Godzilla, Raymond Burr and the American Occupation

Most Americans haven’t seen the original 1954 Godzilla movie. That’s a shame. “Godzilla” 2014 takes the Toho Company icon and and twists the original protest message into a feel-good American posture.

The 1954 movie, directed by Ishirō Honda, was a reaction against the U.S. hydrogen bomb  testings on the Bikini Atoll. The United States detonated 23 nuclear devices at seven different test sites at the Bikini Atoll. The testing began in July 1946, less than a year after World War II ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima(6 August 1945)  and Nagasaki (9 August 1945).  Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945. American scientists walked the ruins of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They knew what an atom bomb could do. The Americans also knew the hydrogen bomb was more powerful.

In 1954, much of the tragedy of the Bikini Atoll and the testing were unknown.  For the Japanese, it was the 1 March 1954 detonation that brought the issue to the public attention. At the time, the impact on people in the Marshall Islands wasn’t known.  The Rongelap people were returned in what seemed to be an medical experiment to see the effects on human beings because as one scientist wrote (according to a Huffington Post article)  “It would (be) very interesting to go back and get good environmental data” and get a “measure of the human uptake, when people live in contaminated environment.”

What was known was that 23 crew members of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Number 5 Lucky Dragon) were outside of the supposed danger zone, but the men on the Japanese fishing boat were exposed to irradiated ash and debris. They all became ill. The man behind the hydrogen bombing tests, Edward Teller, reportedly said, “It’s unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman.”

Teller’s later proposed projects, such as making an artificial harbor in Alaska using three hydrogen bombs (and you thought the Valdez was a disaster), would tell us something about the mindset of the so-called father of the H-bomb. He was, apparently, the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove.

It’s not clear when Teller made such an assertion. Of the 23 crew members of the Lucky Dragon, one man did die less than a year later (23 September 1954) from acute radiation syndrome.  The ship was outside the established danger zone, but a shift of the wind and the unexpected power of the bomb–the bomb was at least twice as powerful as predicted–resulted in the fisherman seeing the explosion and being exposed to fine white dust for several hours. The fishermen called it the death ash 死の灰.

By the time the fisherman returned to Japan on 14 March 2014, the men were ill.  Japanese biophysicist Yasushi Nishiwaki examined the crew and the ship. He wrote to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for information on how to treat the crew, but the U.S. did not respond although two medical scientists were sent to Japan to study the effects of the fallout and help with the treatment.

Japan had struggled under the unequal treaties before World War II. From 1945 until 1952, they had been under the Occupation Army (first led by General Douglas MacArthur and for the last year, under Matthew Ridgeway).  The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (1946-1948) and the subsequent suppression of one judge’s (Radhabinod Pal) dissent until 1952 did not assure the Japanese of justice but seemed to support institutionalized racism and the paternalism of imperialism.

The Japan of 1954 was just a toddler in the post-World War II world, hesitant to assert itself and without any military power, cautiously dependent upon a capricious stepparent. The Korean War had just ended (1950-1953). If Americans were paranoid about Communism, then imagine how Japan felt, so close and so dependent on the American military who had bases in places like Yokosuka and Okinawa.

In 1959 a Japanese film was made about the ship and the fishermen, but just as science fiction was a vehicle for American directors and writers to tackle social and cultural problems (e.g. “Twilight Zone” TV series from 1959-1964), Japanese expressed their concern about the hydrogen bomb testing and attempted coverup with a movie about a great monster, Godzilla. The film was released 3 November 1954, By that time, the Lucky Dragon’s chief radioman, Aikichi Kuboyama had died (23 September 1954).

But that’s not the whole story. All the crew members suffered illnesses that are believed to have been caused by their exposure. The native population of the Bikini Atoll believed they were being temporarily moved from their homes, but they have yet to return. The U.S. has set up trust funds for the transplanted islanders.

