When we examine Godzilla critically the general approach is to discuss how the giant monster, brought to life by radiation from atomic bombs, represents Japan’s post-World War II anxieties about nuclear war. Japan is the only country in the world to be subjected to an atomic bomb attack, and the result of that bombing was catastrophic. As the world trudged forward into the nuclear age Japan was still coping with the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla a giant lizard beast is awakened by nuclear testing. It begins to wreak havoc on Tokyo, spewing atomic fire from its mouth and crushing buildings. It’s a painfully clear metaphor for the nuclear attacks experienced nine years earlier. To a Japanese audience in 1954 it was horrifying and struck close to home.
But there is an angle to Godzilla’s commentary that is often missed by Western audiences. In the United States we are well aware of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but woefully ignorant that it was only the ending to a two-year long firebombing campaign launched by the allied forces.
|Tokyo during the 1943 firebombing|
In 1943 the United States began this campaign by bombing Tokyo. 1,665 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, igniting a massive firestorm. It is estimated that 83,793 people were killed, with over 40,000 more injured. This was only the beginning as the U.S. began firebombing every major Japanese city in the same manner, and after that moved onto the smaller cities.
Unlike the United States, Japan’s cities were mostly based on wooden architecture. They burned ferociously. Future U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara helped to oversee these bombings. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War McNamara discusses this campaign and ultimately admits “we were war criminals.” Hundreds of thousands of civilians are estimated to have died.
Now, flash forward to 1954. Imagine being a Japanese citizen and seeing this on a cinema screen:
Yes, Godzilla was about the nuclear bomb, but it was also about so much more. It was about a country still in shock.