Godzilla’s message still relevant

Ahead of the first run of the latest, Hollywood-produced version of “Godzilla” on July 25 in Japan, the digitally remastered edition of the original 1954 “Godzilla” movie has been shown at theaters across the country and broadcast on NHK-TV to mark the 60th anniversary of the birth of the monster — a pop culture icon that has inspired the production of about 30 sequels.

The original “Godzilla” movie not only still shines as great entertainment, but also carries a serious theme that remains relevant today — the horrors of nuclear weapons and related technology, which could inflict devastating damage to the Earth and human lives. It is hoped that the new Hollywood version will also rouse people’s interest in the original “Godzilla” film and its message.

Written by Shigeru Kayama and directed by Ishiro Honda, the first Godzilla film took a cue from the hydrogen bomb test the United States carried out on March 1, 1954, on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the northern Pacific.

Among the sufferers from the nuclear blast were a crew of 23 men aboard the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), a tuna boat from Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture. They were exposed to the nuclear fallout, and the ship’s radio operator Aikich Kuboyama died Sept. 23 that year while the movie’s production was ongoing.

In the movie, it is assumed that the hydrogen bomb test drove the Jurassic Period monster Godzilla out of its habitat deep in the sea and it eventually stomps across Tokyo. The bomb test gave the monster the ability to emit powerful radioactive heat rays through its mouth. It smashes a train, bridges and buildings and burns down many of the capital’s buildings and landmarks, including the Hattori Clock Tower on the Ginza and the Diet building. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya succeeded in creating overwhelming images.

Godzilla’s diabolical acts can be interpreted to symbolize two things: the destructive power of nuclear bombs themselves and an animal’s revenge against mankind, which invented the weapon that had destroyed its habitat.

The movie’s anti-nuclear message is clear. Its producer Tomoyuki Tanaka is reported to have said that the theme of the movie is “dread about a hydrogen bomb.”

Toward the end of the movie, a weapon called “oxygen destroyer,” developed by a scientist named Daisuke Serizawa and capable of destroying the oxygen in water and instantly killing animals in the area, is used. Godzilla is killed and reduced to a skeleton in the Tokyo Bay, letting out a sad scream.

What paleontologist Kyohei Yamane says at the end of movie has gravity: “It is hard to think that Godzilla is the last of its kind. If hydrogen bomb tests are continued, the likes of Godzilla may appear again somewhere in the world.”

The days in which hydrogen bomb tests were detonated one after another are long gone. But the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons means the danger is far from over.

Yamane’s remarks, although couched in a Godzilla narrative, should serve as a warning about the still existing danger and cruelty posed by mankind’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

In the movie, Serizawa first refuses to use his invention against Godzilla, saying that political leaders may be tempted to use it as the third ultimate weapon following atomic and hydrogen bombs. To prevent this, he destroys the weapon’s blueprint, but then goes on to say, in effect, that since humans are weak, he may one day find himself in a position in which he is forced to use the weapon.

So after using the weapon against Godzilla while diving in the Tokyo Bay, he commits suicide by cutting his air hose.

Serizawa’s words and final act pose a serious moral challenge to mankind, especially to political leaders, military planners and scientists who have already accumulated the knowledge of producing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and who even may endeavor to make more powerful and cruel weapons.

Godzilla in the 1954 movie symbolized a horror that has been created by human technology that has spun out of control. Although nuclear weapons have not been used since the end of World War II, the movie’s message is relevant today all the more in the wake of catastrophic accidents at nuclear power plants — including the triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant in March 2011. The accidents show that we cannot fully control nuclear power.

Akira Ifukube, who wrote the unforgettable soundtrack for the original “Godzilla” movies, considered himself a hibakusha (radiation victim) because he suffered bleeding after participating in wartime research to harden wood to be used in aircraft by irradiating it. Although it cannot be determined any more whether his illness was caused by radiation exposure, it is worth remembering that he wrote the music with a sense of mission.

As the anniversaries of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approach, the recent movie scene offers a chance for people to ponder the message of “Godzilla.”