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By Thomas Wheeler

Godzilla celebrated his 50th anniversary in 2004. The gargantuan reptile has been stomping his way through Japan for over half a century. And in these fifty years, the big guy has had quite the history, both in Japan and in the United States.

The character and concept of Godzilla grew out of fears of atomic testing and the inherent radiation, something the Japanese had certainly had the most direct experience with. The fear of radiation-based mutation grew to literally mammoth proportions when Godzilla, or "Gojira", as he was known in Japan, emerged from the oceans as a skyscraper-sized behemoth, clearly reptilian in nature but not truly resembling any known species of lizard or dinosaur, and those parts of Tokyo he didn't just plain step on, he set fire to with his atomic breath.

The original movie in 1954 was popular enough to export to the United States -- one would assume not as a cautionary tale, since it had only been nine years since we'd pretty much leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- but to make the movie a bit more palatable to American audiences, and so American audiences wouldn't have to completely sit through an English- language dub that, needless to say, hardly matched the mouth movements of the original actors, some scenes with American actor Raymond Burr (later best known as Perry Mason) were added.

Godzilla was killed in that first movie, but you just can't keep a good giant lizard down. He soon returned, and before long, giant creatures were popping out of the woodwork all over Japan. Rodan, the huge pterodactyl. Mothra, a huge moth.

Godzilla even took on King Kong at one point, in a movie that was given two different endings. In America, Kong won. In Japan, Godzilla won.

Throughout the 1960's, Godzilla mellowed. He started to be seen almost as a good guy. Oh, sure, he might still step on half the city, but generally speaking, he was going up against giant creatures that were even more dangerous than he was. Some of them were downright evil. The movies started to turn almost comedic. The low point during this time categorically had to be the "Son of Godzilla". This thing looked more like a fat, shaved, grey monkey. There was simply no way to take him seriously.

Godzilla remained popular in the United States, as well, with his movies often turning up on weekend afternoons on syndicated TV stations. These days, you never know where you might find a Godzilla movie. The Sci-Fi Channel actually had its own Godzilla marathon.

In the mid 1970's, Godzilla garnered an animated weekend series, produced by Hanna-Barbera. The design work for the characters was handled by Doug Wildey, best known for his animated masterpiece "Jonny Quest". The set-up involved a team of four explorers - a man, a woman, a college student type, and a young boy, who had the ability to call on Godzilla when a crisis arose, generally involving some sort of giant monster.

The artwork and design was excellent, even if the animation was a bit limited, and for whatever reason, the animated Godzilla didn't have his trademarked (and maybe THAT was the reason) piercing roar. Oh, he still growled and roared, but it didn't quite sound the same -- and I'm fairly certain that whoever did all those roars needed throat lozenges at the end of a recording session.

The animated series did have one aspect to it, though, that a lot of Godzilla fans despised -- Godzooky. This was more or less a small, goofy version of Godzilla, that hung out with the team of explorers. This critter could best be described as a cross between Godzilla and Scooby- Doo, although nowhere near as articulate as the dog. Frankly, he made the "Son of Godzilla" almost look good by comparison.

There was also a Marvel Comic featuring the big guy around this time, that placed Godzilla squarely in the Marvel Universe, going up against S.H.I.E.L.D., the top-secret, high-tech spy organization. Decidedly to my surprise, this series is being compiled into one of Marvel's black- and-white reprint "Essential" books.

More recently, Godzilla has returned to his more serious roots, and is no longer perceived as a good guy in the movies. There was a rather unfortunate American-produced Godzilla movie, the first ever, which gave us a CGI Godzilla that looked like a gigantic cross between a T-Rex and a velociraptor, with a jawline hat Jay Leno would envy. The less said about that fiasco the better.

Meanwhile, Japan has continued to turn out the occasional Godzilla movie, and at the risk of sounding humorous when I really don't intend to -- the rubber suits and miniature backgrounds look better than ever. One of the most recent movies, that I've seen, anyway, was 2001's "Godzilla vs. Ghidorah vs. Mothra". Incredibly, in this movie, the legendary Ghidorah, a gold-skinned three-headed dragon-like horror, was more or less one of the good guys, a so-called "guardian monster" protecting Japan from Godzilla's rampages. This was quite a turnabout, given that in his earlier appearances, Ghidorah was generally the bad-@$ $ that everybody else -- Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and whoever else might've been available -- had to put down.

