When pre-production began on 1984’s The Return of Godzilla, director Koji Hashimoto gathered a team of experts to lend a sense of authenticity to his film. Like Ishiro Honda, under whom he’d worked in the ‘60s, Hashimoto approached his task seriously, wanting to show modern-day Japan responding to an extraordinary situation, and to keep the science fiction elements—fantastic as they were—somewhat in the realm of plausibility. To achieve this, a military analyst was hired to calculate the orbit of satellites equipped to carry nuclear weapons; a journalist provided feedback regarding media reactions; and after science fiction writer Ryuichi Kodama1 suggested using magnetism to lure Godzilla, geophysicist Hitoshi Takeuchi proposed a few locations where the monster could be trapped. The staff considered finales set at Mount Fuji and the Fossa Magna before ultimately deciding on Mount Mihara, the infamous stratovolcano of Izu Oshima Island.2
Exquisitely photographed and propelled by Reijiro Koroku’s outstanding score, the picture generates rightly earned sympathy when Godzilla—“that strangely innocent and tragic monster,” as so eloquently described in the film’s American re-edit—becomes trapped in the volcano and plunges into the molten rock below.3 At the time of the film’s release, director Hashimoto stated that a sequel was possible; though based on his exact verbiage, it would appear Toho had no concrete plans while the ‘84 film was in immediate circulation.4 This was the first Godzilla movie in nine years and the first to be marketed for general audiences since 1968’s Destroy All Monsters.5 Given that context, some speculated Godzilla would remain in Mount Mihara6: imprisoned on an island which, in centuries past, had been designated for banishing exiles. And inside a volcano with a long history related to death.
Japan’s archipelago was formed through the subduction of oceanic and continental plates, and the resultant volcanoes peppered throughout the country have long been part of its art, history, and culture. Taoist beliefs espoused that volcanoes held the secret to immortality. Mount Fuji, declared a “living god” in an eighth century poem, was adapted into a symbol for Japanese nationalism.7 Mount Unzen, for nearly two hundred years during the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, served as a venue for execution: Christians, guilty of practicing then-forbidden beliefs, were thrown into its sulphuric vents. And as early as the 1600s, “a plague of suicides” began to haunt the legacy of Mount Mihara,8 itself venerated by locals as Gojinka (“fire of the gods”).9
Because of their mysterious nature and destructive capacities, volcanoes made effective storytelling devices in motion pictures. The 1937 Japan-Nazi Germany co-production The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai demonstrated this with its climax: a visually immersive fourteen-minute sequence in which actress Setsuko Hara attempted to immolate herself in Mount Aso. Furthermore, given the rising popularity of movies in the early twentieth century—coupled with actual volcano-related events and the media’s long standing habit of exploiting tragedy—cases of art imitating life and life imitating art were practically inevitable. Mount Mihara became indoctrinated into this phenomenon in the early 1930s, during what’s known as “The Lover’s Suicide Rage.”
On May 10, 1932, Japanese newspapers reported the deaths of Keio University student Goro Chosho and his girlfriend, Yaeko. Forbidden to marry due to class differences, the couple had chosen to die together rather than live apart, and so they climbed Mount Sakata in Kanagawa Prefecture before leaping into the mountain’s volcanic crater.10 Headlines described their relationship as “A Love That Reached Heaven” (due to the couple having met at a Christian fellowship), the publicity inspiring dozens of copycat suicides. Director Yasujiro Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda referenced this trend in their 1932 melodrama Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?, when the main character, stuck escorting a woman he doesn’t like, sardonically suggests Mount Sakata as an ideal place for a date.
Ozu and Noda’s reference to the tragedy—a single line of dialogue—was among the least exploitative. Mere weeks after Goro and Yaeko’s suicide, stage and radio companies began creating plays on their story, and June 1932 marked the release of the Heinosuke Gosho film A Love That Reached Heaven. The fiscal success of this picture further exacerbated the suicide rate, to the point where it became necessary for ushers to patrol auditoriums during screenings, watching for viewers who’d smuggled poison into the theater.11
In February 1933, during “The Lover’s Suicide Rage,” a news crew from Yomiuri Shinbun lowered a gondola into the Mount Mihara crater, where they discovered the previously unnoticed body of a boy.
