Godzilla (1954): Reconfiguring National Trauma Into National Symbol

Godzilla (1954) directed by Ishirō Honda. Courtesy of Toho.

Godzilla (1954) directed by Ishirō Honda has transcended its Japanese fame into being a global monster sensation—its very existence one of the first things people recall when they think of iconic movie monsters. I think a lot of people nowadays are already aware of Godzilla’s atomic origins. The monster itself has been attributed to be an allegory for the nuclear devastation that wreaked havoc on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its looming, gigantic figure and mushroom-shaped head resemble the explosive cloud produced by a nuclear bomb. Its keloid-scarred, burnt black skin and spikes on its back gave a haunting remembrance to the surviving victims of the nuclear blasts. Even its iconic bestial roar gave me not the impression of defiance against its human attackers but rather constant pain and anguish over its excruciating state of being.

When the postwar Japanese audience sat down in the darkness of the theatre and watched Ishiro Honda’s 1954 kaiju film that may have been easily dismissed as riding the wave of the success of King Kong (1933), they were seeing the present, the very near past, and a glimpse of tomorrow. It brought again echoes of wartime Japan a decade past but also a looking glass into an event that just occurred months before the film’s premiere, the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) was struck by the fallout of United States’ nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. In the film, such similar nuclear test was the catalyst in which the primordial predator Gojira was awoken from its slumber and came ashore to invoke its vengeance upon the human intruders.

Yamane (Takashi Shimura) in Godzilla (1954) dir. Ishirō Honda

And yet, over sixty years later, Godzilla as a monster has been almost transformed,  morphed into something akin to a national mascot. It even somewhat culminated when in 2015, Godzilla, a fictional character, received a citizenship certificate from the Japanese government and appointed as an official tourism ambassador. While this can be brushed off as simply the commercialization of a pop culture icon, there lays an interesting process in which a creature created to be a literal symbol of collective national trauma is reconfigured into a token of national pride. As I shall discuss in this essay, this may have its roots in several things from nationalistic sentiments and appropriation by the state to the reimagining of national trauma.

Godzilla in the Context of National Cinema: Reconfiguring National Trauma

Godzilla shooting its Atomic Breath.

There is indeed a transformation of Godzilla from simply being a standalone film into a blooming franchise that is recognized both by the public and later legitimized by the government. The legitimization of Godzilla implies a certain national essence present in the narrative of the film; how it may embody the collective consciousness and zeitgeist of the period. Films themselves have the potential to contain national configurations because films are essentially cinematic accounts of ‘the nation’ seen by the population and are themselves historically specific cultural forms of semantic modulations that are constituted by the ruling forces of specific regions; the institutions of the state are highly important in determining the function of the cinematic industry and its usage as cultural practice. The discursive value of films may lie in the fact that they are not only mirror reflections of reality but also have the potential to be as fantastical as they can be as an art form, which means they can potentially constitute certain meanings to an event, issue, or the society at large. They can mediate between real events with the laypeople watching it in a way that may leave the message of film engrained in the consciousness far longer and more deeply entrenched in the psyche than news reports and textbooks.

As a matter of fact, Japanese media coverage of Godzilla during its first release reported audience members leaving the theatres in tears as it was a cathartic release after the American occupation forbade discussions on atomic bombs and the subject still being taboo after Japan regained its autonomy. Godzilla ‘forced’ people to confront and come to grips with their emotions surrounding nuclear bombs. Taking into account this context of the film being released after the American occupation of Japan and the events inspiring the creation of Godzilla, the film can be said to be a symbol of the nation’s autonomy and self-determination; a projection of desire, frustration, and suffering that epitomize the collective will of bringing Japan ”to the world stage” with its sets of national interests and demands i.e. protesting against nuclear testing.

