With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound, he pulls the spitting high tension wires down, Helpless people on a subway train, scream bug-eyed as he looks in on them, He picks up a bus and he throws it back down, as he wades through the buildings toward the center of town... History shows again and again, how nature points up the folly of men...
—Blue Oyster Cult
Careless military experiments set in motion a chain-reaction that concludes with an assault on Tokyo by a 30-story tall mutant reptile—a creature with skin armored like a battleship hide, with incinerating nuclear-dragon's breath, with the strength to knock skyscrapers into rubble.
And the only thing that stands in its way is a physicist tortured by the realization that the power needed to defeat the monster is as dangerous to Man as the beast itself.
The best science fiction often seems analogous to fairy tales in providing some basic rules for dealing with a mysterious and often dangerous world. For example, exploring the unknown is all well and good, and very human—but one should be very, very careful about playing with things that one knows nothing about. (i.e., if poking around inside a derelict alien spacecraft, do not—repeat, do not—stand gaping in front of an egg hatching in an ancient alien spacecraft ... lest you suddenly find an ovipositor unpleasantly thrust down your esophagus.)
Setting aside the innumerable campy offspring of the original 1954 film Godzilla (or Gojirra, for purists), the preceding plot is hardly comical—no more comical, at least, than Mary Shelley's A Modern Prometheus. Nor is the theme so fantastical as we might like to think.
The tale of Godzilla is similar to the myth of Beowulf—at the conclusion of the ancient epic, the protagonist is drawn into his final battle with an angry dragon which has been roused from its slumber by a thief's greedy irresponsible plunder of the beast's hoard (a storyline familiar to Tolkien-fans).
There are of course many, many differences between the two—one should not get carried away trying to apply Jungian synchronicity. We do not know precisely what events inspired Beowulf's legend; but the cultural and historical roots of Tokyo's most famous monster are quite evident. When Ishiro Honda (disciple of Akira Kurosawa of Seven Samurai fame) first began work on his groundbreaking film, less than ten years had passed since Japan had become the first nation to suffer the destruction of atomic warfare. Approximately 200,000 civilians were killed by the heat-blast and ensuing fall-out—producing gruesome images one might only have found previously in the dark fantasies of Franz Kafka or H.P. Lovecraft.
The Japanese psyche's painful memories of nuclear weapons are not limited to the A-Bomb itself, however. Shortly after the war, the Pacific became the site of American weapons testing—and hence the historical event that provides the immediate narrative backdrop for the opening of Godzilla: The Lucky Dragon Incident.
In 1954, only months before Godzilla was released, the US military detonated an atomic device in a test off the coast of Japan. Vessels had been directed to remain out of the test area, but as it turned out the size of the fallout zone had been grossly underestimated by the "experts"—and so the fishermen aboard the boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru ("Lucky Dragon No. 5") found themselves succumbing, one by one, to the blight of radiation sickness.
This incident served to fuel anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan almost as much as the bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki—and it is used to open the film, as an unseen narrator describes the events that lead up to Godzilla's rampage.
Later versions of the Godzilla mythos lend themselves to the possibility that the creature is a mutant directly produced by nuclear testing; the original story suggests that the creature was always present, some kind of primeval beast—only now somehow more powerful (and more aggressive) after being exposed to atomic energy.
Godzilla's first victims are fishermen. Garbled reports arrive on land of some terrible force ferociously smashing a fishing vessel—and then this same underwater force demolishes the rescue craft that are sent to recover survivors.
Attention shifts to Oto Island, where a local legend of an ancient sea-monster coincides with the island's proximity both to recent H-Bomb tests and to the destroyed vessels. A team of scientists and reporters sent to investigate find themselves embroiled in an evacuation, as Godzilla finally reveals himself and sends the islanders fleeing.
Then the creature goes on the move, and sets its sights on Tokyo.
Three clear responses to the threat are made on the part of men—the first comes from paleontologist Kyohei Yamane, who sees Godzilla as a wonder of creation to be studied.
The second is the mainstream response, which sees the creature simply as a threat to be destroyed with good-old-fashioned military know-how.
The last is the philosophical struggle of physicist Daisuke Serizawa, who is caught in the grip of an anguishing ethical dilemma.
The first response is laudable but too little too late—for now that his powers have been triggered and his ire aroused, Godzilla is the relentless fury of offended nature personified. He does not seem to have much in the way of a gentler side, and clearly does not share the sensibilities of his American counterpart King Kong—it is unlikely that this particular beast could be tamed by the sight of a pretty Hollywood blonde.
The second response is equally impractical—Godzilla has already been shown invincible in the face of the most powerful destruction men can devise, so the missiles, cannon-fire, and electric-fences that are pitted against his attack on civilization are delays and distractions, at best.
As for the third response, it is in the turmoil in Serizawa's heart that we find the heart of the film. For Serizawa's work on the structure of oxygen has led to a new breakthrough in chemistry, a breakthrough which bears immediate application to a quantum leap in weapons technology. In a rather morbid scene, the scientist demonstrates his invention on a small-scale, by dropping a tiny device in a fishbowl—within moments the fish's consumed corpse floats to the surface.
The unhappy genius has stumbled across a way to consign any life form to irresistible and instant death, via a new compound—the very name of which somehow suggests a combination of the horror of drowning with the horror of suffocation with the horror of being burned alive.
With grim candor, the unwilling weaponeer has dubbed his secret discovery "The Oxygen Destroyer."
It is a doom that no creature can survive, not even the mighty Godzilla.
