Godzilla and Human Sacrifice

9.3.2019

One of the most important themes of Godzilla is sacrifice. While watching Gojira 1954 yesterday, I could not escape thinking about it and its importance. Sacrifice was a central theme of Godzilla King of the Monsters released several months ago. The role sacrifice has played and continued to play in human history is cloaked in mystery and mythology. Monster movies, Godzilla in particular, are mythologies that place sacrifice upfront along with the role it plays in saving humans. These films reveal the significance of sacrifice to moviegoers who may or may not follow its breadcrumbs to its truth about what humans do and why it won’t save us.

I’ve written several posts about sacrifice in the past. Although I don’t write about sacrifice often, it’s not far from my thoughts. The significance of sacrifice in relation to Godzilla has been a driving force behind why I love Godzilla so much especially as an older fan. Godzilla films have a way of pointing out victims and revealing how and why they are sacrificed. But the world has not understood its lesson and have failed to live up to its challenge.

Godzilla is a mythological monster that follows in the history of Japanese mythology. Monsters and mythological beast can be found across ancient cultures. Such beasts represent of the dangers in the nature world and in the world we have nurtured. And we should not miss one for the other.

I decided to do a quick Google search on human sacrifice in Japan and the search turned up first was the article “Human Sacrifices in Japan” by Noritake Tsuda in the 32 volume of monthly magazine “The Open Court” published in 1918. What I found was overwhelming, confirming what I had come to learn many years ago and opening my eyes to see more going on in Gojira that I had seen before. What I found were striking antecedents and parallels to the story of Godzilla’s origins on Odo Island. Below are excerpts from Tsuda’s article (pp 760-767) followed by my summary and brief analysis of Gojira 1954.

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1. “It is remarkable that the tradition of human sacrifices was so widespread in old Japan that there is scarcely any old Japanese who has not heard some story or another of human sacrifice known as Hitomi-goku and Hitobashira.”

2. “According to the Nihon Shoki (‘Chronicles of Japan’), the Kitakawa and Mamuta rivers overflowed in the eleventh year of the reign of the Emperor Nintoku (323 A.D.). Protection against the torrent was quite beyond the ability of the stricken populace. Meanwhile the Emperor had a divine revelation in his august dream to the effect that there was a person called Kowakubi in the province of Karachi, and if they should be sacrificed to their deities of the two rivers respectively, the work would be easily achieved. Hereupon a search for the two persons was started and they were caught.

“Kowakubi, the poor victim, was then thrown into the torrent of the Kitakawa river, with a prayer offered to the deity of the river. Now through his sacrifice it was possible to construct the bank completely.

“Not so Koromono-ko. He brought out two gourds, and throwing them into the torrent he addressed the deity of the river thus: ‘I came here,’ said he, ‘to sacrifice my life to thee, because thou art inflicting the calamity upon the people of the district. If thou dost sincerely want my life, sink the goods so that they may not float again: then I shaw know thee be in vain for me to throw away my life.” At this time a whirling wind blew as though trying to submerge the gourds. But dancing on top of the waves, they did not sink, and floated away. For this test, the agitation of the water lessened and the bank was made strong and Koromono-ko had saved his life.”

3. “According to the Kojiki (‘Records of Ancient Things,’ completed 712 A.D.), a monstrous eight-forked serpent devoured seven maidens every year one after another, but finally at the eighth time, it was cut to pieces by Prince Susa-no-o, and the maiden who was rescued by the prince became his wife. This record is also a mythological narrative, and it could not be indigenous in Japan because no large harmful serpent ever lived in Japan according to the zoologist. Its origin, therefore, should belong in some foreign land.

There are three elements in these tales of a serpent being killed, viz., the monster wants human sacrifices, a girl to be sacrificed is rescued, and the rescued girl is married to the hero by whom she is saved. These elements reappear very often in the later folktales of a similar nature.”

4. “According to [the tradition of the people of Aihara],… the people suffered bitterly every year from the inundation of the Yamakuni river. Thereore the seven commissioners opened a council and decided to offer their prayers to the Hachiman shrine day and night for a whole week to receive a divine revelation. It was finally revealed to them that there was no other means than to offer a human sacrifice to the water-deity. But they could not find any man willing to be used for the purpose. Hereupon Yuya-danjo proposed to his six comrades to take off their trousers and throw them into the river, under the agreement that the owner of the trousers which sank should offer his life to the deity. This was approved by all and was tried as proposed. Alas! the trousers of Yuya-danjo sank and his life was forfeited. Tsuru, a daughter of one of his retainers, and Tsuru’s son, called Ichitaro, heard of their master’s ill lot, and both begged to be allowed to give their own lives in behalf of their master. Nothing of the kind being granted, each of them separately offered his life to the deity.… And since that time the banks of the river are said to have been very strong and no inundation was experienced there until modern times. The faithful mother and her son are said to be enshrined in the Tsuruichi shrine which now stands there.”

