Saturday, November 25, 2006

That history, however, is important. The film history is simple: A recent internationally successful re-release of the original King Kong was an inspiration for the Japanese film industry, which had not yet done a full scale monster movie in 1954. More directly, Gojira adapts the basic plot of an American film released the year before, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which was the first movie monster to be unleashed by atomic bomb explosions, as well as the first of the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation monster flicks. (It was adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury; the script writer receiving first credit is Fred Freiberger, later a Star Trek original series producer.)

But the place of Gojira in the larger history is what distinguishes it. This movie was released only 9 years after World War II ended, and barely two years after the U.S. officially ended its occupation of Japan, though it maintained many military bases for decades (some are still there.) It was one of the first postwar Japanese films that didn’t have to pass through U.S. censors.

The war in the Pacific had been fought principally between Japan and the U.S., and it had been savage. Especially after the surprise attack on the U.S fleet in Pearl Harbor, Japan had naval superiority, highly trained warriors and master tacticians. They won most early battles. The war against Hitler in Europe had priority for the U.S., and for awhile mostly old aircraft and weaponry could be spared for the Pacific.

Japan had taken island after island and was about to take Australia, when the Allies stopped their momentum. America began to send new ships, planes and weapons, until the Allies had superiority. Then fighting for those islands, like Guadacanal and Iwo Jima, became intense and bloody. Even when outnumbered, the Japanese army used caves and underground bunkers to prolong the killing. But the Allies prevailed, and were in striking distance of Japan itself. A bombing campaign decimated some 80 Japanese cities. In a single raid on Tokyo in March 1945, American bombers killed upwards of a hundred thousand people, and left the city burning. How close Japan was to its unconditional surrender before the Bombs were dropped is still debated, but in August 1945 two atomic bombs were dropped on human beings for the first time, in Japan.

A single Bomb each destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some 75,000 people died in Hiroshima from the blast and fire. Five years later, radiation effects more than doubled the dead, to some 200,000. The vast majority of those who died from the Nagasaki bomb were from radiation, months and years later. Some effects of radiation were apparent within days and weeks, which included very ugly and painful immediate illnesses, as people decayed from the inside. Other effects, principally cancers, took years. American officials denied these first immediate radiation effects were real, claiming the reports were Japanese propaganda.

They were still denying that radiation posed substantial threats when the first U.S. hydrogen bombs were being exploded in the Pacific. In March 1954, the U.S. tested an H-Bomb that was 750 to 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific near Japan. Although ships in the area were warned, when winds changed the test was held anyway, and 85 miles away, a Japanese fishing boat with a crew of 23—the Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon—were close enough to see the explosion, and to feel the radioactive ash falling on them. The crew became ill by the time they reached port, one crew member soon died, and there was a panic in Japan over contaminated fish from other boats.

Everyone in Japan knew of these events, of course. And many of them found their way into Gojira.

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