STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In the first days after the catastrophe in Japan, Wikipedia trend spotters noticed a startling spike in people searching for information online about Godzilla. The giant reptile has been a symbol of fear of radiation since 1954, when the movie came out. And Americans are using popular culture now to think about Japan's crisis. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: Let's get something clear, says Grady Hendrix. He helps run the New York Asian Film Festival.

Mr. GRADY HENDRIX (New York Asian Film Festival): The Godzilla movies don't have anything to do with what's going on now.

ULABY: The idea, says Hendrix, you can infer something about Japan's catastrophe from a movie made over 50 years ago is a little nuts. Still, he says...

Mr. HENDRIX: Movies are where we rehearse our fears.

ULABY: Grady says the Godzilla films are about radiation, but from 1945, when the U.S. bombed Japan twice.

Mr. HENDRIX: And specifically the Godzilla series has to do with what happened in 1954, when the United States detonated a thermonuclear device on the Bikini Atoll and irradiated a Japanese fishing vessel.

ULABY: Killing one crewman and scorching and sickening the rest. Footage of the test survives.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man #1: The width of the fireball at this time, about three seconds after detonation, was four miles.

ULABY: The U.S. government tried to cover up the Lucky Dragon 5 tragedy. It was the main inspiration for the wave of Japanese mutant monster movies that followed.

(Soundbite of Godzilla's roar)

ULABY: For all of the radiation the U.S. inflicted on Japan in the 20th century, it's hardly as if Japan has a corner on irradiated monster flicks.

(Soundbite of movie, "Them!")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character): The species appears to be Camponotus Fakita(ph).

ULABY: An American movie called "Them!" came out the same year as "Godzilla." It's about eight-foot-long giant ants.

(Soundbite of movie, "Them!")

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) A fantastic mutation - probably caused by lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb.

Professor BILL TSUTSUI (Southern Methodist University): Radiation needed a face in the 1950s, and the giant ants in "Them!" and the monster in "Godzilla" provided that kind of horrible external representation of what these invisible forces could be.

ULABY: Bill Tsutsui is a professor. He's written a book about Godzilla and he says people didn't understand radiation in the 1950s. They feared it. So the U.S. government enlisted Disney to assuage those fears.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WALT DISNEY: And here to tell you a story of our friendly atom is the author of our book, Dr. Heinz Hopper.

ULABY: Still, suspicions about radiation seeped into the next decade. They helped launch an entire new genre of horror.

(Soundbite of movie, "Night of the Living Dead")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) The brain of the ghoul has been activated by the radiation.

ULABY: The zombies in the 1968 movie "Night of the Living Dead" were a product of radiation, says Lisa Lynch. She's a professor who studies nuclear culture. She says until the end of the Cold War, our fears about mutation were fears about radiation. Then...

Professor LISA LYNCH (Concordia University): Fears of global pandemic started to overshadow fears of radiation. And so, all of a sudden you have all these mutation movies. But the mutations are not radiation produced. They're usually mutated viruses.

ULABY: Like in "28 Days Later," or "Zombieland."

Lynch says nuclear fears went in another direction - first about power plant accidents, like in "Silkwood" or "The China Syndrome." Today, she says, the popular imagination is more concerned with acts of deliberate terrorism.

Prof. LYNCH: Hijacking nuclear power plants, stealing equipment from nuclear power plants, stealing fissionable materials, dirty bombs, etcetera.

ULABY: That was the plot of the TV show "Castle" just a few weeks ago.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Castle")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (as character) I've been exposed to high levels of radiation. We need emergency services right away.

ULABY: But there's also something about this cultural moment that seems to resonate with a more heroic side of radiation - one imbued with mid-century optimism. Broadway's most-discussed musical, after all, begins with a radioactive spider bite.

(Soundbite of Broadway musical, "Spider-Man")

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (Singing as character) And every heart that bleeds will color your world red.

ULABY: Just like "Spider-Man," one of the summer's most anticipated action movies is based on a Marvel Comics superhero whose powers come from radiation "Captain America."

(Soundbite of movie, "Captain America")

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (as character) What do you think?

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (as character) I think it works.

ULABY: Hollywood's even finding currency in a movie from Japan.

(Soundbite of percussion)

ULABY: "Akira" is an anime classic, set in a nightmarish post-apocalyptic Tokyo after a nuclear explosion.

(Soundbite of movie, "Akira")

Unidentified Man #5: (as character) Maybe we weren't meant to meddle with that ultimate power.

Unidentified Man #6: (as character) You mean the power of the gods?

ULABY: Warner Brothers is remaking it as a live action film set in New York. Some of the characters are children, given strange powers by radiation. Unlike Spider-Man or Captain America, they're victims. Grady Hendrix...

Mr. HENDRIX: When you make a movie, you're able to say, hey, this is something I'm scared of. Let me see what it's like when I visualize it. Does it make me less scared? More scared? Is it reassuring?

ULABY: Whatever it is, Hendrix says, he hopes Wikipedia searches for Godzilla don't distract us from the real human suffering in Japan.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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