Published May 4, 2006

Fifty years in Hollywood and he looks like he hasn't aged a day.

Still winning audiences with those flashing eyes and that toothy grin.

Still voicing his lines in the familiar rasp that fellow actors recognize as, um, a warning that they're about to be reduced to smoldering ash by a blast from his atomic death ray.

But, hey, lots of big stars have quick tempers.

What's kept him popular is a dramatic range that stretches from camp to contemplative, and an ability to deliver a performance that's never less than smashing. This year, fans around the world will celebrate his golden anniversary - five decades on the American screen for the king of the monsters, Godzilla.

"Godzilla is loved," says Anne Allison, a cultural anthropologist at Duke University, "but he's also kind of cheesy."

Cheesy? Giants of the industry - Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah - would beg to differ. But how best to honor Godzilla's life and work? Perhaps by stomping on a few miniature houses? Maybe by kicking around some Matchbox cars, or swamping a bathtub flotilla of toy fishing boats?

Most fans are choosing less destructive alternatives, and they have plenty of options. The big news: Classic Media plans to issue an uncut, digitally remastered version of the Japanese original, Gojira, paired with its U.S. incarnation, Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures is offering a special DVD edition of the big-budget 1998 remake, starring Matthew Broderick, along with a bonus disc of episodes from the Godzilla television series.

And this summer 1,300 fans are expected to romp through Chicago during the annual G-Fest convention, where actor Robert Scott Field, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Android M-11 in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, will receive the coveted Mangled Skyscraper Award.

No word yet on whether Godzilla himself will attend.

"He has kept attracting new fans over the years," says G-Fest promoter J.D. Lees, a high school art and science teacher in Manitoba, Canada. "There have been several different styles of Godzilla as he's evolved over the decades, so different people can find a different appeal in him."

They sure can.

Godzilla has boogied beside Mariah Carey in a music video, chased Homer out of Japan on The Simpsons, gone one-on-one against Charles Barkley in a Nike commercial. Two years ago he received filmdom's ultimate honor, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Of course, to many of today's younger fans, Godzilla is more cultural icon than movie star. It's easy to make fun of the early films' "special effects" - an actor in a rubber suit, swatting at model planes hung from wires. But when Godzilla first appeared on screen he was startling, a claw-fingered mutant bearing what for a monster was a most unlikely message: peace.

Toho Studios called its movie Gojira, the title a fusion of two words - gorira, meaning gorilla, and kujira, meaning whale. The story goes that the title was not a screenwriter's artful construct but the borrowed nickname of an overweight studio public relations man.

The star himself stood 15 stories tall and weighed 20,000 tons, an unlikely amphibious survivor of the Jurassic Period. Awakened, and altered, by atomic tests, Gojira rises from the sea and begins smashing Tokyo to smithereens, shrugging off a fusillade of shells and missiles from tanks and fighter planes.

Released in 1954, the film emerged into a Japanese society still shaken by the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and newly unnerved by the Cold War antagonisms of the United States and the Soviet Union.

"That specter of military presence in Godzilla fascinates me," says Joyce Boss, a Wartburg College English professor who studies Japanese popular culture. "The anxiety about the country's relationship with the U.S. military and the controversies surrounding that issue are quite evident."

In the opening scene, a fishing boat is destroyed in a blinding flash, a reference to the real-life fate of the Lucky Dragon, a Japanese vessel whose crew was sickened by radioactive fallout - one man died - from a postwar test near Bikini Atoll.

Later in the film, as Gojira mauls the mainland, one subway rider tells another that she can't face more ruin: "Not after I survived Nagasaki."

Two years later, in April 1956, the movie opened on American screens. But in crossing the ocean it underwent a curious transformation.

Embassy Pictures trimmed about a half hour from the movie, while adding dubbed voices, a new title, and a new male lead - a young Raymond Burr, spliced in as foreign correspondent Steve Martin.

The retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters begins at a makeshift medical clinic. There's no sign of the ill-fated fishing boat. In fact, virtually every reference to nuclear weapons has been excised from the movie.

Some Godzilla fans see conspiracy in the editing. But Boss, who traveled to Japan two years ago for a 10-day "Godzilla Tour" of sites that appear in the film, doesn't think the editors were trying to mold American public opinion.

More likely, she says, they were bowing to it. In 1956, Americans still felt tremendous hostility toward the Japanese. She figures the studio didn't want to rile the very people it hoped would buy tickets.

In both movies, Godzilla is aggressor and victim - as was Japan during the war. "It's an amazing metaphor for Japanese self-image at the time," says William Wine, a La Salle University film professor and critic for KYW radio in Philadelphia.

Both films conclude with the monster's death. But whereas the American ending is upbeat - "the world could wake up and live again," correspondent Martin intones - the Japanese version is far more ambivalent, warning that further atomic testing will surely breed more Godzillas.

Dozens more Godzillas indeed appeared, created not by atomic testing but by movie studios. The Americanized version became such an international hit that Gojira became known as Godzilla, even in Japan. The movies spawned a merchandising bonanza - Godzilla's image was affixed to everything from drapes to drinking glasses - that has yet to end.

To date, Godzilla has starred in 29 films - each one, critics sigh, sillier than the last. Far from remaining a morphed menace from the deep, Godzilla has served as a protector of the nation, a father figure, a friend to the small and weak. Presumably in some future sequel he'll appear as a vegan who drives a Volvo and donates to NPR.

His softening personality has been more marketing decision than method acting. As the monster's popularity grew among children, he began to be portrayed ever more sympathetically.

"It's easy to laugh at them," says University of Kansas history professor William Tsutsui, author of Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, "but that's not the joy of them. The joy of them is getting into the experience."

And despite the series' limited budgets and slipping standards, film authorities credit the original as a breakthrough, dissecting themes of nuclear danger a decade before Dr. Strangelove.

Tsutsui and others say Godzilla also deserves credit for leading a Japanese-entertainment invasion, opening the door for Speed Racer, Astro Boy, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Transformers, Pokemon and Sailor Moon, among others.

"Japan has excelled at becoming a world producer of children's entertainment," says Duke's Allison, coauthor of Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. "Now, in the U.S., you have kids who study the Japanese language because they want to be able to read their favorite comic book in Japanese."