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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Gojira Poster

Japanese media jumped on the story after the Lucky Dragon returned to port. Japanese doctors diagnosed the men with radiation sickness straight away, panic swept the country when authorities realized the test had contaminated large amounts of tuna that were filtering into the local fish markets. Relations between the U.S. and Japan soured when the Eisenhower administration dragged its feet assisting with the crew's medical treatment, and refused to offer an adequate apology. Anger over the Lucky Dragon incident popped the cork on the societal pressures that limited discussions about nuclear tests and put the topic into the national spotlight. The media attention surrounding the recovering crewmen - one of whom, Aikichi Kuboyma, died from radiation poisoning - served as a rallying point for anti-war, anti-nuclear opposition parties that became a staple of Japanese politics and came close to toppling the government in June 1960. Japan suddenly went from a place where atomic weapons were not discussed to one of the world leaders in the nonproliferation movement. On August 6th 1955, the 10th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the still-rebuilding city hosted the first World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs. But the first media figure to take on the atomic bombing of Japan was a towering rubber lizard named Gojira.

Gojira (released in America as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!) premiered in late 1954, wrapping the terror of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Lucky Dragon incident in the guise of a horror film. The film starts with an explosion and a mysterious force that sinks Japanese fishing boats. The result is not contamination, but a monster arisen from the deep, a dragon that swims inexorably toward Japan ravaging islands along the way, until finally it rampages into Tokyo, flattening buildings and scorching the earth with its atomic breath. Much like in 1945, when the Japanese military's air defenses were too weak to protect the home islands, the newly formed Self Defense Force is powerless to stop the creature. This is all intentional. The film's director, Ishiro Honda, had seen the war up close - he served in the Imperial Army and ended the war as a POW in China. Godzilla isn't just a big lizard that likes smashing buildings, he's a lumbering personification of the American war machine from a Japanese perspective: amphibious, unstoppable, leveling cities, burning victims with nuclear fire, and even when he returns to the sea, there's always a sense he'll return. The film even includes a super weapon so powerful, the protagonists decide to destroy it after using it on the monster. The messaging was so clear that it created an interesting split - the Japanese saw Godzilla as a horror film, but U.S. audiences tended to root for the monster.

Godzilla was so successful that it spawned a new genre of Japanese film: the kaiju movie. While many of the early kaiju kept the theme of nuclear mutation and overwhelming force - Rodan was clearly a stab at depicting an aerial assault - like all monsters they evolved and changed along with the popular consciousness. In 1963, when U.S.-Japanese relations had improved and there was some worry that the Soviets could attack Hokkaido, Toho released King Kong vs. Godzilla, a film that cast an American monster defending Japan after Godzilla arises in the Arctic Ocean. Later, as memories of the war faded or got swept under the rug, filmmakers repurposed the lizard king as a force from old Japan, defending the homeland from attack and personifying the battle between traditional Japanese values and modern manufacturing-obsessed materialism, most notably in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and The Terror of Mechagodzilla. By 2001's Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, the creature came full circle - in this version, Godzilla is made up of the angry spirits of Japan's war dead, come to take vengeance on a nation that has forgotten their sacrifices.

Throughout each incarnation, however, Godzilla embodies a powerful force - be it nuclear weapons, Soviet invasion, or the loss of traditional values - that Japan seems powerless to stop. That narrative has continued not only for the kaiju of Japanese film, who can represent anything from industrialization to forces of nature, but for large movie monsters the world over. Cloverfield used a monster attack to reenact the confused panic of the September 11th attacks. South Korean blockbuster The Host shows a monster developing after an American scientist tips chemicals down the sink, polluting the water system. Pacific Rim has giant beings crawling from the sea to attack American cities, and the technology vs. nature theme - along with Idris Elba shouting, "Today we cancel the apocalypse!" - seems to hint at leveraging technology to fight global climate change. All because sixty years ago, Honda found the perfect metaphor for mass destruction.

However Guillermo del Toro decides to play it in Pacific Rim, I'm glad between it and the Godzilla remake, kaiju are once again surfacing off our coast. In a world where we're dealing with such larger-than-life forces, from melting icecaps and overpopulation, to terrorism and monster hurricanes - it'd sure be nice for a guy in a rubber suit to put it all in perspective.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher who lives at the bottom of the Pacific, occasionally arising to ravage the coast. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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