Tag: Film

The Origins of Godzilla: Castle Bravo and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru

The Origins of Godzilla: Castle Bravo and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru

Often lost in the modern fan fascination over kaiju and the status of Godzilla as a pop culture icon is the fact that the origin of the King of Monsters is inextricably bound to the atomic age, the fear of nuclear Armageddon and the anxiety over Japanese experiences during World War II. While the Godzilla films in general allegorically speak to the danger of nuclear weapons, one incident in particular served to spark the genesis of Japan’s signature monster: the 1954 Castle Bravo test and the accidental irradiation of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru.

The Godzilla statue in Shinjuku.

The Castle Bravo nuclear test took place on March 1, 1954 on the Bikini Atoll, a part of the Marshall Islands. It was the first attempt by the United States to detonate a dry fuel hydrogen bomb and the latest in a series of nuclear tests that had been conducted since the end of World War II. In the early morning hours of March 1st, the Castle Bravo device exploded with a force of 15 megatons, 1000 times the power of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. The force of the explosion stunned US authorities, who vastly underestimated the destructive power of the bomb, pegging the expected output at ‘only’ 5 to 6 megatons. The bomb blasted the coral of the atoll into a fine powder which absorbed radioactivity. The ash was then blown into the air and carried by the winds. The Castle Bravo test remains the fifth most powerful nuclear explosion in history to this day.

The unexpected strength of the test combined with strong winds meant the fallout from the explosion covered a much larger area than originally anticipated. The Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (sometimes referred to as Lucky or Fortunate Dragon Number 5) lay in the path of the fallout, although the ship was just outside of the announced danger zone. Reports indicate the ship was covered by the fallout dust, which stuck to to clothing and hair. The crew, unaware of the danger, resorted to scooping the ash off the vessel by hand. Upon their return to Japan, the 23 members of the ship’s crew were found to be suffering from acute radiation poisoning. One crew member would die a few months later from related causes. Fear over contaminated fish led Japanese authorities to bury thousands of tons of tuna.

The Daigo Fukuryū Maru inside the Exhibition Hall

The massive fallout and the plight of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru‘s crew became worldwide news, showing that the effect of a nuclear explosion was not limited to those in the area of direct damage. The widespread fallout reached Australia, Japan, parts of Europe and the United States. The Castle Bravo test galvanized anti-nuclear activists and struck a chord within Japan, already grappling with the legacy of the recent atomic bombings and the uncertain position of the country in the developing Cold War. The lingering concerns over the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were brought back to the surface by the sickened fishermen. Combined with the fallout from the test, Japan was once again threatened by the use of nuclear weapons.

Soon after the Castle Bravo test, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was returning to Japan after a failed attempt to film a movie in Indonesia. With the unexpected impact of the Castle Bravo test and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident in mind, Tanaka quickly came up with a story provisionally titled The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea and presented it to the studio. Toho bosses approved the concept and work began on the film in April of 1954. Eventually the movie and titular monster were named Gojira (ゴジラ), a portmanteau of gorira (ゴリラ, gorilla) and kujira (, whale).

After a very rapid process of development and filming, Gojira was released in November of 1954 and a cultural phenomena was born. The connection to Castle Bravo and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru is referenced in the movie’s opening scene, which depicts the crew of a ship relaxing before a sudden blinding burst of light explodes in the distance, quickly consuming the vessel in an inferno. The ship burns as the radio operators tap out a final distress call before the vessel is lost, destroyed by a force outside of their understanding or control. The scene both calls to mind Japan’s position in regards to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and the danger posed to all humanity. The 2014 American reboot directly incorporates a 1954 Bikini Atoll atomic explosion into its narrative, postulating that the test was actually a failed attempt to kill Godzilla. However, much of the archival footage shown is of the 1946 Baker explosion, part of the earlier Operation Crossroads tests. Little data is available from the Castle Bravo explosion, as the higher than expected power of the test vaporized the scientific equipment meant to record information.

From the opening credits of the 2014 film Godzilla.

Today, the King of Monsters is an ambassador for Japan, a pop culture icon known across the world. The general perception of Godzilla is one far removed from the sickness and destruction fresh in the minds of Japanese filmmakers in the 1950s. The Bikini Atoll remains uninhabitable due to high levels of residual radiation. The Daigo Fukuryu Maru itself was deemed safe after inspection and decontamination and returned to service on the seas. Renamed the Hayabusa Maru the ship was put to use as a training vessel until it was scheduled to be scrapped in 1967. Upon learning of the ship’s impending destruction, the governor of Tokyo intervened to save the vessel. With the original name restored, the ship is preserved inside the Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall in a quiet park on the edge of Tokyo, a silent memorial to the unleashing of monsters both real and imagined.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall.

