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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 6 - Ishiro Honda and Gojira!

This week in Horror Histories, I want to tie in to the Japan series that I’ve just started running on Mondays.  Today, you not only get a horror history, but you also get a real life site you can visit where the inspiration for this film is officially housed. 

Of course, I’m talking about Godzilla!

Now, the majority of people who are only casually acquainted with him, think of Godzilla as this jokey, rubber suited monster from the 1960’s and 70’s.  If this is you, then you need to find and watch the original film, 1954’s Gojira.  It’s a dark, vicious film by Ishiro Honda that conveys the horror of the atomic bomb explosion on Hiroshima by introducing a new threat.  Gojira (or Godzilla, as he was renamed when the film was released to American audiences) is an unrelenting, unstoppable force bent on destruction.  The film is a very serious affair with a dark ending that is light years away from the more hokey (but still great) Godzilla films that came after it.

So, aside from Hiroshima itself, what was the inspiration behind one of the most beloved creations in cinematic history? 

In part, it was a fishing boat.  The Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) was sailing out of Yaizu and contrary to their name, they’d had incredibly bad luck.  They’d lost half their lines on coral reefs, the engine kept going out and they hadn’t caught nearly what they anticipated.  Their captain was not very experienced and this only added to the issues.  Since they didn't want to go back without a full boat, they made the decision to go out further into the Pacific to try to salvage the trip.  It's not clear why, but somehow they managed to miss a number of transmissions that were sent out warning ships to stay out of one particular area.  Of course it was exactly the area they were headed for.  

On March 1, the U.S. government detonated its first dry fuel Hydrogen bomb on the Bikini Atoll.  The Daigo Fukuryū Maru was on the cusp of the area that had been declared forbidden.  However, the explosion ended up being much more powerful than anyone had anticipated.  The crewmembers had to have seen it, however it didn’t alarm them.  They continued to fish and as ash rained down on them, they ignored it. 

By that night, the radiation poisoning had already begun.  Crewmembers developed burns, bleeding and swelling.  They made it back to Tokyo to seek help and yet somehow, even with the entire crew dying, the fish they caught managed to make it to market.  Once that fact was discovered, the government took action to recall it all but at least two people actually purchased it.  Since this happened long before the computer sales tracking information we have now, those people were never identified and it's presumed that they actually ate the fish.  

Ishiro Honda, a Japanese writer and director, was very acquainted with the atomic bomb.  He’d made a trip down to Hiroshima to see the devastation first hand back when the U.S. dropped the bomb on Japan.  He knew the horror and when this incident happened, he decided to make a movie that would protest atomic testing and nuclear war without doing so overtly. 

Gojira, the giant animal, takes the place of the bomb itself.  Every rampage the beast goes on leaves devastation in its tracks similar to that of the explosion in Hiroshima itself, but there's actually something even more telling in the film that shows you that the Daigo Fukuryū Maru was in the forefront of Honda's mind.

In the opening scenes of Gojira, a small fishing vessel is the first to fall victim to the beast.  The boat is prominently named “No. 5”.  Additionally, the radio operator dies horribly at Gojira’s hands. This spoke to Japanese audiences as the radio operator on the Daigo Fukuryū Maru was the only crewmember to die of radiation poisoning.  While practically no one in America would get the reference, Honda made sure that Japanese audiences understood what he was trying to  say:  The scariest thing about Gojira was not the giant monster but the irresponsible way the world was pursuing atomic weapons of war.

Normally, the column would end here, but this is where we tie into the sight-seeing portion of this story.  If you are in Tokyo and want to visit the actual Daigo Fukuryū Maru, you can do so.   

The boat is housed in a museum in Yumenoshima Park (Dream Island).  It’s a small museum and most of the exhibit is in Japanese however some English signs are available and give the story of the boat and what befell its crew.  It’s about a 30 minute train ride from Akihabara (where we generally stay).  Admission is free and the museum is open from 9:30 – 4:00 every day but Monday.

Speaking of Monday's, check back in next week for a less sobering look at Japan.  I'll be showing you a temple on an island mountain where a flame has been burning for 1,200 years.  It's going to be epic!  

And if you like monsters and want more of them, then check out my Amazon Author's Page.  There's plenty there that should scratch your itch.

See you next week!

2 comments: said...

I really like this one and am glad that I held off until I could give it my full attention. One question - earlier in the blog you say the whole crew died shortly after making it back to port. Later, you mention the death of the radio operator being the only one to die of radiation poisoning... was that a reference to the actual radio operator dying or the film actor dying?

Cary said...

I'm sorry I didn't see this before. Hardly anyone ever comments on the blog itself and I've gotten out of the habit of checking. I'll get better at that.

I remember when I was proofreading the piece that I wondered if people would think everyone died because of my word choice. What I meant to convey was that when they arrived they were all dying but thanks to the medical attention they received once in port, most of them pulled through. I should have been more clear about that. Only the radio operator actually died from the radiation poisoning.

I had loved Gojira for years before I knew this story but since I first read it, now I love it even more. That Honda was able to sneak this into a film that became a gigantic hit in the very country he was protesting makes me smile.