‘Man is more frightening than Gojira.’ — Hiromi Ogashira, Shin Godzilla (2016)
Since 1954, the gigantic thermonuclear lizard known as Gojira (Japanese for Godzilla) has been wreaking havoc and impacting pop culture. Godzilla’s latest venture, the highly-anticipated Godzilla vs Kong pits the creature against Skull Island’s ape, King Kong, for a memorable big-budget ‘clash of the titans’. After starring in a plethora of Japanese films and four Hollywood productions, Godzilla has cemented his status as one of the most popular icons of popcorn entertainment. Spawning a committed fandom, most of these Godzilla movies impress viewers with their damage-heavy action sequences and production value.
Clearly, what one can’t deny is that Godzilla happens to be one of Japan’s best cultural exports to America. This is evident from the present theatrical success of Godzilla vs Kong in a COVID-era world. However, what’s ironic in this context is Godzilla’s own critiques at nuclear warfare triggered by the United States.
The aftermath of the Second World War was naturally tumultuous for Japan, a country still plagued with the shock of the two atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While both countries were involved in the War, a large consensus would still like to believe that the explosions could have been avoided, given the fact that Japan was already on the brink of defeat by 1945.
As Japan strove to rebuild its economy and society, America continued with its nuclear testing, setting off the inevitable Cold War with the Soviets. The Pacific coral reef of Bikini Atoll, for instance, served as a site for 23 nuclear tests under America up till the 1950s. Despite the American guarantee of isolated test explosions, the repercussions could still be felt by civilians in the vicinity. It was in 1954 when Uncle Sam detonated the thermonuclear weapon known as Castle Bravo. The resulting nuclear fallout went on to contaminate a Japanese tuna fishing boat, Daigo Fukuryū Maru (‘Lucky Dragon 5’). Each of the 23 crew members suffered what is known as acute radiation syndrome. Barring one, the boat’s crew eventually survived and recovered, but the fear of nuclear weapons still loomed large.
Interestingly, around the same time, Toho Studios was in the midst of producing a certain ‘kaiju film’ (the Japanese subgenre of monster films) called Gojira. Even though the Lucky Dragon 5 incident took place mid-production, director Ishirō Honda was already intent on representing Godzilla as a symbol of nuclear devastation.
In the film’s storyline, the lizard evolves out of an ancient sea creature that lay undisturbed in the depths of the ocean. Constant underwater testing of hydrogen bombs not only awakens this prehistoric beast but also powers him to destructive levels. In this sense, Godzilla’s reign of destruction is a metaphor for the impact of nuclear weapons on Japan.
‘Dread about a hydrogen bomb’, that’s how producer Tomoyuki Tanaka described the film’s theme. Some can get specific and allege Godzilla to be a metaphor for America itself. Other than the aforementioned nuclear allegories, the film also opened with the sinking of two freighters and a fishing boat, a clear reference to the fate of Lucky Dragon 5.
A war veteran and a former prisoner of war, Honda went on to rebuild his life, directing several other Godzilla films including the original King Kong vs Godzilla (1962). Godzilla eventually began appearing in seemingly brainless action films, some of which even had comedic overtones.
Before Hollywood decided to capitalise on the so-called ‘King of Monsters’, other East Asian countries were already ardent on crafting similar kaiju films. South Korea created its own dinosaur-like monster called Yangary, who debuted in the 1967 film of the same name. The one-horned monster was born out of an atomic blast in the Middle East and goes on to ravage South Korea.
Fast forward a decade, and North Korea too wished to create its own Godzilla. This was the time when Kim Il-sung served as dictator. Under his regime, the ‘Supreme Leader’ wanted to do away with any trace of Western influence on his country. With this being said, his son Kim Jong-il was an admirer of films, including not just the ones from the ‘Eastern Bloc’ but also Hollywood blockbusters.
As North Korea suffered from a nascent propaganda-dominated film industry, a plan was set in motion. In 1978, Kim Jong-il sent members of his intelligentsia to kidnap reputed South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee. Apparently, Kim wished for North Korean films to gain recognition at international film festivals and instructed the director to incorporate diverse themes rather than the usual political propaganda. Held in captivity, Shin directed six films, the last of which was Pulgasari.
Released in 1985, Pulgasari was North Korea’s attempt at birthing a cinematic kaiju. The plot revolves around a metal-eating monster who saves a farmer’s daughter in Korea’s era of feudalism. Shin later escaped to the United States with his wife while Pulgasari just fizzled out of existence. Today, it is watched for its unintentional hilarity and primitive special effects.
A New Yorker profile on Shin read, ‘If there is a political message in Pulgasari, Shin says, it is a subtle, if ironic, call for pacifism: in the face of a cannon-eating beast, he says, “there are limits to what weapons can do”’. The word ‘ironic’ makes sense considering that North Korea has been constantly conducting nuclear tests, as current leader Kim Jong-un hopes to rule the next nuclear superpower.
As the world waits for an impending nuclear doom, one can only hope that no Gojira arises out of all the destruction.