5. In the Nihon Shoki, “while the Emperor Jimmu, the founder of the Japanese Empire, was crossing the sea on his expedition to the east, a typhoon broke and his boat was soon adrift on the waves. Then Ina-ihi-no-mikoto, deploring the disposition of the deity, sacrificed his own body to the deity of the sea; thus the emperor could proceed.”

6. According to the Taiheiki, “a passenger-boat was passing through Naruto of Awa when it suddenly stopped and could not proceed. The passengers conjectured that this was caused by Ruin, the dragon deity, with the intention of getting something in their possession. So they threw their swords, arms and armor, and other things which they thought the deity coveted, into the water. But the whirlpool would not become calmer. Meanwhile a steersman crying out from below said that, the place being the eastern gate of Rin-gu (“Dragon Palace:), some precious thing should be given the dragon for regaining their freedom. He then proposed to sacrifice a noble among them so as to rescue the rest, for nothing less, he claimed, the deity wanted this time. Thus the ship was released and could pass.”

7. “According to one of [the traditions of Japan, China, and India], there were once upon a time two deities, one called Chusan and the other Koya, in the province of Mimasaku in Japan. The body of the Chusan deity was a monkey and that of the Koya deity was a serpent. To them a human sacrifice was offered annually, always consisting in a virgin who was selected from among the inhabitants. This custom had been observed from ancient times. Now in this country, there was once living a very beautiful maiden extremely beloved by her parents. But the maiden was selected as a victim for the next year’s festival. So she was given special nourishment that she might be fat on the day of the festival as it was always a rule. The parents, counting the days, lamented more and more biterly as the end approached. Meanwhile a man came to this province from the eastern part of the country, a hunter, and he began his hunting business with many dogs which were trained to bite animals to death. This man heard about the matter of the maiden and one day called upon her parents and personally heard their lamentation which excited him to deep sympathy; so he proposed to deliver their daughter from her death. When the day of the festival came a Shinto priest with others visited the house, carrying a large chest into which the maiden was to be put. Now the man secretly entered the chest (instead of the minder), but with a sharp sword and two of his dogs which were trained to kill monkeys. The chest was then carried to the shrine escorted by many; the strings then being cut off, it was left there as a sacrifice to the monkey deity. The tradition then proceeds to describe that the man, pushing up the cover of the chest just a little, found near-by a large monkey, seven or eight feet tall, with a few hundred smaller monkeys around him. After a little while the large monkey came to the chest and opened the cover, being assisted by the smaller ones. At this moment, the man, giving a signal to his dogs, jumped up and out of the chest. The monkey was first caught by the two dogs and then pulled down by the man. “Thou has killed,” said the man, with his sword over the monkey, “many virgins; therefore thy time is now come, but if thou be a true god, kill me this instant.” Meanwhile the smaller monkeys were mostly killed by the two dogs. At the same time, a revelation was made to the Shinto pri[e]st who had Brough the chest, saying, “I (the monkey) need no more human sacrifices from now on, so come and deliver me from death.” Now the priest and others rushed into the shrine and told the man about the revelation. The man, however, did not want to listen to them and answered that he wanted to kill the monkey for his many misdeeds and that he did not care about his own life for this. But after repeated implications he allowed the monkey to regain his freedom. The monkey ran away into the hills and the man went back to the maiden’s parents and married her, and formed a happy home for many years. Thus the people were delivered from human sacrifices.”

8. “Such traditions give rise to religious customs and manners in commemoration of them, and that such services were observed even until recent years in remote parts of the country.”

9. “It was on the 4th of February, 1895, that my friend Mr. S. Wada personally witnessed a service of this called Oto. According to his information it took place annually on the 10th of January (of the old calendar) at Hojo, Shikito-gun, in the province of Harima. In this village there is a shrine called Ten-man-gu. According to the tradition remembered by the people of the village, there once was a large bamboo bush at the bake of the shrine, and here lived an eight-eyed weasel. To propitiate the weasel and to get rid of its evil doings from which the villagers suffered, a boy and a girl had to be offered to it. The commemoration of this noble deed of the Yamabushi priest is said to be the origin of the Oto service. The service is very peculiar and interesting. Two families are selected beforehand by divination. One of the families must have a boy of five years who must be their eldest son, and the other family a girl of five years who must be their eldest daughter, and the parents must be living. Every one who wants to take his seat in the ceremony must cleanse his body and eat only vegetables from the previous day until the ceremony ends. On the morning of the festival day the body and the girl proceed to the shrine followed by their parents, servants, and neighbors. When they arrive at the shrine, the body, the girl, their parents, and two waiters respectively take their seats in the sanctuary, together with the priest and the shrine-keeper. Then the priest offers a prayer to the god. After the prayer, they are to be served with sacred sake wine and other vegetable food. Villagers who throng to the shrine are also served with the sake and other food and make merry. Such merry-making represents their delight in the rescue of the children by the Yamabushi priest. At the close of the ceremony, the priest draws a lot to select two families for the next year.”

