Peering at the post-tsunami devastation in Japan on miniature YouTube windows or video-streaming displays from Japanese news outlets provokes not only great empathy and concern, but an unmistakable feeling of déjà vu. As a scholar focusing on the place of nuclear energy in Japanese culture, I've seen more than my share of nuclear-themed monster movies from the 50s onward, and the scenes of burning refineries, flattened cities, mobilised rescue teams and fleeing civilians recall some surreal highlights of the Japanese disaster film genre.
This B-movie fare is widely mocked, often for good reason. But the early 'Godzilla' films were earnest and hard-hitting. They were stridently anti-nuclear: the monster emerged after an atomic explosion. They were also anti-war in a country coming to grips with the consequences of World War II. As the great saurian beast emerges from Tokyo Bay to lay waste to the capital in 1954's Gojira (Godzilla), the resulting explosions, dead bodies and flood of refugees evoked dire scenes from the final days of the war, images still seared in the memories of Japanese viewers. Far from the edited and jingoistic, shoot-em-up, stomp-em-down flick that moviegoers saw in America, Japanese audiences watched Gojira in silence, broken by periodic weeping.
Yet, it is the film's anti-nuclear message that seems most discordant in present-day Japan, where nearly a third of the nation's electricity is generated by nuclear power. The film was inspired by events that were very real and very controversial. In March 1954, a massive thermonuclear weapon tested by America near Bikini Atoll in the Pacific detonated with about 2.5 times greater force than anticipated. The unexpectedly vast fall-out from the bomb enveloped a distant Japanese tuna trawler named the Lucky Dragon No 5 in a blizzard of radioactive ash. Crew members returned to their home port of Yaizu bearing blackened and blistered skin, acute radiation sickness and a cargo of irradiated tuna. Newspapers reported on the radioactive traces left by the men's bodies as they wandered the city, as well as 'atomic tuna' found in fish markets in Osaka and Tokyo. Emperor Hirohito himself was said to have eliminated seafood from his diet.
In a nation fixated on purity, the revulsion against this second nuclear contamination of the homeland was visceral. In late September 1954, the Lucky Dragon's radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama died. Gojira appeared in cinemas the following month, breaking the record for opening-day receipts in Tokyo and becoming one of the top-grossers of the year. During the same month, there was an upsurge in anti-nuclear petitions in response to Kuboyama's death; the peace movement went national.
The great reptilian menace on-screen - actually a man in a 200-pound lizard suit stomping through miniaturised versions of Tokyo neighborhoods - illustrated both Japan's aversion to nuclear radiation and its frustrating impotence in a tense cold war climate. If the monster-film genre is less ubiquitous than it once was, the themes it reflected are no less present today, particularly in the 24-hour blanket coverage of last week's earthquakes and tsunami. It shows a Japan that remains visibly beset by large-scale threats that strike without warning. Cars, trucks, trains and large ships lie swept into piles ashore or float in murky water like misshapen bath toys. Buildings implode and fires rage as if ignited by a burst of radioactive breath or a flick of a great creature's tail. But it also brings back into focus Japan's awkward post-war nuclear predicament that was ambiguously illustrated by the Godzilla series.
Peter Wynn Kirby is a research fellow at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris. The views expressed by the author are personal.