Toy-wise, the offerings have been interesting over the years. The most notable Godzilla toy offered in the United States was unquestionably the two-foot-tall Godzilla that was part of Mattel's "Shogun Warriors" line in the mid 1970's. This was actually a pretty cool Godzila toy, even if it had a horrible headsculpt. More recently, in Japan, the popular Microman line from Takara has produced a series of Microman figures that come with rubber Godzilla suits.

But who says Takara has to be the only Japanese toy company producing Godzilla toys? And who says that Bandai has to rely strictly on Power Rangers and Teen Titans for their income from the States (although I still wish they'd bring back Gundam).

Bandai has a small but impressive line of Godzilla toys out there, and I decided recently to investigate them. They're mostly available at K*B Toys, and consist of what Bandai describes as 6.5" Classic Godzilla Figures.

The degree to which these can be called "action figures" is somewhat variable. The one I purchased, the "Godzilla 2001", has a decent level of articulation. Another one in the series, "MechaGodzilla", doesn't seem terribly poseable.

The assortment currently available includes "Godzilla 2001", "MechaGodzilla", "Space Godzilla", and "King Ghidorah". I am quite certain that I've seen a previous assortment of these figures, as I recall "Godzilla 1954" being one of them, and several others. However, I have made an interesting discovery -- we're only getting a handful of the Godzilla toys Bandai is producing. An eBay search for "Bandai Godzilla" to try to confirm some of the previous assortments we've had in the States brought back an astounding 344 hits, many of them out of the Orient, of toys that the average American Godzilla fan would go insane over, including a 12" tall 50th anniversary Godzilla with lights and sound effects. On the other hand, one does have to wonder how well any of this stuff really would do over here if brought to the stores. Maybe we should be lucky for what we've got.

I picked up the "Godzilla 2001", because (a) he was the most Godzilla- like of any of the toys, (b) I'd just seen the 2001 movie that he'd been featured in and I liked the design, and (c) he seemed to be the most poseable. So, what's this figure like?

Well, it's definitely Godzilla. And he certainly looks like the Godzilla I saw in the movie on the Sci-Fi Channel. But clearly the "rubber suit" technology has advanced since the 1960's, especially in the design of the head. This Godzilla is particularly vicious-looking, with a distinct saurian look to his head and face, and some really nasty teeth. In the 60's, Godzilla's features almost became simian along the way. There's nothing at all ape-like about this guy.

The overall proportions are perfect for Godzilla. Really, I would consider this likeness to be the most "ultimate" Godzilla design I've ever seen. The figure stands just short of 7" in height, but thanks to the long tail, he measures 10" from snout-to-tip. His immense back- scales have white tips. In the movies, of course, these tends to glow when he's getting ready to blast his atomic breath.

Godzilla is articulated at the head, arms, legs, and tail. The detail in the sculpt is truly amazing. No detail has been spared in making sure that this scaly monster is, indeed, very scaly. Even the interior of his mouth has a decent amount of detail, and that can't have been easy.

About the only thing I don't like about the figure is the blanked-out white eyes. Okay, he did look like this in the movie from which this particular Godzilla is based, but I've always preferred a Godzilla whose eyes you could see (although since they're trying to portray him as a "bad guy" again, this might be seen as too "humanizing"), and honestly, its too reminiscent of one of the prominent features of that horrible Godzilla from the American-made movie.

There's a few other toys from Bandai available. Along with the 6.5" figures, I also saw a set of small PVC's called "Pack of Destruction", which features several versions of Godzilla, as well as a host of other monsters. Including, unfortunately, the Son of Godzilla. Oh, well...

It's a shame Godzilla isn't prominent enough -- or maybe had his rep so ruined by that American-made movie -- that a really large Godzilla toy line probably wouldn't do very well over here, because clearly Bandai has a lot to offer. But, as I said, let's be grateful for what we have, and in the meantime, if you want a Godzilla in your collection, then I most enthusiastically recommend the "Godzilla 2001" from Bandai's GODZILLA collection! It's one very cool Godzilla -- and you don't have to worry about him stepping on your house.