The giant reptile Godzilla has spawned a franchise of 38 films (and counting) and even has his own official website. But for all the fun of a rampaging 50m monster (or is he 120m?—he has grown along with Tokyo’s skyline), it’s easy to miss his origins as a powerful metaphor for the consequences of nuclear warfare. Shigeru Kayama’s novellas Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again in Jeffrey Angles’s new translation restore Godzilla’s metaphorical roots.
The connection between Kayama’s novellas and the films isn’t made entirely clear until Angles’s comprehensive afterword. In 1954, Tōhō Studios Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka sought out Kayama, already a popular science-fiction writer, to develop an idea about an ancient monster reawakened by a nuclear blast. (Angles’s afterword details how the Japanese hadn’t yet been able to “stop and reflect on the horrors” of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They’d been too busy coping with the day-to-day challenges of living in post-war Japan and too limited by censorship under the American occupation, which ended in 1952. Godzilla was one of the first films to explore the theme.) Kayama leapt at the opportunity, pounding out the scenario in just a week.
Kayama’s original draft is a much more clear-cut condemnation not just of nuclear warfare, but also explicitly of the United States. For example, his scenario opened with a reference to the Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test at Bikini Atoll in March 1954 that caused acute radiation syndrome in the 23-man crew of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5), killing chief radioman Kuboyama Aikichi. It followed up with suggestions of shots like the disposal of radioactive tuna. Tōhō Studios eventually took a less direct approach, using Godzilla as a metaphor about the dangers of nuclear weapons more broadly—rather than as an indictment of the US.
Angles’s translation does full justice to the original.
The novellas Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again were published about nine months after the release of the first Godzilla film and about three months after the release of the second. Neither novella exactly follows the plot of the movie with which it corresponds, but neither do they exactly match Kayama’s original scenarios. Rather, they’re adaptations of film and scenarios that Kayama prepared for publication in a book series for young adults. Nevertheless, as Angles explains,
By retelling the story in his own way, Kayama was taking the opportunity to present the public with his own, personal vision of the story, independent of the other forces at Tōhō Studios that had shaped other versions.
Godzilla opens with a cargo vessel from Tokyo Bay Rescue and Salvage. The crew sees a strange light and then disappears into the sea. It then moves to Shinkichi Morita, the youthful hero and employee of the Tokyo Bay Rescue and Salvage, as he meets up with Emiko Yamane, daughter of the famous paleontologist Professor Yamane. Shinkichi decides to investigate the ship’s destruction near where he was born, on the fictional Ōdo Island. There, he finds elderly locals talking about the legendary monster Godzilla who soon attacks, killing forty people.
Shinkichi, Professor Yamane, Emiko, and Yamane’s protege—pharmacologist Daisuke Serizawa—are assigned to an expedition to Ōdo Island to investigate. There, they find high radiation levels, especially in the monster’s footprints. Professor Yamane prepares to announce to the world that
Recent hydrogen bomb tests must have destroyed Godzilla’s habitat… Damage from the H-bomb tests seems to be what drove him from the home where he had been living in relative peace up until now.
The group heads back to Tokyo to join the Anti-Godzilla Task Force, a group that faces the seemingly impossible task of defeating a monster “baptized by the hydrogen bomb”. They eventually do, but not before Godzilla sacks Tokyo in a cinematic scene that one TV announcer assures viewers “is not a play or a movie… one of the strangest events in all history”. The city is largely destroyed, including a Ginza department store that famously survived the bombings of World War II. (These kinds of details are presented to the reader of Angles’s edition in a glossary.)
That reminder of World War II is important. References to the War are legion. Emiko and Shinkichi were evacuated from Tokyo together as children. The villagers on Ōdo Island desperately arm themselves with any weapons they can lay hands on, including bamboo spears. Kayama, who was in his early 50s when he wrote the novellas, speaks directly to his readers during Godzilla’s attack:
Some of you readers probably know how weird and unsettling it can be when terrified people are running around in a panic as sirens wail overhead, high and low, their trailing notes reverberating across the landscape… The continuous, drawn-out sounds of the sirens coming from every direction sounded like sobbing.
As one civilian notes, “How awful! It makes me remember the war.” It’s no wonder that movie-goers responded to the film with what Angles describes in the afterword as “sometimes emotional distress” when they watched the monster’s rampage.
Angles’s translation does full justice to the original. It preserves the pace and tone of a novella for young adults, including innumerable examples of onomatopoeia. (The pages are full of “Rrrrr…”s, “BAM!”s, “click-click-clicks…”, and “Tooooot, whump-whump, toot-toot…”s.) His afterword also provides more than information about context, as already mentioned. He gives help interpreting both the novellas and the films. Most fascinating, perhaps, is the closing section about “Translating Kayama’s Novellas”, in which he explains the difficulties of rendering Godzilla’s distinctive roar in English. (Lest readers think he took his task more seriously than it merits, they should note that Godzilla’s roar takes up an entire subsection of the monster’s Wikipedia page.) He also discusses the delights of sharing translation drafts with a class of undergraduates, close in age to Kayama’s intended audience.
Standing on their own, the narratives of Godzilla stories are stories about rampaging monsters written for an audience of young adults. But Kayama’s novellas—along with the context provided in Angles’s afterword, make the volume Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again a much more important read. As Kayama reminds “you readers” in his opening note, he is “one small member of a new movement opposing the use of atomic and hydrogen bombs”:
I have tried to do my part by writing a novel—the tale you now hold in your hands. Reading this book in that context will make it all the more informative and interesting.