“King Kong,” the 1933 film re-released in 1952, and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) were among the Hollywood movies that inspired Tomoyuki Tanaka of Toho Studios to make a monster movie of his own. But in order to create the fearsome Gojira, the filmmakers also drew from the real-life drama going on in the world at that time. Less than a decade earlier, Allied forces had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing some 120,000 people instantly and causing horrific casualties to thousands more. Defeat, which had been unthinkable for Japan, came suddenly. By 1954, the nation had nearly rebuilt itself post-World War II, but ongoing U.S. nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands meant the wounds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stayed fresh in the nation’s mind. To make matters worse, conflict in Korea and Cold War tensions had raised the specter of nuclear warfare yet again.
In March 1954, the United States tested a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb—more than 750 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki—at Bikini Atoll. A massive plume of radioactive dust and debris floated over some 7,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, and the Japanese fishing trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon No. 5” in English) was caught in the fall-out. The 23 crew members, who suffered skin burns and other symptoms of radiation exposure, were quarantined when they reached port. Six months later, the boat’s radio operator developed liver complications and died at the age of 40. After the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission initially accused the Lucky Dragon of entering the restricting testing area on a spy mission, the U.S. government ended up paying out $2 million in damages, of which just over 10 percent went to the ship’s owner and crew.
In the first scenes of “Gojira,” directed by Ishiro Honda, several ships are swallowed up by the churning sea, a direct allusion to the ripped-from-the-headlines story of Lucky Dragon No. 5. A radioactive monster who emerges from the waves to go on a rampage through the Japanese countryside, Gojira is finally destroyed by a super-weapon called an “oxygen destroyer.” The weapon saves Japan from annihilation, but Gojira ends up being a surprisingly sympathetic victim of the real villain: nuclear technology, the destructive power of which poses a threat to all humankind.
Though the makers of “King Kong” had used stop-motion to create their monster, special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya knew that method would take too long for the tight production schedule of “Gojira.” The suit his team created, which blended elements of dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus, Iguanodon and Stegosaurus, featured charcoal-colored skin with fibrous scarring similar to that of victims of the atomic explosion. Haruo Nakajima, who played Gojira, based the monster’s movements on his observations of bears, elephants and other zoo animals. Now 85 years old, the actor recently talked to the Wall Street Journal about wearing the famous suit during the film shoot, which took place in the summer: “The temperatures inside reached 140 degrees.”
About 9.6 million Japanese flocked to the theaters to see “Gojira” when it was released, out of a population of 88 million. Though initially critics panned the film as too Hollywood-esque, it became an increasingly popular hit, and would go down in history as one of Japan’s greatest movies. Produced near the beginning of a golden age in Japanese film—the same decade saw the release of classics like “Seven Samurai,” “Ikiru” and “Rashomon”—“Gojira” marked Japan’s return to the international stage after World War II, paving the way to its hosting of the Olympics in 1964 and the economic boom that would make it a major player on the world stage again.
“Gojira” was a hit internationally as well, though the first version released in the United States, in 1956, cut out most of the film’s antinuclear message. For its U.S. release, “Godzilla” was recut and footage was added, along with commentary from a reporter played by Raymond Burr. Meanwhile, the Japanese original spawned a lengthy series of sequels, and Haruo Nakajima would play Gojira in more than 10 films. Originally conceived as Japan’s response to the Bikini Atoll test and, more fundamentally, to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla has been scaring audiences for the past 60 years: The most recent reboot, released in the United States in 2014, was the 30th movie in the franchise.