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Godzilla and Postwar Japan

Photo for Godzilla and Postwar Japan

William M. Tsutsui (Univ. of Kansas) explores the role of the Godzilla film series in popular culture

By Richard Gunde

Click here for UCTV's video-on-demand version of Prof. Tsutsui's talk.

William M. Tsutsui (University of Kansas) began his talk on May 23 on the role of Godzilla movie series in global popular culture by noting that a New York Times/CBS News poll in 1985 asked 1,500 Americans to name a famous Japanese person. The top three responses were Hirohito, Bruce Lee (who was not even Japanese, of course), and Godzilla. "This is," Professor Tsutsui commented, ". . . a stinging indictment of American public knowledge of Japan. But it is also a testament to the impact which a Japanese movie monster has had on popular culture around the globe. Godzilla is the world's oldest and longest film franchise, as well as one of Japan's most enduring and pervasive cultural exports. Godzilla's admirers are a large and varied lot, ranging from mild-mannered college professors in Kansas to enigmatic, bouffant dictators in North Korea (Kim Jong-Il is . . . a big film buff and apparently a world-class fan of Godzilla, to the extent that he commissioned his own giant monster film, entitled Pulgasari, in 1985)."

In the United States, Tsutsui continued, Godzilla has attained true megastar status. "A big flowery Godzilla once adorned a float at the Rose Parade, the king of monsters has won an MTV lifetime achievement award, and Mia Farrow famously declared at the Oscars that Godzilla was her favorite movie."

Despite Godzilla's remarkable public presence, it is surprising, Professor Tsutsui observed, "how little scholarly attention this giant radiation-breathing reptile has received, either in Japan or in the West." Donald Ritche, whom Tsutsui described as "the dean of American film critics of Japan," once damned Japanese cinema as "'a plethora of nudity, teenage heroes, science-fiction monsters, animated cartoons, and pictures about cute animals.'" Only a handful of scholarly essays on Godzilla have appeared, and few "have attempted to contextualize the film historically." In his talk, Tsutsui set out to correct that: "I would argue," he declared, ". . . that the Godzilla films can provide us valuable insights into Japanese culture since World War II."

The Birth of Godzilla

In 1952, the U.S. move King Kong was re-released in Japan, followed in 1953 by the Warner Brothers film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Both of these were, in Tsutsui's words, "smash hits. This implanted the idea of giant monsters into the minds of Japanese film studios, which have never been loathe to steal a good idea from Hollywood."


Godzilla's genesis "was also conditioned by Cold War tensions and atomic age anxieties." In March 1954, a Japanese fishing vessel, Daigo Fukuruyu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) strayed into the U.S. nuclear bomb testing zone near Biniki Atoll. The crew was exposed to "massive amounts of radiation, one crew member died (after a cynical American cover-up), and some of the irradiated tuna on the ship made it onto the market in Japan. . . . This was big news in Japan (and was called 'the latest atomic bombing of Japan' in the media), especially, of course, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki remained fresh memories."


The production of Godzilla was a very serious matter and the movie itself was "intended to be very serious fare." The movie was "the brainchild of Toho Studios producer Tanaka Tomoyuki. . . . Tanaka recruited top talent for the picture. . . . Toho Studios invested a lot in Godzilla -- 60 million yen, about three times the budget of the average Japanese film at the time (though far less . . . than Hollywood would have spent on a run-of-the-mill B-movie at the time)."

Godzilla as the title of the movie is an English rendition of the Japanese original: Gojira. This name, Tsutsui pointed out, "was allegedly the nickname given to an overweight press agent at Toho, and was a combination of gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale)."

The American version of the movie -- Godzilla, Kind of the Monsters -- opened in the U.S. in 1956. Tsutsui explained that this "was a cleverly re-edited version of the Japanese original with the unfortunate addition of Raymond Burr as a voyeuristic American reporter who witnesses the destruction of Tokyo. This version was considerably altered from the original Japanese film -- notably in that all references to World War II and the atomic bombs were removed. Another interesting fact," Tsutsui continued, "is that the American version was subsequently subtitled in Japanese and released in Japan, where it in turn was very successful."


Godzilla: The Series

Professor Tsutsui pointed out that no less than twenty-eight Godzilla movies have been made by Toho, fifteen of which appeared between 1954 and 1975 ("at which point the series petered out"). "The series was reborn in 1984 after Toho recognized the continued popularity of Godzilla. Seven films were made between 1984 and 1995. . . . The latest run of Toho-produced films began with Godzilla 2000: Millennium, and a new film has been released annually. . . . A fiftieth anniversary blockbuster, Godzilla: Final Wars, premiered here in Los Angeles in 2004."


