Godzilla and the Peculiar Beauties of Destruction

A scene from Godzilla (1954) | Toho Co. Ltd

In the early morning hours of March 1, 1954, a Japanese fishing boat bobbed in the quiet darkness near the Pacific Ocean’s Marshall Islands. Crew members rested below deck after a strenuous night setting fishing lines. The two-month voyage had been an especially challenging one for the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (the Lucky Dragon No. 5). The men were ready for the sun to rise on their final day of catching tuna before heading home. 

But the dawn light that came streaming through the cabin’s porthole was all wrong. It arrived suddenly, in a startling yellow flash that lit up the sky, not from the sun’s usual starting point in the east but in the west. Racing to the deck, the crew was astonished to see the sky aflame with brilliant shades of red, orange, and purple. They could make out an even brighter glow on the horizon, which lasted for a few minutes before fading and returning the sea to darkness. As the men rushed to pull in their lines, a terrible roar surrounded them. 

“The rumbling sound engulfed the sea, came up from the ocean floor like an earthquake,” one of the fishermen, Ōishi Matashichi, later recalled. “Caught by surprise, those of us on deck threw ourselves down. It was just as if a bomb had been dropped.”

Matashichi didn’t know that the United States was secretly conducting nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll, roughly 80 miles west of the Lucky Dragon No. 5’s location. The vessel’s crew had witnessed the detonation of a thermonuclear device code-named Castle Bravo. One thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, the weapon produced radioactive fallout that spread miles beyond the anticipated danger zone. 

As it reached the fishermen, a powdery, snow-like substance rained down, collecting in their ears, eyes, noses, and mouths. By the time they arrived back on land, the men were suffering from blisters, bleeding gums, and painful headaches. Doctors diagnosed them with acute radiation syndrome. The ship’s chief radioman, Aikichi Kuboyama, died six months later. From his hospital bed, he said, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.”

The tragedy of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 forced the United States to reveal the true power of its burgeoning atomic capabilities and cemented the world’s collective anxiety of a looming nuclear apocalypse. No nation had a more intimate understanding of that fear than post-war Japan. Less than a decade had passed since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Castle Bravo incident served as both a painful reminder and an ominous new threat. Those concerns were still top of mind for much of the Japanese public by November of 1954, when they filed into theaters to watch a new science fiction film called Gojira. 

From its opening scene, Gojira is filled with moments that would have stung with familiarity for Japanese moviegoers. The crew aboard a ship called the Eiko-maru witness a bright flash before their vessel bursts into flames. On a nearby island, scientists discover massive footprints containing deadly amounts of Strontium-90, one of the isotopes carried within the ash that fell on the crew of the Lucky Dragon No. 5. Gojira, an enormous prehistoric monster that has been grotesquely mutated by hydrogen bomb testing, surfaces in Tokyo Bay and decimates entire neighborhoods with a scorching atomic heat ray. A woman laments the unfairness of being in Gojira’s path after she had escaped Nagasaki alive. A tearful widow clutches her children and promises they’ll see their father soon. A doctor scans survivors with a clicking Geiger counter. While the initial critical reaction to Gojira was mixed, audiences reportedly left screenings in tears

The film was a financial success, and a re-edited, politically sanitized version was released in the United States in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. Under this anglicized moniker, Godzilla quickly became a worldwide pop culture icon. The monster’s 70th anniversary is marked by a big-budget blockbuster, a glossy streaming series, and the wide release of a new Japanese-produced film that recently earned the franchise its first Oscar win. For a character rooted in so specific a moment, Godzilla has demonstrated incredible staying power. 

No matter how many times he is taken down by rival monsters, oxygen destroyers, or box office bombs, Godzilla always returns, animated not only by the eternal specter of nuclear armageddon but by whichever new anxiety is clawing its way into the world’s psyche. 

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In 1953, Warner Bros. released The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which a dinosaur rampages through New York City after being awakened by atomic bomb testing in the Arctic Circle. The similarities to Godzilla are no coincidence. Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer at the Japanese film studio Toho, took inspiration from both that film and a recent successful re-release of RKO Pictures’ King Kong when outlining his idea for what would become Gojira.

