After the mushroom cloud

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On March 1, 1954, when the United States detonated Castle Bravo, the first in a new series of hydrogen-bomb tests over Bikini Atoll, the developers back in Los Alamos were taken by surprise. Their preliminary calculations had been off, and a failure to account for the presence of lithium-7 in the fusion fuel meant that the resultant fifteen-megaton blast exceeded the predicted yield almost threefold. To put that into perspective, the destructive power of this deadly new weapon – still the largest ever tested by the US – was equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshimas. Give or take.

Somewhat more predictably, the unanticipated “success” of the test blew all hope of secrecy out of the water and sparked international outcry. Heavy fallout contaminated at least fifteen of the Marshall Islands, including some that were inhabited, causing radiation sickness. Wind shear carried radioactive debris as far afield as Australia, India, the Americas and even parts of Europe. And the twenty-three-strong crew of a Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon No. 5, which was operating outside the 57,000-square-mile “danger zone” that had been announced by the US Navy, suffered acute radiation syndrome after being engulfed by a cloud of radioactive ash, with one crewman dying from complications in the following months.

Though the event had taken place more than 2,000 miles away, the unfortunate incident with Lucky Dragon brought fears of the bomb straight back to Japan’s shores. “Has the death of a citizen ever been watched by so many eyes?” asked the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun. Some even described it as the US’s third use of the bomb against the country. The response in America, however, was mixed. The Hungarian-born theoretical physicist Edward Teller, who was to the H-bomb as J. Robert Oppenheimer was to the atom bomb, commented, notoriously: “It’s unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman”. That fisherman – his name was Aikichi Kuboyama, and he was in fact Lucky Dragon’s chief radio operator – would come back to haunt Teller.

Amid the growing diplomatic scandal, the Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was returning to Japan from Indonesia, faced with a problem. Official permission for the big-budget film he had been planning – a love story between a Japanese soldier and a half-Indonesian girl set during the Indonesian War of Independence – had fallen through and he needed a new idea. On the return flight he happened upon a magazine article about the previous year’s box-office hit, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which an atomic bomb test in the Arctic awakens a hibernating dinosaur that then goes on a rampage down the East Coast of North America, destroying everything that lies in its path. What better moment to make a Japanese version?

The standard account holds that Tanaka took the idea to the studio top brass, who green-lit the project, hoping to capitalize on the Japanese public’s renewed fear of nuclear weapons and radiation – and the rest, as they say, is history. Godzilla, the monstrous embodiment of nuclear holocaust, an inexorable menace that breathes white-hot radioactivity and lays waste to entire cities, was born of an artistic collaboration between the renowned film-maker Ishirō Honda and the special-effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, going on to become the multibillion-dollar entertainment franchise that it is today. But as we are reminded by Jeffrey Angles and his translations of Shigeru Kayama’s novellas Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again – their first-ever appearances in English – this version of events misses a crucial part of the story. “Although lots of people at Toho Studios contributed to the first Godzilla movie, Kayama was the one who developed Tanaka’s vague idea for a film into more or less what we know today”, writes Angles. “He deserves to be better known as the ‘real father’ of Godzilla.”

An economist who, as a child, dreamt of becoming a palaeontologist, Kayama put on all the trappings of a writer of pulp fiction in the postwar years and, with hundreds of mystery, science fiction and adventure tales to his name, was at the height of his popularity when Tanaka came knocking at his door with a request to develop his nebulous idea into a workable film scenario. With all the industriousness of his métier, Kayama produced the scenario in a single week, delivering it on May 25, less than three months after the Bravo test.

The influence of those events on the “G-Project scenario”, as it became known, could not have been clearer. Kayama intended the film to begin with a voiceover dubbing the hydrogen bomb test not so much “destruction as … outright murder”, and his original scenario, as Angles relates in his excellent afterword to this volume, opened with a montage that included a scorched Lucky Dragon pulling into port, the disposal of radioactive tuna, the “unsettling faces” of the injured crewmen and scenes of paranoiacs “walking and pointing up at bats in a clear sky, fearing that they are radioactive ashes falling”.

In the event such heavy-handedness proved too much for the studio. Worried by the overt politics of Kayama’s scenario, Honda and the screenwriter Takeo Murata scrapped the voiceover and replaced the real-life maritime incident with a fictional sinking. (Only the eagle-eyed will catch a fleeting glimpse of a telltale “No. 5” marked on a lifebuoy on the deck of the film’s boat.) And that was just for starters. Other cuts were made by the Japanese producers in an attempt to make it appear less of an anti-nuclear protest film – although these would ultimately pale in comparison to the almost thirty minutes’ worth of cuts that were made to the US edit of the film, which removed various politically contentious themes around nuclear testing.

This decision to tone down Kayama’s politics may appear odd on the face of it. This was, after all, one of the first opportunities that Japan had – certainly since censorship had been lifted with the end of US occupation in 1952 – to reflect freely and creatively on the horrors of the atomic bomb and lingering anxieties over its legacy and implications. Yet for all that many of the scenario’s “real life” moments did not even make it to the cutting-room floor, few could help recalling, as they witnessed Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo – complete with terrifying images of the city irradiated and in flames – the firebombing of the capital or the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Added to this was a script that still posed questions about the balance of postwar power and the development of nuclear energy; and so, on the whole, Kayama was reportedly satisfied – so much so that he agreed to a second round, producing the scenario for Godzilla Raids Again the following year, 1955.

As Angles notes in his illuminating postscript, it is unclear when exactly Kayama began to have more serious doubts regarding the dilution of Godzilla’s anti-nuclear message, but by the end of the sequel the author stated categorically that it would be his last. “What had started as a symbol representing his fear of atomic weapons had morphed into a character with a ‘manga-like appeal’ that the viewing audience loved.” Worse yet, allowing Godzilla to carry on, Kayama reasoned, could have been interpreted as a tacit approval of the H-bomb. And if that weren’t bad enough, the author admitted to having grown fond of the monster himself. Something had to be done.

It would be easy enough to assume that Kayama’s decision to novelize “G-Project” had simply been to make a quick buck off the back to the films’ extraordinary commercial success, but the novellas, which first appeared just after the film sequel, tell a rather different story. No mere adaptations, they provided the author with a platform to explore his original ideas – and to redress the omissions, alterations and attenuated political content that the studio had insisted on. This renewed political thrust is made clear from the first page of Godzilla, which begins with an unambiguous authorial address to the reader:

As you readers already know, the main character of this tale, Godzilla, is an enormous, imaginary kaiju – a creature that doesn’t actually exist anywhere here on the planet. However, atomic and hydrogen bombs, which have taken on the form of Godzilla in this story, do exist … People all over the world are pouring their energy into a new movement opposing the use of atomic and hydrogen bombs. As one small member of that movement, I have tried to do my part by writing a novel – the tale you now hold in your hands.

What follows, of course, is no grand literary opus. The novellas, after all, are the work of a pulp fiction writer with a political agenda and a penchant for dinosaurs, so readers expecting literature on a par with the likes of Yukio Mishima or Shūsaku Endō may feel a little short-changed. Yet for all their lurid shock and intended appeal to younger readers, the two works have a cultural weight worthy of the kaiju. They invite us to grapple with some of thorniest ethical problems faced by humanity in a post-Hiroshima world. As genre fiction they are, moreover, superbly, compellingly written.

Stripped of romance and the grand spectacle afforded by the silver screen, Godzilla makes for a more unvarnished yet more layered reading experience. Gone is the film’s principal love triangle between Emiko, the daughter of the renowned palaeontologist Professor Yamane, the handsome salvage captain Ogata and the reclusive “mad scientist” Dr Serizawa. In a move to make the book more relatable to the youth market, Kayama instead focused the narrative on the young Shinkichi, a somewhat minor character in the film whose relatives are killed by Godzilla during its early attack on Ōdo Island. Determined now to avenge these deaths, Shinkichi finds himself cast together with Professor Yamane, who would sooner study than kill this prehistoric creature; he is more interested in unlocking the secrets of its great vitality and in making reparations for the “great deal of trouble” that Japan caused the world during the war. In this way Kayama dispenses with much of the human interest that had so appealed to filmgoers, replacing it with debate on scientific ethics and asking the children of the bomb the vital, allegorical question: should Godzilla – as product, victim and symbol of the bomb – be saved?

As Shinkichi baldly states in the novella, “Godzilla himself is the hydrogen bomb hanging over Japan right now”. Yet while Kayama elevates the ethical debate surrounding the bomb from the film’s subtext to the novella’s primary text, he also pushes the idea further, introducing and underscoring a number of key political contexts. The Cold War and anti-American sentiment, absent in the film, inform much of the characters’ fear. After the sinking of the boat that begins the work the characters openly speculate: was it a submarine? An aeroplane? Is there going to be another war? (As far-fetched as this brand of Cold War paranoia may be, it was no more ludicrous than the real-life paranoia in claims such as those made by the chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, who asserted that the crew of Lucky Dragon had in fact been a “red spy outfit”, commanded by a Soviet agent who deliberately exposed them to the radioactive fallout so as to embarrass the US government and discover the secrets of its thermonuclear capabilities.)

Kayama likewise complicates the societal responses to the monster in novel and interesting ways. In this version terror and paranoia are compounded by rumours that Godzilla is really a machine controlled by Professor Yamane, and by the appearance of a crank “Tokyo Godzilla Society” that preys on the metropolitan populace’s fears and prejudices by distributing dread-laden leaflets venerating the “Great Lord Godzilla” as an angry, vengeful deity. Though brushed over relatively quickly, each of these details combines to add dashes of much-needed complexity to the film’s more black-and-white ethical background.

If Kayama’s Godzilla makes some significant departures from Honda’s picture, Godzilla Raids Again cleaves far closer to the director Motoyoshi Oda’s second outing for the creature. Though this prose version is structurally tighter and more coherent in some respects, Kayama makes little attempt to improve on the film sequel’s well-noted shortcomings. While slavishly following the screenplay down to the very details of camera angles (Kayama’s description of the destruction of Osaka Castle being one conspicuous case in point), the novelization does little to add depth to any of the characters and fails to resolve the fundamental tension between Godzilla’s anti-nuclear impetus and the sequel’s step away from its allegorical origins via the introduction of the second kaiju, named Anguirus. For all that it remains assuredly entertaining, bolstered by Kayama’s punchy, quick-paced prose.

Fans of Godzilla owe a debt to Angles not only for his rediscovery of Kayama’s novellas, but also for bringing them crashing into English with such boldness. True to their pulp origins, both translations pluckily flout the rules of “good taste”, preserving especially Japanese turns of phrase as well as all the cracking, creaking and clattering of the original. Interjections of “bang”, “crunch”, “rat-tat-tat” and “kaboom!” punctuate the text, followed implacably by Godzilla’s distinctive, ferocious “GRAAWRR!!”. In his afterword Angles notes that he worried Kayama’s abundant use of onomatopoeia might make the English too “noisy”, but nothing could be more fitting for the king of the monsters than these uniquely raucous translations.

Both Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again reveal a great deal about their author’s private vision for the Godzilla story. More probing and direct than their big-screen counterparts, they hold a powerful mirror to a frightened world living in the shadow of the bomb – one that seems to be growing more recognizable again by the day. Shigeru Kayama intended these stories to send a strong message – and now, thanks to Jeffrey Angles, that message once more sounds clearer than ever. The novellas constitute a stark warning and appeal. It isn’t for nothing that, in the tragedy that begins the tale, we see a version of none other than Aikichi Kuboyama in the wireless room, tapping out a frantic SOS, a plea to the world as his boat, stricken by the impact of the hydrogen bomb test, begins to sink. “Please, they need to know”, he thinks. “Someone has to be listening somewhere.”

Bryan Karetnyk is a translator and Affiliated Lecturer at the University of Cambridge

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