ORIGINS OF GODZILLA, Part Two: Unlucky Dragon - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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ORIGINS OF GODZILLA, Part Two: Unlucky Dragon

Gordon Hopkins traces the real-life event that inspired the legend.
“Is there a reason to see the original Godzilla? Not because of its artistic stature, but perhaps because of the feeling we can sense in its parable about the monstrous threats unleashed by the atomic age.”
Roger Ebert, 2004, after the release in America of the original Japanese version of Gojira.

It is easily one of the most powerful openings in the annals of cinema. Regardless of your opinion of Godzilla or monster movies in general, that opening scene alone raises the original Gojira, and even the Americanized Godzilla: King of the Monsters, above the usual giant, radioactive, stomping critter that was prevalent in the movie market of the 1950s.

The film opens with a group of sailors sprawled out on the deck of a fishing boat, apparently enjoying a lull between catches, when a blinding flash of light turns the dark sky white and a shock wave tosses the boat like a bobber in a hurricane.

The audience soon learns there was only one survivor.
It is just how close to reality this celluloid moment is that makes it so unsettling.

For most movies of the giant, rampaging critter sort, like It Came From Beneath the Sea or Them! or The Amazing Colossal Man, radiation served only as a plot device to give the film a great big something (octopus, ants, grumpy, bald-headed dude).

Godzilla is different. Here, radiation is the point. Specifically, the nuclear ambitions of America. In the 1940s it was, of course, the war is what defined the relationship between America and Japan. In the 1950s, radiation was the invisible wire that connected those two countries.

There is the specter of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which ended a war and made the United States the only country in the world to date to use nuclear weapons against an enemy in a time of war.

The scars left behind, both physical and psychological, remain to this day. What many people tend to forget is, those two bombs were only the beginning. I suppose as we get farther and farther away from a point in history, we tend only to recall the “high points,” the big events.

The debate on the United States' decision to drop those bombs will never end. Simply painting the U.S as a rapidly rising, overweening power eager to flex it's scientific and militaristic muscles, while not without a basis, in fact, ignores Japans own culpability. The country had chosen to attack Pearl Harbor, thereby dragging the U.S. into a war many of it's citizens hoped to avoid. Morevoer, Japan willingly allied itself with Nazis.

Regardless of your position today, at the time, America felt it had justification for using the bomb. What happened next was a somewhat more dubious proposition, ethically speaking.

During the war, there was a mad rush to create the bomb before Germany. The U.S. opted to continue with the creation and testing of atomic weapons after the war was won, therefore participating in an arms race that threatened the very existence of the human race for decades. Though, to be fair, they were far from the only ones. In the ongoing quest for bigger and louder booms, those in charge of America's atomic program were not always as responsible as they should have been.

I'm going to get personal more a moment. For only a moment, I promise. I hope you don't mind.

My father served in the Navy during World War II. He remained in the service after the war was over. For a while, at any rate. He was less inclined to stay with it after one particular incident. He was serving on a ship called the U.S.S. Dixie during the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. You've likely seen footage of one of thise bomb tests. One is used a lot as stock footage because it was more spectacular than the others. The reason it looked more impressive was that one misfired, sending a huge spray of radioactive water into the air and, inevitably, back down onto the sailors on deck, including my father.

In a classic example of why the term “military intelligence” has become a punch line, the ship was decontaminated with the radioactive water it was floating in.

Unsure what to do next but not terrible keen on letting a radioactive ship and it's radioactive crew back to the U.S., the Navy ordered the Dixie to Tsing Tao, China, where it sat until the government decided it was safe to return home. (Apropos of nothing, my father only had two observations about Tsing Tao: it possessed the best beer in the world and everyplace there smelled like peanuts.)

So what the heck has any of this got to do with Godzilla? I'm glad you asked. See, on March 1, 1954, a Japanese tuna boat with the painfully ironic name of Luck Dragon #5 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru) was in the vicinity of Bikini Atoll the day the U.S. government was, once again, testing a bomb. Technically, the fishing boat was well outside the declared danger zone. However, the bomb blast turned out to be more than twice as powerful as anticipated and a thousand times more powerful that the one dropped on Hiroshima. That and a change in anticipated weather resulted in the Lucky Dragon, like the Dixie before her, sprayed with radioactive fallout. Not water this time, but radioactive coral dust and ash. That is after a flash of light that lit up the western part of the sky. Some described it as the sun “rising in the west. (For readers interested in the scientific minutiae, the ash was comprised of: strontium-90, cesium-137, selenium-141, and uranium-237.)

All 23 crewmen suffered radiation sickness and one man, Kuboyama Aikichi, eventually died. Perhaps the most amazing part of this whole story is that all the others actually survived.

At this point, there was no war going on. Yet, Japanese were still dying from American weapons. Furious anti-American sentiment was the result. One of the sailors, Oishi Matashichi, even wrote a book, The Day the Sun Rose in the West: Bikini, the Lucky Dragon and I, which criticized the Japanese government for being far too accommodating to the U.S. after what it had done.

Filmmaker Tomoyuki Tanaka was already looking to produce a giant monster movie when he learned of the Lucky Dragon incident, which became the opening of the movie pretty much as is.

Years later, Tanaka said in an interview,
“The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the Bomb. Mankind had created the Bomb and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

Up next: Evolution of a legend...

Is Godzilla a Dragon?

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

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