Science-fiction writer Shigeru Kayama fleshed out Tanaka’s outline into a basic story, nudging the anti-nuclear aspects of the concept to the forefront. Such frank allusions to the atomic bomb were unusual at the time. The Allied occupation of Japan had concluded only two years earlier, bringing an end to a period of censorship around the topic. Freed from post-war restrictions, Godzilla would not simply be awakened or mutated by an atomic bomb as in Hollywood’s foray into atomic-age monsters; he would be the embodiment of one. The notion was further refined by director and screenwriter Ishirō Honda.

A pacifist whose promising filmmaking career had been derailed for a decade after being drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army, Honda brought a first-hand understanding of the consequences of war to Gojira. He spent six years on the front, was imprisoned in China, and passed through the wreckage of Hiroshima on his way home to his family. According to Honda biographers Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, the director told his wife, Kimi, he hoped the film would help people understand the horrors of such a weapon after “having seen the terror of the atomic bomb in real life.”

Honda wanted to show audiences that the bomb was the result of scientific ambition gone awry as much as it was an outcome of war. Co-writing the screenplay with Takeo Murata, the director placed stronger emphasis on the story’s tragic love triangle, anchored by the brilliant but conflicted scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Serizawa has developed a powerful device called an oxygen destroyer that is capable of killing Godzilla. He is appalled at his own creation and its destructive potential if made into a weapon. Ultimately, Serizawa agrees to use the oxygen destroyer, solving his moral conundrum by destroying his notes and sacrificing himself, eliminating any chance his work will be re-created. 

“I wanted to express my views about scientists,” Honda said. “They might invent something wonderful, but they also must be responsible for how it is used.”

Gojira’s success led to more than a dozen sequels, many of them directed by Honda, and laid the foundation of a new subgenre called kaiju eiga (monster movie). A boom of Japanese media featuring giant monsters followed. 

The rest of the early Godzilla films contain occasional flashes of social commentary: Honda’s satirical take on advertising and the television industry in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962); the charred, radioactive landscape of a once-lush Infant Island in Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964); the environmentalist message behind the titular pile of antagonistic sludge in Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971). Still, for the most part—and, evidently, much to Honda’s polite chagrin—the films of this period are professional wrestling-style slugfests that transform Godzilla from a terrifying force of atomic annihilation to Japan’s oversized protector. 

Honda returned to the director’s chair one final time to helm Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). Its darker, almost somber tone rekindles some staple Honda themes around scientific responsibility, though they are more muted here. Released just as the sun was setting on Japan’s “monster boom,” Terror of Mechagodzilla was a box office disappointment, and the series would go on hiatus for nearly a decade. 

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Arriving in theaters to celebrate the character’s 30th anniversary, The Return of Godzilla (1984) is a return to the franchise’s anti-nuclear roots. Directed by Koji Hashimoto, the film serves as a direct sequel to the 1954 original. A generation after the first Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo, a new iteration of the monster suddenly rises from the depths of the Pacific. When Godzilla destroys a Soviet submarine, the monster is no longer the only nuclear disaster Japan has to worry about. With the Soviets convinced the vessel was attacked by the United States, Japan is caught in the middle of an escalating conflict between two atomic superpowers.

Even after Japan reveals to both nations that the real culprit was an irradiated, 80-meter-tall theropod, the danger is hardly diminished. The U.S. and the Soviet Union both position satellites armed with nuclear warheads over Japan, despite the country’s strong insistence that such weapons not be used under any circumstances. 

“We wanted to show how easily an [atomic] incident could occur today, but vivid images of nuclear war are taboo,” Tanaka, who was still on board as the series’ producer, said while promoting the film. “Godzilla, on the other hand, can bring the message to light and still be entertaining.” 

