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By Rick Mosher

Leapin’ Lizards!

Godzilla Lovers Hit Town

Two men sit, chins held high, before a room of several hundred regular joes. The hall is hushed, waiting for the first person with enough guts to pose a question. Finally a thin young man in black jeans approaches the microphone placed in the audience: “Given the situation that Godzilla found himself in in Destoroyah, did that lead you to change your approach toward portraying the character in any way?” The query is met with a long pause, and then an interminable response, in Japanese. The crowd leans forward, transfixed.

The two men are Haruo Nakajima and Kenpachiro Satsuma, actors famous–in some circles–for their ability to convey both triumph and heartbreak from within the confines of a bulky rubber suit. Godzilla, the scaly, fire-breathing monster awakened by a Pacific H-bomb test, appeared in a seemingly endless string of formulaic films beginning with the Japanese release Gojira in 1954. Gojira was released in America two years later–with added footage featuring Raymond Burr, no less–as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, and the sequel parade was soon off and running. In every, or nearly every, film the destructive thunder-lizard squares off against one or more representatives from a stable of gigantic villains that would stretch the imagination of a ten-year-old. Casual observers are forgiven for not knowing the names of Godzilla’s opponents, but there are no casual observers here: this is the third annual meeting of the Godzilla Society of North America, and everyone here is a hard-core “G-fan.” The faces of Gamera, the giant jet-propelled turtle, and Mothra, the giant bloodthirsty moth, are as familiar as mom and dad’s.

The group began humbly enough with a meeting of 35 or so Godzilla fans in a suburban Howard Johnson’s; this year’s convention, held last weekend at a Radisson in Arlington Heights, drew hundreds of attendees, some from as far away as Germany. Chicago is the de facto epicenter of the Godzilla movement, by reason of the city’s central location. The convention is presented in conjunction with G-Con, the international society that in turn grew from G-Fan, the Canadian-based Godzilla fanzine. The “G” in these titles reflects the unwillingness of Godzilla’s Japanese handlers to allow anyone else to use the monster’s name.

The far-out cast of Godzilla characters is lovingly reproduced in a hundred or so models ringing the convention hall. These are entries in a contest that will be judged on the third and final day of the convention, but for now they are being admired and videotaped by a slow parade of fans. The models range from endearingly crude renderings of the three-headed Hydra to serious contenders like an entire scene from Destroy All Monsters, in which a model train runs laps around four battling beasties as ominous red flashes issue from a nuclear tower. Model making is a big part of the Godzilla scene, presumably since miniature sets of downtown Tokyo play such a central role in the movies’ magic. It’s no surprise that the grand prize in Sunday’s raffle is another model, a dark and compelling portrayal of Godzilla going up against a thing with several heads and a glowing red ball in its belly. An inquiry into the beast’s identity draws the kind of look you’d get if you’d just asked what year it is: it’s Biollante, stupid.

Concentrated in two other, smaller rooms is a mind-blowing assortment of Godzilla truck. These are the trade rooms, where swarms of collectors hunt down their prey. Several video monitors supply a screeching sound track for chatter about all things Godzilla, as a vast array of figures, books, posters, cards, and video games tempt the shoppers. A young, neatly dressed salesman retrieves an ordinary six-inch Godzilla from behind a counter for a customer. There’s no price on it, so the salesman asks a woman next to him, who in turn goes to ask a man hunkered down in a corner behind the table. The answer comes back: the woman holds up two fingers. Two dollars? It seems like a pretty good deal. But the customer sighs. “Two hundred,” he says. “Yeah. OK.” He shuffles away.

Outside the trade rooms is a table loaded down with videos and a monitor showing a film. It’s not Godzilla, surprisingly, but Ultraman, a giant robot hero who appears to be a direct ancestor of the Power Rangers. Manning the booth is a 30-ish guy wearing combat boots and black jeans. He also has a big complicated plastic gun in a holster and a plastic doohickey on his wrist; when he does Ultraman’s trademark karate chops, the thing makes tinny sci-fi noises, and bystanders chuckle appreciatively. A little boy approaches shyly and asks if he can see the gun. Sounds reasonable, but the answer is no. “This one’s mine,” he tells the boy, who retreats.

Two kids hustle by, clutching monsters. “Which one did you get?” one asks. “I dunno,” says the other, breathless. “I mighta got–um–whatsisname!” At the video table, the man with the wrist thing is watching the monitor and discussing villains with a longhaired guy from Pittsburgh. “He was the first one to chop. This guy likes to break things off you and stick them back into your body.” In the big room, the crowd is listening attentively to another response in Japanese, seemingly oblivious to the translator waiting patiently nearby. Love is in the air.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Godzilla and assorted Godzilla lovers, by Lloyd DeGrane.