Over the life of the series, the quality of the movies and their intended audience changed drastically. By the 1970s, with an intended audience of preteen boys, the movies became "cynical money spinners, they were dumbed down, [and] production values plummeted." By the 1980s and 1990s, the movies "were intended to be more serious and take Godzilla back for adults. They generally boasted better special effects . . . as well as better overall production values, but most scripts were still weak and the acting was astonishingly poor at some points. The films released since 2000 have generally been quite strong -- with significantly improved screenplays . . . -- but many fans still criticize them for a lack of creativity and a continued pandering to preteen audiences."

Godzilla: The Plot

Professor Tsutsui described the plot of original Gojira movie of 1954:

Gojira begins with a clear reference of the Lucky Dragon Incident: Japanese fishing boats in the South Pacific are destroyed by some mysterious and lethal force from beneath the seas. The rustic residents of nearly Ôdo Island believe that the boats have been destroyed by Godzilla, a legendary monster lurking the ocean's depths. A paleontologist, Dr. Yamane, is dispatched from Tokyo and discovers that a prehistoric creature has been awakened from undersea hibernation by recent hydrogen bomb tests and is now itself radioactive. Yamane reports his findings to the Japanese parliament, the Diet, and argues that Godzilla is a scientific specimen which should be studied, not destroyed.

The monster, however, has set its sights on Tokyo and begins a series of devastating nighttime attacks that the military and civil officials are powerless to stop. The destruction is depicted vividly and in very human terms in the film, in scenes that were certainly intended to bring to mind memories of World War II, the firebombings of Tokyo, and, of course, the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One of the most surprising aspects of the 1954 Gojira . . . is how little time the monster actually spends on screen. Indeed, as much attention is given in the film to a melodramatic, sentimental subplot as the rampages of Godzilla. This subplot focuses on a classic love triangle: Emiko, daughter of Dr. Yamane the paleontologist, is engaged to marry her father's colleague Dr. Serizawa. Emiko, however, does not love Serizawa, who has suffered greatly in World War II and bears the emotional and physical scars of the experience. Emiko instead is in love with Lieutenant Ogata, a dashing naval officer, and she is torn with guilt as she tries to tell her father and Serizawa that she wishes to renege on her arranged betrothal.

Emiko visits Serizawa in his creepy, vaguely Gothic laboratory, intending to confess her love for another. Serizawa, however, makes his own confession: He has developed a device called an Oxygen Destroyer that is vastly more powerful than even nuclear bombs. Serizawa is racked with guilt over his creation of such a potent technology and he fears that his discovery will fall into the wrong hands and be used as a weapon. Emiko vows to keep Serizawa's Oxygen Destroyer a secret yet, later, after she witnesses firsthand the devastation wrought by Godzilla, she realizes that the device could be used to kill the monster. Emiko and Ogata convince Serizawa that destroying Godzilla with the doctor's fearsome invention is humanity's only salvation.

Godzilla sleeps by day at the bottom of Tokyo Bay and Ogata and Serizawa, all rigged up in deep-sea diving gear, carefully place the Oxygen Destroyer by the napping monster. Ogata returns to the surface, but Dr. Serizawa does not. He cuts his oxygen cord . . . and falls to the bottom of the bay to die by Godzilla, taking his awesome secret -- the formula for the Oxygen Destroyer -- with him to a watery grave. In the end, the people of Japan mourn the sacrifice of Serizawa and continue to fear the unintended consequences of nuclear testing, but rejoice in the demise of Godzilla (indeed, some commentators have read the self-congratulatory celebrations at the end of the film as a symbolic and therapeutic rewriting of the end of World War II, with Japan emerging triumphant this time around).

Godzilla: The Themes

After describing the plot of the original Godzilla movie, Professor Tsutsui turned to the question of the "message," if any, of the Godzilla series. "The first Godzilla film clearly had a strong anti-nuclear message. . . . Yet it becomes increasingly hard to conclude that the films have had a consistent message over time . . . . The only constant about the Godzilla films is a deep ambivalence, a kind of moral and intellectual ambiguity, that precludes drawing any firm, unitary conclusions. The message of Godzilla," Tsutsui explained, ". . . is complex and reflects . . . a fundamental ambivalence on the part of the Japanese when they look at issues like modernity, technology, science, nature, politics, and the world outside Japan."

The Godzilla series, however, does have a number of consistent themes, and it is to this subject that Professor Tsutsui turned next.