The first Godzilla movie, without the presence of Raymond Burr, was about the Japanese dealing with a problem created by the American government. Burr was inserted to offer explanations and give us a white face; he played a reporter Steve Martin and friend to all the main characters.

The new Godzilla movie is about a heroic America. The prologue establishes that the American government is using hydrogen bombs to covertly protect the world, including Japan, from the kaiju. Reference is made to the unlucky fisherman and the Bikini Islands, but the hydrogen bombs are clearly marked as anti-kaiju weapons of mass destruction.

Flash forward to 1999, and in the Philippines, we have two scientist, Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins),  investigating a quarry where the ground has suddenly given way and exposed a science fiction sinkhole–a deep and vast cave. While exploring the cave, the scientist find they are walking on the vertebrae of an unknown monster and they discover what seem to be egg pods. The cave is the remnants of a buried creature, one that was pregnant. Far worse, one of the pods has hatched.

In Japan, near Tokyo, but miraculously in view of Mt. Fuji, we have an American in charge of a nuclear power plant in Japan. American Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) of Janjira Nuclear Plant. Janjira (雀路羅市)is an unlikely name for a Japanese city. I’ve read one blog already making light of this fact. The name translates roughly into Sparrow Road Thin Silk and the more obvious reading might have been Jakujira. As someone named Jana, I can attest to how difficult it is to find a Japanese character that reads “jan.” Likely the name references the original Chinese characters used for Godzilla (呉爾羅) based on pronunciation and not meaning. 

Brody lives within sight of Mt. Fuji. In real life, Mt. Fuji is 60 miles southwest of Tokyo and can be seen from there on a clear day. The Brody home might not seem lavish by American standards, but for Japan, it is. The home is spacious and the gardens are artistic. Few people have the time and money to afford a garden like that and with such a great view.

Although we are in Japan and although the American Occupation ended over 4 decades ago,  an American is the plant supervisor of some sort, listed as a nuclear engineer (on the Monarch Digital Sec. Division Surveillance Report) and the speaks mainly in English to his employees. If that isn’t a bit of cultural imperialism (consider the 2009 German-Chinese-French biographical film “John Rabe”), than what is? It’s almost as if American audiences are asked to accept that the Alliance of World War II continues to guide Japan.

His wife, Sandra, is French because she’s played by French actress Juliette Binoche. Sandra and Joe both work at the Janjira nuclear plant. It’s Joe’s birthday but both Sandra and Joe must rush to the plant because of seismic activity. Sandra and her team suit up to investigate the damage at the core, but an explosion occurs and Sandra and her team don’t make it out when Joe must seal off their area to prevent radiation from leaking outside. The city of Janjira is evacuated and quarantined, even 15 years later.

Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) grows up to be a well-muscled serious U.S. Navy officer living in San Francisco with his nurse wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde).  He’s just returned from a mission as an explosive ordnance disposal officer and before he can settle in for some good family time, he has to take a jet to Japan. His father has been arrested for trespassing on to the still-quarantined city of Janjira. Ford must bail him and keep his appointment to meet our monster.

Notice that the dialogue in Japanese amongst the Japanese-looking citizens remains mostly untranslated. It is only background noise. We aren’t particularly interested in the fears of  the Japanese population. Even with the Dr. Serizawa, we aren’t tied to Japan. There is a reference to Hiroshima, but Serizawa is never shown worried about his friends, his colleagues, his family in Japan. Although he speaks American English, he apparently has no ties to the scientific community in places where Japanese students abroad have large communities (San Francisco, Honolulu and Los Angeles) and places which are major tourist destinations for the Japanese during good economic times (Honolulu and Las Vegas). The possible destruction in the Philippines is ignored completely. We are instead asked to focus on the Caucasians.

The movie is also about fathers and sons. We don’t see Joe raising his son as a widower (nor does Joe seem to be particularly interested in the families of members of his wife’s team who perished with her), but we see Joe and his son on a last dangerous journey. Joe is proven right, but his bittersweet redemption comes just before his death. Joe is our Raymond Burr character, the one who first provides a point of view. The POV is handed off to Ford.

