Skip to content

Kaiju Look

Godzilla’s radioactive origins

Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again by Shigeru Kayama, translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles. University of Minnesota Press, 256 pages. 2023.

This year, everyone’s favorite nuclear bomb-born kaiju Godzilla turns seventy. In the lead up to this major anniversary, Toho studios released Godzilla Minus One, its thirtieth film in the franchise, across more than five hundred theaters in Japan in November of last year (November 3, the date of the first film’s release in 1954). In the United States, promotion has begun for the release of Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, which capitalizes on the box office success of the previous MonsterVerse iteration—Godzilla vs. Kong—from a couple of years ago. Timed with all this big screen “Goji” celebration, and taking us back to the movie monster’s ideological and historical origins, is the publication of the first English-language translation of the original Godzilla novellas by Shigeru Kayama, translated by Jeffrey Angles—a major boon for U.S. kaiju fans who have long wondered about, or perhaps didn’t even know about the existence of, these long unavailable works.

As detailed in Angles’s afterword, these novellas first appeared as a single book in July 1955—three months after the theatrical release of Godzilla Raids Again—as the initial volume in a series for young adult readers published by Shimamura Shuppan, Ltd. Since then, they have been continually reprinted and remain widely available in Japan. While they were perhaps initially written, as Angles reasonably speculates, to cash in on the monster’s enormous domestic popularity following the release of the first two films, this pair of novellas also offered the original Godzilla scenario writer Kayama a way to clarify his personal version of the story.

While his involvement is often excluded from discussions about Godzilla’s history, especially in comparison to the contributions made by director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, Kayama was nevertheless an integral part of the kaiju’s conceptual realization and fundamentally political nature. In his original introduction to the book, Kayama explicitly states that he wrote the tale as a participant in the emerging anti-nuclear movement:

[Godzilla] doesn’t actually exist anywhere here on the planet. However, atomic and hydrogen bombs, which have taken on the form of Godzilla in this story, do exist. They are being produced and could be used for war at any moment . . . Reading this book in that context will make it all the more informative and interesting.

A popular writer of genre fiction who dabbled in sci-fi, Kayama was initially approached by Toho super-producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who was seeking to create a film about an ancient dinosaur-like creature awakened by a nuclear blast. The specific idea was not original: after a big film project fell through, Tanaka read an article about the U.S. box office success of the 1953 hit film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms—a monster movie adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury with special effects by Ray Harryhausen—and saw a golden opportunity to do something similar in Japan. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms itself was indebted to King Kong (1933), which was rereleased in the states by RKO in 1952 and did gangbusters, making clear that there was money to be made in big monster movies. In 20,000 Fathoms, a dinosaur trapped below ice is revived and irradiated by nuclear bomb tests, and angrily tears through the East Coast of North America, eventually wreaking havoc in New York City before being taken down by a brilliant scientist. The blueprint was all there, but Tanaka saw another unique opportunity in transposing this scenario to Japan, a nation still reeling from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s devastating defeat in the war.

Many Japanese would find their first opportunity to wrestle with the heavy subject of nuclear weapons and radioactivity in popular media through Godzilla.

During the Allied occupation of Japan (1945-1952), American leadership heavily censored Japanese media to avoid the depiction or discussion of certain war-related subjects, including the effects of the bombings. As Angles points out, even the publication of photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims were not allowed until the early 1950s. Although independent films such as Children of Hiroshima (1952) and Hiroshima (1953) were quickly produced after the occupation to address the subject head-on, they were not widely seen by the public due to lack of distribution from major studios. Instead, many Japanese would find their first opportunity to wrestle with the heavy subject of nuclear weapons and radioactivity in popular media through Godzilla.

But Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the only nuclear contexts the film and subsequent novella had to draw from. On March 1, 1954—eight months before the theatrical premiere of Godzilla—the United States set off its largest H-bomb in the Bikini Atoll nuclear testing site, part of the Marshall Islands. Within hours, fishermen on the Japanese tuna fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon Number 5”) operating around ninety miles away from the blast were contaminated by the nuclear fallout—snow-like ash and debris that fell from the sky—causing severe radiation sickness for all twenty-three crew members and eventually killing the ship’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, six months later. (By 1956, the year of Godzilla’s exportation to America, the minutes from meetings held among the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission revealed that the islands were “by far the most contaminated place in the world.” Seventy years later, Bikini Atoll is still uninhabitable.)

News of this shocking incident reawakened discourse and anxiety in Japan about the continued threat of nuclear weapons in the Cold War era, particularly for the Japanese—it was not lost on them that, yet again, they were seemingly the first and only victims of nuclear bombings, even when they were not at war. The message of the emerging antinuclear movement, of which Kayama considered himself a part, was bolstered, and the author made no attempt to make a metaphor out of this tragedy. As Angles points out, in the first draft of Kayama’s fifty-page Godzilla treatment (nicknamed the “G-Project” scenario, written within a week), the author opens the film with an agitprop style newsreel report of the historical events involving the H-bomb, urging their condemnation:

“We have not been informed about the details of that test. However, judging from the fact that the scientists in charge of the experiment described it as involving ‘destructive abilities beyond our wildest imagination,’ one cannot help but feeling one’s skin crawl at the thought of its fearful power.

“Can we say that fortunately, this power’s range only extended to the area of the tests themselves?

“No! The answer is a resounding no!”

As Honda biographers Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski have noted, however, the director wanted to tone down the overt politics and heavy-handed references of Kayama’s treatment in order to make Godzilla less of a direct indictment of America and more of a “symbol of a global threat” and an “invisible fear.” (According to film historian David Kalat, one early design for Godzilla by manga artist Wasuke Abe was a mushroom cloud head-shaped monster—thankfully rejected for being too on-the-nose.) Still, what Honda and company end up with in the film—released only about a month after Kobayama’s death from radiation poisoning—is an opening scene that feels ripped from the headlines: crew members on a cargo vessel called the Eiko Maru witness the flash and bang of H-bomb testing in the South Seas and the ship’s radio operator passes away from the exposure.

Despite the tweaks Honda, Tsubaraya, and Honda assistant Takeo Murata made to Kayama’s original treatment to soften the direct political messaging, the author was more than satisfied with the end result. He was so moved by the end of a private preview screening at Toho Studios, Angles notes, Kayama was found in his chair silently weeping. Later, he threw a party for the staff at a seaside resort to celebrate their accomplishment. Everyone had plenty to be happy about: Godzilla, realized within only six months since Kayama was first pitched on the project, went on to be a huge box office smash with around thirty-two thousand tickets sold in Tokyo on opening day.

In typical major film studio style, the film’s success led to the immediate greenlighting of a sequel. Tanaka approached Kayama again to strike while the iron was hot and the resultant film directed by Motoyoshi Oda, Godzilla Raids Again, was put together within six months, premiering on April 24, 1955. There are several major differences between this film and the original, but perhaps most significant is the introduction of another kaiju that battles Godzilla—in this case “Anguirus,” a giant horned reptile based on the dinosaur Ankylosaurus, who returns several times in the Godzilla franchise. Immediately, the nuclear significance of Godzilla’s threat to humanity is undercut and replaced by the rather straightforward popcorn spectacle of seeing two giant monsters go at it. This battle royale format—which shows no signs of ever disappearing from screens—would go on to take up the majority of Godzilla series, introducing a league of monsters that fight against or alongside the eponymous originator.

After his Godzilla novellas were published, Kayama decided to bow out. In a published essay translated as “Godzilla Confessions,” he expresses some misgivings about the direction of the franchise, realizing it was moving away from his original intentions. Angles summarizes Kayama’s dilemma as the author presciently described it: “What had started as a symbol representing his fear of atomic weapons had morphed into a character with a ‘manga-like’ appeal that the viewing audience loved.” In Kayama’s thinking, contributing to Godzilla’s continued existence represented tacit approval of the hydrogen bomb. Still, he had to admit, he too started to feel affectionately toward his creation.