10. “At the Sakato-no shrine at Sakoto-ichiba in the province of Kazusa, there is a service which also has some relation with human sacrifice. A person is selected from among the parishioners of this shrine by lot, and he is brought before the shrine and there he is put to a chopping-block. A person called Hitotsu-mono performs a mimic ceremony as though to kill him. The rite is said to be the relic of human sacrifice which it was once a rule to offer to the god of this shrine.”

11.It is well known that many races observed the custom of human sacrifices in some stage of their development. Human sacrifice, Bunsen says, was abolished in the very earliest by the Egyptians, who declared it to be an abomination to the gods, whereas in Palestine, in Syria, and in civilized Phenicia and Carthage, such sacrifices continued to be offered to Moloch as the very climax of religious worship. Some of the Kings of Judah and Israel caused their children to pass through the fire. Even the Romans, in the time of Caesars, buried their Gallic prisoners alive in order to appease the wrath of their gods; nor were the Greeks entirely free from these atrocious practices. It is also well known that among the Aztecs of Mexico human sacrifices were a matter of ordinary occurrence. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that also in Japan this custom should have been practiced once.”

12. “According to our investigation of the Japan tradition of human sacrifices, those connected with the water-deity are the oldest and most numerous… [A] spirit of self-sacrifice was inspired in the people. It is, therefore, highly interesting to note that the Japanese traditions of human sacrifice were made use of, in a pretty well advanced stage of society, for social education both by means of popular literary works and religious customs and manners.”

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I believe that we can safely draw the following conclusions: Human sacrifice was widespread and prevalent in the ancient world. When the collective was faced with the danger of existential crises, it turned to human sacrifice. Sacrifices were made to save the collective from impending destruction thought to be under the control of monsters and deities. These deities are said to desire and require sacrifice to appease them and to turn away their wrath. Sacrifice was religiously based and motivated. The collective was willing to put forward one on their behave and thereby mitigate the danger away from themselves upon a victim. Sometimes the victims articulated the beliefs of the group and they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the group (see the biblical story of the prophet Jonah). Sacrifices were typically selected from among the marginalized and vulnerable, such as the poor, children, women, and even kings. Ritual killings brought about a new start for the group suggested by the numerology found in the traditions (eg, seven, eight, whole week, every year). It can be said that the collective engaged in acceptable forms of violence to save itself from unacceptable forms of violence that threaten to destroy the entire group. The collective can be said to be built upon ritual killings. But these ritual killings must be repeated regularly (eg, annually) because the dangers persist and recur. Eventually, the killings don’t work requiring the group to seek a better understanding of the cause and effect of the dangers they face. Later, the victims are enshrined, their deaths are venerated, and their stories are mythologized. The killings are ritualized and mythologies preserve the stories of the killings in varying degrees of symbolism and obscurity. As time passes, the few who heard the cries of the sacrifices and victims, came forward to kill the monsters, saving both the victim and the group, and thereby halting their practice of human sacrifice. Such findings are consistent with those of René Girard, literary critic and theologian, who put forth the theory of Mimetic Desire and the Scapegoat Mechanism.

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Turning back to Godzilla, the practice of humans sacrifice, its traditions, and its patterns of human behavior are there informing us to the nature, origin, meaning, significance of Godzilla. The connection of Godzilla to sacrifice is evidenced, undenied, and unmistakable. The theme of sacrifice is up front and central to Gojira 1954. The film functions like the older Japanese traditions and mythologies and can be approached and analyzed accordingly.

Godzilla represents the collective memory of ancient Japanese practices of sacrifice. These stories and traditions are passed down from the older to the younger to explain their collective past and present behavior, their religious reasoning, rites, rituals, figures, and sites. We see this in the dialogue between the Odo Island fisherman/elder and the reporter Hagiwara. He answers, 「ええ… 恐ろしくでけえ怪獣でしてね。海の魚を食い恐くすと—。今度は陸へ上がってきて人間までも食うそうだ。昔は長くシケの続く時にゃ若え娘っ子をイケニエにして。遠い沖へ流したもんだ ええ。今じゃ そん時の神楽がこうやって厄厄いで残ってるだ。」 “It’s the name of a monster that lives in the sea. It will come from the ocean to feed on humankind to survive. In the old days, during times when the fishing was poor, we used to sacrifice girls to prevent him from eating us all, yes! Now, this exorcism ceremony is all that remains of the old traditions.” The young boy Shinkichi standing alongside an island woman and man can be seen behind them with inquisitive and curious faces. For the elder the evidence is conclusive, Godzilla is the cause of the poor fishing catches. He knows the past and he knows the sacrifices of their girls to appease Godzilla.

