'Godzilla' was a metaphor for Hiroshima, and Hollywood whitewashed it

“Certainly all the pieces that were in any way, could in any way, be construed as critical of the United States or atomic testing, were really stricken from the film,” one scholar said.
Image: Godzilla 1956
The radioactive monster Godzilla stomps through a city and eats a commuter train in a scene from "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!," directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse, circa 1956.Embassy Pictures / Getty Images

When the monster Godzilla, or “Gojira,” appeared before Japanese movie audiences in 1954, many left the theaters in tears.

The fictional creature, a giant dinosaur once undisturbed in the ocean, was depicted in the original film as having been aggravated by a hydrogen bomb. Its heavily furrowed skin or scales were imagined to resemble the keloid scars of survivors of the two atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan nine years earlier to end World War II.

American audiences, however, had the opposite reaction, finding comedic value in what many interpreted as a cheesy monster movie.

“Most Americans think if you left the movie in tears, it was just because you laughed so hard,” William Tsutsui, author of “Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters,” told NBC Asian America.

The stark contrast reflects how Hollywood took the Japanese concept and scrubbed it of its political message before presenting it to American audiences to deflect from the U.S. decision to drop the bombs, critics say.

This month is the 75th anniversary of the U.S. bombings in Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki three days later, and while many Americans today think of the film as an almost campy relic of its time, it was intended in Japan to be a metaphor for the ills of atomic testing and the use of nuclear weapons, considering what Japan endured after the bombings. The movie served as a strong political statement, representative of the traumas and anxieties of the Japanese people in an era when censorship was extensive in Japan because of the American occupation of the country after the war ended, Tsutsui said. The screen depicted what many could not explicitly say.

“Japanese creative artists, filmmakers, novelists and so forth really couldn't talk about the atomic bombings. It was a topic that could not be discussed. And Japanese people, as well, were very reticent about discussing this tragedy, because it was so horrible, and because they felt a sense of guilt and shame about those events,” Tsutsui said. “But when the Japanese had their independence back, and as filmmakers were thinking about giant monsters, people began to think about that connection between monstrosity and the atomic bombing.”

In the original Japanese film, the creature was portrayed as a surviving dinosaur from the Jurassic Period, swimming around the South Pacific. Tsutsui describes the monster as “innocent as the kids on their playgrounds in Hiroshima.” After an American H-bomb test in the South Pacific, the creature became radiated, hurt and angry.

“The reality is just this sort of rage that comes from someone, essentially innocent, who is so victimized and scarred by this experience,” the scholar said.

For many Japanese viewers, seeing the movie was a cathartic, validating experience, the scholar said. People were able to witness Tokyo being destroyed once more while seeing radiation given the physical form of a monster. The ending, while bittersweet, is a hopeful one in which humanity triumphs over evil.

However, American audiences saw a different film when it was brought stateside as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” roughly two years later, Tsutsui said. The movie was heavily edited, placing the white actor Raymond Burr at the center of the adaptation. The scholar noted that an estimated 20 minutes of the original Japanese film, predominantly the politically charged portions, were cut out of the American version.

"Godzilla, king of the monsters" starring Raymond Burr, in this 1956 horror.Universal History Archive / via Getty Images

Among the axed scenes was one where commuters on a train make the link between the Hiroshima bombing and Godzilla’s attack, as well as the poignant final line in the original where biology professor Dr. Yamane warns that if nuclear testing does not cease, another Godzilla could appear. Tsutsui pointed out that the U.S. version ended on a sunny note, that the world was safe again and could return to normal.

Little of the original movie’s intended message has been restored in later adaptations. In the 1998 “Godzilla” film starring Matthew Broderick, for example, the creature was created from an atomic H-bomb test by the French, rather than Americans, in Polynesia. In the Godzilla films released by the production company Legendary, the monster is portrayed as a prehistoric dinosaur that has emerged from the Earth and must be destroyed by nuclear bombs, making it an “almost humanitarian gesture to save the world from monsters,” Tsutsui said.

