Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Godzilla vs. Gojira, 70 Years After Hiroshima

On the first of March in 1954, sailors were on the deck of a Japanese fishing trawler out in the Pacific when they were startled by an astonishingly bright light at the horizon. It lingered long enough to illuminate the clouds and the ocean itself. One of the sailors ran to his cabin where another sailor was humming a song, and blurted out the same sentence as did a distant witness to the first atomic test at Los Alamos: “The sun rises in the west!” Crew members still on deck finally heard the deep rumble of an explosion, and were soon coated with gray ash.

This was the Diago Fukuryu Maru, translated into English as the Lucky Dragon #5. By the time it returned to port two weeks later, some in the crew of 23 were covered with sores from burns, and many were suffering the classic symptoms of radiation sickness: nausea, bleeding gums, pain in their eyes, headaches. The first death was recorded in September.

The bright light and radioactive ash came from the Bikini Atoll, where the U.S. exploded its most powerful hydrogen bomb. It was twice as potent as expected. Its fireball was more than four miles wide. Its 62 mile-wide mushroom cloud reached 130,000 feet into the sky, dropping radioactive dust on more than 7 thousand squares miles of the Pacific. Susceptible to this fallout were several small islands and more than a hundred fishing boats like the Lucky Dragon #5.

 Doctors and scientists in Japan immediately recognized the radiation effects. They had seen them before. They also measured excessive radiation in the fish aboard the Lucky Dragon and other boats, and this new threat caused panic in Japan that spread around the world. United States officials responded to Japanese requests for information with official lies. The head of the Atomic Energy Commission, responsible for the tests, denied any ill effects could be from the Bomb test. It took more than thirty years for such official lies to be fully exposed.

 Almost immediately, Japanese film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka took clippings about the Lucky Dragon incident to the Toho Motion Picture Company and proposed to replace a foundering film project with a movie about a prehistoric monster awakened by the Bomb.

Ishiro Honda, a young documentary filmmaker and friend of Japan’s greatest director, Akim Kurosawa, wanted to direct it. The son of a Buddhist monk, he’d been drafted into the Japanese military during World War II and was a prisoner of war in China. Returning to Japan at war’s end, he passed through the devastated city of Hiroshima.

The resulting movie, called Gojira, was released later that same year to great acclaim in Japan. (That's the same year as the event that inspired it.)  In its original form, it was not seen in the US or the rest of the world for fifty years.  It had a limited theatrical release in the US in 2004, and was released on DVD in an excellent two disk collector's edition.  I've seen it several times, you might even say many times, and it is a masterpiece.

The Americanized version using the monster footage of the original was released in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and was a worldwide hit. One of the major elements of Gojira that is largely absent from Godzilla is its strong connection to the Bomb, and specifically to the Lucky Dragon #5 incident, or any engagement with the issues they raised.

Last year, on the 60th anniversary of Gojira, Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. released their Godzilla, which appeared this year on DVD and Blu-Ray.  It is a monster of a movie, with 3D and IMAX versions, and a total estimated cost of $225 million.  It was a worldwide hit.

Godzilla starred in more than 20 movies after the first one, many of them for children.  So this 2014 blockbuster couldn't be the worst one, at least in general quality.  But in evoking the memory of the original, and then perverting so much about it, this movie is contemptible.

It's not just that it violates any sense of actual science repeatedly--though we're all supposed to be good sports and eat our popcorn while we roll our eyes.  The real violation is to history, to a very dangerous history of nuclear weapons that is not over, and insults the real feeling and the ethical explorations within the allegory of the original movie.

In the new movie, Godzilla was awakened in 1954, not by the hydrogen bomb test, but by deep sea exploration by the first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus.  Both the US and USSR became aware of the monster.  "All those bomb tests in the 50s?  Not tests.  They were trying to kill it."

Forget that the Nautilus didn't make an actual voyage for several years after it was commissioned in 1954.  Explaining away the bomb tests of the 1950s (which actually began in the 1940s) for the purpose of a monster movie is itself monstrous.  It is absurd, first of all, and shows an utter ignorance of history--not just of tests but of everything around them, up to and including the Cold War.  It's an insult to everyone who lived through those years of terror.  Specifically it is an insult to the entire original movie it purports to honor.

Of course they were tests.  After the war, exactly 69 years ago as I write this, the first atomic bomb detonated in peacetime in the aptly named Operation Crossroads was dropped from an airplane off Bikini Island in the Pacific. Its explosion generated three times the light and heat inside the sun. The power of the second bomb in the series surprised everyone involved. Anchored on the ocean floor, it created a column of water half a mile wide, and sent it up a mile high in one second.

