From politics to energy, 1960s Japan was propelled on a new trajectory towards prosperity, while at the same time grappling with corruption and environmental degradation. During the decade where politicians, criminals, and pollutants grabbed the headlines, director Ishiro Honda would make successive kaiju films that suggested or were inspired by the conditions in Japan. One such Honda film was 1964’s Dogora, which skewered the criminal and monstrous consumption of post-war Japanese society.
Dogora, an undeniably unbalanced film, probably has more detractors than fans. The film’s plot is simple: a high-altitude amoebic lifeform is irradiated while hovering over Japan. After destroying satellites, the ever-growing beast descends to Earth, floating over the globe attacking sources rich in carbon. In the film, the source of power and objects of desire are coal and diamonds. Admittedly satirical, if not cartoonish, the main plot rests primarily on the crew of stylish jewel thieves despite the headliner being a floating jellyfish-like kaiju, Dogora. What makes the film interesting is not storytelling perfection, but rather its mirroring of the political and environmental conditions concurrent to its release.
Most kaiju films have a steady roster of character types–military, scientist, and politician. Science inevitably leads the way, with the rest following. In Dogora, however, the politicians are virtually absent. The military moves the action but remains subordinate to science. So, in the void left by absent kaiju-era politicians, we see the role Dogora‘s criminals occupy–a proxy for the corrupt, inept, or greedy elected officials. Politicians and industrialists lived within similar spheres known as zaibatsu, or cliques of wealth. In the coal and diamond consuming world of Dogora, the absence of certain character types requires a substitute. In Dogora, Honda had a ready, if slapstick, addition to the roster in the form of diamond thieves.
While period Yakuza and noir films–like A Colt Is My Passport–played on gritty gun-carrying gangsters, Honda knocked his criminals down a few pegs. Dogora’s gangsters possess an exaggerated style and corruption that viewers would have recognized at the time. In Yakuza: Japanese Criminal Underworld, David Kaplan and Alec Dubro wrote that yakuza of the period took inspiration from American film and “took to dressing in dark suits, dark shirts, and white ties. Sunglasses were de rigeur… To match their outfits they affected a leer and swagger.” Dogora’s thieves are more style than substance, buffoons literally crushed by their greed. Cartoonish capers (with odd skits involving floating thieves) possess a melodramatic flair as a way to defang the mythic tough guys. Even as Japanese theatergoers enjoyed all-stripes of yakuza on film, the daily headlines reminded the public that the unscrupulous retained power with muscle and kickbacks.
A black mist of corruption descended on the archipelago in the form of political bribery scandals. Illegal payments flowed into the pockets of Japanese politicians from shipbuilders, fertilizer manufacturers, and the American aircraft company Lockheed. Aided by industry and yakuza alike, Japanese politicians perpetuated a cycle of corruption known as kuroi kiri, or “the Black Mist” that came to define decades of Japanese politics. Needing to corporealize an amorphous monster, it is no surprise that Honda and special effects maven Eiji Tsuburaya settled on an ethereal mist and hazy column of bitumen rising skyward to realize Dogora. When the floating monster sheds material, glowing rocks descend to the Earth, evoking coal’s 17th-century nickname, moe ishi, or burning stones. In the design of Dogora and its attacks, you can see suggestions that the black mist of corruption merged with the physical gloom hanging over the environment in Japan at the time.
To fuel the electricity demands and factories of the nation, Japanese mining and importation of coal reached ever-greater heights. Like the fictional Dogora, Japanese industry had set their avarice gaze on coal. In 1955, according to Conrad Totman’s Japan: An Environmental History, 42.7 million tons of coal were mined domestically, and at its peak in 1960, some 51 million tons came out of Japanese collieries. Where domestic mines fell short, imports would pick-up. Over twenty years (1950-1970), Japan’s coal imports went from 800,000 tons to 50 million tons a year. Dogora hovered and vacuumed every loose lump of coal, growing more powerful and seemingly unstoppable, reflecting the coal hungry industries of contemporary Japan. When the space-borne monster takes full, ghostly form, its hazy whirlwind evokes the pollution and degradation seen across Japan at the time. The national thirst for coal’s embodied energy meant the more the bituminous resource came out of the ground, it came with a high price. In The Smoke of Great Cities, David Stradling and Peter Thorsheim described British and American coal smoke as symbolic of “greed and callousness. The sacrifice of beauty and health in the pursuit of profit.” The same descriptor could have easily been written about Japan in the 20th century. The nation’s environment was the final victim obliquely suggested in the choking gloom and physical destruction of the landscape that accompanied the descent of Dogora.
In Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement, Simon Avnell identified the impact of economist Miyamoto Ken’ichi’s discovery of government under-reporting pollution data as a national turning point. Cities like the industry laden Yokkaichi touted as the “ideal industrial city of sunlight and green space”, were revealed by Miyamoto as rife with asthma cases and waters loaded with inedible fish. Wastewater was dumped into Yokkaichi Bay, and the air over the city was thick with smog, described by Miyamoto as “hellish skies”. Exposing “corporate castle towns”, like the pollution belching, coal-fired Yahata Ironworks while declaring pollution as “king of human rights violations”, Miyamoto put Japan’s environmental corruption on display. Air pollution was one of the harms visited upon the environment of Japan during the 1950s and 60s, particularly. From the poisoned waters that led to the bone calcium destroying Itai Itai disease or Minimata’s congenital disabilities induced by the consumption of mercury-contaminated fish by pregnant women, Japan’s rise to the third-largest economy came at a price to life and nature.
Viewing Dogora through an environmental lens, the imagery of hellish skies and black mist converge in the form of the eponymous monster. Broadly, the film mirrors the environmental, political, and economic issues bearing down on Japanese society at the time. Considering it was made on a limited budget and at a break-neck pace, Dogora may not be a genre standard-bearer, but it is agreeable in what it does try to execute. It is a testament to the creativity of Honda and the Toho team, and a reward for those who seek subtle messages in even the most average of kaiju films.