In the Shogakukan Definitive Introduction to Godzilla, Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka wrote, “There was a Godzilla family living carefree in caves deep in the South Pacific. But at times they came out to look for food.” Such a tradition is consistent with the Japanese traditions of human sacrifice above. There is a monster in the water who is hungry and seeks humans for food. And now, the Legend of Odo Island has been transformed by the hydrogen bomb test conducted by the United States in the South Pacific in 1954. (The tragic events of that day are retold in the story of the Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 and its 23 crewman, exposed to the bomb’s death ash and radiation. Its story is echoed in the opening moments of the film with the destruction of the Eiko Maru, modeled after the Lucky Dragon.) Tanaka further stated, “Godzilla is the son of the atomic bomb. He is a nightmare created out of the darkness of the human soul. He is the sacred beast of the apocalypse.” The story and origin is root in these human stories and tragedies. He is a man-made problem for which men have made a solution.

The film shows the world of its sacrifices and victims that are offered up regularly to save our cultures and civilizations. Their roles and portrayals are powerful and pivitol. Women and girls are center stage. We have strong, weak, and vulnerable women and girls. We see them in various social and cultural settings from island life and urban life, on the seas shores and on board trains and cruise ships. Although relegated second to men, there are women in positions of power and women who speak powerfully to men of power.

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Godzilla 1954 can be approached and analyzed like ancient Japanese mythologies and traditions of human sacrifice. All the elements are there. The parallels are unmistakable. Tsuda’s words accurately describe the Odo Island elder and fisherman, “The traditions of human sacrifice are so widespread in old Japan that there is scarcely any old Japanese who has not heard some story or another of human sacrifice.” The Legend of Odo Island would fall into the oldest and most numerous category of human sacrifice connected with water-deities. Right from the start, film offer human sacrifice as a solution to the monster. But, by the story’s end, the film transforms the role of women and girls from sacrifices to sacred. They are voices to be heard and lives to be spared.

Consider the film’s portrayal of women. Mothers with their children standing beside them, demand the male officials to tell them more about their loved at sea. Women contradict men’s narratives and ideas. For example, when the island woman challenged the elder who evoked Godzilla as the reason for their inability to catch fish. She may feared that another girl would be sacrificed.

During the meeting at the National Diet Building, the women’s group demanded Godzilla be made public against the men who insisted he be kept a secret. The women rebuked them, saying, “The truth is the truth! The truth must be made public!” and calling the men “stupid idiots.”

Riding a Tokyo train a women discussed with her male riders atomic tuna and radiative rain (echoing the U.S. H-bomb test in 1954 and the Lucky Dragon No. 5) and the possible appearance of Gojira. She asked what will happen if Godzilla appeared in Tokyo. One answered, “First, he’ll probably eat you in one bite.” She replied, “You’re horrible.” There may be subtle references of human sacrifice at work here. Then, we feel the terror of the mother holding her daughter sitting below the burning buildings of Tokyo, awaiting death as Godzilla approaches.

We cry watching a daughter crying for her dying mother. We feel Emiko Yamane’s broken heart as she tries to console the weeping girl in her arms after they take her mother away. There are women all around serving as nurses. And one comes to Emiko to help her with the weeping child.

That experience was the turning point for Emiko. She must betrayed the trust of Dr. Daisuke Serizawa and reveal his secret Oxygen Destroyer to her fiancé Hideto Ogata. Together they go to convince Serizawa to deploy his weapon against Gojira. We feel his agony and struggle. But there was no convincing Serizawa, until the sight and sound of the girls choir on television changed his heart. In that moment, the movement from the sacrifice of girls is complete. The hero steps forward convinced of what he must do, sacrifice his work, his life, himself to stop Gojira.

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Speaking of the time when stories of human sacrifice were most numerously composed, Tsuda finds that “the killing of monstrous serpents” or others “to rescue poor victims” was “an indispensable element in the popular heroic stories.” He concludes, “By such popular traditions, a spirit of self-sacrifice was inspired in the people.” He goes on to write, “[T]he Japanese traditions of human sacrifice were made use of, in a pretty well advanced stage of society, for social education both by means of popular literary works and religious customs and manners.” I believe this can be said of Gojira released several decades after Tsuda penned his words.

Our traditions, mythologies and modern movies reveal the way sacrificial killings have and continue to function in our cultures. They offer us an opportunity to see our sacrifices and innocent victims and to undo ancient and modern sacrificial systems that offer up one for the many. Then we might better understand Godzilla and the words of Director Ishiro Honda who said, “Monsters are tragic beings. They’re born too tall, too strong, too heavy. They’re not evil by choice. That is their tragedy.”