While Cold War tensions provide the bulk of the film’s drama, The Return of Godzilla is also informed by wider concerns surrounding nuclear technology. In 1979, the partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania seemed to confirm the fears of anti-nuclear activists and sparked protests across the globe. Not coincidentally, when Godzilla comes ashore five years later in Return, he immediately attacks a nuclear power plant and feeds off the reactor. 

“In the first Godzilla movie in 1954, the monster was awakened by a nuclear explosion and the message was against nuclear testing,” Hashimoto said. “This time the theme is broader—the risk of nuclear energy in all its forms. This is the message I want to spread to the world through this film.”

The Return of Godzilla also takes aim at what Tanaka viewed as an overly materialistic culture taking shape as Japan’s post-war economic miracle hit its peak. The producer described the destruction featured in the film as confronting “the vain symbols of these abundant days.”

Japan’s rapid economic growth was explored in a more overt fashion in a later sequel, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). The critical and box office success of The Return of Godzilla led to six follow-ups over the next decade. Released in 1991 as the third film in the revamped series, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was meant to be a throwback to the more child-friendly adventures of the 1960s and 1970s. It proved to be among the most controversial of any Godzilla release to date. 

Directed by Kazuki Ōmori, the film reimagines Godzilla’s three-headed archenemy as the genetic experiment of time-traveling villains from the 23rd Century. These “Futurians” come to the early 1990s en route to 1944, where they plan on stopping a younger Godzilla, who was then just a simple dinosaur, from ever being mutated by H-bomb testing. The duplicitous Futurians’ real goal is to decimate Japan before it has a chance to become an economic superpower so wealthy that it surpasses all other nations. With Godzilla taken off the map, they sic King Ghidorah on a now-defenseless Japan as the country’s government scrambles to find a way to bring Godzilla back.  

While the film’s take on Japan’s economic dominance was already enough to ruffle some feathers across the Pacific, its most contentious moment occurs during the sequence set in 1944. The island the proto-Godzilla, or “Godzillasaurus,” calls home turns out to be the site of a WWII battle. The dinosaur attacks and kills the Americans, sparing the grateful Japanese soldiers. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association decried the scene as in “very poor taste,” and Honda remarked that the moment “went a bit too far.” 

Despite Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah not yet being released in the United States, the controversy garnered coverage on Entertainment Tonight. Over grainy footage shot inside a Tokyo movie theater, the host explained how the scene “shows Godzilla flattening a lot of our GIs.” CNN, too, covered the debacle, as did PBS through its affiliate KCTS in Seattle. Ōmori appeared on all three networks to respond to claims that his film was anti-American. 

“The American actors who played extras in the film were very happy about getting crushed and squished by Godzilla,” he said through a translator. 

That the movie proved so controversial in the U.S. while not being available to American audiences was perhaps driven as much by diplomatic friction as any sense of genuine outrage. While Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s was starting to collapse at the start of this new decade, the country’s rapid economic expansion had resulted in lingering tensions with the United States. By the end of 1991, the two nations were locked in a trade war, with President George H.W. Bush visiting Japan to meet with the prime minister just weeks after Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah’s theatrical release. The American press was particularly enamored with the timing of it all.

“Like Bush, the bad guys in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah are concerned about Japan’s growing economic dominance,” noted U.S. News and World Report. “The difference is that they come from the 23rd century and think they can do something about it. The spacemen, who act and sometimes talk as if their forebears might have worked in Detroit, try to force Tokyo to buy inferior products. What’s standing in their way is a 328-foot-tall trade barrier with scales and killer breath.”

The film was not released in the United States until 1998, going straight to home video long after the controversy had faded. 

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Intentionally or not, Ōmori had touched upon one of the thorniest elements of the Godzilla franchise. From the monster’s first appearance, Godzilla has provided filmmakers with a canvas not only for tackling domestic and global anxieties, but Japan’s role in World War II and its shifting place on the world stage. Some Godzilla films clearly warn against jingoism, while others seem to embrace it. They veer between reckoning with Japan’s wartime atrocities and wielding its moral authority as history’s only victim of a nuclear attack. 

