Chernobyl Before Chernobyl: Remembering The Anti-Nuclear Origins Of ‘Godzilla’

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A few days ago, New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz tweeted that she’d just started watching HBO’s Chernobyl and was “endlessly grateful that I got to be an American and not grow up in a backward ass country that is more concerned with the embarrassment of a nuclear accident than its deadly ramifications.” Many people rightfully schooled her (obvious trolling though it probably was) on the United States’ many nuclear (and other) cover-ups of our own. But it’s true, none of those have had their own high profile HBO show. Sure, Eric Schlosser wrote a whole book about them, but if only there was a prestige TV show or a multiplex drama about one of the United States’ nuclear accidents and subsequent cover-ups.

As luck would have it, there is. Or at least, there’s the sequel to the reboot of the remake of a movie about a United States’ nuclear accident — opening this week, in the form of Godzilla: King Of Monsters.

While some people sort of half remember that Godzilla was originally inspired by or vaguely referenced nuclear bombs or nuclear testing, most have forgotten that the original Japanese Godzilla, 1954’s Gojira, was aimed specifically at U.S. nuclear testing, referenced one disastrous test in particular, and even ended with a fourth wall-breaking plea to its audience, Reefer Madness-style.

Daniel Immerwahr, an associate professor of history at Northwestern, details the event in his excellent new book, How To Hide An Empire: A History Of The Greater United States. I spoke to him by phone this week in the hopes that a Godzilla sequel, however far from its origins, could be an occasion to refresh our memories.

Can you elaborate on how specific a critique Godzilla originally was?

The background of (Gojira, released in 1954) is the set of tests that the U.S. did on and around the Bikini Atoll, which is part of the Marshall Islands. (Which, as Immerwahr notes is American territory, even if it’s rarely acknowledged as such, and thus a test Americans did on our own soil to our own citizens.) In 1954, the United States did a test called the “Bravo Shot” that turned out to be way larger than anticipated. They cordoned off a blast zone and people who were outside of it got affected because they just didn’t get the physics right.

I think there were some 67 nuclear devices that were tested on or right around the Bikini Atoll, but (the Bravo Shot) particularly was also the origin event for Godzilla. When that happened there was a Japanese tuna fishing boat (the Daigo Fukuryu Maru) which was outside of the (presumed) blast zone that ended up getting irradiated. Everyone on it got radiation poisoning, one of them even died. As that boat made its way back to Japan, it became a huge national issue.

There was a panic that basically shut down the tuna market, because there was a worry that if you were eating tuna you might actually be eating this irradiated catch. There was a lot of news coverage of the survivors of the boat, of what they were going through and, of course, it turns out that the Japanese have a lot of thoughts about radiation poisoning. This is bringing up stuff that was not 10 years old in Japan at the time. Nuclear testing from the perspective of the United States just seems like one of these kinds of Dr. Strangelove-type weird and vaguely threatening things, but Japan is the one country that had actually been bombed by atomic bombs.

So they are fully aware of the dangers of it and even just one tuna boat getting hit by the blast from a test is enough to freak everyone out so much that it spawns a very large anti-nuclear movement. With a shockingly large proportion of the Japanese population signing petitions, the Emperor starts traveling around with a Geiger counter and Japanese scientists do something that U.S. scientists hadn’t done, which is they start testing the environment to see how dangerous this Bravo shot had actually been. What they find is that they were able to find the effects of the bomb in the sea water, in the rain that came down on Japan and they proved to be much more sensitive students of the dangers of this kind of testing than U.S. scientists themselves were.

And what does the outcry about this look like in the US?

At that time, whether the United States should be testing in the Pacific becomes a political debate when the political candidate Adlai Stevenson brings it up (during a presidential campaign). But the view of the prevailing scientists, and indeed the view of the U.S. military, is that this is not a major issue, it’s not a real danger, get over it, we need to test the bombs and that’s the most important thing. 11 or 12 leading scientists write an open letter explaining this, chiding Adlai Stevenson for even caring about the issue.

How does all this manifest itself in Gojira?

