TOKYO (Reuters) - He's dark and lumbering, crashing through cities and destroying them with swipes of his massive tail and blasts of radioactive breath. Godzilla is back on the rampage, roaring and stomping, for the first time in ten years.
But the much-anticipated return of Japan's most famous and beloved monster, 60 years and 28 movies after he first rose from the depths following a hydrogen bomb test, has been filmed not in the land of his birth but in the United States - and analysts say there is a chance he may never go back to his homeland.
For in the wake of the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years, when a tsunami tore through the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and touched off meltdowns that spewed radiation over a wide swathe of countryside, Godzilla and his traditional anti-nuclear subtext may simply be too touchy a subject for any Japanese film maker to handle.
"Godzilla gains his strength from nuclear power and he spews radiation everywhere," said Toshio Takahashi, a literature professor at Tokyo's Waseda University. "If Godzilla appeared (in Japan) now, he'd ultimately force people to ask themselves hard questions about Fukushima."
The nuclear disaster at the plant 220 km (130 miles) northeast of Tokyo is a sensitive subject in Japan. Directors making mass-market films about Fukushima tiptoe into the debate or set their movies in an unspecified future. Sponsors are skittish and overall film revenues falling, with viewers shying away from anything too political.
Things were different when Godzilla first crashed ashore in 1954, a symbol of both atomic weapons - less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki - and frustrations with the United States, which had just held a hydrogen bomb test at Bikini atoll that irradiated a boat full of Japanese fishermen.
The high-powered reboot of Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards and out in U.S. theatres from Friday from Warner Bros Pictures and Legendary Pictures, features stars including Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe.
It gives a nod to Fukushima with a tsunami - set off by monsters - hitting Hawaii, and a no-go zone in Japan after a nuclear accident years before. But much of the story, and most of the destruction, takes place in the United States, far from Godzilla's birthplace.
"GODZILLA EQUALS RADIATION"
Japan's March 11, 2011, natural and nuclear disaster killed nearly 20,000 people and forced some 160,000 people to evacuate, with tens of thousands unable to return. The plant still battles radioactive water and decommissioning is expected to take decades and cost billions of dollars.
"You can basically think of Godzilla equal ling radiation. It's something that can't be solved by human strength or power, and it attacks," said film critic Yuichi Maeda.
"The reactors currently can't be made normal by humans if there's an accident. It's the same with Godzilla."
Sixty years ago, the black-and-white version of the towering, dinosaur-like creature - his name combines "gorilla" and the Japanese word for whale - packed viewers into theatres.
"That year was also when Japan was starting to debate the peaceful use of nuclear energy," said Takahashi. "So the movie expressed fears about nuclear power as well as weapons."
The nuclear theme was a constant through the Cold War, although Godzilla, who remained a man in a rubber suit stomping through model cities - a touch that humanized him to many - gradually lost his edge and took on a more cuddly tone.
His radioactive connections were blurred in the last few films before film company Toho ended the series, Takahashi noted, perhaps because of a series of accidents at Japanese nuclear facilities around then, including a 1999 criticality accident set off by workers mixing compounds that killed two.
A U.S. version of Godzilla in 1998 was widely panned. Early reviews of the new film are mixed, with many in Japan saying the monster looks "fat". It opens in Japan in late July, timed to hit school summer holidays.
A Toho spokesman said the company abandoned the franchise in 2004 on its 50th anniversary because the timing was right, and that no decision has been made about future revivals in Japan.
"The current movie has a message that is a warning from nature about things mankind has done," he said. "We have to see how people respond, including those who experienced Fukushima."
Takahashi says that Godzilla's longevity shows there is something far deeper at work than the usual monster movie.
"Godzilla shows us that we must return to our dark past and then accept it," he said. "His purpose is to make us question ourselves. So I think we need to still walk with him a little more, especially after Fukushima."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by William Mallard and Nick Macfie)