The first U.S. thermonuclear device detonated in 1952 in the Pacific was approximately a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It sent a four mile-wide fireball five miles into the sky, with a cloud atop it that rose twenty-five miles high, and left a canyon in the ocean floor a mile long. It vaporized the island where it stood.  But it was not a true bomb yet, capable of being dropped from a plane.  That's one reason they tested.

The Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan in 1949, and their first hydrogen bomb in 1955--and it was a bomb.  There were hundreds of bomb tests in the 1950s, in the US, the Pacific, in Europe and in Asia.  The Soviet Union exploded 30 large bombs in just 1961. The US responded by exploding 25 test bombs between spring and fall of 1962.  And it quickly became apparent that such explosions caused radiation that sickened and killed people, sometimes years later, and sometimes creating mutations in the next generation.

  This radiation was carried in the air, something called fallout, and though it diminished with distance, it could travel thousands of miles, even entering the upper atmosphere.  There were 20 atomic bombs exploded in Nevada by 1953.  Radioactive fallout from a test in 1951 was measured in Rochester, New York.

The lies and coverup in the 1950s weren't about a radiation-eating monster in the sea.  They were about the real effects of radiation on human beings and the environment.  And who were the first victims?  The Japanese.  Starting with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 70 years ago in August.

When news emerged from Japan of radiation sickness and the resulting deaths, the official U.S. position was that this was just Japanese propaganda. And even if there was deadly radiation, the head of the US bomb program General Leslie Groves told Congress, radiation poisoning is "a very pleasant way to die."

But the facts were soon documented.  Some 75,000 people died in Hiroshima from the blast and fire. By five years later, effects from the radiation had more than doubled the dead, to some 200,000. Radiation was eventually responsible for the vast majority of the Nagasaki bomb deaths. 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.

The US hydrogen bomb test that affected Lucky Dragon #5 was also more than a thousand times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb. It vaporized part of the island. United States officials responded to Japanese requests for information with official lies. The head of the Atomic Energy Commission, responsible for the tests, denied any ill effects could be from the Bomb test. He hinted darkly that the Lucky Dragon was actually a Soviet spy ship, spreading doubt and propaganda.

Forced finally to admit the existence of the radioactive fallout, the U.S. claimed that the Japanese had been warned but ignored the warnings, and when that turned out to be a lie, claimed that the winds had suddenly shifted and so the U.S. hadn’t known where the radioactive dust would fall. That was also a lie. The winds did shift, but (as revealed in the 1980s) the U.S. knew that the fallout would reach the islands and the fishing lanes, but went ahead with the test as scheduled.

When Dr. David Bradley published the revised edition of his best-selling No Place to Hide, he reported on 406 Pacific islanders exposed to the fallout from the test in 1954: nine of their children were born retarded, 10 more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be “not recognizable as human.”

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered in August 1945. The US occupied Japan, supervising its government and everything else, until 1952.  Only two years later, an independent Japanese film company made Gojira.  It did not and could not overtly criticize its former occupier that was now its ally and protector.  But through the allegory of a monster raised from the depths, the horror of the atomic age was evoked, and more than that, the ethical issues bravely delineated.

This even as the memory of the war was still fresh, and Gojira's destruction of Tokyo was a replay of what US conventional bombs had done to the city. (There was an indirect reference to the war, when a bomb huddling in a doorway with her young children as Godzilla rampaged, promised them that they would soon be joining their father.)  

The 2014 American movie done with some participation by Toho, the Japanese film company that made the previous Godzilla movies beginning with the first (and excepting the 1998 Hollywood remake), featured one major Japanese character: Doctor Ishiro Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe.  Like the other major character, he mostly stands tall and looks calmly at the surrounding monsters and mayhem, although he often looks befuddled or aghast while the young soldier played by Aaron Taylor looks bravely calm or just emotionless.  There was a Dr. Serizawa in Gojira, but this version is less an homage than another travesty.

publicity still--not a real scene: far right: Dr. Yamane and Serizawa
There were two scientists in the original, the elder Dr. Yamane, played by the great Japanese actor Takashi Shimura (who would soon star in The Seven Samurai ) and the younger Dr. Serizawa.  The Watanabe-played character has studied the monster, as Dr. Yamane wished to.  Otherwise, he bears no resemblance to either character, and certainly is no tribute to the importance of either--especially Serizawa.

