Seeing Japanese through the eyes of a giant lizard

A museum exhibit charts the evolution of Godzilla – and Japan – through 26 films.

To understand this island nation, one might study Sumo wrestling rites, or delve into the Zen serenity of snow falling on cedars. Yet let not Godzilla be forgotten.

The famed radioactive super-lizard that chomps on Tokyo clock towers and slices and dices houses with its tail is a more complex creature than Americans may think. Godzilla is an anguished monster, a Frankenstein of the Far East, whose 26 films since 1954 have provided an allegory of modern times and psychology in Japan.

That, at least, is the premise of a major retrospective of the scaly beast, "Since Godzilla," at the Taro Okamoto Museum in the Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki this summer. The museum has drawn nearly 1,000 people a day, twice the usual traffic.

Given the Japanese affection for robotic pet dogs and "Hello Kitty," it is not surprising that curators would put Godzilla on the couch for clues to the nation's psyche. Here, pop culture often melds with high art.

The mutant, rampaging dinosaur who invades Japan was conceived by scriptwriters shortly after 24 local fishermen died from the fallout of a hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Island Atoll – and nine year's after Hiroshima's mushroom cloud.

The original 1954 Godzilla horrified audiences. "Godzilla" in Japanese is an amalgamation of the words "whale" and "gorilla" – the name itself struck fear. Japanese watched in grainy black and white as an awesome glowing beast rose from the ocean to wander the country, smashing cities and flattening cars with a mammoth four-toed tread.

"Godzilla started as representing our anger toward war and nuclear weapons," says curator Hiroshi Osugi, who spent five years categorizing the periods of Godzilla's screen life.

Now, however, Japanese have grown to love their monster: Since 1984, a new Godzilla film has been released every year.

"I see every movie," says 37-year-old Yuuta Suzuki, a computer-system engineer. "It is one of those annual events, like the cherry-blossom-viewing parties. I am a bit of a maniac about it."

As the exhibit records, an intimate relationship gradually developed between Godzilla and the Japanese. In early days, he is a symbol of the island's postwar fragility and vulnerability. In the late 1950s, as in the US, Japanese families dreamed of prosperity in the shape of washing machines, stoves, and stainless steel toasters. The result was a Japanese version of "Leave it to Beaver," with Godzilla in the backyard.

But the beast evolved: During the US-Soviet space race in the '60s, a star-gazing Godzilla mixed it up with King Ghidra, a three-headed space dragon. He even took the Japanese side occasionally, fighting off giant lobsters or arachnids that could harm civilians. By the '70s, as Tokyo was industrializing and confronting dense pollution, Godzilla got the better of Hedora, The Smog Monster – a shape-shifting blob of mercury and cadmium.

"I never thought Godzilla was fearful," says Haruhiko Yoshizaki, who today runs a private science-fiction museum and grew up with a Godzilla that breathed sparks. "I've been thinking Godzilla is almost a lovable character."

For a pacifist nation that last week debated in the Diet a law regarding defense measures if attacked, Godzilla is also a figure to be lived through vicariously. "He is physically strong, but also sentimental," says Enomoto Noriaki, visiting the exhibit with his wife. "I like the fact he can go wherever he wants. He won't lose a fight."

When Japanese small-car exports dominated world markets in the early '80s, Godzilla, much to Japanese delight, pulverized the gleaming new skyscrapers of Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood. (It is a status symbol in Japan to be from an area Godzilla feels important enough to bust up.) Later came Info-tech Godzilla for the millennium. A post-9/11 Godzilla is currently being filmed.

"We wanted to look back on Japanese society ... show the changes in character of Godzilla ... and the empathy felt toward Godzilla and how people accepted Godzilla," Mr. Osugi says of the exhibit, which closed Sunday.

However, a 1998 high-tech Made-in-USA God-zilla was not so readily embraced. Hollywood's version seemed, to many Japanese, characterless, impressive only in brute force – an imposter Godzilla that satisfied a need for cheap thrills. The American lizard, in fact, reinforced some stereotypes here about the world superpower – summed up ironically by the ad campaign, "Size matters."

"The American Godzilla is just a large T-Rex," says Kono Naoki, an exhibitgoer. "There is nothing we like about him. We like a monster who is played by a human in a rubber suit."

By contrast, the home-grown, low-tech Japanese lizard is a confused figure, a tormented soul who can't get his bearings straight. Hey, he didn't ask to be here, one Japanese said. He's the unwitting product of atomic fusion, after all. He gets wrapped up in power lines and "acts out" from an orientation disfunction that naturally causes him to chew on buildings and chase rice farmers. Pity the beast!

The early Godzilla films, as the exhibit shows, contained plenty of anti-American messages. Godzilla usually ambles over and clobbers the large Gina department store in central Tokyo, which in those days was the American PX. Godzilla also takes on King Kong in the early '60s – a way to thumb the nose at American occupation.

Yet anti-American messages didn't last. In the mid-'60s, Godzilla took on a universal-protector role in saving Earth, again from the forces of King Ghidra. In 1968, he knocked down the United Nations. But a year later, a softer Godzilla was back, sporting a Barney-like child, the Son of Godzilla, famous for bouncing on Godzilla's tail.

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