We can also relate this projection of trauma through cinematic accounts with film critic Andrew Tudor’s concept of “secure horror”, where there is a threat to the collectivity of the society from external forces and re-establishment of the status quo through the efforts of the governments and scientists. We often see this sort of things in the ‘disaster film’ archetype, but Godzilla differs in the way that the trauma depicted is heavily superimposed with the societal climate and outlook of the period. ‘Secure horror’ reimagines traumatic events in its innate desire to conceptualize a successful human intervention; how the nuclear devastations of the past and the nuclear testing happening at the time could be stopped. A depiction of a competent government working together with scientists, as well as public support backing them. Of course, it’s not as simple as that in real life, but as mentioned before, films have the potential to constitute meanings and also embed certain messaging that influence the viewers, which has the potential to impact social change.

Waseda University professor Norihiro Kato argued that Godzilla may be the symbolization of the spirits of dead Japanese due to the war revisiting the homeland; the initial gloomy tone of the first film was “cleansed, pasteurized and detoxified” as the series progressed as Japan evolved from its postwar state to economic prowess. In the topic of dead spirits that Professor Norihiro brought forth, Godzilla may also be a reformulation of the Japanese folk archetypes, specifically regarding the vengeful spirit (onryō) as the Japanese believe the tragically dead could harm both the people responsible as well as innocent bystanders, while some believe they would only target the guilty but leave the innocents alone. In Japanese cinema, these vengeful spirits often come in the form of women spirits who have been wronged by men in their lifetime and seek vengeance over their eternal resentment, a notable example would be Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953). The trauma inflicted by Godzilla and trauma inflicted on Godzilla are combined into a dualistic force, a tautology at first glance but if viewed more closely reveals that Godzilla represents the inner turbulence of the Japanese psyche over their wartime sufferings but also, at the same time, the foreign atomic force that caused those sufferings.

This dualistic force of Godzilla embodying both the Self and Other is also explained by Sociolinguist Takao Suzuki, who argued that unlike Indo-European languages, the Japanese language does not have a consistent history in distinguishing personal pronouns such as “I” and “We”, thus he argued that while Western culture is based on the opposition of the Self versus Other, the Japanese Self is more immersed in the Other and can empathize with the nonhuman Other such as the case with Godzilla. We can also see these type of formulations in other Japanese science-fiction such as the works of Hayao Miyazaki. I would suggest that such an argument is still up to debate and have the dangerous pitfalls of going into problematic topics like Nihonjinron, a genre of literature discussing the unique Japanese cultural and ethnic identity—these are often used in such a manner that may be deduced to being supportive of ethnonationalism. But still, such interpretations offer a glimpse on how the filmmakers’ frame Godzilla in the film. 

Godzilla attacking Tokyo with people fleeing the scene.

Thus, a reconciliation of Godzilla as a symbol of trauma into that of empowerment occurred. The cathartic reimagining of wartime experiences include the demonization of American science and the depiction of Japanese science’s triumphant victory as the world is saved by the noble sacrifice of the brilliant humane Japanese scientist Dr Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). This point can be construed to be rather hypocritical as the Japanese empire committed its fair share of atrocities and war crimes in World War II whether through human rights abuses or scientific experimentations. But what makes Japan different than say Germany would be the nuclear devastations incurred on its soil, hence subsequent reimagining of those times include viewing those events through the foggy memories clouded by agony and anguish. There is a therapeutic value in transference, the repression and projection of traumatic events in a symbolic narrative. Godzilla embodies Japan (Self) and the United States (Other). The unfortunate side effect that we have seen is, of course, sweeping those same traumas the Japanese inflicted on its former colonies but mutually inflicted trauma is a rather complicated topic in that manner.

The reconfiguration of Godzilla from a symbol of national trauma into something more akin to a protective deity occurred through a process of reconciliation and reflection of collective suffering. In the wider context of national cinema, Godzilla embodies a certain essence that constitutes ‘the nation’ and it has contributions to the collective identity formation of the Japanese through its cooptation and appropriation in popular culture and later legitimization by the Japanese government as a cultural ambassador of the nation-state. Godzilla has become a cultural force akin to a projection of power, symbolizing the Japanese autonomy and remembrance of past tragedies. While Godzilla is almost far removed from this configurations, especially considering the recent western adaptations of Godzilla by Legendary Pictures, understanding the process of how we arrive to the present gives a more nuanced look into the monster’s true identity.


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