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Credit: Toho

From the Cold War to climate change, how Godzilla addresses global anxiety

Contributed by
Jun 14, 2019, 6:00 PM EDT

Reality is often far more terrifying than fiction. As such, horror and science fiction have often looked to real-world anxieties for inspiration.

The U.S. occupation of Japan ended in 1952, but that same year, the first test of a full-scale thermonuclear bomb took place on an island in the Pacific Ocean — at a distance that was probably still too close for Japanese citizens. Still bearing the physical and mental scars of two atomic bombs dropped on their cities in 1945, this 10-megaton H-bomb was 1000 times more powerful than Hiroshima. Two years later, a 15-megaton H-bomb was dropped on Bikini Atoll (a total of 23 explosions were carried out in this area), inadvertently exposing military personnel and Marshall Islanders to high radiation levels.

A Japanese fishing trawler by the name of Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) was hit by the nuclear fallout, causing acute radiation syndrome and killing the boat's chief radioman, Aikichi Kuboyama, who succumbed to his injuries six months after the blast. Japanese film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka said this event inspired the monster called Gojira, spawning 35 movies across 65 years, making Godzilla the longest continuously running franchise (as per Guinness World Records).


Credit: Warner Bros.

A fishing boat is destroyed at the start of Godzilla (Gojira), a cinematic version of what happened to the Daigo Fukuryū Maru trawler. Man didn’t do this, but these tests are the reason the monster known as Godzilla has been awakened. Anyone would be grumpy if they had been sleeping peacefully only to be rudely woken up by a thermonuclear device. Godzilla was minding its own business — meanwhile, these tests underscore the arrogance of thinking this much power can be unleashed without consequences. Wartime trauma is a big factor, and this movie doesn’t shy away from the human cost. This isn’t a Marvel or DC movie destroying cities in a sanitized fashion. Instead, it depicts real suffering and human loss.


Credit: Toho

Gojira was hit at the box office in 1954 and was nominated for Best Picture at the Japan Movie Association Awards (it was beaten by Seven Samurai). A heavily edited and recut version starring Raymond Burr called Godzilla, King of the Monsters! hit U.S. theaters in 1956. Godzilla was a global phenomenon, and 63 years later a sequel with pretty much the same title (punctuation aside) has been released. Times and technology have obviously changed and the Cold War is over, but there are plenty of “end of world” scenarios to provide inspiration and offer up terrifying escapism for audiences worldwide.

So far, no country in possession of nuclear weapons has pushed the proverbial button, although the 1983 ABC TV movie The Day After did attempt to show what would happen if they did. While a nuclear reactor is not the same as nuclear bombs, several real-life incidents have proved just how terrifying nuclear fallout and radiation can be. The Three Mile Island accident occurred four years prior to this TV event, and in 1986 Chernobyl would encounter the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Monsters had no role in either of these incidents that impacted both sides of the Cold War, but both should how each nation was vulnerable.

The Return of Godzilla

Credit: Warner Bros.

In 1984, The Return of Godzilla (which was re-edited, again with Raymond Burr, the year after for American audiences as Godzilla 1985) was released, mirroring the original with its opening. Again, another boat encounters the monster, but when a Soviet submarine is destroyed, it almost heralds World War III, as the blame is placed on the Americans. When Godzilla is discovered as the culprit, the opposing forces want Japan to destroy the monster with nuclear weapons, but the prime minister steadfastly refuses. The Soviets accidentally set off a nuclear missile, the U.S. stops it, and Godzilla is instead defeated by a volcano activated by explosives. The message here is clear: Superpowers with nuclear weapons can destroy each other (and the world) at any given point.

Nature is another threat to Japan, as its location means it is vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. In 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake caused a tsunami that led to the worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl. When discussing the 2014 Godzilla reboot, director Gareth Edwards explained, "I wanted it to reflect the questions that the incident at Fukushima raised." The franchise has come full circle, starting as a reaction of post-war trauma and the fear of nuclear war, leading to this notion that the world is still gambling with its future via the technology we use.

The opening credits of the 2014 Godzilla deftly mix fact with fiction, the origins of this story starting with the Bikini Atoll detonation. The Fukushima accident revealed that even in the 21st century, the threats that come from nuclear power are not trapped in the Cold War. In Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster” she notes that “the nightmare is close to our reality” in science fiction films;  nevertheless, disaster is normally avoided by “last minute happy endings.” Our last-minute happy ending has yet to occur, as nuclear tests have not been banished to the annals of a scary past, not to mention the real and terrifying effect climate change is having on the planet.

This reboot isn't only concerned with joining the dots to the nuclear past as environmental issues underscore the larger narrative in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The montage of news stories at the start of the movie indicates that environmental concerns are increasing, which include mysterious mass animal "die-ins." In between the unanswered messages from her dad, Madison's (Millie Bobby Brown) inbox is full of emails with subject lines about climate change.

The monster metaphor has shifted from fear of nukes to extreme weather patterns. Wherever these pre-historic animals (aka Titans) go, hurricanes, tropical storms, wildfires, and earthquakes help announce their arrival. The news reports that flash up in Godzilla: King of the Monsters look pretty familiar to the events that often dominate the 24-hour news cycle (Titans aside). It isn't a stretch to imagine this type of destruction. When Godzilla first stomped onto the scene in the '50s, kids took part in "duck and cover" drills at school to prepare for a nuclear attack; now environmental issues dominate.

Man-made disasters come in many forms. A weapon doesn't have to be the cause of long-term mass destruction, as our daily way of life treats the sea as one giant trash can. Godzilla is a cautionary tale of what nuclear power can do to the world, but this catastrophic trail mirrors what humans are doing to the planet with our excessive consumption.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a classic case of "setting the world on fire to save it," aka the Thanos or Ra's al Ghul supervillain approach. Humans are a virus killing the planet with pollution, and the Titans are awakened to restore balance spurred on by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah doesn't really seem like he cares that much about the environment; instead, his motives don't seem to stretch beyond "I am doing this because I can." Some people just want to watch the world burn.

Godzilla King of the Monsters Vera Farmiga Millie Bobby Brown

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Entertainment

There are many ways for humans to destroy the earth or shift blame onto a creature such as Godzilla. And while Godzilla's motivations and allegiance aren't particularly well defined, where he has once been the villain, he is now the hero the planet needs.  This is a man-made mess — nature is just responding in kind.

What this franchise does is offer a form of terrifying escapism with a dash of nostalgia. This is not to say that people long for a return to the Cold War, but those lines were clearer in the sand. Now climate change is a real threat, and sadly we don’t have a prehistoric monster to save us.

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