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Believe it or not, the tragic voyage of Number Five Lucky Dragon played a part in the origin of one of entertainment’s most remarkable characters: Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Godzilla is one of several prominent movie creatures known collectively as daikaiju, from the Japanese kaiju, “strange beast,” with the modifier dai that makes it a huge “kaiju.”

Japan in the 1950s was struggling to recover its identity. Through the 1930s and ’40s, this country had been a military juggernaut with great national pride. Now the mighty had been laid low by the only use of atomic weapons in wartime. One could argue that Japan had brought this upon herself, but no one could deny the horrific devastation. In some ways, it was a similar blow to that which rocked the US after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01.

As years passed, the Japanese incorporated the atomic experience into many kinds of entertainment. What caught the world’s attention were the daikaiju movies, and Godzilla was the very first. Director Ishiro Honda and art director Akira Watanabe had created the ultimate monster and a powerful metaphor for the dangers of nuclear weapons. Many details directly refer to atomic explosions. For instance, the pattern of Godzilla’s scales was said to have been inspired by keloid scars on the bodies of Hiroshima survivors.

This movie was released in November of 1954, so it must already have been in production when Number Five Lucky Dragon strayed too close to Bikini Atoll. Indeed, the very first scene shows a fishing trawler caught in the furnace of an atomic explosion. The fate of her crew was fresh in the minds of the Japanese audience and instantly elevated Godzilla above mere entertainment. The titanic beast burned and trampled everything in its path. It couldn’t be intimidated or reasoned with. Truly, Godzilla was nuclear war personified.

In America, Godzilla and nearly 30 similar films have been beloved, yet ridiculed. The effects are silly, the voice acting is terrible, the plots are ridiculous. We grin and munch popcorn as bizarre behemoths slam each other into sky scrapers and roast cities. Scenes where panicked civilians evacuate, clutching just a few possessions, are hardly noticed in the US. These were real, painful memories for the original audiences.

Throughout the years, daikaiju movies have maintained their cautionary tone. Not only Godzilla, who was awakened by a nuclear blast, but Rodan was freed by miners who dug too deep, and Mothra ravaged Tokyo while trying to rescue the Cosmos Twins, who had been abducted by a greedy businessman. Nature sends daikaiju to avenge environmental damage, pride and lust for power, and the pursuit of science without regard for consequence. Any year now, I expect a Godzilla movie that decries global warming.

Next Wednesday, I’ll be back with more of a personal profile on the Big Guy.

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