His son Ford also has a son. After his father’s death, Ford travels to Oahu on the way back to his son and he saves someone else’s son, an Asian boy, but we’re not interested in him any more than the young girl from whose perspective we see tsunami in Waikiki. These children connect with our protective instincts and emphasize the helplessness of humans in the face of nature and the kaiju monsters. If the children are not in control of the chaos that surrounds them, neither are we as adults.

At this point, we still haven’t seen Godzilla. This didn’t bother me. Godzilla is portrayed as a prehistoric beast from a time when the creatures on earth subsisted on radiation. He is an apex/alpha predator, but just exactly what is his prey is unclear. Apex predators range from alligators, crocodiles and sharks to grizzly bears, wolves and humans to electric eels and driver ants. The 1975 movie “Jaws” and the more recent 2011 “The Grey” wanted us to believe that the apex predator was first looking for a meal and second, vengeful.

In “Godzilla” 2014, Godzilla’s battle isn’t against man; it’s against something from his own time era, the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO). Our alpha predator plans his pursuit that leads him to Las Vegas because he doesn’t want MUTOs overrunning his planet or because he’s against public fornication, even in Las Vegas?

As an actor might ask any director, just what is the motivation? If Godzilla is a predator just what is his prey? He doesn’t seem to be looking for some atomic breath roasted MUTO nor does he seem interested in an atomic baked MUTO egg omelet.

What exactly calls Godzilla up from the depths to is still somewhat mysterious. Godzilla, identified as male, supposedly comes to restore order, balance to the natural balance of earth drawn by the radiation that his enemies, the MUTOs, need to breed. Doesn’t Godzilla need to breed? And why does he need to save, not Japan, but the United States from its nuclear waste? Imagine how easily Godzilla could cure the problems of humans, by eliminating them entirely.

If Godzilla needs radiation to live, then wouldn’t a nuclear power plant be the ideal place to stop for a sauna day or century? The need for radiation to convert into energy reminded me of green plants and photosynthesis. That doesn’t didn’t exactly explain those great big teeth. The most vicious plant from moviedom, Audrey II from “Little Shop of Horrors,” needed blood and sang a mean baritone. Godzilla 2014 only seems to be meandering in search of breath mints to cool his atomic breath after his halitosis kills the MUTOs.

In the original Godzilla, we see children in uniforms singing, injured and beside injured parents.  We see rows and rows of injured people being cared for. The inventor of the oxygen destroyer is tortured by the thought that it will be misused someday, but finally agrees to use it against Godzilla. We’re concerned with many people and we view the destruction and view the effects on the populace. In “Godzilla” 2014, our heroes have no qualms against using a nuclear explosion, just hopefully not in San Francisco. That doesn’t seem so far off from Teller’s harbor plans for Alaska. The camera is more interested in viewing the action and destruction in a large scale. This is an action movie, but the action hero is both Ford and Godzilla.

Godzilla as an entity is more believable than the MUTOs. His scales are almost like an alligator’s and he moves well enough. From the backside view of the MUTOs, I kept on thinking of a human in spandex bending over , but I understand the MUTOs were based on insects. Yet how do the MUTOs relate to Godzilla?

With the MUTO gone, our scaly hero walks off into the water. Without a thought of all the nuclear reactors churning radiation in the world and the many nuclear waste sites just waiting for consumption, he trudges wearily into the setting sun where he will bask in the radiation at the earth’s core until the earth needs him once more. Those brave people who  approached him while he was dormant, waited too long to take selfies but aren’t injured or eaten.

In the end, we still haven’t defined what Godzilla is.  That’s in keeping with Godzilla’s patchy history and varied timelines–hero and anti-hero, natural disaster and Japan’s protector. Is he our hero, a natural disaster or Mother Nature’s vengeful angel, guardian of the planet? And, are there more of them? Perhaps there’s an egg waiting to hatch somewhere like in Madison Square Garden.





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