The remainder of the movie may be understood in terms of Serizawa's internal wrestling, and his final decision. His qualms about using the Oxygen Destroyer to stop Godzilla evoke reservations about weapons research expressed by real-life scientists:
"If the Oxygen Destroyer is used even once, politicians from around the world will see it. Of course they'll use it as a weapon. Atomic bomb versus atomic bomb, H-bomb versus H-bomb, and now a new super-weapon to throw upon us all. As a scientist—no, as a human being, I cannot allow that to happen."
And the forlorn question with which he concludes this soliloquy stands as a challenge to the complacency of the audience. After all, what makes us so secure in our own virtue and wisdom, when it is this very same virtue and wisdom that led to the nuclear arms race....
"Am I right?"
Serizawa's resolution is to sacrifice himself, along with Godzilla. Only thus can he ensure that no opportunist will tease, trick, or torture the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer from his burdened psyche. And so with that sacrifice in mind, Godzilla's final demise is not an occasion of self-congratulatory cheering, but rather of pity—as the 30-story tall beast thrashes and shrieks in uncomprehending death-agony in Tokyo Bay. Godzilla's invulnerable, adamantine flesh consumes itself, leaving naught behind but trace pollutants in the waters.
Japanese culture was heavily informed by "environmentalism" long before the word came into fashion as a political or ideological term. The ancient Shinto religion of the people of Nippon is, after all, oriented toward nature-worship, and reverence for the inherent and inviolable integrity of the cosmos. Rather than domination of nature, it is a tradition directed toward understanding nature's rhythm and flow—as one might use knowledge of the stars and weather and tides for navigation. As a seafaring island nation, such reverence is particularly oriented toward the ocean; it is no mere coincidence that Godzilla was amphibious.
Thematically, the Godzilla myth points toward the danger of viewing the universe as a mere mechanism—either as an infinite vending-machine for consumer goods or as an Olympian armory. The scientific ethos championed by Serizawa and Yamane seeks not to exploit nature but to contemplate it, to achieve sympathetic harmony rather than condescending mastery.
This inclination to reverently tend the natural order is appropriately exemplified by Japanese horticulturists who today cultivate shoots from the sacred "kaki"—an astonishingly resilient tree that survived Nagasaki's devastation.
Such themes are, however, largely absent in the sanitized American release of the movie Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in 1956. The Lucky Dragon incident was cut, the comfortingly-familiar voice of Raymond Burr provided an interpretation of events more amenable to the American perspective, and the reasons for Dr. Serizawa's death are left somewhat vague.
Still, the American version is worth seeing—Burr is, at least, a solid actor. Probably the greatest difficulty for appreciation of either the Japanese or American version is our dependency upon sophisticated special effects; I would suggest the viewer think of the film's special effects much as one regards the props of a stage play.... as masks and symbols upon which to exercise the imagination.
After all, if we have traded slick special effects for an inferior story then we have been cheated. An even starker revisionist outline of the story may be seen in the 1998 Hollywood remake. In this version the threat of "Godzilla" (G.I.N.O. per purists, "Godzilla-In-Name-Only") meets its end not following the angst-ridden self-examination of a thoughtful and reflective man, but rather via—surprise, surprise—a flight of missile-toting, All-American F-18's. That's right, in this version it is French testing that is to blame for creating the monster, and American military might that defeats it. One wonders if Tri-Star Pictures is perhaps owned by Fox News.
Such rose-colored-spectacle revisionism is also evident in how Americans view their own nation's history with atomic weapons. Serious questions about the wisdom of the A-bombing of Japan are largely pigeonholed as "extreme left-wing" positions. The public relations campaign that followed the war established in the collective psyche the narrative that the annihilation of the villages was necessary to save the lives of both American soldiers and Japanese civilians.
This narrative conveniently overlooks certain matters—such as the fact that the Japanese military had been defeated by 1945 and was powerless to commit any aggressive actions, and the fact that the Japanese government was willing to surrender, provided they be allowed to retain the Emperor as a cultural icon (a measure which was granted in any case.)
Also erased were strong indications that the decision to use nuclear weapons was more motivated by a desire to demonstrate American power to the Soviet Union.
And also erased from the American collective consciousness were the strident moral and practical objections made against the bombing by major military figures of the time: General Douglas McArthur, and U.S. Navy Admirals Leahy, King, and Nimitz, among many others.
"The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing," one such voice would later observe, a voice that also declared that "to use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorize civilians" was a "double crime."
The voice was that of General Dwight Eisenhower, hardly a bright-eyed idealistic "liberal", much less a man one would associate with "unpatriotic", "bleeding-heart" stances.
But whether unpatriotic or not, such words have been forgotten. The purging of the American psyche is unfortunate, as audiences in the United States had as much to benefit as anyone from the lessons of history.
And, perhaps, from the real message of Godzilla. For the film is not merely an effort to waggle an accusatory finger at the U.S., but is in part an effort by the Japanese to come to terms with their own responsibility for destiny.
After all, a direct causal chain can be established between the destruction of Hiroshima and Japan's 19th-Century choice to mimic European imperial powers travelling the road of expansive industrial colonialism. Godzilla is victim and avenging curse rolled into one. Godzilla's tragedy blooms from the human temptation to see technology as a quick-fixing magical cure-all, while we gloss over cultural, political, and spiritual ramifications.
Just so, many contemporary American tragedies today may have their roots in a variety of ill-advised enthusiasms—such as the "bright idea" to sponsor anti-Soviet guerillas in Afghanistan in the 1980's.
To paraphrase Nietsczhe, he who would fight monsters should take care lest he breed them.
Or worse, lest he make an unpleasant discovery when glancing at his own reflection in the water.