As for Mount Mihara, its reputation as a suicide hotspot flared anew in January 1933, when a pair of schoolgirls jumped into the volcano’s caldera,12 one of them surviving the fall.13 A second wave of copycat suicides began, and by the time “The Lover’s Suicide Rage” finally subsided in March, an approximate 944 people had perished in the crater.14 The media wasn’t alone in exploiting these tragedies; generated by the deaths was an increase in local tourism and prosperity: a stable on Izu Oshima garnered enough profits to expand its stock of horses from twelve to forty; schoolgirls made pilgrimages to the volcano as class holidays; and Tokyo steamship companies upgraded commutes to Izu Oshima from three boats a week to two daily. Suicides flourished yet again, with around six hundred Mihara-based deaths in 1936,15 and more than two thousand between the years 1931-1937. To help curb the suicides, authorities erected a fence around the volcano’s crater, and guards were assigned to patrol it.16 This was not the end of the Mihara’s sad history. On April 9, 1952, a commercial flight en route from Tokyo to Osaka strayed off course and plummeted into the slopes of the volcano. All thirty-seven people aboard lost their lives.17
Mount Mihara made a few noteworthy appearances in kaiju-related properties before and after Hashimoto’s Godzilla movie. Ishiro Honda featured the volcano in the cautionary 1963 film Atragon (also, while it didn’t contain science fiction elements, the director filmed a scene at Mihara in 1956’s People of Tokyo, Goodbye). Noriaki Yuasa’s Gamera the Giant Monster (1965) staged its finale on Izu Oshima Island, with a sudden eruption helping lure Gamera ashore. And two years before he made his cinematic return in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), the King of the Monsters was sighted once again at Mount Mihara via a romantic stage comedy written by Yasuhiko Ohashi. “I wanted to write a love story in a very pure sense,” the playwright recalled. “So who is [the heroine] going to fall in love with, but the strongest creature in the world — Godzilla.”18
In Ohashi’s script, simply titled Godzilla, the monster is found sleeping at the volcano, falls in love with a human female, and ultimately returns to Izu Oshima after opposition rises from family and associates. In addition to commenting on the Japanese family system, the play satirizes the state of kaiju eiga in the late ‘80s: we’re told that Godzilla couldn’t possibly feed his bride, as his movie career’s been slow the last several years; his half-brother Mothra now makes cocoons for a living. The volcanic eruptions which bookend the play might’ve been inspired by the actual eruption Mount Mihara experienced the year before, in 1986. Ohashi’s script won the Kunio Kishida Playwright Award, has been revived multiple times in numerous countries, and the notoriously harsh theater critic Tamotsu Watanabe sang praises of its original production: “It is a perfect play. A perfect narrative.”19 (For more information about this stage comedy, check out my colleague Nicholas Driscoll’s article The Many Loves of Godzilla: An Exploration & Ranking of Godzilla’s Sundry Significant Others.)
Outside of kaiju eiga, Mount Mihara was featured in another internationally known genre franchise, with Izu Oshima serving as an integral setting in Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel Ring. In the novel, Sadako Yamamura’s mother searches for and uncovers the sunken statue of En no Ozunu: an actual historical figure who was banished to the island in the eighth century, reflecting Izu Oshima’s past as a location for depositing exiles.20 Although this subplot does not appear in the 1998 film adaptation directed by Hideo Nakata, the film retains both the Izu Oshima setting as well as the fate of Sadako’s mother, wherein she killed herself by jumping into Mount Mihara.
- Kodama is credited in the film under his German pen name, Klein Uberstein.
- Interview with Koji Hashimoto. The Making of Godzilla 1985. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1985, p. 97
- Screenwriter Hideichi Nagahara expressed disappointment with the picture’s denouement, as he envisioned Godzilla slowly sinking into the lava. Source: Interview with Nagahara. The Making of Godzilla 1985, p. 98
- Interview with Hashimoto.
- The Godzilla films made from All Monsters Attack (1969) to Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975) premiered as kiddie matinees at the Toho Champion Festival, since children made up what little remained of the kaiju audience at this time.
- In a 2014 interview with Jack Hudgens, genre historian Ed Godziszewski remarked that “a lot of people” thought The Return of Godzilla “was going to be a one and done film — That there wasn’t anything to come afterward.” Source: “When Roses Attack: 25 Years of Godzilla vs. Biollante with Ed Godziszewski.” Scified.com. Accessed 15 September, 2020.
- Lidz, Franz. “Why Mount Fuji Endures As a Powerful Force in Japan.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2017
- “Japan’s ‘Suicide Island’ Popular.” Reading Eagle. 14 April, 1937
- “History of Oshima Island.” Bureau of Environment: Tokyo Metropolitan Government – Natural Parks in Tokyo. Accessed 17 September 2020.
- High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, p. 28. It is worth noting that while High claims the couple jumped into the caldera, other sources claim the couple killed themselves on the slopes of the mountain. One example of a source: Fifty Years of Light and Dark: The Hirohito Era. Tokyo: The Mainichi Newspapers, 1975, p. 46
- High., p. 29
- Jones, Jason C. “Japan Removed: Godzilla Adaptations and Erasure of the Politics of Nuclear Experience” in Edwards, Matthew (ed.). The Atomic Bomb in Japanese Cinema: Critical Essays. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015, p. 47.
- High, p. 29
- Yoda, Hiroko. “Spooky Izu: Tales of sorcerers and suicide on Izu Oshima.” CNN.com. 29 October 2009.
- “Japan’s ‘Suicide Island’ Popular.”
- “Crash of a Martin 202 on Mt Mihara: 37 killed.” Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives. Accessed 17 September, 2020.
- Caldwell, Rebecca. “Godzilla’s in love and wearing a sweater vest.” The Globe and Mail. 14 January, 2002.
- Wetmore, Kevin J. “Our First Kiss Had a Radioactive Taste”: Ohashi Yasuhiko’s Gojira in Japan and Canada.” in Tsutsui, William M. and Michiko Ito (ed.). In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 130
- Yoda. “Spooky Izu: Tales of sorcerers and suicide on Izu Oshima.”