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Locked in a tiny Ferris wheel gondola, whirling high above the steely waters of Tokyo Bay, I realized I'd made a mistake asking Godzilla along for the ride. "One swish of my tail," snarled the famous movie monster as he clawed the air, "and that bridge over there is toast!" Seeing as how "Godzilla," an actor named Kenpachiro Satsuma, had earned his living playing the terror of Tokyo Bay, trampling soundstage replicas in a rubber lizard suit, I'd expected an insider's insight into this body of water at the heart of Japan's biggest megalopolis. But instead Kenpachiro grew strangely agitated as we revolved skyward, the bay's overbuilt shoreline fanning out before us like an unruly board game.
"Zzzzssssstttttt!" he hissed, like the afterburner on a jet engine, his eyes eerily agleam. "This is Godzilla's exact line of sight," he declared as we hit the top of the giant Ferris wheel, which at 377 feet (115 meters) was only slightly higher than the mythical monster was tall.
"Hey, I smashed all those buildings down there in my last movie," he huffed, indignantly scanning the horizon. "What're they doing back there?"
Like many residents of the bay area, Kenpachiro was understandably disoriented. In recent years a construction boom has transformed the landscape, and now costly new ornaments—a glitzy hotel or world-class aquarium here, a convention center or two there—mingle with older and more familiar factories, smokestacks, and oil storage tanks. In fact, ever since Kenpachiro's predecessor, Godzilla number one, made his splash on the big screen back in 1954 by rampaging from these waters, the bay area has played the lead role in Japan's rise to stardom. Today its five main cities (Tokyo, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Funabashi, and Chiba) and four encompassing prefectures (Kanagawa, Saitama, Tokyo, and Chiba) anchor the planet's number two economy, after the United States. The center, as the Japanese call Tokyo, and its satellite cities account for nearly a quarter of the country's 127 million people and a third of its wealth, dominating its politics, arts, commerce, and communications.
Throughout Japan's steep, brilliant climb from the devastation of World War II, the bay worked like a powerful magnet, pulling in millions of people from around the country, providing them new jobs and new lifestyles. Many of those living within the bay's ambit came to view it as their personal field of dreams. Thirty years ago Kenpachiro came here chasing his dream of becoming an actor but wound up working in one of the area's steel mills, jockeying around molten buckets of iron in front of a blazing blast furnace. His big break came when he got a call to try out for Godzilla.
"The director needed somebody who could work in that hot rubber suit without passing out," Kenpachiro confided.
But as Godzilla and I spun through the silvery air above the waterfront, old dreams were under siege. Japan's deepest postwar economic slump, now a dozen years old, had left the bay area awash in a rising tide of bad debt, busted companies, and lost jobs. Even Godzilla was out of work. Nowadays movie monsters are computer-generated products of special effects studios. "I hate that," Kenpachiro growled.
Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.