First of all, Godzilla himself is a kind of a totem of the nuclear age. He himself is almost a bomb. He breathes irradiated fire, and then the destruction by Godzilla of Tokyo works a lot like how the firebombing of Japan during the war and there’s always an irradiation theme in the original film. Including that one of the first things Godzilla does is he takes out a fishing boat. Everyone in Japan knows exactly the reference (to the Daigo Fukuryu Maru): you couldn’t not get that at the time. There’s talk throughout the film of radiation, of nuclear testing. Godzilla himself is a creation of nuclear testing, that’s how it’s narrated in the Japanese film and the film ends in a kind of uneasy way. The monster’s defeated but then the narration says as long as there’s nuclear testing this is going to keep happening. We don’t see a lot of that because there is a U.S. version of the film which, have you seen the original U.S. film (Godzilla, King of the Monsters! from 1956)?

I don’t believe I have, no.

I didn’t get how weird that film was going to be until I watched it. It is a beyond bizarre film. I just assumed that Hollywood remade the movie like the way they would do with Akira Kurosawa movies and they would turn them into Westerns. It is absolutely not that. It is a remix of a movie. It’s not just they’ve recreated the shots, they’ve just taken the Japanese film, and the special effects are incredible — and I think possibly beyond what Hollywood can pull off at this point and that’s why they’re using the Japanese stock — but then they have to make it a film that Hollywood audiences will watch. So they get Raymond Burr to star in it and they have to basically Photoshop him into the film. So they go to great lengths to recreate some of the sets — so that a Japanese woman will say something and there’ll be a reaction shot and Raymond Burr will be like talking back to her and it will look like he’s on the same set.

But basically, they put him in the film and then he becomes the hero of the film. But it’s really hard to remix a film and splice in a new hero. So his role is bizarre. He’s an observer, he’s an English speaker obviously… he doesn’t defeat Godzilla himself but he’s just kind of there throughout the movie. What’s interesting about this from the political perspective is that they put Raymond Burr in but what they took out is almost every reference to nuclear radiation and testing. So, you just do not get if you watch Godzilla rather than Gojira that it’s a protest film.

So do you find any irony to it now that (Godzilla) began as a protest of American imperialist policies and then fast-forward 60 years and now it’s kind of like an American imperial product? (Astute readers may note that Godzilla: King Of Monsters was produced by the Chinese-owned Legendary Pictures, distributed by US-based Warner Bros.)

Well, it’s not even 60 years later, it’s fast forward two years later when the Hollywood movie comes out in ’56 and you can already see the cultural blob just sucking in more and more. It’s a beautiful example of Hollywood kind of ideologically defanging a threat, a film that was all about the horror of the United States foreign policy.

The story’s kind of ironic, but there’s a long history of that kind of thing. In my book, I talk about Oklahoma! as a musical, which had originally been written by a gay Cherokee playwright and was all about being Indian in a land of settler colonialism. And then it gets to be remade for Broadway and all the characters are white. Another example of an anti-nuclear cultural artifact that got a little lost in translation is the song “99 Red Balloons.” In the German, it’s a pretty stark parable about early warning systems gone wrong, presumably those of NATO. The meaning is there in the English version, but it’s somewhat vaguer and more muted. Apparently, the singer was pissed about this. So, this isn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened, it’s incredible that it can happen, but even by the time Godzilla came out there was already precedent for this kind of thing.

Another good example that I wrote about in the book was West Side Story. There [would’ve been] real anti-imperial politics to talk about among Puerto Ricans in the 1950s, and it’s just washed right out of the musical. And it’s like if you are in the United States and you never thought about Puerto Rico and someone mentions it to you, the first thing that’s probably going to come to mind is West Side Story. And it’s sad because there’s a lot of interesting stuff that we could have been talking about, about Puerto Rico and precisely that time period. It’s a time when Puerto Ricans shot up Congress, tried to assassinate the President, and had an island revolt, all around this issue of continued colonialism. And yet all you know about Puerto Rico is a musical about Puerto Ricans, and how they’re in gangs and no one quite knows why they misbehave.

(Ed. Note: If you’re interested in learning more about all of this, check out How To Hide An American Empire, season three of the Offshore podcast about Marshall Islanders, and the book Midnight in Chernobyl about Chernobyl — all excellent).

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.