How WWII Created Godzilla & Mecha Robots
Underneath the surface of fearsome monsters we can see that Godzilla is closely linked to the fears of atomic radiation and mecha robots emerged from the extremely rapid industrialization of Japan during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Most of us know and love Godzilla as well as mecha robots.
But both of these phenomena share something in common besides destroying Tokyo.
Godzilla and Giant Robots can actually tell us something pretty important about the history
Post War 2 Japan.
So when we think of Godzilla aka "the king of monsters!" we might start drawing familiar
tropes in our minds.
We picture his flaming hot atomic breath, leathery green skin, giant size, and penchant
for city smashing.
Similarly mecha robots have their own instant recall imagery.
Whether they're running amok or saving the day, these giant robots are known for their
huge size and mobility, the drama of their human pilots, and (sometimes) their almost
human like sentience.
But great art and inspired creativity don't occur in a vacuum.
The rise of these genres in Japanese cinema and anime in the 50s & 60's also reflect Japanese
anxieties about the threat of radiation following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as
well as the rapid industrialization of that same country in the latter half of the 20th
For the sake of this episode we're going to focus on the early evolution of godzilla
and mecha robots and how their widespread popularity was mirrored in the technological
shifts of post war Japan.
But before we get to all the fun stuff, to test our hypothesis we should ask: what evidence
is there that Godzilla's emergence in 1954 relates to a fear of radiation following the
bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and why is this significant?
Let's start with the tail end of WW2.
On August 6 1945, the US dropped the first ever atomic bomb deployed in warfare on the
Japanese city of Hiroshima, followed 3 days later by an A-bomb in Nagasaki.
The combined bombs killed an estimated 120,000 people, and tens of thousands more died later
from exposure to radiation.
At noon on August 15th Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's unconditional surrender via radio
broadcast, specifically citing the atomic bombs as the reason for defeat.
He said, "Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power
of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives.
Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration
of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization."
So by the time IshirM Honda's original 1954 Godzilla premiered less than a decade
later (in which an ancient monster is awakened from the depths of the sea near Japan after
being exposed to radiation during atomic bomb testing), it's safe to say that the dangers
of a-bombs, radiation, and atomic energy were heavy on the minds of the entire world.
But this movie echoed something very specific about Japan's post war fears, which surrounded
not only the balance of nature in the face of atomic bombs and radiation, but also the
balance of political power in light of the US's occupation of Japan that lasted until
During this time the US issued a moratorium on discussing their bombings during WW2, fearful
that it would undermine their efforts.
After the occupation ended, artists were beginning to turn to the events of WW2 and US occupation
as inspiration for new work.
Then in 1954 a Japanese fishing boat named the Lucky Dragon and its entire crew were
accidentally exposed to fallout radiation after the US orchestrated a nuclear test in
This real life event inspired the opening of Honda's movie, where a boat is destroyed
by the rise of Godzilla out of the sea after he is accidentally awakened by radiation.
And that's not the only instance of art imitating life: Godzilla's thick, ridged
skin was also designed to reflect the keloid scars on the skin of Hiroshima survivors,
who were known as "High-ba-kusha" or "bomb affected person."
In some ways Godzilla is the embodiment of both a hibakusha, who were ostracized during
WW2 recovery, and an a-bomb itself, which can bring immeasurable damage to mankind because
he is both the destroyer and the destroyed.
Also unlike other destructive movie monsters of that era, he is awakened by radiation,
not created from it.
So he's actually representative of the destructive power and potential lurking within mankind.
Shogo Tomiyama (producer for the franchise from 1989-2004) said of Godzilla's true
nature: "The fact is that humans cannot control or judge the Gods.
They have their own will.
They have their own way.
In Japan there are many Gods.
There is a God of Destruction.
He totally destroys everything and then there is a rebirth.
Something new and fresh can begin.
Godzilla is closer to being that kind of God."
So before he was duking it out with King Kong, Mothra or any other number of spin-off foes,
Godzilla was expressing a critical fear about the future of atomic energy and a-bombs.
Namely that even when we weren't busy pointing them at each other, they could still have
unintended catastrophic consequences for the entire world.
