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Thousands Flock to Japan's Godzilla Exhibit - 2002-07-17

In Japan, thousands of visitors are flocking to a museum exhibit celebrating the cinematic history of Godzilla. The show is the first to approach the imaginary creature as a cultural phenomenon that reflects the nation's history and development.

Millions of Japanese have grown up watching movies about Godzilla, a huge, dinosaur-like creature with incredible strength. In more than two dozen Japanese movies, he visits the nation and goes to battle with forces of good and evil. The legendary lizard also starred in several Hollywood productions that have been hits here.

Now, an art show called "Since Godzilla," at the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art near Tokyo, reflects on the imaginary 60,000 ton beast's role in Japanese society.

Curator Hiroshi Ohsugi. "We decided to do an exhibition based on a belief that Godzilla represents some aspects of Japanese culture," he said. "The monster mirrors Japan since the post-war period, and the point of the show is to examine that."

The exhibit, which ends in late July, opens with a look at the original 1954 Godzilla movie, shot in black-and-white.

In that film, the monster comes into being when a dinosaur mutates after exposure to radiation.

Curator Ohsugi says that fictional idea was highly evocative for Japan. The nation was traumatized by the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. The movie's impact was heightened by a U.S. atomic weapons test in the Pacific Ocean in 1954. The explosion showered a nearby Japanese fishing vessel with radioactive fallout, and caused a national uproar.

Chunks of gray fallout from that blast are displayed in the exhibit, along with a crimson banner of an atomic, mushroom-shaped cloud.

Curator Ohsugi says the early Godzilla films were somber, and reflected the mood of the war-ravaged nation as it rebuilt itself. He points out that King Kong Versus Godzilla, another early film, was a not-so-subtle parody of the U.S. post-war occupation. "The first Godzilla movies suggest a war-like attitude," he said. "But as time goes on, people's lives improved as the economy grew. Later, advanced technology and space development became major themes in Japan and Godzilla fights a monster from outer space, who symbolizes those developments. Godzilla changes its image and became a hero who protects the earth. Previously, the creature was a symbol of destruction."

The exhibit chronicles these transformations through colorful displays of movie posters, costumes, props and sets, including plastic models of city skylines.

Monitors display old footage of crowds fleeing as Godzilla roars and stomps after them.

In the 1970's, massive factories and the proliferation of cars sparked Japanese concerns about pollution. Godzilla successfully battles a new enemy, a toxin-eating blob with a smoggy complexion, called Hedora. The exhibit also features memorabilia from Godzilla Versus Biollante, a feature from the late 1980's, in which the lizard king defeats a genetically-engineered version of himself.

These days, Godzilla fights gloomy concrete cityscapes symbolizing Japan's leap into the post-industrial era of sprawling urbanization.

The exhibit attracts up to 1,000 people a day, double the museum's usual attendance. Museum-goers, such as this school teacher, say the exhibit is evocative. "I grew up with Godzilla," he said. "When I was a child, I watched Godzilla movies, simply as a monster story, and they were entertaining. But, in seeing this exhibition, I recognize again that Godzilla has a deep connection with Japan's history of the last half-century."

One foreign visitor agrees. "It is fantastic! When you think of Japan, you think: Godzilla, sumo, Mount Fuji and bullet trains. So, I had to come to the Godzilla museum," he said.

Mark Schilling, author of the Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture, says the exhibit encourages movie-goers to explore what the mythical creature means to them. "Godzilla is what Godzilla is," said Mark Schilling. "I mean, it is like saying that a typhoon is evil. Is an earthquake evil? Yes, it does damage and has no regard for human lives. But, still, Godzilla has his good points, too. He fights monsters who have come to destroy Japan in one way or another and when he's finished, he goes back into the ocean. "

The producers of the Godzilla movies say they are not sure if the larger-than-life beast from the big screen really belongs in a high-brow art museum. However, they are extremely proud that the exhibit is attracting so many fans.