KAWASAKI, Japan -- Don't be fooled by the zippered-up lizard suit, plastic-model skylines and stock footage of crowds fleeing in terror when Godzilla smashes into town.
Japan's favorite nuclear-powered monster has finally crossed the threshold from campy kitsch to high art -- at least according to a Japanese museum drawing thousands with its Godzilla-as-art exhibit.
''There are people who look at Godzilla and laugh. But really this is a part of Japanese culture and history,'' said Hiroshi Ohsugi, curator at the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in the Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki, one city not destroyed in 25 films of Godzilla rampages.
''Since Godzilla,'' on view through July 28, is the world's first art show looking at Godzilla as a cultural phenomenon, not just a pop icon of lowbrow thrills, Ohsugi said.
Packed with rubbery green Godzilla suits used in several movies, as well as model buildings, props, still photos and film clips, the exhibit chronicles Godzilla as a looking glass on Japanese society over the last half century.
Nuclear bombs, rapid economic growth, space travel, the Cold War, pollution and the dangers of biotechnology are just some of the issues touched upon.
The opening hall takes visitors back to 1954, when the original black-and-white ''Godzilla'' hit the screens.
Back then, the monster's origins in a hydrogen-bomb test evoked special terror for a nation still traumatized by the atomic attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Impact was heightened that year by a U.S. nuclear test in the Pacific that showered a nearby Japanese fishing boat with radioactive ash.
Pitted pieces of gray fallout, on display solemnly encased in glass, set an immediate somber tone at the exhibit, as does a blood-red banner of a mushroom cloud enshrouding an entire wall.
The early films were likewise angry and dark, allegories of a war-battered nation still rebuilding -- ''King Kong vs. Godzilla'' was a political shot at Japan's postwar U.S. occupiers.
But that message faded as economic revival blotted out memories of defeat.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, professional wrestlers zipped up in monster suits to spice up the on-screen wrangling, and to tap the popularity of professional wrestling that dominated programming on the nation's newly purchased TV sets.
Worries about pollution took center stage in the 1970s, and so did a new Godzilla foe: Hedora, or the Sludge Monster, a toxin-gobbling, shape-shifting blob. Godzilla defeated it, just as he did a genetically engineered version of himself crossed with a rose plant -- yes, a rose plant -- in 1989's ''Godzilla vs. Biollante.''
The exhibit evokes mixed reactions, with one Godzilla fan who strolled the aisles calling it ''a little embarrassing.'' But even those who grew up with the fire-breathing monster walked away with a new perspective on the lizard king.
''I didn't know there were so many social issues at play,'' said 27-year-old Reiko Watabe. ''This is the first time I heard the whole Godzilla story.''
Nowadays, Godzilla lashes out at the modern garish buildings that epitomize Japan's aesthetically numbing dash into post-industrialism.
And the legend lives on with Godzilla's creator, movie house Toho Co., churning out a new creature feature every December in what's become a Japanese New Year's tradition.
Ohsugi defended Godzilla's inclusion in his museum, which houses the permanent collection of famed Japanese modern artist Taro Okamoto, because he says Godzilla, like all true art, is a ''kind of mirror'' on society.
He also compared Godzilla's legacy to that of Japan's now priceless woodblock prints, which were run off hundreds at a time during the feudal era and dismissed then as mere tourist trinkets.
''In 100 years, maybe this, too, will be highly esteemed as art. But I just couldn't wait that long,'' said Ohsugi.
The exhibit is drawing up to 1,000 people a day -- about double the museum's normal attendance.
''We are extremely proud,'' Toho producer Shogo Tomiyama said. ''But whether Godzilla is true art or not, I don't know. Everybody has a different definition of that.''
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