Is Godzilla a symbol of nature’s revenge, an agent of the Anthropocene awakened to restore balance against mankind’s abuse of the planet?

While Kayama’s original intention with Godzilla may be clear, the iconic monster always had what Angles calls a “double-sidedness” to him (Godzilla is technically genderless but often regarded as male). In his symbolic enormity, Godzilla contains multiple, contradictory meanings—he is both victimizer and victim, a source of terror and a source of sympathy—and both the film and novella refuse one “right” way to view him. And that’s part of what makes him so consistently fascinating, so evergreen in the popular imagination.

Many contemporary Japanese audiences undoubtedly identified with Godzilla as a fellow victim of nuclear bombings. It has been suggested that his black, cragged scales were created to visually evoke the charred skin of A-bomb victims—a shocking image that the Japanese public were only starting to reckon with after the end of occupation censorship. In this sense, Godzilla’s unfettered rage could be interpreted as a projection of the Japanese public’s anger at its own country and government for leading them to a senseless and deadly war. Godzilla offers a kind of paradoxical catharsis to those who were also traumatized by nuclear bombs. Here, Godzilla becomes a symbol of anarchic rebellion—an opposite interpretation to that of historian Yoshikuni Igarashi, who suggested Godzilla represented the United States as a returning villain wreaking nuclear havoc. Or is he a symbol of nature’s revenge, as Angles suggests, an agent of the Anthropocene awakened to restore balance against mankind’s abuse of the planet?

No matter how one understands Godzilla in his debut, a lot of the political, ethical, and symbolic complexity is lost in the sequel. In the first film and novella, the central biologist character Dr. Yamane pleads for Godzilla to be spared for the sake of scientific research and to atone for the “trouble” Japan caused the rest of the world, introducing ideas at odds with the majority of other characters who seek to kill Godzilla. By the novella’s end, he weeps at Godzilla’s death. In Godzilla Raids Again, however, Dr. Yamane only briefly appears in front of the government to suggest a way to misdirect the kaiju, then disappears. In Godzilla, the government is depicted as inept and cruel, deciding to withhold information about Godzilla from the public (a direct criticism of Imperial Japan’s leadership after the A-bomb dropped), leaving the task of defeating Godzilla up to scientists and private citizens; in the sequel, the government’s Self-Defense Forces ably assists in overcoming Godzilla with military ingenuity and a troubling kamikaze-like pilot sacrifice.

Indeed, the original Godzilla is exceptional, towering over much of the rest of the franchise (though each of the films has their own merits that contribute to the whole). With his lofty political intentions, it’s no wonder Kayama felt like he had to back away from what he started. Like the character of Dr. Daisuke Serizawa—the exceptionally brilliant but haunted Robert Oppenheimer-like figure who comes to regret his creation of a deadly invention capable of destroying Godzilla and ultimately sacrifices his creation and himself for the sake of mankind—the only way Kayama could resolve the contradiction of Godzilla’s creation was to remove himself from the picture. “I believe that my core intention was fulfilled by the character of the scientist Daisuke Serizawa,” said Kayama in a 1954 interview—a statement that can now be interpreted in more ways than one. (As an interesting side note, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has yet to be released in Japan. The subject of the A-bomb is indeed still a sensitive one.)

After Godzilla Raids Again, Kayama worked with Toho for a final time in 1957, adapting a sci-fi story by fellow genre fiction writer Jojiro Okami. The script, finalized by Takeshi Kimura, became the tokusatsu cult favorite The Mysterians. Kayama’s fellow Godzilla co-creators Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, and Eiji Tsuburaya all returned for this project. There is not much information about Kayama available in English outside of Angles’s afterword and some Godzilla fan sites, so what became of him afterwards is unclear except that he continued to write sporadically until he passed away in 1975 from heart failure at the age of seventy. Before then, one can hope that Kayama learned to stop worrying and love the kaiju, contradictions and all. Godzilla will, after all, outlast all of us.