- Godzilla has long reigned as the king of all big-monster movie franchises for more than 60 years.
- But many people don’t know that Godzilla was inspired by a tragic fishing-boat accident that shook the nation of Japan.
- To the Japanese people, who were heavily censored by the US after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla was a way to express their fear of radiation and the long-term effects of the nuclear weapon testing.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
This is the last picture taken of Daigo Fukuryū Maru, or the Lucky Dragon No. 5, a Japanese tuna-fishing boat in 1954. Shortly after this picture was taken, it would carry a crew of 23 men and set sail to the Marshall Islands. What happened there was a catastrophic disaster that shook the nation of Japan to its core and contributed to the creation of one of the most iconic monsters in cinema history.
The history of the world was forever changed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After suffering more than 220,000 casualties, the Empire of Japan announced its surrender, leading to the end of World War II. The US forces quickly moved in to launch Operation Blacklist, a mission to demilitarize and democratize Japan. During the next years of occupation, the US strictly prohibited any news coverage that dealt with the aftermath of the atomic bombings. This meant the rise in radiation-related illnesses, birth defects, and the long-term effects on the surrounding regions were effectively silenced to help the US maintain its authority. Even after the occupation came to an end in 1952, several Japanese activists and journalists began dealing more directly with the effects of the atom bomb, but they weren’t able to gain much traction.
And it all seemed as though it would be forgotten until January 22, 1954, when Lucky Dragon No. 5, the small Japanese tuna-fishing boat, departed the harbours of Yaizu for a routine fishing job. With a crew of 23 men, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 set off fishing in the Midway Sea, near the Midway Atoll. But soon after, the boat altered its course south toward the Marshall Islands. Just 80 miles west of its destination lay the Bikini Atoll, an island famous for America’s testing of various nuclear weapons, including Castle Bravo, which is to this day the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States. The Castle Bravo was scheduled for testing on March 1, 1954, the same day that Lucky Dragon No. 5 arrived at the Marshall Islands. The US government had already declared in advance a 57,000-square-mile danger zone that could potentially be affected by the fallout. But what they were not able to predict in advance was the sheer power of Castle Bravo.
The test proved to be more than twice as powerful as the initial prediction, and changes in weather patterns blew the nuclear fallout far outside the danger zone, where the Lucky Dragon No. 5 had been sailing. Within hours of testing, the ship was engulfed in the fine ashes of radioactive fallout, or what the fishermen called shi no hai, the death ash. They immediately returned to Yaizu, but by then, it was too late. All 23 fishermen had fallen ill to acute radiation syndrome, and their story quickly became a sensation, gripping the nation in fear and panic. The incident of Lucky Dragon No. 5 sparked a national antinuclear movement.
And at the height of fear and panic just eight months after the incident, the 1954 original “Gojira” arrived at the theatres with an opening scene that hit close to home. The original “Gojira” was not meant to be a fantasy blockbuster but a horror movie, especially in the eyes of the Japanese people who had already witnessed a similar destruction. Godzilla was a symbol of thermonuclear weapons as well as a victim, an intentional directorial decision by director Ishiro Honda, who explained, “I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Gojira.” Its skin texture was modelled to closely resemble the keloid scars of the Hiroshima-bombing survivors, and its signature weapon, an atomic heat beam, was generated by the nuclear energy inside the creature and unleashed through its jaw to bring destruction to the cities of Japan. Gojira unleashed brutality in a way that hadn’t been captured in cinema before: unflinching, senseless, and indiscriminatory. A majority of the movies are nothing more than the reactions of people helpless as they watch the destruction unfold. Director Honda, a former soldier of World War II who had passed through the devastation of the atom bomb in Hiroshima, closely referenced his experience in real photos of the ruins in post-war Japan to bring a sense of realism to the destruction left by the creature. But this was not the same Gojira that most western audiences remember.
When an American studio bought the distribution rights for “Gojira,” nearly 16 minutes of the film deemed unnecessary were edited out, and Canadian-American actor Raymond Burr was brought in to play an American journalist, adding new scenes that would tell the story from the perspective of an outsider looking in rather than the people experiencing the attack, using body doubles, matching dresses, and other camera trickery to make the inclusion seamless. And the simple title “Gojira” was changed to “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” A horror movie that peered into the Japanese people’s fear of radiation and the potential long-term effects of the atom bomb was mutated into a generic monster movie shunned by critics. And ironically, this was the version that introduced “Godzilla” to the world and the only version that critics and scholars had access to until 2004.
And it shocked many who remembered “Gojira” as a silly monster movie with a rubber dinosaur suit when they discovered that it was, in fact, a somber allegory to the horrors that not many had been able to experience firsthand. And this allegory becomes more evident toward the end of the movie when a scientist accidentally discovers a more powerful, devastating weapon known as the oxygen destroyer that could potentially kill Godzilla and bring an end to the destruction. He is hesitant in using it, worried it could potentially be used as a weapon against men. Narrator: This all culminates into a powerful message at the end when Godzilla, the embodiment of the atom bomb, comes full circle to become the victim of another terrifying weapon. This also marks one of the very few instances where Godzilla actually dies in its own film. And perhaps this is why “Godzilla” has stood the test of time to become one of the most influential and iconic monster franchises of our generation. It follows a simple rule that makes any monster in cinema memorable: It’s based on our real fears.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.