Monsters and Metaphors: Godzilla (1954) Versus the Atom Bomb

This year, as threats of nuclear war fly, Nazis march through the streets, and police continue to brutalize poor people and people of color, I’ve found myself watching a lot of monster movies. As if to distract myself from the human monsters outside my window, my Netflix queue and Amazon watch list have filled up with films like Colossal, The Host (the 2006 Korean one), District 9, and Pacific Rim. And above them, good as they all are, towers the shadow and primeval roar of Godzilla.

Having previously been exposed to the great lizard only through kitschy advertisements, my eleventh-grade revelation that Godzilla was a metaphor for the atomic bomb blew my mind. It was my first introduction (well, along with the novel Dracula, but that’s a whole different article) to the idea that monsters could symbolize actual cultural forces, and I rambled about it incessantly to my friends until they zoned out. Even knowing this, however, it was still a shock to sit down earlier this year to watch the original 1954 Godzilla (or Gojira, as it was titled in Japanese) and realize how much political allegory was packed into it. Because ultimately, though the characters, plot, and practical effects are all worth mentioning, you can’t talk about Godzilla without discussing its politics.

Godzilla opens with a series of incidents involving boats disappearing on the water in flashes of bright light. Over the course of several scientific explorations, the film’s four human protagonists—Dr. Yamane, an older scientist; his daughter, Emiko; his troubled colleague, Serizawa; and Captain Ogata, who Emiko loves—slowly learn that the boat disappearances can be attributed to an enormous, fire-breathing dinosaur that was mutated and/or stirred up by atomic testing. These discoveries culminate with the creature, which has by this point been christened Godzilla, rising from the ocean and smashing trains, stomping on buildings, setting whole blocks alight, and ripping down telephone poles while the military fires impotently. Eventually, the monster is defeated with an “oxygen destroyer,” though Serizawa, who designed the machine, also dies in the process.

It’s easy to see what this plot reflects when you consider its context. The film was released less than a decade after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and less than a year after the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, in which an American nuclear test exposed 23 Japanese fishermen to dangerous levels of radioactive fallout. In its time, few would have missed the significance of an unstoppable force rising from the water and turning cities to rubble with fiery blasts. The film practically breaks the fourth wall and states its purposes explicitly at the end, when Dr. Yamane turns to a companion and warns that if atomic testing continues, another Godzilla may appear. But more than just the plot, the whole film is structured, on a shot-by-shot level, around Japan’s national experience of the atom bomb’s horrors, from the use of Geiger counters to track the monster, to the (thankfully not too graphic) shots of burn victims crowding a hospital after Godzilla’s rampage, to Serizawa’s deep fear that his device will be used for military applications, to the prayer for peace and healing that comes near the end, and so on. Even the heavily-censored version released in 1950s America, which excised the explicit references to atomic weaponry and added Raymond Burr, couldn’t entirely remove the film’s subtext.

Today, as reckless atomic saber-rattling escalates, Godzilla is as relevant as ever. In 2014 and 2016, we received, respectively, American and Japanese reboots. This November, an anime movie featuring Godzilla is scheduled to come out on Netflix, while a more traditional sequel to the 2014 film is planned for 2019. More broadly, the tradition of socially-conscious monster-themed science fiction that Godzilla helped popularize is alive and well, and, as I hinted earlier, there’s plenty of material to work with. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet made a movie about a secret fascist conspiracy to destroy D.C. by unleashing a giant orange parrot that squawks out unintelligible word salad (which is a shame, because I can’t be the only one who would totally see that movie), but plenty of subtler references to modern dilemmas can be found. This year’s delightful Okja, for instance, uses the corporate exploitation of its eponymous animal to tell a story criticizing consumerism and factory farming. It’s difficult to say much about the aforementioned Colossal without spoiling it, but suffice it to say that the monster plot meshes with a story about alcoholism and toxic relationships in intriguing symbolic ways. And the trailers for this December’s The Shape of Water promise another film that, like Godzilla, mixes good storytelling, nuclear symbolism, and empathy into a monster-filled balm for troubled times.