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Posts Tagged ‘Number Five Lucky Dragon’

Last weekend my husband and I watched the live-action rendition of Space Battleship Yamato. Don’t recognize the name? Hmm, how about Captain Avatar. Wave motion gun? Well, trust me. It was an important anime series created in Japan during the late 1970s under the award-winning director, Leiji Matsumoto. This was translated in America as Star Blazers during the early 1980s. For many fans, it was our first introduction to anime with long story lines and complicated characters.

So how was the movie? It’s been a good 20 years since I watched Space Battleship Yamato, but the basic scenario and characters seemed faithful. The creative team stuck with much of the original design and sound effects, which I enjoyed hearing. Funny how a particular noise can really take you back!

The major update was adding a few female characters, both in speaking roles and as extras. Particularly, the sake-swilling Dr. Sado became a woman in the live action. I know this will bother purists, but gender parity really is not optional in today’s world.

The previous character of Yuki Mora was strengthened considerably. She is now a fighter pilot rather than a nurse, and speaks her mind quite a bit where in the original Yuki mostly stood in the background worrying about her boyfriend, Kodai. There are a few unfortunate lapses near the end, though. Midway through, one of the men, Saito, is possessed by an alien entity and remains fully clothed, though levitating. When Yuki is possessed by an alien, her uniform is blown off and she then goes around in a tank top and sweat pants for quite some time. She also apparently forgets all about being a  soldier and lets Kodai drag her around by the hand instead of grabbing one of the weapons that are lying on the ground. (But, to be fair, Kodai also ignores these weapons in favor of his cute stun ray.)

But what does this have to do with Godzilla, King of the Monsters?

Well, the setup for Yamato is that aliens are bombarding the earth with “meteor bombs” that irradiate the surface, destroying all life and forcing humans to live in squalid underground cities. In real life, during the 1950s, Japan actually had endured radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in the South Pacific. The incident of Number Five Lucky Dragon and its enduring legacy made a deep impression. The opening scenes of Godzilla directly relate to nuclear testing. It appears the same experience again found expression in the setting for Space Battleship Yamato.

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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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As Hallowe’en approaches, I bring you a true horror story from the cold war. Daigo Fukuryu Maru was a humble Japanese fishing vessel that set out from Yaizu to catch tuna in January of 1954. Its name translates roughly as “Number Five Lucky Dragon,” a cruel irony in light of the ship’s fate. Daigo Fukuryu Maru ran into engine trouble almost immediately. Near Midway Island, it snagged its lines on a coral reef and lost nearly half of them. The young captain, Hisakichi Tsutsui, refused to return to port without something to show for it. He headed south, toward the Marshall Islands.

By the end of February, 1954, Daigo Fukuryu Maru was fishing near Bikini Atoll. Yes, THAT Bikini Atoll. Supplies were running low, and they planned to fish one more day before heading back to port. None of the crew had any idea that the US Government had established an exclusion zone around Bikini Atoll because they were planning a Hydrogen bomb test. The hapless vessel was outside the exclusion zone, but that was little consolation after the fact.

At 6:45 a.m., a tremendous flash drew the crew up to the deck. It looked like the sun was rising in the west. “Bridge, sky and sea burst into view, painted in flaming sunset colors,” recalled crewman Matakichi Oishi. What the stunned crew witnessed was the detonation of Castle Bravo, a new type of nuclear weapon that worked a little too well. The blast had been expected to yield 6 kilotons; the actual yield was closer to 15. It was the greatest human-caused explosion to date, and the consequences were devastating.

Daigo Fukuryu Maru rode out the waves and the fishermen went to work just as always. Even when a cloud of mysterious white particles began to rain softly down, the men pulled in their lines and stored their catch, then weighed anchor and set off for Yaizu. As Oishi told it, “White particles were falling on us, just like sleet. The white particles penetrated mercilessly – eyes, nose, ears, mouth. We had no sense that it was dangerous.” Some of the men even tasted the stuff, trying to figure out what it was. Later testing determined this “death ash” was actually powdered coral blasted off the atoll by the explosion.

By that evening, all the 23 crewmen felt nauseated — the first symptom of radiation sickness. When they reached Yaizu, on March 14th, all the men were deathly ill, covered in burns and bleeding from their gums. The crew was quarantined, all their possessions buried. Unfortunately, the cargo of tuna had already been unloaded. When the diagnosis of radiation sickness became known, the government mounted a desperate search to locate and destroy the toxic seafood. At least some of it was likely consumed by unwitting customers.

Even this was only the beginning. Fallout from the Castle Bravo detonation rendered much of the fish in the Pacific toxic. Everything brought in to any Japanese port had to be tested for radioactivity. Even some crops in the fields were poisoned by fallout. The same must have been true in many neighboring countries, and so the full economic consequences took years to unfold.

For the crewmen personally, their lives were changed forever. Since the nuclear explosions at the end of World War II, nine years before, radiation sickness occupied a special place of horror in the Japanese mind. Anyone so afflicted was shunned, because radiation sickness was thought to be contagious. Although only one crewman died in the short term, most of the survivors had to move to new towns and start over, hiding the shameful secret of their former illness.

And they were not alone. In all, around 100 fishing boats of various nations were in the vicinity of Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. Many crew were exposed to contaminated material. Fallout was heavy on the Marshallese Islands of Utirik and Rongelap. Residents weren’t evacuated for 2 days, also suffering from radiation sickness. Infants born in the aftermath suffered birth defects. Much of the scientific knowledge about radiation sickness itself comes from studies carried out after Castle Bravo. Yet, even today, some parts of the Marshall Islands remain unsafe for habitation.

Adding insult to injury, the US Government was not forthcoming about what had occurred. Secrecy in nuclear testing was paramount, as was staying ahead of the USSR. Confronted by Japan’s government, US military sources claimed that Daigo Fukuryu Maru had been at Biniki Atoll on a spying mission. Only years later, and begrudgingly, did the US pay a miserly reparation to surviving crew members of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru.

The detonation of Castle Bravo, and its unanticipated levels of fallout, led to world-wide protest and re-evaluation of nuclear testing methods. This continued to build into the No Nukes Movement of the Seventies and Eighties. Matakichi Oishi, who tasted the “death ash,” frequently spoke at demonstrations. As for the ship itself, Daigo Fukuryu Maru was renamed and kept fishing for several years. In 1976, the trawler was permanently preserved in the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Memorial Hall at Toyko’s Metropolitan Museum.

And there was one other consequence. A very, very big consequence. An “Oh no, there goes Tokyo!” consequence. I’ll tell you about that on Saturday.

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