Godzilla’s Conscience: The Monstrous Humanism of Ishiro Honda
By Steve Ryfle
With deafening footfalls and an earsplitting roar, Gojira, known in the West as Godzilla, first thundered into Japan’s movie houses on November 3, 1954. Six and a half decades later, the monster presides over an international entertainment franchise, having starred in thirty-two feature films produced in Japan and three (so far) in Hollywood, and top-lining three anime features, two animated television series, comic books, TV commercials, and more. Godzilla has transformed over time from powerful atomic allegory to children’s superhero and back again, and with the dawn in 2019 of the Reiwa era, the monster’s career spans the reigns of three Japanese emperors: Hirohito, Akihito, and now Naruhito. But it is the Godzilla films made during Showa (1926–89), the era denoting the reign of Emperor Hirohito, Japan’s wartime ruler and postwar figurehead, that defined the kaiju eiga—the uniquely Japanese brand of giant-monster cinema—and the creature-on-the-loose parameters of Godzilla filmdom. Bookended by Ishiro Honda’s 1954 masterpiece, Godzilla, and Honda’s last movie, Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), the fifteen Showa-era films took Godzilla far and wide, with many of them playing theatrically not only in Japan but also across North America, Europe, Latin America, and other territories, before going into television syndication for many years, establishing Godzilla as an enduring icon in the worldwide pop-cultural landscape.The original Godzilla is Honda’s lament for the nuclear age. It was produced amid a months-long public crisis that occurred after fishermen aboard a tuna boat christened the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) unwittingly strayed dangerously close to a U.S. hydrogen-bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific in March 1954; when they returned home, severely ill with radiation sickness, a national panic over radioactive fallout ensued. Japan had been transformed from defeated imperial power to economically resurgent young democracy (a country with a parliamentary government and a ceremonial monarchy, to be more precise) with close ties to Washington. Yet the Lucky Dragon incident seriously strained U.S.-Japan relations for the first time since the postwar occupation had ended in 1952; many citizens likened the fishermen’s fate to a third nuclear strike on Japan, and a national protest calling for a ban on nuclear testing arose. Honda’s film hints at these tensions: the opening scene, in which Godzilla invisibly attacks a salvage ship, is an unmistakable reference to the Lucky Dragon and the fear it inspired—what Honda called an “invisible fear” that nuclear annihilation could happen at any moment. Embodied by the monster, this fear haunts the movie and deftly politicizes what otherwise might have been a straight sci-fi entertainment.
“The synergy between Godzilla’s antinuclear theme and actual events was both a coincidence and clever business.”
“In the early sixties, Godzilla’s return to the big screen exchanged the black-and-white pessimism of the first two films for color-and-widescreen action comedy.”
“While Godzilla has evolved with the times, the Showa series as a whole is undeniably the foundation of this ever-growing pop-culture phenomenon.”
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