The Real-Life Tragedy That Inspired ‘Godzilla’

By Nolan Moore on Thursday, March 13, 2014
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“He’s just an animal. If you find what he wants, then he’ll come to you.” —Godzilla (1998)

In A Nutshell

If you know anything about pop culture then you’ve heard of Godzilla, King of the Monsters. However, the radioactive dinosaur we all know and love was actually based on a terrible tragedy. While definitely influenced by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, director Ishiro Honda was particularly inspired by the tale of the Lucky Dragon 5, a fishing vessel that suffered a terrible fate.

The Whole Bushel

Famous for his atomic breath and bad attitude, Godzilla is everybody’s favorite giant monster. However, the big guy has changed drastically over the years, transforming from a force of nature into a force for good. He’s fought pollution, raised a son, and even learned to dance.

However, the 1954 Godzilla was an entirely different animal. Ishiro Honda’s monster flick wasn’t just simple entertainment. It was a commentary on the danger of nuclear weapons. Like most Japanese citizens, Honda knew a thing or two about atomic bombs. He’d traveled to Hiroshima and witnessed Little Boy’s destruction firsthand. However, the incident that really drove Honda’s film was a little-known tragedy that took place in 1954.

On January 22, a fishing vessel named Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) set sail from the city of Yaizu. However, the trip was plagued with incredibly bad luck. The ship’s young captain was pretty much a rookie, and the Dragon’s engine kept giving out. On top of everything else, the crew lost almost half of their fishing lines in a coral reef. Perhaps the fishermen should’ve interpreted this as a bad omen. Instead, they became determined to sail further out and catch even more fish. It was the worst decision they ever made.

On March 1, Lucky Dragon neared Bikini Atoll, the notorious cluster of islands that served as a testing site for nuclear weapons. Unfortunately for the fishermen, American scientists were about to detonate Castle Bravo, the first dry fuel H-bomb. While the Japanese government ordered boats to stay away from the atoll, the Lucky Dragon never got the memo. The crew had no idea what was about to happen. Neither did American scientists. They expected the explosion to yield 6 megatons of TNT. When it finally detonated, it yielded a whopping 15 megatons, making Castle Bravo the most powerful nuclear bomb ever set off by the US.

When the bomb blew at 6:45 AM, fire illuminated the dark sky, leading the Japanese to dub March 1 as “the Day the Sun Rose in the West.” And the crew of the Lucky Dragon was right there to witness the blast. Well, technically they were just outside the government-mandated danger zone. Of course, that zone was established back when scientists expected a much smaller explosion. Eight minutes after detonation, the fishermen heard the thunderous boom . . . and then white ash began sprinkling onto the boat. Atomized coral was raining down on their heads. Unsure of what was happening, the crew kept fishing, ignoring the dusty rain, oblivious to the danger.

Later that evening, the crew grew violently nauseous. As they sailed back to Japan, they developed horrible burns, bloody gums, and swollen eyes. When they finally reached the mainland, they were quarantined, but their fish were mistakenly sold to stores across Tokyo. The government freaked out (understandably) and sent teams to hunt down the radioactive tuna. Unfortunately, before they could collect all the fish, two were sold to unsuspecting customers, who probably ate them. Even worse, Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died in September, becoming the first Japanese victim of the H-bomb.

The incident sparked a firestorm of controversy, causing protestors to take to the streets. Not only that, Ishiro Honda was inspired to transform his monster into a symbol of nuclear holocaust. The tragedy even made its way into the film. In the opening scene, a fishing boat marked No. 5 is sailing along when a flash of bright light fills the screen. As crew members scramble to their feet, the boat is mysteriously destroyed. To drive his point home, Honda makes sure viewers witness the death of the radio operator. It’s an intense moment, but only Japanese viewers understood Honda’s true intent. They all knew the real monster in “Godzilla” was far scarier than any fire-breathing beast.

Show Me The Proof

Turner Classic Movies: Gojira (Godzilla)
Badass Digest: Lucky Dragon 5 And The Terrifying Truth That Inspired Godzilla
Gizmodo: 25 of the Deadliest Explosions Man Ever Made