In case you were not aware of this, 2014 saw the 60th anniversary of the original Godzilla movie! It was only last year that our screens saw the new interpretation of this film, which is an icon of 20th century cinema. But there is much more to Godzilla than just photo-grams. Therefore, here is a little insight for you into Japanese culture, cinema and social anxieties.
The first Godzilla movie was directed by Ishiro Honda, who had worked for many years as the assistant of the renown director Akira Kurosawa. He served his time under the Japanese army during the Second World War, and in fact was imprisoned in China and made a war hostage. This had a huge impact in the production of his movies, and of course is reflected in Godzilla, but this was a shared memory and feeling, which makes the message only coherent for those who experienced Japan during the War. As anything in film and reception studies, the audience conditions the encrypted message of the product. Only his fellow Japanese could truly understand that Godzilla is in fact not a film about a monster, but about a revolution in warfare: the atomic bomb.
But before we move on, lest get some details about this creature. To this date, Godzilla has appeared in at least 28 movies. Its original name, Gojira, comes from 2 words, one English, the other Japanese. Thus, Gojira is the combination of gorilla- inspired by the movie King Kong which had featured the screens 1933 and had somewhat set the standard frame for a monster movie- and ‘kujira’, which means whale in Japanese. Godzilla, is nothing but a Western translation of this conceptual gigantic monster like creature from the sea. However, in the whole series of movies, this creature is not always presented as an evil force, but sometimes as a hero, for the sake of plot/character development. Shogo Tomiyama, who was the producer for some of the Godzilla movies, made an interesting comparison between Godzilla and the Shinto god of Destruction, explaining that it was creature beyond moral agency, therefore able to act for what we could perceived as good or bad in equal terms.
With this in mind the concept of Godzilla’s origins may seem strange, or perhaps revealing to you. As I mentioned earlier, Godzilla is meant to be a metaphor for nuclear power. Godzilla is meant to be an undersea ancient creature who was empowered by radiation. But in Honda’s mind the creature could only be the reflection of one thing: the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moreover, it has been suggested that the incident of Daigo Fukuryu Maru- or Lucky Dragon- a Japanese tuna fishing boat which has been exposed to radiation in the United States after a nuclear fallout at Castlebravo thermonuclear (1954) may have contributed to this fear in the subconscious of Japanese collective memory…1954 was the same year Gojira was released…
We have to remember that this was a society that, after the war, had seen a huge change to their politics and culture as their island nation was occupied and taken over by the United States. Japan only regain back its freedom in 1952. So the Japanese generation of the 50s and 60s fought to find their identity in this oriental westernised environment they found themselves living in. A lot of their art and creative efforts were put to show dissatisfaction and used for the sake of protest…Thus, underwater King Kong tormented by the Japanese terror of bombing was created.
It has been estimated that 9.6 million Japanese people went to see the movie when it was released. It’s popularity was also a reflection of the 1950’s Japanese golden age of cinema, and Gojira played its part by promoting Japan to the international scene and the reinterpretation of this quasi-legendary creature by the American blockbusters, under the name of Godzilla. 60 years later, it still drags people to the cinemas, creating this scary nostalgia of the atomic dinosaur who still haunts Japan.