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'Godzilla' Returns Home Something of a Stranger

Movies: Japanese fans have mixed reactions to the Hollywood version.

July 13, 1998|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Yoshiyuki Kasuya was in line at Tokyo's toniest theater in the Ginza district at dawn Saturday, awaiting Godzilla's return to his homeland. Kasuya emerged horrified from the 7:20 a.m. showing: Godzilla had been transformed into a character he no longer recognized.

"That's not Godzilla," growled Kasuya, 38, who wore his favorite shirt for the occasion--a black short-sleeve silk number emblazoned with yellow and orange Godzilla scenes. "He got killed with four missiles, but the Japanese Godzilla is almost bulletproof. And the Japanese Godzilla is handsome, but the American Godzilla is not."

The long-awaited Hollywood version of "Godzilla" began rampaging through Japan this weekend, but it wasn't the plot or special effects that Godzilla's most ardent fans were bemoaning: It was his make-over into a giant, four-footed, lightning-fast, computer-generated reptile cum dinosaur with a long tail. That's a big change from the lumbering, upright man-in-a-monster-suit that Japanese Godzilla fans know and love. It's also being widely discussed in the land where Godzilla was born 44 years ago and that has been eagerly awaiting the Hollywood revival.

"We've been building up our expectations since rumors first surfaced of an American Godzilla in 1994," said a dejected Masato Mukohata, 16, who had camped outside the theater overnight. "My dreams were crushed."

Indeed, for many Japanese, Godzilla isn't just a monster, as he is in the Sony Pictures film that opened in U.S. theaters in May. He's a beloved folk hero who's starred in 22 pictures made by Toho Studios in Tokyo over the past four decades.

"Without exaggeration, he's the greatest star the Japanese movie industry has produced," said Kenji Sato, a social commentator and author of two books about Godzilla's cultural impact.

Known in Japan as "Gojira"--an amalgam of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira)--the original 1954 film was a runaway hit that more than 10 million Japanese attended, says Sato. The film contained heavy political overtones, with Godzilla portrayed as a force created by the nuclear fallout from the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The new version suggests that he is a result of French nuclear testing.)

"Half a century ago, when Japan was a poor, small country, many felt powerless against the U.S., and Godzilla was the nuclear threat terrorizing Japanese people," Sato said. He attacked only at night, in a metaphor for the American air raids that had devastated Tokyo a decade earlier.

Two years later, an American adaptation of the movie was made that cut 20 minutes from the Japanese original and then spliced in scenes of Raymond Burr as a reporter investigating the strange Godzilla phenomenon.

Godzilla lost his social relevance in many of the films that followed the original, Sato argues, becoming a creature geared more to children than adults. Still, Godzilla did regain his social consciousness, Sato says, attacking issues such as pollution, in "Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster."

Just because Hollywood's "Godzilla" is different from Tokyo's doesn't necessarily mean the newest film won't be popular here, however. (Amid tepid reviews, attendance in the U.S. plunged after a strong initial turnout.) The sheer number of Godzilla die-hards expected to attend out of curiosity, if nothing else, makes the movie a near-certain winner in Japan. After all, from 3 million to 4 million viewers flocked to each of the last few Godzilla movies, even though it's rather hard to sustain a monster plot for 22 versions.

Toho Studios estimates the Hollywood version will gross more than $40 million in Japan. It was well on its way after Saturday's debut: About 500,000 moviegoers shelled out about $13 apiece for tickets, surpassing the 350,000 who saw "The Lost World" on opening day.

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Some fans loved it. Hidekazu Takahashi, who waited about 15 hours to be first into the theater, stayed in his seat for a second show and then bought about $45 worth of Godzilla gear--including T-shirts, a cap and posters. But the film is so different from the original that you can't even compare them, he said, adding that he loved the new movie's "sense of speed."

The executives at Toho initially didn't find the new monster so easy to relate to. When the American team first brought pictures of their version of Godzilla to Japan for Toho's approval two years ago, the Japanese executives were shocked.

"It was so different we realized we couldn't make small adjustments," said Shogo Tomiyama, executive producer of the past six Godzilla films. "That left the major question of whether to approve it or not."

The producer of the original, Tomoyuki Tanaka, was on his deathbed when his successor, Tomiyama, went to visit to explain the changes. Forbidden from taking any pictures outside the studio for fear of leaks, Tomiyama struggled to find the words to describe the new Godzilla.

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