The original Godzilla, a parable of atomic hubris, is playing in America for the first time. Is its hero — a suicide bomber — even scarier than the monster?
By Kathryn Joyce
“I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”
–1 Corinthians 9:22
“I am Godzilla, you are Japan.”
–Critical Bill to his victim, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead
On the fifty-year anniversary of Godzilla’s debut, its original, uncut version has only this month been released in America, rekindling debate amongst critics andGodzilla fans. Many monster connoisseurs consider WWII America to have been the inspiration for the big lizard that stomped Tokyo in 1954. But as Steven Luc writes in Pop Matters, it’s not that simple. “Fifty years in the shadow of the ‘King of the Monsters,’ and we find that Godzilla has been assimilated into the collective unconscious to a point that he is a mutable symbol, changing to suit the needs of the moment. He has become all things to all people.”
Christ-as-Kali, a universal destroyer.
Luc’s assessment rings true in light of current events. The imagery director Ishiro Honda used in 1954 to evoke the devastation of war corresponds to an additional, and different, set of realities today: civilians stumbling through dust-choked streets, buildings flattened as though they were stepped on, soldiers firing guns in vain against an enemy who will not die.
The “Americanized” version of Godzilla was adapted from Honda’s in 1956. Hollywood director Terry O. Morse cut a significant amount of the original footage, splicing in new scenes of an American reporter, played byRaymond Burr, who narrates the story. The JapaneseGodzilla (or Gojira) is a longer, more solemn, and far bleaker movie than its American counterpart, thick with references to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and “black rain.” Its Japan is a nation of fatherless children and radiation-scarred survivors; much of the movie recalls John Hersey’s classic nonfiction account,Hiroshima. Gojira, sleeping at the bottom of the ocean, is awoken and irradiated byAmerican nuclear detonations. Indeed, Honda called his monster “the A-bomb made flesh,” a reference to the displacement of religious tradition–both Japanese and American–by technology.
The U.S. version is more in keeping with the tradition of American atomic monster movies, where “the monsters were stand-ins for Cold-War invaders,” as author Steve Ryfle (Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star) told NPR’s Terry Gross last Wednesday. “At the end of the movie there would be much celebration as the American military ultimately defeated these warriors, these monsters, with new and more powerful military might. Often there would be, you know, a new version of an atomic weapon that obliterated the monster. And the message was clear that, ‘No matter what the threat, you know, never fear. The American military is strong; it will defend you.’…Raymond Burr’s last line of the film was, ‘The menace was gone…the whole world could wake up and live again.’”
Which is to say, the world is born again, redeemed by nuclear technology. If Gojira was “the A-bomb made flesh,” Godzilla is the gospel as A-bomb.
That’d be easy to write off as the kind of gung-ho 1950s sensibility mocked to extinction by Dr. Strangelove, were it not for the remarks of Tadatoshi Akiba, the mayor of Hiroshima, speaking at last year’s annual Peace Declaration on the anniversary of the city’s annihilation. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is “on the verge of collapse,” he said. “The chief cause is U.S. nuclear policy that, by openly declaring the possibility of a preemptive nuclear first strike and calling for resumed research into mini-nukes and other so-called ‘useable nuclear weapons,’ appears to worship nuclear weapons as God.”
Writing about the newly-released original in The American Spectator, Shawn Macomber suggests thatGodzilla tells us something else startling about today’s world. “So nine years after the end of World War Two, we’ve got a Japanese film glorifying a kamikaze mission against Godzilla, which today’s critics all seem to agree is a stand in for bad old Uncle Sam. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it.”
The “kamikaze mission” Macomber refers to is the suicide of the scientist Dr. Serizawa, who ultimately kills Godzilla. Having found a powerful new force—“The Oxygen Destroyer”—Serizawa had been loathe to share his discovery with anyone, lest a government use it to create a “weapon of horrible destruction,” even more deadly than the H-bomb. When Serizawa finally consents to use his weapon against Godzilla, it’s on the condition of his death—to make certain he won’t be forced to recreate his weapon, nor let it “fall into the Devil’s hands.”
Serizawa is not a villain, but a hero, a martyr less enthralled than terrified by the power of his discovery. Less a Dr. Frankenstein than a Robert Oppenheimer, “father” of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer also looked upon his creation with dismay, quoting the Bhagavad Gitato describe his remorse: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”Whatever Oppenheimer’s regrets, the atomic bomb was out of his hands and into the world—made an irreversible fact and forever a possibility. Oppenheimer’s fictional counterpart, Serizawa the suicide-bomber, demonstrates an alternate history, in which Pandora’s box can be shut almost as quickly as it is opened.