Home > analysis, film > An Analysis of Postwar Japan and the Japanese Nuclear Consciousness Through Godzilla Films

An Analysis of Postwar Japan and the Japanese Nuclear Consciousness Through Godzilla Films

I did this paper on the historical and social aspects of Godzilla films. Enjoy!

I. Introduction

Japan’s defeat at the end of World War Two served as a form of rebirth for the Japanese people. It came in the form of the American Occupation between 1945-1952 and the ‘economic miracle’ that Japan experienced shortly after. But the war’s memory remained just under the surface for the Japanese people, Amplified by its mean of conclusion, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While there was a censorship of discussing the atomic bombs during the Occupation, as soon as Japanese began in ’52 commentary on the atomic bombs surfaced, many in the form of film. One of the more interesting takes on a nuclear critique is that of Toho’s Godzilla series.

In this paper the first three Godzilla films; Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, and Mothra vs. Godzilla, will be analyzed according to their historical and social contexts. While the Godzilla films are seen as comic fares in the United States, the earlier films were intended as serious films addressing the impact of the atomic bombings, the World War, and Japan changing following the Occupation. Godzilla himself serves as a metaphor to the nuclear bomb. But it also serves as a reinvention of the Japanese past. As Edwin Reischauer has described, “Unlike the Americans…the Japanese have a strong consciousness of history. They see themselves in historical perspective. They will delve a thousand years and more into their past in analyzing their contemporary traits” (Reischauer 41). This tendency towards historical perspective is strongly evident in Gojira, but begins to ebb by its sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, which serves more as a analysis of the postwar process, but the third of the examined films, Mothra vs. Godzilla, strays away from this, setting the tone for the rest of the Godzilla franchise. With the growth of Japan’s postwar economy, Japanese shifts its examination of itself. These three Godzilla films serve as a good indicator of the changes in postwar Japan.

II. Gojira

Gojira was released in Japan on November 3rd, 1954, about six months after the Lucky Dragon incident in which the crew were exposed to radiation from a U.S. hydrogen bomb testing. Yasumasa Tanaka has stated that, “The news came to the Japanese as a profound shock and caused resentment against the United States unprecedented in the postwar period” (Tanaka 29). Essentially, the ‘Lucky Dragon Incident,’ as it’s become known, served as a point of reevaluation towards U.S.-Japanese relations and how the Japanese view nuclear arms. Sadao Asada mentions, “In the early postwar years the Japanese people on the verge of starvation, were in no condition to give much thought to the A-bomb question” (Asada 174). It was around the time of the Lucky Dragon could evaluate the nuclear question and their past with the own atomic bomb. Prior to that Occupation censorship prevented such critique, but with self-governance, coupled with the incident, nuclear critique was inevitable. It was in this atmosphere that Gojira was filmed and released.

In the opening scenes of Gojira the audience is confronted with their nuclear issues, when a fishing boat sees a hydrogen bomb off-screen that illuminates the screen and dissipates, awakening Godzilla, who destroys the boat soon after. This scene parallels the Lucky Dragon on many levels, but as film historian David Kalat comments, “Fearing that the issue of the Lucky Dragon was simply too acute to address so directly, [Director] Honda…let his monster movie merely suggest such recent horrors” (Kalat 33). The Japanese audience at the time of the release would have been capable of seeing the correlations of this scene to their own troubles. This depiction at the beginning of the film is somewhat ironic, considering it is one of the few representations of the present in the film, as everything else serves to address the past.

Susan Napier suggests that Gojira served as a reinvention of the past:

First, it demonizes American nuclear science in an obvious reference to the Atomic tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Second, it allows for the traditional happy ending…by allowing ‘good’ Japanese science to triumph against the evil monster. The thus offered its immediate postwar Japanese audience an experience that was both cathartic and compensatory, allowing them to rewrite or at least to re-imagine their tragic wartime experience. (Napier 331-332).

