The king of monsters may be larger than life, but he was inspired by a real-life tragedy involving a Japanese fishing boat.
January 22, 1954 was just like any other day when a small tuna-fishing vessel named the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, set sail with a crew of 23 men toward the Marshall Islands. But what was supposed to be a routine fishing job off the Midway Sea ended in a catastrophic disaster that both rocked the nation of Japan and gave birth to one of its most iconic movie monsters, Godzilla.
On that day, Lucky Dragon No. 5 was on its way to the fish near the Midway Atoll, which is about 80 miles west of the famed Bikini Atoll, where America tested its atomic weapons. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki almost a decade earlier on August 6, 1945, which resulted in over 220,000 casualties. That event led the Empire of Japan to surrender, leading to the end of World War II.
The US then launched Operation Blacklist to demilitarize and democratize Japan, which also meant stifling news about the aftermath of the bombings, including radiation-related sickness, birth defects, and other long-term issues in the area. However, testing continued well after the war concluded. This included a bomb called Castle Bravo, which still remains the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States.
Castle Bravo was scheduled for testing on March 1, 1954, which happened to be the same day Lucky Dragon No. 5 arrived at the Marshall Islands. The US government declared a 57,000-square-mile danger zone in advance of the testing, but it was not prepared for the power Castle Bravo was going to unleash. In fact, the device was more than twice as powerful than initially predicted.
Weather changes blew the nuclear fallout outside of the danger zone toward the Marshall Atoll, engulfing the Lucky Dragon No. 5 in radioactive fallout. The fishermen immediately returned to the port of Yaizu, but all 23 crewmen were already suffering from acute radiation sickness. The ship’s story later sparked Japan’s national antinuclear movement.
Later that year, just eight months after the incident, Gojira hit theaters in Japan. The monster was both a victim of nuclear destruction and a victim of it. Director Ishiro Honda, explained, "I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Gojira."
Honda was a soldier in World War II who saw first-hand the destruction left behind after the bombing of Hiroshima. He sought to recapture the incredible and indiscriminate devastation in his film. However, the monster movie took on a different shape when it was brought over to western audiences.
Nearly 16 minutes were removed after Gojira when an American studio bought the movie’s distribution rights, according to Business Insider. New scenes involving an American journalist were added, radically changing the tone of the movie. Lastly, the title was changed from Gojira to Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
This was the version of Godzilla the world would know until 2004. That’s when critics and movie scholars discovered that it was originally a somber horror movie before it got turned into a campy monster mash.
This isn't the first, or probably the last, time a tragic sea tale inspired a work of art. For example, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick was based on the true story of The Whaleship Essex.