I can clearly recall the afternoon in 1977 when our fourth-grade class was treated to a guest speaker; a man invited to class to tell us about his experience during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
He was a middle-aged, Japanese gentleman, a relative of my classmate, who took the time to relay his experience of surviving a unique disaster that has resounded in the collective mind of humanity since. The topic had been enthralling to me prior to this visit, and I already spent hours seeking out what little general information I could find in grade school-level encyclopedias and textbooks’ all usually showing the common motif of a great mushroom cloud. While not especially precocious, I was curious and bookish in my early years, with a tendency to gravitate toward the subjects that parents and teachers glossed over, sugarcoated, or avoided. I quietly inquired into the darker realm of human nature from the safety of my comfortable, disaster-free life.
Our Japanese visitor held our attention while recounting this epic destruction, with a moment-by-moment account of the material damage that occurred in a literal flash. It was like lightning followed by thunder, he said, as the flash of light happened about 10 seconds before the deafening blast. The initial blast was sustained, dropping down a few decibels to a relentless roar that brought a frenetic windstorm with it. The windstorm carried the byproducts of devastating impact and incineration.
His voice dropped to a hush as he told us of a brief silence that followed, only to be broken by sirens wailing all over the city and the subsequent screams and cries of people in the area. The damage could not be surveyed because people were blinded; calls for help could not be responded to as ears had gone deaf. The industrial smell that hung in the air was burning metal and ozone, the oxygen levels depleted from the ubiquitous smoke. On the wall behind where our storyteller had lain, the open slats of the horizontal blinds had burned their impressions into the wall from the searing light. His uncle’s white outline appeared on the wall nearby. Obviously, our storyteller survived, but he was singed and peppered with shattered glass and splinters.
Then he went into great detail about friends and relatives that were not as lucky those who were outdoors at that time or closer to the epicenter of the blast. My 10-year old mind was baffled at the justification and reasoning for something that was clearly man-made and horrible, and I remember feeling queasy during his talk as I struggled to comprehend absolute vaporization. He went on for what seemed forever, with details of hanging wires, scorched infrastructure, cars refusing to start and radios malfunctioning.
It could not have been more than a month or so later when I stumbled upon Godzilla: King of The Monsters, a film made in 1956, shot in stark black and white. This was the first Godzilla film and it was not a lighthearted affair. I had already met the beast prior to this movie, in those pseudo-comic mid-1970s films in which he was now perceived as a “good” monster and fought an array of rubber beasts (Mothra, Megalon, Rodan, Gamera) while trampling meticulously constructed miniature cities. But this original Godzilla was different than anything I had known. Angry from being awakened from the sea bottom, he wreaks havoc on the city of Tokyo, particularly its rail and electrical systems. When he was not demolishing buildings at random he was vaporizing its denizens with his horrendous fire breath.
A very frightful scene in this film occurred when the monster looked into a train car with a sinister glare, as seen from the vantage point of the interior, before he picked up the car and tossed it into a building. I sometimes think about that scene while on the morning commute to Manhattan, when the train unexpectedly stops and the lights go out momentarily. While such occurrences are a normal part of the ride, in light of world events, my reserves of optimism are often depleted and I think the worst for a split second. Then, instead of a real-world terrorist strike on our infrastructure, I imagine an otherworldly large reptile throwing my train car into rush-hour traffic. It is odd how a fictional creature sometimes helps me to personify and trivialize a faceless terror.
The American release of this film was “westernized” by the choppy inclusion of Raymond Burr as an American reporter, who’s role was to provide narration and a subplot most likely to lighten up the ominous atmosphere created by the relentless carnage. Its effectiveness is debatable. All of the narrative scenes seemed like an afterthought, a verbal transliteration of the horrors of disaster ingrained in the Japanese into cinematic thrills. My younger mind saw through the gimmick and perceived the film for what it was; vast unleashed terror . . . nature’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Godzilla was seemingly indestructible. Fighter jets merely annoyed him. Massive charges of electricity fueled his anger. All manners of conventional weaponry only increased the consequences of his wrath.
The American presentation of the movie was glossing over or protecting the viewer from a horrendous reality, much like many published or commercially available domestic accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki accounts such as Takashi Nagai’s The Bells of Nagasaki or James N. Yamazaki’s Children of the Atomic Bomb present their audience with an immediate shield from the horrors they attempt to recount. Though highly successful documents of their events, they leave the reader safely removed from their reality, much as the attempt by American producers, which results in one of a series of “monster movies”.
Fast forward to the conclusion of the original Godzilla: the scientist hero, Dr. Serizawa, unfurls the Oxygen Destroyer, a device that kills everything swimming within a large radius. Godzilla is lured back into the sea and the device is detonated, atomizing the beast as the doctor watches from the depths. To spare the world his knowledge of this horrible weapon, the doctor cuts his oxygen line and perishes with Godzilla. Not your typical Hollywood feel-good moment.
The Godzilla franchise carried on well into this century, spawning countless Japanese-made films, a Saturday morning cartoon (remember Godzooky?) and two major studio remakes, Godzilla 1985 and the eponymous 2000 effort, starring a large, computer-animated bipedal iguana. These films, progressively caricatures of the original, were never able to recapture the sense of dread and the analogy of futility of the original movie, which seemed all too much like the flashback of a nation that actually experienced that deafening noise, incineration, and human loss.
That was 50 years ago. Has our appetite for viewing catastrophes, or at least, metaphors of catastrophies, changed since then? Do we continue to seek out disaster as entertainment, but only if we can watch it through rose-tinted view, seen through a telescopic lens from the safety of our own sofas? To justify Dr. Serizawa’s use of the Oxygen Destroyer one of his advisors remarks “You have your fear, which might become reality, and you have Godzilla, which is reality.” In a media age governed by the jingoistic effort to keep fear indistinguishable from reality while keeping both safe behind the fallout shelter of the television set, second to coordinating in-house visits by aging atomic bomb survivors, perhaps a 400-foot lizard is the most appropriate response to the “reality programming” provided by CNN.