The Real-Life Tragedy That Inspired ‘Godzilla’

“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

  • CSisonweb

    Eh this is alright but what about that guy who survived both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not sure if that’s good or terrible luck.

    • TheMadHatter

      He survived so I’d say good…

    • ScepticSid

      He died in 2010 at the age of 93 . He was only listed as being at Nagasaki and did not register as a survivor of Hiroshima as well as he felt it would be disrespectful to the many thousands who were not so lucky but in 2009 his work records proved that he was less than 3 km from both explosions.

  • The real Japanese movie that inspired the Blue Öyster Cult. (Great footage from “Gojira”)

    • percynjpn

      It may be a myth, but many say that the name “Gojira” is a portmanteau of “gorira” (gorilla) and “kujira” (whale).

  • Andyman7714

    Interesting timing of this article. Is this a disguised plug?

    • Nathaniel A.

      Forgive my ignorance, but a plug for what?

      • porthos76

        There’s a new Godzilla movie about to be released.

        • Nathaniel A.

          Oh yeah, I remember hearing about that somewhere.

    • inconspicuous detective

      plug no. opportunistic move? yes.

  • Nathaniel A.

    This is a really interesting story, but helped along by a lot of melodrama from the author.

  • Atlas

    Great article! I actually just recently watched Godzilla Vs. Space Godzilla. That was one of Godzilla’s hero roles, but all I really got from the movie was that Baby Godzilla is adorable and Space Godzilla is an ass, still a very entertaining movie. Speaking of commentary on the development and use of atomic weapons, the game Braid is believed by many to be an allegory for the A-Bomb’s creation. This theory is supported by the games famous hidden event and an in-game quote from Harvard physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, who worked on the Manhattan Project. After the detonation of the first atomic bomb, Bainbridge, realizing what he had helped create, was quoted saying “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Most people know about the Braid connection but if you haven’t heard of it I suggest reading up on it, very deep stuff for a game that, at first, seems very light-hearted.

    • Lisa 39

      That’s cute atlas!

      • Atlas

        Baby Godzilla for the win!

  • UN

    So yet again horrors of reality are much darker than fiction

  • oouchan

    “On March 1, Lucky Dragon neared Bikini Atoll…”
    My brain immediately went to Bikini Bottom from Spongebob. Sheesh…..
    Always liked the godzilla stories, movies and shows. Sad how this started out, though.


    • Whatisreal

      Haha same here, although spongebob and Patrick being the result of nuclear testing certainly explains a lot!

      Was interesting, kinda rubbing it in the Japanese peoples faces isn’t it? Testing new H-bombs on its doorstep so soon after WW2..

      • oouchan

        Yup…that would explain Spongebob alright!

        I agree about rubbing it in their faces. Sad.

      • Mom424

        Pretty sure there’s a fairly popular theory that echoes that theory…Sponge Bob actually lives in Bikini Atoll.

      • lbatfish

        The distance from Japan to Bikini Atoll (in the Marshall Islands) is about 2300 miles, or about a hundred miles greater than the distance from Atlanta-to-Los Angeles or London-to-Cairo. Quite a large doorstep! 🙂

        • percynjpn

          Don’t let facts get in the way inane sentiments.

          • lbatfish

            Judging from the number of upvotes that my comment got, that’s probably good advice. 🙂

  • Kiddy_kicker

    I love the Japs, I’m writing this using a PS4. And even though they done terrible things in WWll they didn’t deserve the Nukes. Lets hope it never happens again, after all I think we all would like to see what the PS5 is going to be like.

    • Spartachilles

      I can’t tell if this person is trying to put across a point or advertise Playstation. It seems like a meld of both, which probably means its a crafty advertising account…

  • MikaelaWechsler

    There are many ancient History for the Godzilla to be relationship with Human being .

  • Mikey Godsey

    This is one of the more well-written nuts for sure. Props, man.

  • I value the article post.Thanks Again. Keep writing.