Instead of seeing their wartime defeat as being their own fault, the postwar Japanese have reinvented themselves as the victims. Napier fleshes the statement further, “Godzilla gives…a nationalistic twist, however, in emphasizing that is American science, personified by the humane Japanese scientist whose suicide helps destroy Godzilla, that ultimately saves the world” (Napier 331). Godzilla has become the symbol for two things specifically. The first being the lingering memory of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also the postwar memory of the American Occupation and wartime destruction of Japan. The images seen of Tokyo following Godzilla’s attack on the city closely resemble that of images following Allied saturation bombing of Tokyo during the war. Naoko Shimazu has theorized that, “Self-victimization of the Japanese, as a means of coming to terms with the past, implied that the memory of the war needed to be selective and sanitized to emphasize the suffering, as opposed to the aggression” (Shimazu 106). This concept of using a selective past is strongly present in Gojira. While the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can universally be seen as tragic, the interpretation in Gojira uses a victimized interpretation of the Japanese throughout the war. Only with recent nuclear issues due to the ‘Lucky Dragon incident’ do these issues come to surface again.

As Chon Noriega states, “Like Godzilla…Japan in 1954 is transitional monster caught between the imperial past and the postwar industrial future, aroused by United States H-bomb tests. The monster expresses more than impotent rage made powerful in fantasy, because the anxieties in Godzilla reflects are as much about Japan as the United States” (Noriega 69). Gojira can serve as an example on how postwar Japan is trying to reestablish following World War Two. Out of all the Godzilla films, only Gojira strongly advocates for the contemporaneous issues in Japan on viewing the past and the state of Japan following American Occupation. Later films tone down the seriousness, but they continue their critiques to an extent. But the quality of critique begins to lessen with the quickly released sequel Godzilla Raids Again.

III. Godzilla Raids Again

With the popularity of Gojira Toho Studios was quick to produce a sequel, Godzilla Raids Again. The Godzilla from Gojira was killed off at the end of the first film, so the Godzilla in Godzilla Raids Again is a continuation of the metaphor of Godzilla being an atomic bomb. This is also the first film that pits Godzilla fighting another monster, a staple for the rest of the Godzilla franchise. This monster plot line lasts only half of the film, with the second half focused on figuring out a way of eliminating the threat of Godzilla.

Kalat has suggested that, “While Godzilla symbolized the horrors of war, Godzilla Raids Again depicts the postwar process” (Kalat 37). The intent of the narrative is focused far more on the present than the past. Gojira had already established the memory of World War Two, so it’s fitting that Godzilla Raids Again changes this. Even though the film was released a year apart from it’s predecessor the concept of focusing on the postwar era than the past shows the Japanese abandoning their past for the present. The nuclear metaphor is still relevant due to the Cold War, but the sense of wartime images are becoming increasingly irrelevant to Japanese society in the late 1950s. In fact, the two heroes of Godzilla Raids Again work for a private company who tries to fend off Godzilla, with the Self Defense Forces only helping defeat the monster at the end.

Godzilla Raids Again continues a trend begun in Gojira in which the Japanese are the ones defending themselves solely from Godzilla’s attacks. This is surprising considering Japan’s limitation on military as put forth in Article of the 1947 constructed during American Occupation. According to Article 9, “To accomplish the aim…land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” (Japan Constitution, Article 9). However, the Japanese military posses all three in Godzilla films. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, in which the United States would come to the aid of the Japanese, in the case of military peril, is completely absent. In Godzilla Raids Again, and most Godzilla films, Japan is only dependent on itself. This would correlate to new type of nationalism by the Japanese that is fostered from their economic success. This aspect of economic success is seen throughout many Godzilla films. It serves as an homage towards traditional Japanese values in terms of their dependecy. In Godzilla Raids Again, as in most Godzilla films, the Japanese are strong enough to solve the Godzilla problem. This is similar to Japanese nationalism in late Meiji-early Showa periods leading up to World War Two. Adding towards Japanese nationalism, but the later ‘camp value’ that the franchise is known for today.

