These days, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 (Daigo fukuryū maru) probably doesn’t ring a bell for the average person in Japan, much less in the United States. The deceptively quaint name belongs to a Japanese commercial fishing boat that, in March 1954, was accidentally irradiated by a U.S. hydrogen-bomb test while trawling for tuna near Bikini (or Pikinni) Atoll in what were then the American-governed Marshall Islands. The thirty-meter-long vessel (Fig. 02-03-001) sits today in a specially designed exhibition hall near Tokyo Harbor, visited by busloads of schoolchildren, adult tourists, and curiosity seekers.
In the cinematic realm, the craft has cast an even longer shadow. Around the world, movie audiences of the Cold War period encountered various incarnations of the Lucky Dragon, each in its own way presenting a disquieting reminder of the dangers of nuclear-weapons testing, no matter if it was sea- or land-based.
In the case of Tōhō, a ship modeled after the Lucky Dragon plays an important role in not one but two of the studio’s film classics of the Fifties. One of those vessels appears in the opening scene of Gojira and goes by the name of Glory No. 5 (Daigo eikō maru). Audiences witness the crewmen relaxing peacefully on deck, when suddenly a blinding flash of light bursts forth, followed by a powerful gust of wind. Both phenomena are classic aftereffects of a nuclear explosion. In the case of Gojira, however, viewers learn eventually that the source of the disturbance is a radioactive monster, namely Godzilla himself.
It’s historically poignant that only the Japanese language possesses a colloquial expression—pika—for the peculiar kind of light that’s generated by an atomic blast, or pikadon, if you remain alive to hear the subsequent boom. The American social-realist painter Ben Shahn (1898–1969) endowed the ominous “thunder flash” with metaphorical scales and teeth in a 1957 work in ink he titled “The Beast” (Fig. 2-03-002). Shahn’s sketch, along with others like it, would furnish the illustrations for a 1965 picture book called Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon (Fig. 2-03-003), which the artist published together with writer Richard Hudson for the purpose of antinuclear education.
Four years after the Lucky Dragon incident, a disturbingly irradiated ship would appear again in a special-effects feature from Tōhō, namely The H-Man (1958). The stricken craft emerges in an extended flashback sequence, adrift in the nighttime ocean. A U.S. lobby card (Fig. 2-03-004) for the movie shows the seemingly deserted trawler, dubbed Dragon God No. 2 (Daini ryūjin maru), as a group of fishermen from another vessel climb aboard to make an inspection. Shortly afterwards, the boarding party, as well as the movie audience, discover that the Dragon God‘s crew has been liquefied. The H-Man‘s plot can be understood, at least on one level, as an Atomic Age recycling of older Japanese folktales about “ship ghosts,” or funayūrei. Such spirits were traditionally believed to appear on or near seagoing vessels and to represent the souls of drowned seafarers. For an early nineteenth-century depiction of that maritime menace, see this module’s Figure 2-10-007.
Yugoslavian (Fig. 2-03-005) and Romanian (Fig. 2-03-006) posters advertise yet another made-in-Japan retelling of the Lucky Dragon incident. Directed by Hiroshima native SHINDŌ Kaneto (1912–2012), this third movie took the form of a docudrama rather than a fiction film, and simply used the name of the ship—Daigo fukuryū maru—for its title. Although Daigo fukuryū maru, like most of Shindō’s works, was an independent production, it was commercially released by Daiei, one of Japan’s largest studios. Daigo fukuryū maru focuses on the tragic experience of KUBOYAMA Aikichi (1914–1954), who worked as a radio operator on the real-life trawler and became the period’s most famous radiation victim—at least of the nonfictional kind. The same Kuboyama appears as the main figure in, and is depicted on the front cover of, Shahn and Hilton’s illustrated storybook of 1965, Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon, shown above.
Playing the part of a U.S. Navy medical officer in Daigo fukuryū maru—or as the film was titled in Romanian, “Beneath the Atomic Rain”—was Harold Conway (1911–1996). More an amateur than a professional, Conway was an American actor who worked and eventually passed away in Japan. His bespectacled face can be spotted in the Yugoslavian poster above all the other faces along the left edge of the image, next to the Serbo-Croatian title, Smrt na Pacificu (Death in the Pacific). Hardcore fans of kaijū eiga and tokusatsu eiga have probably seen Conway’s face before, although they may not immediately recognize it. When Japanese studios of the early Cold War period needed a Caucasian male to play the part of a foreign diplomat, scientist, journalist, minister, or military officer—and especially when that part required some ability to speak Japanese, however accented—Conway was one of the people whom they regularly called. That’s Conway hamming it up, for example, third from the right on a U.S. publicity still (Fig. 2-03-007) for King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), a movie, like Daigo fukuryū maru, in which he plays a scientist. Other made-in-Japan monster and sci-fi movies that Conway appeared in during the Fifties and Sixties include The Mysterians, Battle in Outer Space, Invasion of the Neptune Men, Mothra, The Last War, Mothra vs. Godzilla, and Genocide.
Outside Japan, too, Cold War filmmakers loaded nuclear anxieties aboard cinematic vessels of various kinds. The ripples of the Lucky Dragon incident can easily be detected, for example, in Universal’s sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), adapted by Richard Matheson from his own novel of the previous year. At the time of the real-life Lucky Dragon incident in 1954, the ship’s crew had found itself blanketed by a layer of radioactive ash—consisting mainly of pulverized bits of coral reef—while fishing about 130 kilometers from Bikini Atoll. The title character of 1957’s Incredible Shrinking Man, on the other hand, passes through a “weird mist” while he’s relaxing aboard a motorboat somewhere inside the borders of the United States (Fig. 2-03-008, Fig. 2-03-009, Fig. 2-03-010). It’s this puzzling precipitation, together with the character’s previous exposure to some sort of pesticide—another revealing emblem of the widespread mid-twentieth-century faith and simultaneous mistrust in science—that’s responsible, allegedly, for his irradiation and subsequently diminished physical stature.
Meanwhile, Port of Hell, an Allied Artists picture of 1954, envisioned the prospect of a nuke being smuggled aboard a commercial freighter. Although the movie narrative involves a Soviet plot to infiltrate the United States, the offshore mushroom cloud and incapacitated vessels of the American half-sheet poster (Fig. 2-03-011) could easily have suggested to a casual viewer a more Bikini-like set of circumstances—especially given the film’s release just nine months after the Lucky Dragon affair. For the American public, whom Cold War photojournalism exposed repeatedly to images of Pacific weapons testing, sometimes involving the sinking of demobilized warships and other vessels for experimental purposes, seaborne scenarios of atomic peril held no less power to unsettle the psyche than scenes of terrestrial devastation.
Even in Japan, where the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remained all too visible on dry land, a child’s playing card or menko (Fig. 2-03-012) from the Bikini era depicts the “atomic bomb” (genshi bakudan) in an oceanic setting, complete with a sinking vessel. The view is essentially the same on a U.S. trading card (Fig. 2-03-013) from 1954, which recreates the scene of the very first “BIKINI A-BOMB TEST” on June 30th, 1946, part of a Topps series featuring classic newspaper headlines.