Ok so we've established that Godzilla had a lot to do with residual and well-founded
fears about the future of the atomic bomb and its destructive power.
But besides giving me a chance to do the robot on camera, how does the history of mecha robots
relate to post-war Japan?
Well around the same time that Godzilla was trampling Tokyo, a new anime subgenre featuring
" robots' started to gain popularity.
Starting in 1956 with the manga Tetsujin 28-go we begin to see a slew of mecha robots (the
word "mecha" being one used to describe this particular type of anime machine).
The types of robots vary, from humanoid robots being controlled with a remote control (as
was the case with Tetsujin 28-go) to machines that are sentient and run on their own.
But if there's one concept that people think of when they think of super robots its ones
where the giant machines are piloted by people.
And the first one that really exploded the idea of a human in the driver seat was Ma-zinger
Z in 1972.
Unlike Ishiro Honda, who spent his adulthood living in the wake of WW2 destruction and
US occupation, Ma-zinger Z's creator Go Nagai came of age in a changing Japan.
Born 1 month after the atomic bombs were dropped and 4 days after Japanese surrender, Nagai's
childhood was shaped by the aftermath of war, but his adolescence and early adulthood were
shaped by Japan's rapid growth and industrialization.
Manufacturing cities like Hiroshima and Tokyo that were destroyed during the devastation
of WW2 were being rapidly rebuilt, updated, and expanded in the post war error.
Think about it: in 1945 the majority of Tokyo lay in shambles.
But by 1964 Tokyo was on the world stage again as a shining example of industrial progress
by hosting the Olympic Games.
That's less than 20 years for an entire city to be rebuilt from the ground up.
And the industrial growth of Japan, was kind of crazy.
By the time Go Nagai created Mazinger Z in 1972, Japan had already become a force to
be reckoned with in the car manufacturing industry.
In 1950, Japan produced 31,597 cars total.
Which equaled the number cars the US produced in a single day.
By the late 1960s, Toyota and Nissan had either matched or surpassed the productivity levels
of their American competitors.
And while, Nagai drew inspiration from other artists who featured remote controlled robots
in their work that explosion of Japanese cars mattered.
Speaking of his inspiration for his man driven robot he said: " One day I was driving along
the streets of Tokyo in the middle of a traffic jam...An idea clicked and i started to imagine
that my car generated arms and legs to pass all the other cars...I returned to my studio
and started to draw and design the first prototypes for Mazinger..."
And it was Mazinger Z that really set up a lot of conventions of the genre and it's
popularity was explosive.
It started as a Manga, but was quickly picked up and put on TV.
By March of 1974, 30% of Japanese TV watchers tuned to watch episode 68 and see the birth
of Great Manzinger.
It was one of the highest rated animes of all time.
And like the Japanese cars that inspired it, Mazinger Z spread all over the world.
It was popular in Spain; it was very popular in the Philippines until it was ordered off
the air by the Dictator -slash - President Ferdinand Marcos' it was aired in the US as
Tranzor Z; and it was intensely popular in Mexico in the 1980s and was even cited by
Guillermo Del Toro as part of his inspiration for Pacific Rim.
Which is probably why Go Nagai said "I believe anime has helped the world discover the soul
of the Japanese and their culture more than anything else."
And while that may or may not be true, the soul of 1970's Japan brimming with A technology
driven future was clearly very different than the soul of 1950's war ravaged Japan heavy
with the dread of the atomic world.
So, how does it all add up?
Well we started with a giant awakened dino monster that breathes atomic breath on Japan,
echoing the post WW2 fears surrounding the rapid expansion of a-bombs worldwide.
We saw that this fear wasn't only centered on past destruction, but also deeply concerned
with the potential for future atomic mishaps, whether intentional or unintentional.
Then around the same time we get big people driven robots that reflect Japan's rapid
postwar expansion, rebuilding, and industrialization.
So while Godzilla was the embodiment of apocalyptic fears, mecha robots came on the scene as symbols
of rebuilding and the potential for growth.
But no matter how you look at it: Godzilla and Mecha Robots are pretty cool.