While Yamane figured out what Gojira was and that he was revived and mutated by the bomb test, Serizawa had the key to destroying the monster.  He had inadvertently invented the "oxygen destroyer" that when set off in the water killed everything in it. But he had kept the invention secret, tortured by its power, and knowing that if he announced it, others would turn it into a weapon.

When his fiance pleads with him to use it against Godzilla he refuses--it would become known, and even if he destroyed his notes and refused to tell his secret, he was sure some military would find ways to get it out of him.

The meaning of this could not be clearer.  He was in the position of the atomic scientists. He had invented the ultimate weapon, that could mean the destruction of humankind.  He could not in conscience allow it to be known.

These were the stakes in 1954, and they got even higher as the bomb tests went on and provided the knowledge to make smaller bombs with higher yields, then place them in guided missiles--faster than airplanes, less detectable, cheaper to make in quantity, and impossible to defend against.  Soon there were thousands of missiles carrying several hydrogen bombs, each bomb capable of destroying a city and killing people for hundreds of miles.  Even by 1960, there were enough atomic bombs to kill everyone in the world seven times over.

When the 1954 Dr. Serizsawa (himself a disfigured war veteran) watches a tv broadcast of a school of young women singing (very reminiscent of the singing that traditionally is part of the Hiroshima commemoration), he realizes how many innocent people could be killed by another Godzilla rampage.  So he agrees to use his weapon, knowing that he will sacrifice his own life, because he alone knows the secret of how to make one.  The only way he can guarantee that his discovery will not be made into an ultimate weapon is to die setting it off. (There's a more detailed essay on this film elsewhere on this site.)

In contrast, the 2014 Dr. S. represents only a strangely limited idea of the balance of nature, which in his case means that two prehistoric natural enemies will cancel each other out.  Huh?  It's the pretext however for Godzilla to fight other monsters (as he often did in the increasingly silly Toho movies), this time a couple of contemporary looking monsters, conceptual children not of the original Godzilla but of "the bitch" in Alien.  This leads to plenty of disaster porn, the coin of the blockbuster realm these days.

 This version starts in Japan and ends in America, recapitulating the first journey from a meaningful movie to exploitation, even quoting at the end the title of the 1956 blockbuster that drained the original of its soul, Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Like other recent blockbusters, it cannibalizes previous movies for effect, sometimes effectively.  The slow reveal of the monsters that some reviewers thought so brave in 2014, the filmmakers say they took from Jaws, though Speilberg had grown up on other 50s monster movies that also built suspense that way, including two of the best: Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! (with an early uncredited appearance by Leonard Nimoy.)  Though done in what I experienced as a confusing manner, it nevertheless built suspense.

 I didn't need to read about this movie to know that another Speilberg film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was a model, not only in Spielberg's characteristic scene setups and angles, but copying stuff he'd copied: for instance the Close Encounters scene of two people finding and rushing towards each other in a crowd, which Speilberg had taken pretty directly from George Pal's War of the Worlds.)  Nothing wrong with all that, it's how movies are made, but a movie needs a life of its own.  This one to me did to these other movies what it did to Gojira: copied aspects of it but missed the point.  A lot of attention was also paid to  to what Godzilla fans demanded--an important aspect of this kind of moviemaking these days, but not always a guide to a good movie.  It's a movie without a soul.

None of that really matters as much as its dangerous and willful ignorance.  It is compounded in the final scenes when a nuclear device, supposedly more powerful than the 1954 bombs and so many, many times larger than the Hiroshima bomb, detonates in San Francisco Bay without any effect on the city or other inhabited area.  Just a flash within view of shore.

  That I fear is what generations who did not experience the 50s through the 80s may actually believe about nuclear weapons.  They're just special effects explosives.  They're ordinary bombs but maybe a little bigger.  They don't even make waves, let alone set the air on fire or spew radiation.  Millions of people will see this movie, and may even believe this.

And so a movie that invents a monsters so large that it could not possibly exist--bones simply couldn't make it stand up, let alone move--ends up minimizing the destructive power of something that does exist, and is an actual danger to humanity.

  There are still hundreds of hydrogen bombs and atomic bombs and their delivery systems, all over this planet. That we understand this, and what nuclear weapons really mean, is vitally important, and even more important than the grosses of a Hollywood film.  Such a film may not bear the responsibility to tell people what the nuclear dangers are--even if it is a remake of the first film to try to do so.  But it does have the responsibility not to mislead its audience into believing that it's no big deal.

This movie may invoke Hiroshima in a line or two but it otherwise displays ignorance about what it meant and means.  That's a horror story.

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