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Godzilla Blows Out 50 Birthday Candles--Incinerating Them
Detail of a poster promoting an early Godzilla film

Fifty years ago, a mega-monster appeared on Japanese movie screens in a frightful mood, stomping on buildings, scooping up Tokyo pedestrians and spewing fire across whole neighborhoods. Gojira, as Godzilla was originally known, was born from a nuclear accident. The giant, mutant reptile was also born to stardom. In an allegorical tale that represented the fear and trepidation of post-World War II Japan, that first movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, was a box-office smash in Japan and went on to become a cult favorite and classic around the world.

Recently, Columbia's Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture and its Weatherhead East Asian Institute threw Godzilla a 50th birthday party, inviting noted scholars to a daylong symposium titled "Global Fantasies: Godzilla in World Culture." Highlights of the program included a congratulatory message from New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui signed "From One Japanese Godzilla to Another."

Movies featuring Godzilla and the slew of fellow monsters from the movie franchise are the first Japanese cultural product to have won a truly global audience, trailblazing a path that has been followed more recently by such East Asian pop-culture goods as Hong Kong action cinema and Japanese anime. In an indication of how beloved Godzilla has become, the character was honored with a star on the legendary Hollywood Walk of Fame in late November, commemorating his long-term contributions to show business both in the United States and abroad.

Like all actors committed to their craft, however, Godzilla has a serious side. He has had a profound effect on the U.S.-Japan alliance. As Ambassador Hiroyasu Ando, consul general of Japan in New York , commented during the event, the Godzilla films symbolize the importance of pacifism, the hallmark of Japan 's post-war diplomacy and new relationship with the West.

The monster has brought together other cultures as well. "Within three years of Godzilla's 1954 film debut, he had rampaged across theater screens on five continents as well as on both sides of the Iron Curtain," said Greg Pflugfelder, associate professor of Japanese history and organizer of the symposium. At the symposium, the audience viewed a 1967 South Korean film produced during the years of a Korean ban on Japanese cultural imports.

"Global Fantasies" also included talks on the history of the Godzilla phenomenon through the present day. Speakers representing diverse academic disciplines discussed such subjects as: "Wrestling with Godzilla: Manga Monsters, Puroresu and the National Body"; "Godzilla Mon Amour: Understanding Why and How We Love the King of Monsters"; and "Post-Godzilla Monsterology in an Age of Information, Virtuality and Techno Intimacy."

Participants also toured an exhibit, "Godzilla Conquers the Globe: Japanese Movie Monsters in International Film Art," that was on display in the C.V. Starr East Asian Library through mid-December. The first-of-its-kind presentation traced the origins of kaiju eiga, the genre that inspired the Godzilla films, in earlier forms of popular representation and commercial culture in Japan. The installation also explored the transformation of Godzilla imagery as it traveled across the globe during the latter part of the 20th century.

In spite of his popularity during the past half century, Godzilla will take what is likely to be his final bow on the big screen in Godzilla: Final Wars, opening in Japan in December with a U.S. release to follow. Waning ticket sales and the advent of computer-generated special effects have made the rubber-suited original Godzilla less popular except with die-hard fans.

But fans have at least one more opportunity to see the monster. The exhibit and symposium are part of a yearlong program sponsored by the Keene Center and the Weatherhead Institute to honor the "living" legend as he turns 50. The events will culminate this spring with a film festival called "Godzilla for Thinking People," to be held in the Roone Arledge Auditorium of Alfred Lerner Hall.

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Published: Dec 21, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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