Tag Archives: myth

“Our Friend the Atom” and He is Us

18 Mar

One idea that I’ve seen here and there in discussions of the nuclear emergency in Japan goes like this: “Why the coverage of the nukes? After all, thousands have already died from the earthquake and tsunami, 100s of thousands are homeless, and whole towns have been wiped away. All that damage far exceeds anything so far caused by those collapsed plants and any damage likely to be caused by them. Why not more coverage of the big story?”

The question, I believe, is a good one. And the answer, I suspect, goes like this: The earthquake and the tsunami were caused by Nature. We can take preventive measures, but we can’t predict or control them (though we’re working on prediction). Those atomic plants, however, they are Us. To say we can’t control them is to say that we can’t control ourselves. If we can’t control ourselves, are we any better than animals?

The issue of control is crucial. The difference between an atomic explosion and an atomic power plant is one of control: WE CONTROL what happens in the power plant. We can turn it on, turn it off, and make it go faster or slower. It does our bidding. Of course, it also creates dangerous radiation, which we must control. If we don’t, the radiation causes disease, cancer, mutations, strange unnatural beings, monsters (Gojira).

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Gojira 1954: No More Nukes

14 Mar

Here’s blast from the past, a review of Gojira, which I published in The Valve three years ago. Since this film is about nuclear anxiety it is highly relevant to the current emergency in Japan. I would also add that the Japanese original is superior to the film that appeared in America as Godzilla and scared the stuffing out of me when I was a kid. The Japanese original is richer and has a sense of grave ritual that is missing from the American hatchet job.

It came out less than 10 years after the end of WWII and about a century after Commodore Perry goaded the Japanese into investigating Western ways and refitting them into Japanese ways. Gojira has two interlinked storylines: the story about the monster from the sea and a story about love vs. arranged marriage, which grapples with tradition vs. change. The second one was dropped from the American re-edit. In this essay I suggest — but no more than that, suggest — that the two storylines are, deep down, but one storyline.


A review of Gojira, Ishiro Honda, dir. Toho Co, Ltd. 1954; reissued by Classic Media 2006.

On March 1, 1954, the United States detonated Castle Bravo at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. Castle Bravo was a hydrogen bomb with a yield of 15 megatons, roughly two or three times what had been expected. It was the largest radiological accident ever caused by the land of the free and the home of the brave and poisoned the crew of a Japanese tuna boat, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), with one crew member eventually dying of leukemia. This led to a tuna scare in Japan and a petition drive to ban the bomb.

Tomoyuki Tanaka was one of many Japanese who followed the story closely. He worked as a producer for Toho Company, Ltd., one of Japan’s major film studios. When a deal fell through and created a hole in the studio’s release schedule, Tanaka decided to fill it with a new kind of film, a sci-fi horror story filmed in noir style and featuring a prehistoric beast awakened by an atomic explosion. The beast was named Gojira and the film was released in Japan on November 3, 1954.

If you look closely, you’ll see a reference to Lucky Dragon No. 5 early in Gojira. The movie opens on a freighter at sea off Odo Island, the Eiko-Maru. It’s evening and some of the sailors are gathered together while one of them plays the guitar and another the harmonica. There’s a sudden bright light and a loud noise. The sailors rush to the side of the ship to see what’s happened:

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Notice the number on the life preserver, “No. 5.” The freighter sinks and all hands are lost.

Thus begins Gojira. It builds slowly. Another ship is lost, meetings are held, decisions made, and eventually a scientific team is sent Odo Island to investigate. The team is headed by Dr. Kyouhei Yamane, a noted paleontologist, who is accompanied by his daughter Emiko and Hideto Ogata, who works for the steamship company that’s lost two boats. At long last, 21 minutes into a 98 minute film, we catch our first glimpse of Gojira:

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Gojira’s footprints are saturated with Strontium 90, as is the Island’s well water, evidence that Gojira as been tainted by radiation from some otherwise unidentified nuclear test. Beyond that, we know and learn little about why Gojira’s on the rampage. It’s simply an ugly fact, the monster’s been awakened and is heading toward Tokyo, what do we do?

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