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Seeing Japanese through the eyes of a giant lizard

A museum exhibit charts the evolution of Godzilla – and Japan – through 26 films.

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To understand this island nation, one might study Sumo wrestling rites, or delve into the Zen serenity of snow falling on cedars. Yet let not Godzilla be forgotten.

The famed radioactive super-lizard that chomps on Tokyo clock towers and slices and dices houses with its tail is a more complex creature than Americans may think. Godzilla is an anguished monster, a Frankenstein of the Far East, whose 26 films since 1954 have provided an allegory of modern times and psychology in Japan.

That, at least, is the premise of a major retrospective of the scaly beast, "Since Godzilla," at the Taro Okamoto Museum in the Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki this summer. The museum has drawn nearly 1,000 people a day, twice the usual traffic.

Given the Japanese affection for robotic pet dogs and "Hello Kitty," it is not surprising that curators would put Godzilla on the couch for clues to the nation's psyche. Here, pop culture often melds with high art.

The mutant, rampaging dinosaur who invades Japan was conceived by scriptwriters shortly after 24 local fishermen died from the fallout of a hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Island Atoll – and nine year's after Hiroshima's mushroom cloud.

The original 1954 Godzilla horrified audiences. "Godzilla" in Japanese is an amalgamation of the words "whale" and "gorilla" – the name itself struck fear. Japanese watched in grainy black and white as an awesome glowing beast rose from the ocean to wander the country, smashing cities and flattening cars with a mammoth four-toed tread.

"Godzilla started as representing our anger toward war and nuclear weapons," says curator Hiroshi Osugi, who spent five years categorizing the periods of Godzilla's screen life.

Now, however, Japanese have grown to love their monster: Since 1984, a new Godzilla film has been released every year.

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