In 1954, inspired by the re-released “King Kong” and other Hollywood hits of the early 1950s, film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka of Toho Studios decided the time was right for Japan’s first monster movie. The result was the story of a mutant creature, spawned from nuclear testing, that emerges from the watery depths of the Pacific and attacks Japan. The sea-monster’s name? “Gojira,” a combination of “gorilla” and “kujira,” the Japanese word for whale. Or, as it was later translated into English, “Godzilla.” Sixty years after its Tokyo premiere, learn about the real-life drama that inspired the original “Godzilla,” and the movie’s significance amid Cold War-era nuclear hysteria.
“King Kong,” the 1933 film re-released in 1952, and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) were among the Hollywood movies that inspired Tomoyuki Tanaka of Toho Studios to make a monster movie of his own. But in order to create the fearsome Gojira, the filmmakers also drew from the real-life drama going on in the world at that time. Less than a decade earlier, Allied forces had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing some 120,000 people instantly and causing horrific casualties to thousands more. Defeat, which had been unthinkable for Japan, came suddenly. By 1954, the nation had nearly rebuilt itself post-World War II, but ongoing U.S. nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands meant the wounds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stayed fresh in the nation’s mind. To make matters worse, conflict in Korea and Cold War tensions had raised the specter of nuclear warfare yet again.
In March 1954, the United States tested a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb—more than 750 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki—at Bikini Atoll. A massive plume of radioactive dust and debris floated over some 7,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, and the Japanese fishing trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon No. 5” in English) was caught in the fall-out. The 23 crew members, who suffered skin burns and other symptoms of radiation exposure, were quarantined when they reached port. Six months later, the boat’s radio operator developed liver complications and died at the age of 40. After the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission initially accused the Lucky Dragon of entering the restricting testing area on a spy mission, the U.S. government ended up paying out $2 million in damages, of which just over 10 percent went to the ship’s owner and crew.