When Godzilla first waded out of the ocean to trample Odo Island in 1954, he was a monster for the times, serious as radiation poisoning. Japan was still rebuilding in the wake of WWII. Wartime traumas were still fresh. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only nine years past, and there was a new social class in Japan: the hibakusha.
And that’s how I see Godzilla–as a hibakusha. The term, used for victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their descendents, translates literally as “explosion-affected people”. They faced (and continue to face) considerable discrimination because radiation sickness was widely believed to be hereditary, even contagious. However, discrimination also came partly, like almost everything in Japan, from shame and consequent closeting: “There are many among [the hibakusha] who do not want it known that they are hibakusha” (Terkel, Studs. The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two).
Now, if you’re an average salaryman working your way toward early retirement via kiroshi, hiding your hibakusha pedigree might not be that difficult. If you’re a 50-metre tall, mutated Godzillasaurus who sets Geiger counters ticking at speed-metal tempos, on the other hand, good luck.
There have been way too many versions of Godzilla for him to have a single, consistent metaphoric meaning. Over 27 films in three distinct series (Showa, Heisei and Shinsei), he’s been a force of nature, a single dad, a superhero and everything in between. Physically and ontologically, Godzilla is always mutating. But one thing is constant: Godzilla is all about aftermath. He’s not the mushroom cloud; he’s the fallout. You can’t use the Bomb on Godzilla, because he’s so over that. You have to break out the oxygen destroyer to take him down.
But like the hibakusha, Godzilla represents both devastation and suffering incarnate. He’s a lizard without scales, as William Tsutsui points out in his book Godzilla on My Mind: “Godzilla’s skin, thick and furrowed like the keloid scars that afflicted the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, evoked the agony of irradiation.” Likewise, it’s not too much of a stretch (for me, at least) to read his radioactive breath as a kind of controlled, radiation-sickness induced nausea.
The collocation of devastation and suffering in the hibakusha convinced Japan to formally embrace pacifism in 1946. In 1954, the same collocation in Godzilla put Dr. Serizawa, inventor of the oxygen destroyer, in an ethical quandary:
[If] the oxygen destroyer is used even once, politicians from around the world will… want to use it as a weapon… a new superweapon to throw upon us all! As a scientist–no, as a human being –I can’t allow that to happen!
In other words, what we do to Godzilla, we do to ourselves.
Yasuhiko Ohashi’s 1987 play Godzilla works with similar themes. It unfolds like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–except the daughter, Yayoi, brings home Godzilla instead of Sidney Poitier (it could have been worse; it could have been Ashton Kutcher). Yayoi’s family is not pleased. They bring up practical and economic objections. They worry about the family’s reputation. But what it comes down to is, they don’t want their daughter marrying a radioactive monster. They don’t want their daughter marrying a hibakusha. It’s only at the play’s ambiguous end, when Godzilla is transformed (offstage) into a normal man, his connection to the bomb camouflaged, that he and Yayoi can be together.
Ohashi’s play also broaches the subject of Godzilla’s sex life. When a visiting Mothra expresses concerns that (shades of the hibakusha experience) Godzilla’s children wouldn’t have any playmates, Yayoi asserts, “If my children are really kind, they’ll naturally attract a lot of friends.”
Unfortunately, my experience with Godzilla’s children, in particular his son Minilla, leads me to believe that Yayoi is being overly optimistic.
Everybody hates Minilla. And there are plenty of reasons for this (outlined beautifully in Carol Borden’s article Godzilla vs. Mecharealism, the high-water mark of Minilla-bashing). But what does our hatred of Minilla tell us?
Yes, Minilla’s a cynical product of the doldrums of the Showa series. But we hate him–and to a lesser degree, Godzilla Jr. from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II; Godzilla’s nephew(!) Godzooky from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon; and the velociraptor knockoffs in Roland Emmerich’s GINO (Godzilla In Name Only)–for another reason.
We hate them all in a genetic context, because they are Godzilla’s offspring (or, in Godzooky’s case, the kid who likes to hang around his cool uncle). Godzilla’s about nuclear destruction, not the nuclear family. I don’t knee-jerk hate cute, but I can hate it when it’s used to hide something necessarily ugly. If Minilla appeared in a different context–films, cartoons or comics unrelated to Godzilla–I like to think we might feel differently about him. But we know where he comes from. No matter how he capers and goggles his eyes, no matter how many smoke rings he blows, he’s still hibakusha.
And some things you just can’t cute up.
Ian Driscoll is the author of Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter, and the upcoming, The Dead Sleep Easy. He lives and works in Ottawa, which leaves his evenings free for writing. (Special thanks to Carol Borden, Don Fex and Eric Schallenberg).