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Godzilla Suits Up Again : Low-Tech Dinosaur Is Due for High-Tech Hollywood Make-Over

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Stage Nine at Toho Studios, Japan’s most famous movie monster is about to take on his latest rival. This time, the mutated tyrannosaurus known around the world as Godzilla is facing off against Space Godzilla for control of critical cosmic rays that energize the Earth.

Action! Space Godzilla shoots three crystal missiles toward his adversary. They explode in Godzilla’s face. Enraged, the behemoth stomps forward.

Cut! It’s a perfect take. Out of the mighty monster’s urethane suit climbs . . . a mere mortal. Kenpachiro Satsuma, 47, a onetime samurai actor, is sweating profusely in a Playboy T-shirt. “Ah, it’s hot! You can’t even breathe in there,” he says.

It’s just a man in a rubber suit, after all. But that’s the way it has been ever since Godzilla’s cinematic debut in 1954, when he was awakened from the bottom of the sea by U.S. nuclear testing and mutated into a horrifying monster spewing radioactive rays. As Godzilla celebrates his 40th birthday this year, he remains remarkably unchanged, an enduring symbol of Japan’s “dreams and nightmares,” as Toho director Koichi Kawakita recently put it.

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Despite the advance of dazzling computer graphics, Godzilla is still animated not by machine but by man--in this case, Satsuma, who diligently trains each morning with barbells to perfect his straight-shouldered, stomping “Godzilla walk.” You can still see the piano wires that suspend the missiles and move the monster’s tail. The studio still relies on handcrafted miniature sets of towns and castles for Godzilla’s stomping grounds.

But that feel of cheap camp is all part of Godzilla’s enduring charm, Toho executives say--although they don’t quite put it that way. As Kawakita explains it, their Godzilla craft is an extension of Japan’s cultural traditions: the miniaturizations found in forms ranging from bonsai dwarf trees to Sony Walkmans; the elaborate costumes featured in the Kabuki theater. Giving it up to technology’s wizardry just wouldn’t be “Godzilla-like,” he says.

Godzilla also endures as an expression of people’s deepest fears and desires, Toho executives say. The original Godzilla was born when fear of war was still fresh and a Japanese sailor had just died of leukemia after being exposed to U.S. nuclear testing off the Bikini islands. The behemoth bent on destroying Tokyo perfectly captured those fears.

But as fears of war receded, Godzilla lost his raison d’etre. Toho responded by making him a good guy, rescuing humankind--and crowds plummeted. Godzilla got the hook and Toho got the message. The monster spent 10 years in forced retirement, but the studio brought him back in 1984, this time in full, terrifying splendor.

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Today, Toho describes Godzilla as “scary but charming.” He kills people but not visibly, like the man-eating dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.” He doesn’t actively take the side of humankind, but indirectly saves them by demolishing adversaries, from a giant moth to the robot menace, Mecha-Godzilla.

And he still manages to reflect whatever emotions or ideals humans wish to project on him. Satsuma sees him symbolizing an anti-nuclear message. Ryo Hariya, the man inside Space Godzilla, sees an environmental appeal.

In any case, Toho’s current formula seems to work. The last three Godzilla films have been box-office hits--including the 1992 release, “Godzilla vs. Mothra,” the year’s highest-grossing Japanese film with receipts of $22.4 million. More than 700 character goods are on the market, including an intricate remote-controlled Godzilla toy that sells for a cool $400.

A Godzilla memorial hall was erected last year in Kobe. Local Japanese towns compete to become the next site for Godzilla’s destructive wrath. The latest film, “Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla,” takes place in Fukuoka city--after citizens there launched a signature campaign.

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Godzilla’s appeal has spread across the Pacific too: In one recent survey by Japan’s NHK television network that underlined U.S. unfamiliarity with the culture, Americans named Godzilla as the third-most famous Japanese, after Yoko Ono (an American citizen) and the late Bruce Lee (a Chinese kung-fu star). Last year, Godzilla landed a job pitching Nike sports shoes with basketball star Charles Barkley.

And in the ultimate confirmation of his worldwide appeal, he’s going Hollywood.

TriStar Pictures, a division of Sony Corp., has licensed the use of the character from Toho, signed a big-name director, Jan De Bont (“Speed”), and will reportedly use extensive computer animation and other special effects. “The studio is willing to spend whatever it takes,” De Bont told United Press International last month.

It’s a far cry from Toho’s piano strings and $10-million budgets. But if anyone here is worried that America’s Godzilla will end up out-dazzling Japan’s, they aren’t letting on.

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“They’ve promised us they will maintain and preserve the character of Japan’s Godzilla,” said Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. “I’m looking forward to seeing Godzilla created by the American people. We’d like to have Godzilla go out to the world.”


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