Gojira’s implications could in some ways have proven very welcome and therapeutic,” William M. Tsutsui, historian and author of Godzilla on My Mind, writes. “The land of the rising sun was culpable for neither the atomic bomb nor Godzilla, yet had borne the unique agonies of them both. But at the same time that Godzilla may have helped naturalize Japanese victimhood, it also brought to the fore a welter of unsettled memories and unresolved issues from Japan’s wartime experience.”

Gojira composer Akira Ifukube once said that, for his generation, Godzilla was “like the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific Ocean during the war.” At the start of the new millennium, writer-director Shusuke Kaneko flipped this interpretation on its head with Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). In Kaneko’s film, the Japanese government has lied about what transpired in 1954. The public is unaware of Serizawa’s invention or his sacrifice and instead believes that the then newly-formed Japanese Self Defense Force was responsible for killing Godzilla. This faith in Japan’s military might is shaken when the monster reemerges a half-century later, having been resurrected by the souls of every victim of the Pacific War—not just those who fought for Japan. 

“The Japanese have forgotten the sins of their fathers,” Kaneko said of Godzilla’s motivation in an interview with reporter Norman England. “Godzilla doesn’t like this. He’s angry at the Japanese people and wants to smash them! Unfortunately, as much as I’d like, I can’t come out and say this directly. There are zealots here who will make a stink if they believe I’m bashing the nation.” 

Kaneko’s film can be seen as a response to the rise of ultra-conservative nationalist groups like Nippon Kaigi. The organization had officially formed a few years earlier and would grow in popularity and power over the next decade. Nippon Kaigi engages in historical negationism, denying or downplaying Imperial Japan’s war crimes, including the Nanjing Massacre. Its aim is to revise the country’s pacifist (and largely American-written) constitution to allow for maintaining a standing army for the first time since WWII. Shinzō Abe, the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, was a member of the group. In 2015, Abe oversaw controversial reforms that expanded the power of the JSDF to operate overseas in a limited capacity; he was less successful in outright revising the constitution.

The following year, Toho released Shin Godzilla (2016), co-directed by anime auteur Hideaki Anno and blockbuster filmmaker Shinji Higuchi. Anno, who is best known as the creator of the revered Evangelion series, wrote the screenplay. Shin Godzilla chronicles the bumbling efforts of Japanese bureaucrats to respond to a threat as pressing as Godzilla. As the monster ambivalently carves a destructive path through Tokyo’s suburbs, members of the government shuffle between meetings and conference rooms, hamstrung by red tape and struggling to grasp the urgency of the moment. Meanwhile, the country’s military response is hampered by confusion over how to interpret the powers granted to the Japanese Self Defense Force by the constitution; would firing on such a creature count as self-defense? 

A group of young government workers decides to circumvent convention, as well as the will of the U.S.-led United Nations, which hopes to use thermonuclear weapons against Godzilla. They ultimately hatch a plan that freezes the constantly mutating monstrosity in his tracks.

With its focus on lampooning post-WWII political norms and its nod to the debate over the JSDF, Shin Godzilla is viewed by many as having a nationalist bent. In fact, Abe praised the film’s portrayal of the Japanese military, going as far as to ascribe Godzilla’s continued popularity to the “unwavering support that the public has for the Self-Defense Forces.” While critics and fans might disagree about how much Shin Godzilla intentionally endorses a right-wing perspective, there’s no disputing what the monster himself—who emerges from the sea amid a wall of water, boats, and cars and is powered by nuclear fission—is meant to represent. In March 2011, the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan occurred about 45 miles east of the Tōhoku region. The earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and caused the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. 

“The Fukushima meltdown and the Tōhoku earthquake are the sort of natural disasters that we haven’t seen in several hundred years,” Higuchi said. “In a way, those disasters are the kaiju of our day.”

