Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Birth of the Kaiju: Nukes and Fear in the Pacific Rim

Robert Rath | 11 Jul 2013 16:00
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This week, Pacific Rim brings us something long absent from cinemas: those glorious stompy monsters, the kaiju. Like all monsters, Pacific Rim's take on kaiju reflect the fears and insecurities of society, but kaiju tend to reflect something very specific that's been translated from Japanese culture - they're a stand-in for pure unstoppable force. Originally, these monsters represented the mass casualties and destruction of the Second World War.

All monsters play on societal fear, and as those fears change over time, so do the monsters. What scares us one decade can seem laughable the next, and the stories that survive are those best adapted to popular worries. Vampire legends originally centered around a fear of poorly-understood diseases like tuberculosis, but by the Victorian era became a symbol of dangerously unrestrained sexuality. In the original novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, the titular character creates his animal-human abominations through vivisection and blood transfusions, but by 1996 such ideas were old hat - no one was afraid of blood transfusions anymore - and the Marlon Brando remake replaced them with genetic engineering. As for kaiju, they began with Godzilla: a terrifying and potent symbol of nuclear warfare.

It's difficult to describe the raw power of a nuclear blast. You can say that the Hiroshima bomb had a blast yield of 16 kilotons and Nagasaki had around 22 kilotons, but what exactly does that mean? Here's one attempt: I attended a press conference on Tinian in 2004 where Enola Gay pilot General Paul Tibbets talked about the Hiroshima mission. According to him, he knew the bomb had worked not because of the flash or the shockwave, but because he could suddenly taste all of his dental fillings. That's what 16 kilotons means when you're 11.5 miles away at 31,000 feet. On the ground it means something different. It means the shockwave can drive shards of glass into a concrete wall and cause buildings over a mile away to levitate for a moment before falling over "like domino pieces," as one Hiroshima survivor put it. The radiant heat can scorch the clothes right off your skin, or into your skin, or strip you down to the muscle. It can literally burn your face off, leaving behind a glossy, eggshell-smooth orb with depressions for eyes and a lipless mouth. But more than that, an atomic blast burns itself into a country's memory. While the firebombing campaign destroyed more cities - sixty-six of the cities hit lost 40% or more of their urban area, with Tokyo itself losing 50% - the shock of losing 90,000 to 166,000 people in a single blast etched a particular kind of horror onto the Japanese consciousness.

Yet in the years following the war, the Japanese couldn't talk about it. The American occupation forces suppressed local media from reporting on the atomic bombings for fear it might stoke anti-American feelings or unintentionally provide the Soviets with atomic research. Censorship reigned supreme. The only writing about Hiroshima that circulated in Japan were a series of New Yorker articles about six victims and their lives before, during and after the bombings. But even after the occupation ended in 1952 and Japan began governing itself under there was social pressure not to discuss the bombings - both because they were still fresh and painful, and because Japanese authorities worried that discussion might endanger the treaty that ended the occupation. But that was about to change due to a single ship, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru or "Number 5 Lucky Dragon."

The Lucky Dragon was a long-line wooden fishing vessel. It was 140 tons and 25 meters with chronic engine trouble and a pitiful top speed of 5 knots. On March 1st, 1954 the Dragon was well out of its normal fishing grounds - it'd lost half of its lines a month before when they snagged on a coral reef, and in order to avoid disgrace the inexperienced 22 year-old captain struck into the Marshall Islands, hoping to get a decent catch before the food ran out. At 6:45 that morning, the crew saw a bright flash through the porthole. When they poured onto the deck, they saw the whole of the western horizon lit like a sunset. Several hours later, a rain of white powder overtook the vessel. "White particles were falling on us, just like sleet," remembers Matakichi Oishi, who was a 20 year-old crewmember on the Dragon. "The white particles penetrated mercilessly - eyes, nose, ears, mouth." As the crew ran in their long-lines and prepared to return to Japan, they began to notice burns on their skin. Soon they also began to experience nausea, fatigue and vomiting.

The flash they'd seen was "Castle Bravo," the first test of a hydrogen bomb, eighty-five miles away on Bikini Atoll. The white powder they referred to as shi no hai, the "ashes of death," turned out to be atomized coral impregnated with a poisonous mix of radioactive isotopes. Without realizing it, the Dragon and its crew had approached the U.S. exclusion zone for a major nuclear test. Even so, the Dragon would've been well clear except for one fact: the dry-fuel thermonuclear device was 2.5 times more powerful than scientists estimated, and 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The resulting explosion sent fallout drifting far outside the intended area, irradiating not only the crew of the Dragon but several hundred Pacific Islanders and 28 American servicemen assisting the test.

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