The American Scholar: A Monstrous Burden

Although the American remake erased the allegorical elements, the Japanese original is a warning about the perils of the nuclear age. (Entertainment Pictures/Alamy)

before watching Godzilla for the first time, in the spring of 2021, I was expecting a hokey, stereotypical monster movie, the genre’s typical blustery entertainment genre, with its cartoonish storylines, B-movie acting, and schlocky special effects. But Godzilla, released in Japan in 1954 and the first of what would become a 36-film franchise, takes on a decidedly different tone. It’s a dark and gloomy film, I realized it quickly, and clearly not schlocké.

It opens with a close-up of a ship’s wake followed by brief scenes of the sailors on board, young Japanese men who are about to fall victim to what we later realize is a nuclear explosion – a blinding light, a fire. Other Japanese ships at sea begin to disappear. At first, these disappearances are a mystery. But soon the source of their destruction becomes known, as a huge prehistoric lizard emerges from the depths. Gojira, as the creature is called in Japanese, lives in a hidden sea cave, but repeated underwater hydrogen bomb tests have brought it to the surface, not only angering it, but also rendering it highly radioactive and giving it its characteristic atomic breath. . Over the course of the film, Godzilla is unleashed on a rural island and then, more menacingly, on densely populated Tokyo. He crushes buildings under his feet; he lifts wagons full of terrified passengers and crushes them in his reptilian hands. The city he leaves behind – flattened structures, charred detritus, the air full of smoke, with small pockets of fire burning everywhere – resembles Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs exploded.

This striking resemblance aside, Godzilla only indirectly refers to World War II and the two atomic bombs. And yet, these twin traumas underpin every image. At one point, a woman fleeing the monster says, in what seems like a perverted understatement, “I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki – and now this.” As Godzilla goes on a rampage, another woman grabs her child, cowers against a building, and sobs. “We’re going to join dad,” she told the child. “We’ll soon be where dad is.” We learn nothing more about this woman, but the conclusion is clear: the father died in the war.

Many critics interpret Godzilla as a villainous replacement for the United States and the violence caused by the atomic bomb. I, too, had assumed all along that Godzilla was the bad guy. But the film’s atomic allegory is much more complex. Despite the massive destruction and death he causes, Godzilla is not a replacement for the United States but rather a bomb victim himself. He was torn from his prehistoric state and thrust into the sci-fi future, his body mutated by weapons beyond his comprehension. He is a symbol not only of destruction but also of survival: machine guns do not harm him, any more than cannons, missiles or fighter planes.

“Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived,” says one of the characters, paleontologist Kyohei Yamane. “What could kill him now?”

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