It’s a statement Honda might have agreed with. In a 1992 interview conducted shortly before his death, the director spoke of the need to update Godzilla’s meaning to keep up with the times. Referencing a record-breaking nor’easter that recently occurred where his son lived in the New York area, he said “natural disasters are also Godzilla in a different form.” That’s the characterization adopted by the recent U.S. blockbusters produced by Legendary Pictures. These big-budget cousins to Toho’s kaiju movies draw their thematic resonance from our stubborn march toward human-made climate disaster. Gareth Edwards, the director of Godzilla (2014), described the monster as “a symbol of nature coming back to put us in our place.” 

At the same time, the original metaphor remains inescapable even here. Hiroshima is referenced through the familiarly named character Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who carries with him the watch his father wore on the day of the atomic bombing. Less sensitively handled is a nod to Castle Bravo. In this timeline, the nuclear test was secretly an attempt at destroying Godzilla, and Monarch—the monster-tracking organization that provides the franchise’s overarching story—later adopts the project’s name for its underwater base of operations. 

Naturally, the blast shadow cast by Godzilla’s origins is longer in Japan, often even darkening the sillier entries in the series. Forty years after Godzilla’s debut, Toho released Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994). As far as Japanese Godzilla films go, it’s about as far from Honda’s original vision as one could get. The plot involves the monster rescuing his adopted son from the clutches of a crystallized clone birthed from a black hole seeded with Godzilla DNA. The film’s message, as much as there is one, is less concerned with the risks of atomic warfare or nuclear energy than the impact of mankind polluting outer space. And yet, for Kenpachiro Satsuma, the actor who portrayed Godzilla in the film, the monster still stood for one thing above all else. 

“What I am trying to express, just with my back as I walk away,” he told the New York Times during filming, “is a warning against nuclear destruction.”

Godzilla would famously be killed off in the next entry, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995). His death was not the result of any wounds sustained during battle with the JSDF or an enemy monster but of a broken heart. Functioning like a nuclear reactor, the organ triggers a biological meltdown, and Godzilla dies while avenging the death of his son. 

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Toho’s newest Godzilla film focuses on the King of the Monsters’ postwar origins as explicitly as any entry since 1954. Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, who also supervised the movie’s Oscar-winning visual effects, Godzilla Minus One (2023) shifts the timeline of Godzilla’s emergence to immediately after Japan’s defeat in WWII. The protagonist, Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), is a kamikaze pilot who feigns engine trouble in order to survive the final days of the war, only to encounter a pre-mutated Godzilla that slaughters the mechanics examining his plane. Plagued with guilt, he returns home to find his parents dead, his neighborhood a pile of rubble, and his community furious with him for shirking his duties. 

Just as Kōichi and his country begin to rebuild, U.S. nuclear testing transforms Godzilla into a walking atomic bomb. Both the United States and Japanese government refuse to stop the monster, leaving a group of war-weary citizens to confront the threat on their own. Kōichi must choose between a plan of attack that would have him fulfill the kamikaze role foisted on him by an imperial regime that—as another character puts it—“treated life far too cheaply,” and a riskier one that would allow him to live. 

In interviews, Yamazaki has said that Godzilla Minus One is inspired by the spirit of both the original 1954 film and Kaneko’s Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. It also draws inspiration from the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and how a country’s government can fail its citizens in the face of a national emergency.  

“Our feelings of anxiety become Godzilla,” the director said ahead of the film’s release. 

While Godzilla—at his nuclear core—persists as a lumbering metaphor for the consequences of war whose every thunderous footstep pounds the point home for audiences, the stories around him will always adapt to reflect the fears of the time. The thrill moviegoers get from seeing giant monsters level cities has certainly contributed to Godzilla’s success. The spectacle of mass destruction, what Susan Sontag described as the “peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess,” is central to the character’s appeal. But the potent yet malleable meaning behind the destruction transformed what could have easily been remembered as a particularly well-crafted piece of 1950s sci-fi into a legacy that has endured over 38 films and seven decades. 

Godzilla “is a nightmare created out of the darkness of the human soul,” producer Tanaka once said. “He is the sacred beast of the apocalypse.”