Godzilla is back and he’s hungry. Very hungry. In fact, a ton of tempura and a shipload of sushi wouldn’t make a dent in this appetite. During his much-lamented nine-year sabbatical from the movies, Japan’s answer to King Kong has not only grown 100 feet—he tops out at 260 feet now—he has also cultivated a new taste: He eats radiation. In his new flick, the world’s most famous 2-million-year-old lizard awakens, breakfasts on a Soviet atomic submarine—which nearly touches off World War III—and then, still hungry, climbs ashore looking for a tasty nuclear power plant. In his search he trashes Tokyo, vaporizes soldiers, destroys department stores and tears up the famous bullet train.
Needless to say, the Japanese are ecstatic. This is just what they’ve been waiting for since the last Godzilla picture, Terror of Mecha-Godzilla, in 1975. When the new movie—titled with poetic Oriental pithiness simply Godzilla—opened Dec. 15, nearly 800,000 lizard lovers packed the 234 theaters where it was playing during its first week. “The time was right,” says producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, 74, and he should know. Tanaka created the monster that trashed Tokyo (several times, in fact) back in 1954. He was inspired, he says, by the dread of nuclear weapons that all Japanese share. That terror, born in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was rekindled in 1954 when radioactive fallout from an American H-bomb test fell on a Japanese fishing boat, killing one crew member. In response Tanaka dreamed up the story of a sleeping dinosaur transformed by an atomic blast into a destructive ogre eager to take revenge on Tokyo. “In those days, Japanese had a real horror of radiation, and that horror is what made Godzilla so huge,” Tanaka says. “From the beginning he has symbolized nature’s revenge on mankind.”
The original Godzilla epic—titled Godzilla, Terrible Creature of the Hydrogen Bomb—drew 9.5 million paying customers in Japan. Then—with a few new scenes of Raymond Burr playing an American journalist spliced in—it was exported to the U.S. as Godzilla, King of the Monsters.
During the next 20 years, sequel followed sequel until reeled the mindless—King Kong vs. Godzilla; Godzilla vs. the Thing; Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster; Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster; and, of course, Son of Godzilla. Gradually, as the titles suggest, the monster became a good guy, defending Japan against all comers. That made him a lot more lovable but, alas, a lot less fun. “This character change was responsible for his decline,” admits Tanaka. “It was a mistake.”
So, in 1975, Tanaka put his reptile out to pasture. But that move did not sit well with the lizard’s many Japanese fans. Two years ago the 10,000-member “Godzilla Resurrection Committee” gathered 40,000-plus signatures on a petition demanding a rebirth of the great monster. By then the nuclear arms race had heated up again and Tanaka thought the world was ready for another reptilian allegory. “We wanted to show how easily an [atomic] incident could occur today, but vivid images of nuclear war are taboo,” says Tanaka. “Godzilla, on the other hand, can bring the message to light and still be entertaining.”
But, like all great works of art, Godzilla works on many levels. Tanaka was not merely making a statement about nuclear weapons, he was also attacking the modern malaise of affluence. “Japan is rich and people can buy what they want,” says Tanaka. “But what is behind that wealth? Nothing very spiritual. Everyone’s so concerned with the material, and then Godzilla rips it all apart. I suspect that is good for us to see.” It’s unlikely that kids who enjoy watching “Gojira” (a combination of gorilla with the Japanese word for whale) chow down a Toyota are quite so analytical. But Osamu Nagashima, the 22-year-old chairman of the Godzilla Resurrection Committee, agrees with Tanaka. “Nowadays many people lead frustrating lives,” he says. “But when they see Godzilla engage in some form of extreme destruction—say, crushing a bank—they are able to lose many of those frustrations.”
Japan’s film critics were not all that eager to applaud the reappearance of this celluloid Japanese id. “Scarier than your average hand puppet,” scoffed one. “More believable than the tooth fairy.” Added another: “There’s plenty of technology in Godzilla but no ideas.”
But such quibbles aren’t having an effect. Godzilla is still boffo box office in Nippon, and Tanaka hopes to export his epic to the U.S. soon. He is already thinking about the next Godzilla movie, in which the creature, tired of vandalizing Japan, may move on to new venues. “I’d like to send Godzilla to Bangkok or maybe San Francisco, certainly to New York,” the producer says. “It hasn’t been worked out yet. It won’t be easy, but I surely would like to make one more.”