Godzilla's transformation from an ordinary lizard into a hulking monster was an uncanny predecessor to the environmental disease that first manifested itself in the cats of Minamata Bay.
In 1956, just two years after Gojira was released in Japan and the year Columbia Pictures released the American version of the film, cats in the Minamata Bay area began acting strangely. They could be seen staggering around the city, seemingly not in control of their own bodies. Around the same time, some people in Minamata began reporting symptoms of pain, numbness, and convulsions. Minamata Bay, off the west coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan, was also home to Chisso Corporation. As a byproduct of its manufacturing process, the company's factories in the Minamata area produced methyl mercury and dumped this toxin directly into the surrounding water. The mercury built up in the tissues of fish and other sea life of Minamata Bay, and ended up poisoning and sickening all who ate the metal-laden seafood.
Of course, Godzilla is much more sexy (if such a word can be used to describe the creature) than a bunch of sickened cats. However, Godzilla's transformation from an ordinary lizard into a hulking monster was an uncanny predecessor to the environmental disease that first manifested itself in the cats of Minamata Bay. In Godzilla's case, the trigger was not a polluting factory but the testing of an American hydrogen bomb. Both the fictional giant lizard and the real-life, ill mammals were transformed by environmental toxins. Although they were both tragic events, they had the potentiality to bring about a new way of looking at the world and the impact of human actions upon it.
However, the lessons of Gojira were not heeded, and the efforts of the citizens of Minamata Bay for a redress of their grievances were stymied by the efforts of the Japanese government and its nearsighted, pro-corporate policies. Gojira was a warning, not only against nuclear power but also against US interference in East Asia.
The 1950s were a turbulent time for Japan. In 1954, when Gojira was released in Japanese theatres, World War II had not yet been over for a full decade and the US occupation of the country had ended only two years prior. (It should be noted that the end of the occupation proper did not mean the complete withdrawal of US rule. American forces still occupied the southern islands of Okinawa until governance reverted back to mainland Japan in 1972.)
The US occupation authorities drafted Japan's postwar constitution in 1946, including in it a provision, called "Article 9, that renounced war as a right of the Japanese state and forbade the country from maintaining the "war potential" of military forces. Many have thought that this provision made Japan into an officially pacifist state. However, the realities of Japan's postwar military forces are much more complex. The spread of communism in East Asia prompted the US authorities to re-examine the role Japan would play in combating the red menace. Article 9 was interpreted to allow the American military to use Japan as a major base of operations in the Pacific and to allow the country to raise its own military in the form of the Japanese Self-Defense Force.
By 1954 the Korean War, in which Japan was instrumental to the US efforts in the region, was officially over. In Vietnam where years later Japan would again support US military operations 1954 year also saw the surrender of French forces at Dien Bien Phu and the division of the country into North and South Vietnam. Most importantly for US-Japanese relations, though, 1954 was the year of the "Lucky Dragon" incident.
In March, the Japanese fishing vessel "Lucky Dragon" was fewer than 100 miles away when the US tested its hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll. (Not coincidentally, Godzilla was created through a similar test at the islands.) By the end of the day many of the 23-person "Lucky Dragon" crew became ill and all were hospitalized upon their return to Japan. The Lucky Dragon incident strained relations between the two countries. Godzilla was a response to all of these events swirling around Japan at the time. The film is not a deliberate polemic against the United States per se, but it problematizes the impact of then-current issues on US-Japan relations. There was a distinct discomfort about being, as former Prime Minister Yashuhiro Nakasone Japanese would later put it, aboard an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" for the United States in East Asia, especially given the country's purportedly pacifist constitution ("'Unsinkable aircraft carrier' steams to Iraq", by Richard Hanson, Asia Times Online, 7 February, 2004). The creature, Godzilla, is the offspring of the twisted international relations of the time. It's birth was a warning to Japan to not be too accepting of the US military and its pro-nuclear policies, lest the country's acquiescence come back and bite it in the, er, Tokyo.
Although Gojira took off in the popular consciousness in Japan and abroad, its success proved to be the undoing of its message of warning. In the film's sequels, Godzilla changed from a hyperbolic warning of things to come to just another movie monster. He even became a hero of sorts. While some of the subsequent films tried to tackle issued similar to those of the original film (like Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster), most became easy moneymakers for the Japanese film industry.
Even though it has been 50 years since Godzilla's Tokyo-crunching debut, the film's prognosticative, pop philosophy is not being taken to heart in its native land (nor in any of countries to which the film has been exported, for that matter). In his book TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, Patrick Macias points out that one of the many sequels to the original film, Godzilla 2000, has the eponymous lizard attacking the very nuclear power plant that suffered Japan's worst nuclear accident in 1999. However, as Macias goes on to say, the film had actually been completed before the accident, lending further credibility to Godzilla's role as a barometer of disaster. (In all probability the site was chose for the film because it had previously suffered critical safety problems.)
Gojira set the stage for the destruction of Japan to be repeated thousands of times over at least in the realm of popular culture. In spite of this homage of destruction, one wish of Gojira's creators did not come to pass; as Mark Schilling reports in The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture, director Ishiro Honda said that they had "naively hoped that the end of Godzilla was going to coincide with the end of nuclear testing." Of course, the Godzilla franchise has continued to be a viable concern both in Japan and abroad, and in honor of the big lizard's 50th birthday a new film, directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (director of Versus and Alive. Godzilla: Final Wars is supposed to be released in Japan on 11 December, this year. I hope this new film re-energizes the social and political critique as prompted by the original movie. Godzilla has much more to teach us. Perhaps we should begin really listening to the meaning encoded in that signature scream of his.