A Soviet nuclear submarine has vanished in the Pacific Ocean. Tension is mounting worldwide as Moscow blames the United States. But the Japanese Cabinet, poring over naval intelligence photos during an emergency session, sees a murky outline in the water and grasps the terrible truth.

Godzilla!

Japan braces. It is only a matter of time before the prehistoric monster, roused from a sub-sea slumber by nuclear testing a generation ago, will wade out of Tokyo Bay to expend his wrath against mankind. Department stores, commuter trains, sushi bars -- nothing will be safe from his claws and fiery breath.

It is guaranteed to send swarms of Japanese to the box office in the next eight weeks.

This is no ordinary 2-million-year-old mutated lizard. This is one of the most enduring stars of Japanese screen and television, a fixture in pop culture here since he first darkened the Tokyo skyline 30 years ago.

Last week, his 16th film, and first since 1975, opened at 235 Japanese theaters. Fans are ecstatic. "For 30 years, I have lived Godzilla," says Shuichi Goto, a handbag company executive who plans to help on the phone bank putting out the good word.

Godzilla's creator, Toho Co., is waging an enormous promotional campaign. It includes a pop song and flashing-eyed lapel buttons. Fans can dial a hotline to hear Godzilla roar, a sound akin to an elephant trumpeting and a garbage disposal grinding in tandem. They can read Toho brochures informing them that Godzilla stands 80 meters tall, can swim at 45 knots and weighs as much as 12,500 average-sized elephants.

It is the year of the "Three Gs" at Japanese theater districts -- "Godzilla," "Ghostbusters" and "Gremlins" are all opening together this Christmas for the eight-week run that is standard here. Toho says it is already fielding inquiries from the United States about distribution there.

The star debuted in the 1954 B-grade classic "Godzilla, Terrible Creature of the Hydrogen Bomb." Since then, 60 million Japanese, many of them children, have seen his movies. Tens of thousands belong to official fan clubs. About $40 million will go this year for beach sandals, erasers, children's painting sets and other products bearing his image.

Godzilla is pure camp. But his sustained popularity says something profound -- nobody can quite agree what -- about a country where such things as flower arranging and Zen are supposed to hold the key to the national character.

"Godzilla is the son of the atomic bomb," declares his creator, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. "He is a nightmare created out of the darkness of the human soul. He is the sacred beast of the apocalypse."

Some theories have it that Japanese unconsciously identify with him as a fellow victim of the bomb. Like King Kong, he is seen as an essentially peaceable brute who just wants to be left alone. What he dishes out is only repayment to his great tormentor, humankind.

When the first film was released, Tokyo had just finished digging out from a real-life obliteration, the U.S. firebombing of 1945. "Memories of the B-29s and the atomic bombs were very vivid. Godzilla stimulated them," says national film critic Masahiro Ogi.

That and the devastation wrought by the great earthquake of 1923 have made many Japanese view today's prosperity as fragile, analysts say. Watching Godzilla flatten department stores and other things Tanaka calls "the vain symbols of these abundant days" confirm those feelings. At the same time, it provides a vicarious thrill.

Another line of thought holds that every Japanese secretly longs to rebel against this tightly regulated society and smash things. However, every Japanese also recognizes that it is out of the question. The next best thing, then, is watching the master vandal Godzilla at work.

In 1954, the United States conducted hydrogen bomb tests at the Bikini atoll in the South Pacific. A Japanese fishing boat passed through the radioactive cloud, one crew member died, and an uproar ensued in Japan. Once again, people complained angrily, Japanese had been made victims of an atomic weapon.

Tanaka, then a novice producer, decided to make the point on film. "The thesis was very simple," he says. "What if a dinosaur sleeping in the Southern Hemisphere had been awakened and transformed into a giant by the bomb? What if it attacked Tokyo?"

His budget was about $275,000, an enormous sum for those days. He built a dollhouse-scale reproduction of downtown Tokyo and unleashed a man in a rubber suit as cameras rolled. Toy planes and trains were mangled by the basket-full.

For the monster's name, he combined "gorilla" with the Japanese word for whale, "kujira," to get "Gojira," the Japanese name. That was Anglicized to Godzilla.

It was an overnight hit in Japan, eventually drawing 6 million people. But looking to the export market, Tanaka decided he needed foreign talent. Raymond Burr was signed to play an American correspondent caught in the carnage. His scenes, shot hurriedly in the United States, were spliced into the original to create "Godzilla, King of the Monsters."

In ensuing years, the lizard returned to the screen again and again and spawned countless imitators. But with children taking over as his most devoted fans, his character changed. He became a benevolent force, fighting off a succession of bug-eyed and bloated creatures attacking Japan.

He battled King Kong, a robot titan with fingers that shot off as missiles, a three-headed, winged space beast called King Gidolla and a giant moth known as Mothra. Production quality and budgets slipped lower as adults stayed home.

After 20 years, Tanaka concluded Godzilla had run out of steam and stopped with the 15th movie in 1975. But fans clamored for more. A special "Committee for the Resurrection of Godzilla" was formed to lead the battle.

Tanaka complied. He decided on a high-tech Godzilla using new special effects. He ordered a $420,000 robot that can lunge, blink and snarl on electronic command. Superimposition techniques replaced the old toy planes on strings. Optical fiber gives miniature building windows a more realistic look.

No Godzilla movie is complete without the man in the zippered suit, however. This one's suit weighs 240 pounds. The actor worked up such a sweat he lost 12 pounds.

But which character for the star? Tanaka decided to bring back the avenging Godzilla. Affluent Japan was thirsting for a forceful, unrelenting figure, producers reasoned. And the antibomb message that goes with that was now more valid than ever.

The script was also updated to bring into play superpower rivalry that today surrounds Japan and is debated endlessly in government and the press. It supposes that the great powers have already put nuclear weapons in orbit. And it is played straight from start to end.

Godzilla drowns the Soviet sub, we learn, not out of meanness but to get the radioactive food he needs to survive. When he first reaches Japan, he avoids Tokyo and heads for a nuclear power plant to eat again.

As the crisis mounts, special envoys from Washington and Moscow rudely demand that Japan accede to taking him out with a nuclear bomb. No, counters Prime Minister Mitamura, you apparently are ignorant of Japan's "three nonnuclear principles." Every newspaper reader here knows them by heart -- nonproduction, nonpossession and nonintroduction of other countries' nuclear weapons into Japan. "This is no time to talk of principles," snaps the American.

Still, Japanese logic prevails. Godzilla, meanwhile, has decided to visit Tokyo after all. He vaporizes soldiers and tanks at the waterfront, then ambles through the gilded Ginza shopping district, smashing in two brand new department stores that opened this fall to national acclaim. He upends a Shinkansen bullet train. Crowds flee in terror.

Finally, the Japanese bring up a secret weapon (developed, it is explained, for purely defensive purposes). It is the "Super-X" radiation cannon. It zaps Godzilla as he lingers in the skyscraper district Shinjuku. He falls and Japan breathes easier.

But it is not over. The Russians have accidentally let fly with a missile from one of their satellites and it is bearing down on Tokyo . . .

In the end, human creativity does what weapons cannot. A scientific genius whose father died in the monster's 1954 attack devises a means to lure Godzilla into a volcano, which promises to preserve him for film 17.