The dynamic of the U.S. wanting to deny its traumatic history in Japan, he said, persists.

“It still is the case that they cannot get their minds around the nuclear issue and American culpability in the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Tsutsui noted of the more recent American adaptations.

When outlets like The New York Times reviewed the film in 1956, it was described as “in the category of cheap cinematic horror-stuff and it is too bad that a respectable theatre has to lure children and gullible grown-ups with such fare.” The deliberate aesthetic choices that the original filmmakers made on the creature’s keloid-like scars were even interpreted as low-budget Japanese filmmaking with critics at the time likening the monster to a “miniature of a dinosaur made of gum-shoes and about $20 worth of toy buildings and electric trains.”

Hollywood ultimately sought to sanitize the movie and deflect blame from the U.S. bombings, Tsutsui said.

“Certainly all the pieces that were in any way, could in any way be construed as critical of the United States or atomic testing, were really stricken from the film,” Tsutsui said. “So the deep political meaning and a lot of the heart of the original 'Godzilla' was cut out for American audiences.”

Kazu Watanabe, head of film at the Japan Society, had similar thoughts, saying that the U.S. adaptation contributed to the distorted, skewed views that Americans had of Japan at the time.

“These 'Godzilla' films were not received in the same way in general — in Japan the early films were big budget, major studio films featuring some recognizable stars, while in the U.S. they were more like lowbrow B-movie Japanese monster movie genre fare with funny dubbing that fed into an Orientalist understanding of Japanese culture in America at large,” he said.

The way in which the movie went through another layer of censorship before it was presented to American audiences, Tsutsui explained, shows just how sensitive people were to the inherent inhumanity of the atomic bombings.

“They worked hard to protect the American public from the truth that really the Americans who watched the film never had a chance to respond to it in a meaningful way.”

Gojira, aka: Godzilla, Japan, circa 1954, Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/)United Archives / via Getty Images

The original film was essentially a product of the era’s popular monster movies and heavily influenced by the events in Japan at the time, Tsutsui said. A producer at Tomo Studios, Tanaka Tomoyuki, was inspired by the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in addition to what was known as the “Lucky Dragon No. 5 Incident” of March 1954, in which a Japanese fishing boat strayed into the U.S. H-bomb testing range of the Bikini Atoll. The crew aboard were subsequently irradiated, with one dying of radiation poisoning.

The producer pitched the concept of a radiated monster who rises from the ocean to attack men. The idea resonated with his superiors and they connected him to a highly respected Japanese filmmaker, Ishiro Honda, who was a pacifist and had a vested interest in making the movie. Honda himself had fought in the war in China and upon returning to his homeland passed through Hiroshima, leaving with a chilling memory of the area.

“As the Americans did with many Japanese soldiers coming back to the homeland, they had them land in Hiroshima so the Japanese soldiers would see how thoroughly defeated Japan had been,” Tsutsui said. “It had a lifetime impact on him the horrors of what he saw, and he decided that he had an opportunity with this movie to set an important political message.”

Godzilla (aka 'gojira', poster, aka 'GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS'), top left: Akihiko Hirata; man in center: Fuyuki Murakami; as 'Godzilla': Harou Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka; lower left, l-r: Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada, 1954.LMPC via Getty Images

Watanabe said that although Godzilla as a character hasn’t retained the symbolism for nuclear warfare in the American public’s collective mind, the monster has evolved to represent Japanese pop culture as a whole, “not too dissimilar from Hello Kitty or Pikachu,” he said. He added that he still sees a significant fandom show up to screenings and showings of the old “Godzilla” movies.

But that doesn’t mean the creature’s original, intended message is irrelevant. Watanabe said it’s still powerful imagery, three quarters of century after two Japanese cities were devastated by the bombings.

“As long as nuclear weapons or nuclear power exists, Godzilla will never not be relevant,” Watanabe said. “Godzilla reminds us that we have the terrible power to create our own monsters and contribute to our own destruction.”