References and Further Readings

  • The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters – ed. by Jeffery Andrew Weinstock
  • “Godzilla’s Secret History” – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-lankes/godzillas-secret-history_b_5192284.html
  • Official web site of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall – http://d5f.org/en/
  • “Castle Bravo: Fifty Years of Legend and Lore” – by Thomas Kunkle and Bryon Ristvet
  • The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki – ed. by Mark I. West
From Up on Poppy Hill and the Post-War Revival of Japan

From Up on Poppy Hill and the Post-War Revival of Japan

Studio Ghibli’s From  Up on Poppy Hill is a quiet romance set among the turmoil of Japan’s return to the world stage in the form of the 1964 Olympic Games. However, Japan’s economic revival did not come with the frenzy of construction (and destruction) that accompanied the games but with the outbreak of the Korean War. The fate of Matsuzaki Umi’s father is tied up in Japan’s participation in the conflict.

The Korean conflict was a surprise to American military planners, who had banked upon a European start to any Cold War hostilities. American units in Japan were poorly equipped, inadequately trained and generally unready for combat, a consequence of rapid postwar demobilization and a far cry from the military machine that had been instrumental in the victory over the Axis powers in 1945. The South Korean government of Syngman Rhee had been allotted little in the form of weaponry and support by the US government over fears that Rhee would be the aggressor in a Korean conflict. As a result, the surprise North Korean strike across the border reaped rapid gains for the communist forces. Yet early American units deployed to the combat zone were not even ordered to take winter clothing out of an expectation the conflict would be over quickly, shades of early World War One era optimism despite the hard lessons learned since then. The first American unit on the ground, Task Force Smith, suffered devastating losses in the battle of Osan.

As the conflict was far from the staging grounds of Europe and with demobilization still in effect, the American occupation government in Japan (led by the incredibly polarizing and controversial Douglas MacArthur) chose to utilize Japan’s merchant fleet in support of the conflict. This was made possible by the fact the United States was in overall control of Japan’s merchant fleet as it had had fallen to the allied powers at the conclusion of World War Two. During the war, several Japanese ships were hit by mines resulting in many casualties from which Up on Poppy Hill incorporates into its narrative.

Although Japan’s active participation in the Korean War was fairly limited in terms of ships and men, the economic repercussions of the war were far more significant. As the nearest strongpoint of American power, bearing in mind Japan would remain occupied until 1952, war material was needed as the Korean conflict lumbered towards resolution and then stalemate with the entry of China into the war. The need for war material that did not have to be shipped from the States and the urgent need to not let the European theater suffer shortages in order to carry out the fight in Korea meant that Japanese industry received a massive boost from American orders. By the early 1950s both Truman and Eisenhower were willing to use dollars to support the anti-communist policies laid out in NSC-68, the blueprint of American Cold War conduct. The resulting influx of dollars and war orders allowed Japan to rebuilt its industry from the ground up, incorporating new technologies and creating state of the art factories that would prove instrumental in Japan’s economic recovery. As a side effect, US troops taking part in the war spent their leave in Japan, putting more money into the economy and exposing even more Americans to Japanese culture, arguably facilitating the modern American acceptance of Japanese culture compared to Korean or Chinese culture.

Film: From Up on Poppy Hill, (コクリコ坂から Kokuriko-zaka Kara) Studio Ghibli

Suggested Reading: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam

News: Lost Hitchcock Film Found

News: Lost Hitchcock Film Found

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films has been found in an archive in New Zealand. Archivists at the New Zealand Film Archive announced that half of the 1924 film White Shadow was discovered in their holdings and it is now believed to be the earliest existing Hitchcock film. The famed filmmaker was credited with several jobs on White Shadow, including writer, editor and assistant director. He would make his directorial debut the following year in 1925.

White Shadow survived due to the efforts of a projectionist and collector named Jack Murtagh who saved the film from destruction. After Mr. Murtagh’s death, his grandson donated his films to the NZFA. For more information on lost films, check out the MARS link in the navigation bar. The discovery of White Shadow is a hopeful reminder that there is still a chance to find some of the many films that have disappeared over the years. Future articles on Wired History will discuss lost films and the ongoing effort to recover them.

More on the story at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/alfred-hitchcocks-earliest-surviving-film-218278