“The sleep of reason produces monsters” ( Los Capricios “ Plate 43, 1797-99, Francisco de Goya Y Lucientes )
“The Atomic Age is here to stay – but are we ?” (Bennet Cerf)
When my sons were growing up sci-fi monster movies were quite popular, and Godzilla seemed to be everywhere on the scene, in toy stores, action figures, videogames, novels, comic books, TV series and this creature probably made some cameo appearances in more than one kid’s nightmares. Godzilla is a Kaiju ( Japanese giant monster) known as Gojira in Japan , when he came into existence in 1954 as a result of a real life nightmare in post war Japan. As part of our nuclear weapons testing program in the equatorial Pacific , the US detonated a dry fuel thermonuclear device, code named Castle Bravo, over Bikini Atoll on the dawn of March 1, 1954. While the Atomic Energy Commission had set out an exclusion zone of 30 nautical miles around the area, the immediate fallout actually irradiated areas 7,000 square miles from the blast. Unfortunately, a Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon 5 (Daigo Fukuryu Maru) and its 23 crew members were trawling for tuna some 90 miles from ground zero. ( Mark Schreiber, “ Lucky Dragon’s Lethal Catch” Japan times, March 18yh, 2012 )
Matashichi Oishi, author, with others , of The Day The Sun Rose In The West ( 2011) was aboard the vessel that fateful morning. Now frequently hospitalized and having lost his first child to stillbirth and multiple birth defects, he has become an important voice among those seeking to awaken others to dangers present in our ongoing Atomic Age. He has been unable to forget that early dawn in March when his crewmembers suddenly saw flaming sunset colors illuminating the western sky, as one bewildered fisherman exclaimed “ the sun rose in the west !”. They felt an eerie silence and then 8 minutes later came a blast followed by a deadly shower of ash. Soon thereafter they began to fall ill with symptoms of acute radiation poisoning and were hospitalized shortly after returning to port. Before the situation became clear, their entire radioactive catch was sold and consumed. Widespread panic broke out after the story was leaked to the press. This incident so soon after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to a vocal anti-nuclear power movement in Japan and an increasing strain within already delicate relations between Japan and the USA.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. government denied any responsibility . In keeping with a prevailing Cold War paranoia, Lewis Strauss, Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, issued a series of denials. In a statement, later echoed by members of congress, he declared that the sickened crew from the Lucky Dragon 5 were really a “ Red spy outfit…and component of a Russian espionage system”. Some minor reparations were made, very quietly, at a much later time. During the Occupation, Japanese were forbidden to question U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific and this was also strongly discouraged afterward. Hence, the cinematic arrival of Godzilla. Just months after the explosion of Castle Bravo and the incident with poisoned fisherman, Japanese filmmaker , and war veteran, Ishiro Honda used the horror monster genre as an allegorical cover for protesting multiple and ongoing dangers of nuclear devastation. This first film introduces a mutated giant, bipedal, Jurassic era dinosaurian creature, whose skin texture was inspired by keloid scars carried by atomic survivors. (Peter H. Brothers, Mushroom Clouds: Mushroom Men, 2009)
In the opening scene of this spare, somber, slow paced black and white classic, a Japanese fishing boat is attacked by a blinding flash of light. Ships sent to investigate meet a similar fate. Survivors suffering from radiation burns barely make it to a nearby island. There they are warned by an elder of the presence of a giant sea monster called “ Godzilla” . Scientists who arrive on the scene to investigate announce that this radioactive amphibian has been roused from the depths by fallout from nuclear weapons. Soon thereafter, Godzilla himself arises from Tokyo Bay on a tidal wave of destruction ,viciously attacks ,and reduces the city to ashes. Like the bombs, the ungainly behemoth continues on to ravage more cities, with clear intent to continue on until he has destroyed our entire human world. The military is helpless as Godzilla sets off fireballs with his atomic breath, an incarnate icon of rage and science gone terribly wrong. Terrified citizens suffering mass casualties are hastily evacuated , herded into fallout shelters and makeshift hospital facilities. Eventually , the wrathful reptile is destroyed as a result of self-sacrifice and Japanese ingenuity. The story concludes with a warning that if humans continue their nuclear insanity, another Godzilla may appear. (Michael Shaller, Altered States: The United States and Japan Since the Occupation, 1997). And indeed there have been many more Godzillas , appearing in at least 27 sequels so far, and this wildly successful Titan of Terror , considered by many to be just campy fun, has been awarded his own star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
The 67 hydrogen bomb tests conducted in the Marshall Islands from 1952-1958 are among the forgotten atrocities of the Atomic Age. If one were to add together all of that obscene mega-tonnage, the result would be something like a Hiroshima level event , every 19 days. It was later revealed that, in addition to the Lucky dragon 5, over 856 Japanese fishing vessels and up to 20,000 crew members were exposed to radioactive fallout from these tests and some 75 tons of radioactive tuna destroyed. And, it is important to remember that there were also 40,000 American civilian and military personnel exposed to Castle Bravo fallout. (Schreiber, loc. cit.) I seem to remember that it was Aldous Huxley who sadly observed… “That men do not learn much from the lessons of history is the most important of all lessons that history has to teach”. Now in this 21st century, we find ourselves having moved from the nearly forgotten tragedy of the Fukuryu Maru , further on toward potentially extinction level events still unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi.