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Godzilla Film and Japanese Culture

Updated on September 19, 2018

Godzilla Movies the Influence of Social Changes

Godzilla is the world’s oldest and longest running film-franchise, its origins being Japanese with its release in Japan by Toho Studios in 1954. Godzilla remains a key Japanese cultural icon, unique to both the country and the people as a whole. Discovering why this Monster became so popular in Japanese culture we need to look at the reasons that were in place during the Japanese Post War period.

It is essential to explore why the Godzilla series attracted so much appeal and popularity with both the Japanese population and later as a recognized and powerful export of world-cinema. Godzilla’s popularity now extends well beyond its Japanese birthplace. It becomes necessary to understand the events behind Godzilla’s birthplace and its popularity in post-war society. This unique cultural reference remains unique to Japan and helps understand the zeitgeist of post-war Japanese cinema. The rise of Godzilla as a film legend remains an affirmative nod towards the position of Japan and its people during the aftermath of global conflict, and to some extent modernization of cinema and society.

Read the US Godzilla Reviews...

Godzilla (3D) [Blu-ray]
Godzilla (3D) [Blu-ray]
Modern Day Godzilla still remains popular even when he steps outside of Japan

Godzilla a true movie monster


Godzilla and the US Hollywood influence

The Hollywood release of “King Kong” (1952) and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1953) (both important and spectacular Hollywood films in their own right) in Japanese Cinema would have produced a dramatic idea of what really was possible within cinema. Advances in special effects and the development of the disaster element of cinema would have shown the Japanese audience goer a new film narrative. Now the idea of a monstrosity could both entertain and install fear in an audience. A new genre of urban meets the monstrous protagonist created a new source of inspiration to the face of modernity.

Indeed the face of modernity remains a key to understanding how the Godzilla movies dominated both Japanese culture as well as the external export market of Japanese cinema.

Godzilla The US Movie Review 2013

Godzilla Films and the Nuclear Radiation Effect

Japan, as a country, was recovering both physically and emotionally after their defeat in World War II. Their rebirth allowed a fresh evaluation and analysis of what had occurred and most importantly why. What is important to remember is that Japan had suffered two nuclear attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the idea that radiation was continuing to kill their people would have had high cultural significance and allowed the post-war feelings of negativity to prosper. Suffering from a sense of defeat (certainly a new cultural acceptance in Japanese culture and society) would have lead to the need to express, not only city destruction, as seen in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but also the rise of the monstrous force as visualised by Godzilla. In essence Godzilla becomes recognisable as the external threat or “other”.

1954 saw an accident occur in Japan when a Fishing Boat Daigo Fukuruyu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) accidentally wandered into the American Nuclear test site near Bikini Atoll. The exposure to the radiation at the test-site killed one of the crew members and their radiated fish were sold to the unwitting Japanese market. The Media reacted angrily to this death-by-radiation and Anti-American suggestions were brought to the attention again of the social consciousness. The feeling at the time must have been linked to the fear of “other” as well as the hidden negative effects of an invisible killer i.e. radiation.

Godzilla the American Cinema Release

Tanaka Tomoyuki a producer at Toho Studies invested heavily in the idea behind Godzilla (titled “Gojira” in Japanese and released in 1954). The film was first released in American in 1956 a mere 11 years after the end of World War II. The version released though was vastly different than the original Japanese version with all World-War II themes and atomic weapons being removed from the film. This may seem strange as it essentially removes the key themes behind the Godzilla structure. Censorship in this instance undermines the inspiration behind the film’s structure and certainly reduces the films narrative meaning.

A continually running theme within the Godzilla series is the anti-America suggestions evident from the 1954 release of Godzilla and continuing in its present form. A new sense of Japanese identity and its significance to the rest of the world helped fuel a belief in Japan as a nation with the films encouraging a sense of national pride lacking in the country since its defeat in Wold War II.

Read the Reviews of the Japanese Godzilla here...

Godzilla (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Godzilla (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Considered by some as the modern day monster movie the Japanese version has many features that helped define it to a nation and the world beyond!

Destruction and the Impotency of Science in Godzilla the Movies

It’s also worth mentioning that Godzilla illustrated to the Japanese the idea that their country was vulnerable and subject to huge powers of destruction whether natural or man-made. Technology and advancement in society was often destroyed by Godzilla and would have been a reflection of the cultural concerns of both the film-makers and the sensibilities of the audience. With huge cities being reduced to rubble and mass destruction, Godzilla would have been a conduit for the fear of the Japanese nation as a whole. The idea that a ravaging monster, immune from scientific understanding and representing the “other” could wreak such havoc within the urban landscape represents the view of the people of Japan.

Authority figures in Godzilla, as in all science-fiction, seem to be weakened by the presence of something beyond comprehension. For such an authoritarian system that existed in Japan prior to World-War II, the idea that authority as not always being correct would have been both liberating and very appealing for the Japanese people and creative artists. The ultimate questioning of authority reveals in fact that science and modernisation at this time offered an impotent view of the world and therefore needed radical overhaul.

Godzilla It Came From Japan

Godzilla changes from Destroyer to Protector of Japan

A point has to be made though that as the Godzilla series progresses Godzilla changes from being the destructor of Japan towards a volatile protector. This marks a gradual change in the perception of the film makers to the idea of Japan not only having a huge export market for their films, but that having a radioactive monster to defend their country provides a change in sensibility as their nation matures and re-establishes its identity. In this sense Godzilla in post-war Japan becomes a sign of cultural development, an icon serving as a focal point for changes in Japanese culture, media, and society.

Godzilla in a film sense represents a dynamic view of how a nation’s internal and external cultural events can influence its film and media productivity. Godzilla in this essence acted as both a mirror for the Japanese to explore not only their new-found social structure, but how as a society coped with their new-found attention from the rest of the world. Japan became a focal point within a modernising world. Godzilla remains a cultural signifier for both how Japan sees itself and how other cultures view Japan. With the release of Godzilla, both on the cinema screen and the within the film itself, the process of catharsis began.

In many ways Godzilla was at once alien to Japan, an external influence, it then became through gradual acllimatisation, an important and influential part of Japanese cultural identification. The export of the Godzilla films became both a valid export to the rest of the developing world and also helped Japan heal from its own internal strife.

Godzilla The Original Japanese Poster


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    • johndwilliams profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Essex England

      Thanks Dylan bookmarked for reading later - thanks again!

    • Dylanexpert profile image

      John D. Baldwin 

      6 years ago from New York, New York

      Very interesting summary of the Godzilla franchise, particularly how the figure evolved from threat to protector. You might want to check out my multi-part hub on the Golden Age of Japanese films (of which the original Godzilla was of course a part) here:

    • indianreel profile image


      6 years ago from London

      I always wondered why such a destructive bbeing eventually gets protective. This explains it very well. Wonderful hub.


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