"Through the Godzilla series, beginning with the 1954 Gojira, we see a fairly consistent expression of anti-American sentiments and, at the same time, a strong sense of pride in Japan and Japanese accomplishments."

Godzilla as a Defender of Japan

As the series progressed, "Godzilla changes over time from being an enemy of Japan . . . to being a defender and champion of Japan against legions of other monsters, credulity-stretching aliens, and even residents of a reclusive undersea civilization." Tsutsui mentioned that Godzilla, in the eyes of historian Yoshikuni Igarashi, was "'tamed and transformed'" as a hometown superhero, "'a guardian of postwar Japanese prosperity.'"

At the same time, Tsutsui remarked, "this is where the ambivalence comes in: Godzilla is never entirely friendly and protective -- he always remains surprisingly hostile toward Japan -- and he never, of course, can become truly Japanese."

Vulnerability of Japan

Tsutsui argued that the Godzilla films reflect the concern among the people of Japan with the country's vulnerability: "Godzilla is portrayed, from the original 1954 feature on, as an unpredictable and uncontrollable force of nature, much like the earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, and tidal waves that batter a helpless Japan. Moreover, the Godzilla series also seems to reflect a sense of vulnerability to international political and economic forces beyond Japan's control -- the Cold War, the oil shocks of the 1970s, protectionism, Japan bashing, and so forth."

Ambivalence toward Science & Technology

"In common with most works of science fiction," Tsutsui said, "whether Japanese or Western, the attitudes toward science and technology revealed in Godzilla movies also appear quite ambivalent." Godzilla reveals, for instance "science gone wrong: anti-pollution, pro-environment messages appear in many movies." Moreover, "Godzilla himself often appears to be anti-progress: He trashes cities, destroys industrial areas, and just about always manages to trample Japan's most modern and impressive real estate developments."

At the same time, the Godzilla films "often revolve around scientists and scientific discovery, and it is often the heroic efforts of dedicated researchers that save Japan from Godzilla. . . . And so, as is typical of sci-fi, the overall impression of science and scientists ends up being rather ambiguous."

Ambivalence toward Authority

In common with other movies in the science fiction genre, the Godzilla films highlight ambivalent attitudes toward authority.

"The movies consistently underline the weakness of traditional authority figures in times of crisis. . . At the same time," Tsutsui remarked, "the films actually have a much darker subtext and . . . their message is actually rather conservative, even reactionary."

For instance, in the original 1954 Gojira movie, the monster comes upon the Diet Building, and does not hesitate to walk through it, turning it into "a pile of monumental rubble. . . Might Godzilla have been rendering a judgment on democracy writ large, his actions a damning statement on the divisiveness, infighting, and ultimate impotence of democratic politics and, specifically, of Japan's fracture red postwar political system?"

In addition, the Godzilla movies, particularly the early ones, could be described, in Tsutsui's words, as "military porn." After World War II, and with the promulgation of Japan's so-called peace constitution, Japan forever renounced the right to wage war. According the famous Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation. . . . Land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

However, the early Godzilla movies showed the Japanese Self-Defense Forces "in action in a positive light, despite the constitutional renunciation of war and a general tendency in society towards pacifism. . . . One should note," Tsutsui continued, "that the pro-military theme has become even more overt in recent films, especially the remarkable 2001 offering, Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack, which is a virtual paean of praise of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces."

Godzilla: Subversive or Reactionary?

In conclusion, Tsutsui argued that "Godzilla sends a mixed message: as both an enemy and a defender, both a force of nature and the product of high technology, as both an outsider and yet somehow truly Japanese. . . . Godzilla, like the modern world, was both a curse and a blessing, both something alien and something Japanese."

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External Links

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William M. Tsutsui is associate professor of History at the University of Kansas. He holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Princeton. He has served as the acting director of KU's Center for East Asian Studies (1999-2001) and is currently the director of the Kansas Consortium for Teaching About Asia. Professor Tsutsui's most recent book is Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (New York Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Tsutsui is also the author of Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan (Princeton, 1998) and Banking Policy in Japan: American Efforts at Reform During the Occupation (Routledge, 1988) as well as numerous articles on Japanese economic and business history. He has also edited and written an introduction for Banking in Japan, a three-volume collection published by Routledge in 1999.

Professor Tsutsui's research focuses on the business, economic and social history of twentieth-century Japan. His current projects include studies of the environmental impact of World War II on Japan, marginalized groups in Japanese society, contemporary Okinawa, and Godzilla as a Japanese cultural icon.