It was 6:45am local time on March 1, 1954, when a flash lit up the sky over the Pacific, like the sun itself. Then came the sound. An explosion outside the experience of all but the tiniest fraction among us, followed by the mushroom cloud, towering into the atmosphere. It was a test, the detonation of a TX-21 thermonuclear weapon with a predicted yield of 6 megatons with the unlikely codename, of “Shrimp”.
The 23 men of the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) were working the grounds near the Marshall Islands that day, in the equatorial Pacific. For a full eight minutes, these twenty-three men watched the characteristic mushroom cloud rise above them. An hour and a half later came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll, falling from the sky, like snow.
None among the twenty-three recognized the material as hazardous, and made no effort to avoid exposure. Some men even tasted the stuff.
Over the next three days, several fishermen developed acute radiation sickness. By the time they returned to Yaizu two weeks later, all 23 were suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums and other symptoms. One was destined to die six months later from a liver disorder, brought on by radiation sickness. They had entered the ranks of that most exclusive of clubs that no one, Ever, wanted to join. They were “hibakusha”. The “explosion-affected people”.
The atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a short nine years in the past in 1954 when a ferocious, anti-nuclear sentiment began to build in Japan. In this context there arose a metaphor for the titanic destruction wrought by the atomic bombs. A Great Beast, literally rising from the sea, the product of the Japanese entertainment industry. A monster, “Godzilla”, Ishirō Honda’s first film released by Toho Studios on this day, in 1954.
The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, (gorilla), and “kujira”, meaning whale. Godzilla was the Gorilla Whale with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on his back and skin modeled after the hideous keloid scarring, of the hibakusha.
The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with his atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin and then changing the speed, at playback.
The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, defining the standard for most of the Godzilla films, to follow.
Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little complicated with the 1998 American remake when “Zilla” started laying eggs.
He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. Godzilla is the best known but certainly not the only such creature of the Japanese entertainment industry. You may remember other kaiju including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.
Godzilla has appeared in 28 original films, with more in the works. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.
Godzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame” in 2004, timed to coincide with the release of the 29th film of the genre, “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version was spawned by “environmental pollution”. It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole.
The film was a flop, grossing less than $12 million after a production budget over half again, as large.
The franchise came roaring back ten years later, when Godzilla was released in 2014, grossing $200 million domestically with $529.1 million in worldwide sales.
To this day, the man who played those original 12 films is considered the best “suit actor”, in franchise history. In 2018, asteroid 110408 Nakajima was named in his memory.
A film franchise 66 years in the making is still going strong and will continue to do so, for the foreseeable future. Godzilla: King of the Monsters released in 2019 with a Box Office of $386.6 million and a production budget, of less than $200 million. Godzilla vs. Kong, originally scheduled for release this year, went the way of so many things in 2020 and fell victim, to the Chinese Coronavirus. The 36th film in the series is complete and currently scheduled for release in May, 2021.
Tip of the hat to http://www.mykaiju.com, for most of the images used in this story.