religion expressed this idea in the form of the god Shiva, who is the destroyer of the self, of negative aspects of an individual, and ultimately of the Universe. In popular literature, the concept is commonly associated with the fiction of Lovecraft and his Cthulu mythos. Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, famously recited a line from the Bhagavad Gita uttered by Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu (himself a creator and destroyer). Upon witnessing the destructive power of the bomb, Oppenheimer paraphrased the deity: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." The religious climate of Japan owes a great deal to its forerunners in Buddhism -- India and China -- who, in turn, owe a great deal to Hindu teachings. In some cases, Hindu pantheons have been completely adopted by Buddhist sects, ensuring the propagation of certain concepts into future generations of practitioners. Godzilla could very well represent one such concept, in the form of a destructive and indiscriminate deity born of Hindu philosophy and adopted into Buddhist thought.
The final piece of the creature's origin story is an all-too familiar tale in the modern age. It's the story of human progress. Nature vs. Technology. What happens when man, through its incessant meddling, makes that long-awaited mistake that ultimately brings the Earth to its knees? Bringing our own species to the brink of extinction has long been a favorite subject of science fiction stories, and Godzilla is a prime example. Technology either awoke the monster from its slumbers deep beneath the ocean or outright created it. We know that, at the very least, Godzilla's exposure to radiation increased his destructive power; the blue flame he spews is known as his "atomic blast." And the creature rejuvenates his powers by sopping up the electromagnetic fields harnessed by crashing through electrical lines and power stations.
The basic premise of Gojira, the original 1954 version, is that nuclear testing in the Pacific has awakened a terrible dinosaur which, in its wrath, is bent on destroying Tokyo. But, as Barak Kushner and others have noted, the film isn't so much about destruction as it is about fear. Look at any screen shot of the movie, and pretty much every single person wears an expression of utter terror. This is true whether you're talking about the scene where the radio reporter is declaiming into his microphone right up to the moment when the monster crushes him, or you're talking about quieter scenes with the scientist in his lab.
Godzilla is many things, a product of the environment that created him. In our haste to make action-adventure blockbusters, we shouldn't forget the tangible sorrow that follows in the creature's wake. He is a symbol of destruction, prejudice and arrogance. In post-war Japan, Godzilla was a symbol of the side-effects of international conflict. A punishment brought on by the senseless brutality demonstrated through an abuse of technological progress. In the decades since his creature, Godzilla has become invariably changed.
It almost seems inevitable, though, that bad guys we love become good guys. I think that maybe, as fans, we tire of rooting for 'bad,' and, sensing that, the storytellers tend to drift toward making their creations more likable. So, eventually, Godzilla no longer stomps cities (except when under control by evil aliens), and, instead, fights the enemies of mankind in wide open spaces in the mountains of Japan, or even on another planet. I guess turning from anti-hero to hero is the price of popularity. And don't we all love a good redemption story?
Godzilla 2014 releases May 16. It isn't entirely clear how the upcoming movie will portray the scaly lizard, but from the marketing materials, it looks like they're gunning for a return to Godzilla's atomic origins. I only hope that the movie also showcases the gritty and unavoidable truths that led to the real-life formation of the monster.