IV. Mothra vs. Godzilla

It took another nine years (1964) before the next main iteration in the Godzilla franchise. Toho took another one of its monster, Mothra, against Godzilla. It was also the first color film in the franchise. The serious tones of the first two films have been changed by this point in the franchise for what the series is known for, monsters fighting and destruction. As Yomota Inuhiko has stated, “…Godzilla has been transformed from foreign menace into Japan’s guardian deity while in the process he has lost his historically ambivalent meaning and has simultaneously learnt to give off a certain air of ‘cuteness” (Inuhiko 108). Instead of carrying the messages from Gojira or even Godzilla Raids Again, Mothra vs. Godzilla was intended for simple entertainment. While the first two films were without a doubt rooted in popular cinema aesthetics there was still an intent to convey the anti-nuclear message or a depiction of the postwar Japanese. By making Mothra vs. Godzilla strictly popular fare though the filmmakers also inadvertently having depicted the postwar Japanese.

This can be particularly be seen in the ‘camp value’ in terms of the sheer ‘camp value.’ As Kalat explains, “…when societies undergo a rapid economic growth, generating vast pools of disposable wealth quickly without providing enough time for the overall culture to mature, the result is a camp sensibility” (Kalat 70). Using this statement it can be assumed that the less serious tones is a part of the entertainment industry’s lack of proper development. This would coincide with that of Japan’s economic miracle and rapid economic growth. Whereas Gojira could focus on the past, Godzilla Raids Again on the present, Mothra vs. Godzilla can’t make a focus. Under Kalat’s reasoning there wasn’t a proper time for the Japanese society to mature with its economic development to produce the same kind of film seen in Gojira.

While there is a anti-nuclear sentiment in the film, it is forced upon the viewers when the heroes visit Infant Island, which has been the site of repeated nuclear testings. Only at this moment is there any criticism of the nuclear age. It happens for only a moment, and then never resurfaces in the film. The rest of the Godzilla franchise would be typified like Mothra vs. Godzilla. There may be a minimal message, but it’s mainly there for pure entertainment. While Godzilla Raids Again celebrates this economic growth, Mothra vs. Godzilla seems accidentally plagued by the growth due to its lack of maturity.

V. Conclusion

In the twelve years between the releases of Gojira and Mothra vs. Godzilla in Japan, the transformation of Japan can be seen through analysis of the films. In Gojira, there is a lingering memory of the wartime period embodied through Godzilla’s destruction. This historical perspective can clearly be seen in Gojira as the filmmakers have remade their wartime past into that of the victimized, rather than the victimizer. Godzilla Raids Again shifted the focus away from the past and that on the postwar era. It still continues a form of Japanese nationalism as embodied through economic success during the 1950s. The nuclear themes of the first film are downplayed as well. By the time of Mothra vs. Godzilla the postwar ethics have shifted greatly from the time of production for Gojira. The ‘camp value’ that the Godzilla franchise is notorious for had set in strongly with the film. This ‘camp’ is derived from the Japanese society not properly developing itself during its economic growth.

Through this development of the three films one can see the trends in postwar Japan. The earlier 1950s were left with a strong impression of not only the American Occupation that ended in 1952, but also the wartime era. All three film embody some sort of psychological connection of the atomic bomb that has taken the form of Godzilla. The films shift their perspective of the economic growth of Japan. Godzilla Raids Again celebrates this growth, but the tones of Mothra vs. Godzilla suggest the negative aspects, in the form of ‘camp,’ that come along with the rapid economic development. The later films in the series, following Mothra vs. Godzilla, continue this lack of fleshed out themes that made Gojira a successful social critique. With this lack of a fleshed social critique the Godzilla franchise simply fell into the standard-ness of popular cinema. This parallels the dramatic growth of Japan’s postwar economy, which didn’t allow for the blending the elements of popular cinema and social critiques that occurred in 1954 with Gojira.

  1. Darren W. Plunkett
    October 16, 2015 at 3:18 am

    Reblogged this on Gojira Film Presentation and commented:
    Very Interesting Paper.

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