“Godzilla” Was A Hiroshima Metaphor, And Hollywood Whitewashed It

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When the monster Godzilla, or “Gojira,” appeared before Japanese audiences in 1954, many left theaters in tears.

The fictional creature, a once undisturbed giant dinosaur in the ocean, was described in the original film as having been aggravated by a hydrogen bomb. Its heavily furrowed skin or scales were imagined to resemble the keloid scars of survivors of the two atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan nine years earlier to end World War II.

American audiences, however, had the opposite reaction, finding comedic value in what many interpreted as a cheesy monster movie.

“Most Americans think that if you left the movie in tears, it’s just because you laughed so hard,” said William Tsutsui, author of “Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of King of the Monsters,” Asian America told NBC.

The stark contrast reflects how Hollywood took the Japanese concept and erased it from its political message before presenting it to the American public to turn away from the American decision to drop the bombs, critics say.

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the US bombings in Hiroshima on August 6 and in Nagasaki three days later, and while many Americans today regard the film as an almost campy relic of its time, it was intended for Japan to be a metaphor for the evils of atomic testing and the use of nuclear weapons, given what Japan went through after the bombings. The film served as a strong political statement, representative of the traumas and anxieties of the Japanese people at a time when censorship was extended to Japan due to the American occupation of the country after the end of the war, Tsutsui said. The screen represented what many could not say explicitly.

“The creators, filmmakers, novelists, etc. Japanese really couldn’t talk about the atomic bombings. It was a subject that could not be discussed. And the Japanese, too, were very reluctant to discuss this tragedy, because it was so horrible, and because they felt a sense of guilt and shame about these events, ”Tsutsui said. “But when the Japanese regained their independence and the filmmakers thought of giant monsters, people began to think about this connection between the monstrosity and the atomic bombardment.

In the original Japanese film, the creature was portrayed as a surviving Jurassic period dinosaur, swimming in the South Pacific. Tsutsui describes the monster as “innocent like the kids on their playgrounds in Hiroshima.” After an American H-bomb test in the South Pacific, the creature became irradiated, injured and angry.

“The reality is just that kind of rage that comes from someone, essentially innocent, who is so victimized and scarred by this experience,” the researcher said.

For many Japanese viewers, seeing the film was a cathartic and validating experience, the researcher said. People were able to witness the destruction of Tokyo once again while seeing radiation in the physical form of a monster. The ending, although bittersweet, is full of hope in which humanity triumphs over evil.

However, American audiences saw a different movie when it premiered in the United States as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” about two years later, Tsutsui said. The film was heavily edited, placing white actor Raymond Burr at the center of the adaptation. The researcher noted that about 20 minutes of the original Japanese film, mostly the politically charged parts, were cut from the US version.

“Godzilla, King of the Monsters” with Raymond Burr, in this 1956 horror.Universal History Archive / via Getty Images

Among the deleted scenes was one where commuters on a train make the connection between the Hiroshima bombing and the attack on Godzilla, as well as the poignant last line of the original where biology professor Dr Yamane warns that if nuclear testing does not cease, another Godzilla could appear. Tsutsui pointed out that the American version ended on a sunny note, that the world was safe again and could return to normal.

Few of the expected messages from the original film have been restored in later adaptations. In the 1998 film “Godzilla” starring Matthew Broderick, for example, the creature was created from an H atomic bomb test by the French, rather than the Americans, in Polynesia. In the Godzilla films released by production company Legendary, the monster is depicted as a prehistoric dinosaur that emerged from Earth and is to be destroyed by nuclear bombs, making it an “almost humanitarian gesture to save the world from monsters. ”Tsutsui said. .

The dynamic of the United States wanting to deny its traumatic history in Japan, he said, persists.

“It is still true that they cannot focus on the nuclear issue and the American guilt in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Tsutsui noted of the most recent American adaptations.

When media like the New York Times reviewed the film in 1956, it was described as “in the category of cheap cinematic horror films and it’s a shame that a respectable theater has to attract gullible children and adults with it. such a tariff. The deliberate aesthetic choices the original filmmakers made about the creature’s keloid-like scars were even interpreted as low-budget Japanese films with critics of the time likening the monster to a “miniature of a dinosaur.” in rubber shoes and about $ 20 worth of toy buildings and electric trains. “

Hollywood ultimately sought to disinfect the film and deflect the blame for the US bombing, Tsutsui said.

“It is certain that all the pieces which were in any way, could in any way be interpreted as critical of the United States or the atomic tests, were really removed from the film,” he said. Tsutsui said. “So the deep political significance and much of the heart of the original ‘Godzilla’ was carved out for the American audience.”

Kazu Watanabe, director of the film at the Japan Society, held similar views, saying the American adaptation contributed to the distorted and biased views Americans had of Japan at the time.

“These ‘Godzilla’ films weren’t received the same in general – in Japan the early films were big budget, the big studio films starring recognizable stars, while in the United States, they looked more like B-movie type Japanese genre films. with a fun dub that fueled an orientalist understanding of Japanese culture in America as a whole, ”he said.

The way the film underwent another layer of censorship before it was shown to American audiences, explained Tsutsui, shows how sensitive people were to the inhumanity inherent in atomic bombing.

“They worked hard to protect the American public from the truth that Americans who watched the film never had a chance to respond to it in any meaningful way.”

Gojira, aka: Godzilla, Japan, circa 1954, photo from FilmPublicityArchive /)Archives Unies / via Getty Images

The original film was essentially a product of the popular monster movies of the day and heavily influenced by events in Japan at the time, Tsutsui said. Tomo Studios producer Tanaka Tomoyuki was inspired by the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in addition to what was known as the “Lucky Dragon No. 5 Incident” of March 1954, in which a Japanese fishing boat got lost in the United States. – Bikini Atoll bomb test beach. The crew on board were then irradiated, one of them having died of radiation poisoning.

The producer pioneered the concept of a radiated monster that rises from the ocean to attack humans. The idea resonated with his superiors and they put him in touch with a well-respected Japanese filmmaker, Ishiro Honda, who was a pacifist and had a vested interest in making the film. Honda himself had fought in the war in China and on his return to his home country he passed through Hiroshima, leaving with a chilling memory of the region.

“As the Americans did with the return of many Japanese soldiers to their homeland, they landed them in Hiroshima for the Japanese soldiers to see how completely defeated Japan had been,” Tsutsui said. “It had a lifelong impact on the horrors of what he saw, and he decided he had the opportunity with this film to send an important political message.”

Godzilla (aka “gojira”, poster, aka “GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS”), top left: Akihiko Hirata; man in the center: Fuyuki Murakami; as “Godzilla”: Harou Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka; bottom left, lr: Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada, 1954.LMPC via Getty Images

Watanabe said that although Godzilla as a character did not retain the symbolism of nuclear war in the collective minds of American audiences, the monster has evolved to represent Japanese pop culture as a whole, “not too different from Hello Kitty or Pikachu, ”he said. . He added that he always saw a large fandom attending screenings and screenings of the old “Godzilla” movies.

But that’s not to say that the creature’s original and intentional message isn’t relevant. Watanabe said the footage was still powerful, three-quarters of a century after two Japanese cities were devastated by bombing.

“As long as nuclear weapons or nuclear power exist, Godzilla will never be without interest,” Watanabe said. “Godzilla reminds us that we have the terrible power to create our own monsters and to contribute to our own destruction.”

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