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The nightmares change but Godzilla still reigns


TOKYO -- Destroy a few buildings, tussle with a monster and dodge an explosive crystal.

It's all a morning at work these days for Kanpachiro Satsuma, better known as the beguiling brute he plays on the silver screen: Godzilla.

Production is under way in a Tokyo suburb on the 21st feature starring Japan's favorite reptile. Today's new nemesis: Space Godzilla. It is a look-alike monster created by G-cells from Mothra and Biollante, who in turn were created by, well, if you don't know, ask someone Japanese, who will.

Toho Co., the producer of the films, says that 82 million people have bought tickets to Godzilla movies since they began appearing in 1954. Recent versions, according to Toho, have been the most profitable nonanimated films in Japan.

Last year's Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla brought in $36 million at the box office and generated $158 million in sales of books and merchandise -- huge numbers for the Japanese entertainment industry.

The appeal has been intensely analyzed. Godzilla is, after all, the reverse of every Japanese stereotype. He is huge, in a country where, until recently, people were relatively small. He is clumsy and rude in a country where people tend to be graceful and polite. He is spontaneous in a place that values the impassive, studied response. He is confrontational where conciliation is considered proper behavior. He is, in essence, a nuclear bomb in a country that is emphatically opposed to nuclear weapons.

"Through Godzilla," says producer Shogo Tomiyama, "we try to see the real world, and the desires of our hearts and minds.

"I think it is the mixture of the dreams and nightmares we can find in the mind of a child."

The initial Godzilla came out only nine years after World War II, a creature awakened, and enlarged, by a U.S. nuclear bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. Memories of the air raids and the bombing were still strong. Mr. Tomiyama and the film's special effects director, Koichi Kitagawa, said the intention was to have a heavy, dark, creature stomping around a bleak land.

Modern frights

Forty years later, those memories, those fears, have waned. Other frightening scenarios have to be found. The current film has a major typhoon as well as, it is suggested, an environmental subplot.

A Christmas release of a Godzilla film has become an annual event in Japan, and shooting on a tight, 12-week schedule has only recently begun for the December release. The $10 million production cost for the movie is three to four times the average RTC for a Japanese film, although a fraction of what a movie costs in the United States.

The production techniques haven't changed much in four decades. Forgoing modern computer replication, Godzilla remains a man in a black rubber suit, crunching small, balsa wood models while never explicitly maiming anyone.

That may be part of the attraction.

"Godzilla is a fierce, strong monster, but he doesn't eat or stomp on people," said Mr. Satsuma. Clearly, he is crushing tanks and buildings in which humans must be perishing, but, Mr. Satsuma says, "we don't show it.

People here don't seem to mind the consequences of a rampage by their favorite monster. They want to be a part of it. A concerted lobbying effort by the southern Japanese island of Kyushu resulted in its being chosen for destruction during the climatic scene of the current movie,placing it in the company of most of the nicest places in Japan.

A one-fiftieth scale model of Fukuoka, Kyushu's largest city, is erected in a sprawling warehouse-like studio in a Tokyo suburb, a place that serves as Godzilla's urban residence when not asleep in the Pacific or stomping through an outdoor scene.

"You're very lucky," says a production executive to an overflow crowd of journalists who managed to tear themselves away from Japan's somnolent summer news to attend a rare invitation to the studio. "The scene being filmed today uses explosives."

The damage has already begun. On the left of the stage, part of the city is smoldering. In the center, Godzilla is facing Space Godzilla, a slightly larger reptile with large crystals that serve as wings extending backward from his shoulders.

Each monster has four attendants. They spray on water, paint a glossy liquid on the teeth, and then, just before moving away, zip on the upper portion of the dorsal fins, extending from the shoulders to the lower back.

Smoke rises from the ground, each of the monsters twitches and gyrates, sparks came out of three suspended crystals, looking a bit like lighting bolts meant to rocket across the city. Then they abruptly flame out.

End of take one.

"One cut in three hours and they call it a lucky day," we are told. Minutes later, it is successfully reshot. Explosions are heard, lights flash, and the shadow of monsters moving can be seen. It takes less than 20 seconds but it's very impressive on the big screen.

An enduring hero

As is often the case in Godzilla movies, the early going has been rough on the hero, and it is not yet clear how he will recover.

For Mr. Satsuma, time spent as Godzilla also has been particularly hard. The 200-pound, rubber reptile suit is like a claustrophobic sauna, he says, a result of the lights, the heat, the weight and the minimal ventilation.

But, perhaps reflecting the attraction of his monster shell to the Japanese, he plans to endure, an ability both Godzilla and the country have displayed numerous times in the past.

"You need strong mental power," he said, "Otherwise, after a few seconds, you need to get out."

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