The first Japanese I fell in love with was a little taller than my wife.
In fact, about 90 meters taller, depending on your source.
This Japanese was also quite a bit greener and would sometimes breath fire. My wife, even at her most furious, has never done this. At least not yet. I am referring, of course, to Japan’s “biggest” star ever . . . Godzilla.
Godzilla was the first Japanese I or any of my friends ever met. He was born around the same year we were and, as he lumbered about in TV creature-features and weekend kids’ matinees, we all felt a kind of kinship with his beastly behavior.
After all, we were little monsters ourselves.
Other Japanese giants — like Mothra, Gamera and so on — would turn our heads at times, but none could steal our attention like the glowing guy in green.
At night, I would beg my mother to let me watch the late show in order to see the king of destruction place his stamp on Tokyo. I would lie flat on the floor, my head propped in my hands, and gaze transfixed at the flickering images on our black-and-white TV — too young to know that the great reptile was merely a dull actor in sharp latex.
More than entertainment, the film filled my own rather elastic noggin with heady insight. Like:
“Mom? How come everyone in this movie speaks English kinda funny?”
“That’s because they’re Japanese, dear. Their mouths won’t move right.”
“Oh . . .”
And, just like that, I had an explanation to last me a lifetime.
The spiny leviathan had a powerful impact — even on people not under his feet.
Every boy on my block, for example, had his own Godzilla routine. The essentials included a ponderous gait, hands held up to the shoulders and frozen into claws, a throaty-but-passionless roar (if you wanted to show emotion you had to waggle your head) and — of course — eyes that never, ever, blinked.
The best of us was a boy named Dennis who also had the proper wardrobe: galoshes on both feet and one of his dad’s rubber boots jammed over his skull. Thus attired, he would smash toy soldiers in style.
In later years, Dennis would ruin his health on drugs and end up dead while the rest of us still had kids in diapers. It just goes to show that, for some people, life never gets better than it does at age 8.
Meanwhile, though scourged by both man and other beasts, the cool lizard himself has never died.
Well, actually, he has . . . but — befitting his rubber skin — Godzilla just bounces back. Along the way, he has put teeth into the theory of evolution.
Over time, Godzilla has changed from a horrible beast to your cute monster about town. He has shifted from villain to hero, from bad guy to good. It’s as if Dracula had become a Baptist, or Darth Vader had joined the cast of “Friends.”
Still, he has worn this flip-flop rather well and will even return to his evil second nature — whenever the script requires.
Banking on generations of popularity, Godzilla has evolved into a national symbol, with better name-recognition abroad than the Japanese prime minister. Perhaps there is a lesson here, too, as the big reptile is far more of a radical reformer than any of the country’s elected leaders.
“Gojira? Yuck!” That’s my wife’s opinion, evincing none of the respect her compatriots are supposed to feel for the nuclear beast that first ravaged their land in the war’s aftermath.
” ‘Roman Holiday’ was released about the same time, and I just preferred Audrey Hepburn to lizards.”
I might have agreed with her — after puberty. Instead, Godzilla’s reptilian havoc has found a warm niche in my boyhood memories.
So much so that the very first film I took my older son to see was “Godzilla” — the 1984 version. The boy was not yet 3 years of age, but he sat on my knee gaping in awe at the giant creature on the silver screen. No squirming, no toilet break, no clamoring for food — seldom have I seen him as well-behaved since.
Now, almost two decades later, he is a student in film school — perhaps inspired by his long-ago encounter with Godzilla.
“Dad,” he says, “they just don’t make movie monsters like they used to. The special effects are better, but the overall effect is not. Somehow it was a lot more impressive when we saw less and had to imagine more.”
He holds up his hands. “I know, I know . . . You’re about to say that’s why books are better than films.”
No, I was about to say, “Is this why I’m paying tuition?”
Yet his is an often-voiced argument that still hits home. Case in point is the 1998 “Godzilla,” a big-budget Hollywood take on the master of monsters that was so slick that it slid right out of memory in just a couple of years.
Meanwhile, the original Big Guy lumbers on and on. The last release from the Toho film studio was in 2000, and those roars you hear on the Internet are from early trailers of Godzilla’s next flick, in 2003.
Then, in 2004, the Green One will crash through the half-century mark. Unless, that is, you go by his overseas debut, which will put him at 50 in 2006.
Either way, it’s bound to be a birthday bash to remember.