Excited for Pacific Rim, but confused as to just what the heck a kaiju is, in the first place? Here’s a brief history of kaiju films, and how Pacific Rim is actually taking the kaiju movie back to its roots in some ways.
So, what’s a kaiju, anyway?
Literally translated, it’s a Japanese term that means “strange beast”. More generally, in the West, it’s a shorthand for “giant monster”. You might also hear “kaiju eiga”, which translates out to, well, “monster movie”.
So, like Godzilla?
Exactly like Godzilla. In fact, it’s generally accepted the first kaiju movie was 1954’s Gojira. It largely defines the form for many fans: Men in rubber suits, fire-breath, elaborate sets destroyed by men in rubber suits and fire-breath.
How the hell did they even come up with that idea?
Practically speaking, it was a matter of what Japanese effects artists could pull off. The effects for Godzilla were largely designed by Eiji Tsuburaya, who’d spent World War II designing painstakingly elaborate sets and then destroying them in equally painstaking ways for the purposes of war propaganda. He had no actors, since everybody available was off getting shot, so he had to communicate action solely with effects.
It turned out filming a guy in a suit stomping through a tiny painstakingly crafted set looked surprisingly realistic; Tsuburaya’s sets actually hold up better than the Godzilla suit. And it’s cheap, which was important, since the first movie needed to be made to fill in a production gap.
So why was Godzilla such a massive hit?
The first Godzilla movie tapped into Japanese anxieties about nuclear weapons and the Atomic Age. Gojira hasn’t aged well in some respects, but the scenes of destruction hold up and there are moments to the movie that are shockingly dark: Ishiro Honda, the director, deliberately included images of destruction and aftermath that reflected the nuclear bombings. It also helped that in some regards it’s a well produced movie: For example, good luck getting the main theme, composed by Akira Ifukube, out of your head, and much of the score is equally as haunting.
That does not sound like the goofy stupidity you generally associate with giant monster movies.
Most kaiju movies aren’t quite so heavy. In the US, that’s because Gojira was never released: It was heavily cut by the distributors, with Raymond Burr spliced in, and turned into Godzilla: King Of The Monsters. It didn’t help that Toho, the studio that owns Godzilla, began cranking out Godzilla movies at a blistering pace (roughly one a year between 1962 and 1975), and quickly settled into a formula, or that the tradition for American release quickly became handing off some already rushed movies to equally rushed editing and redubbing teams for American release to drive-ins and grindhouses. That said, there were some efforts to make them a little more than just effects extravaganzas: Mothra Vs. Godzilla needles media sensationalism and environmental exploitation, albeit with the most racist depiction of “natives” you’ll see outside a bad Western.
The decline of the Japanese film industry and the resulting decision to focus the films on the children’s market didn’t help matters, artistically. The idea was to make something dumb and goofy for kids, leading to all sorts of odd decisions that were then chopped up. There are urban legends about Godzilla singing in some dubs for the Thai market, that’s how absurd it got. The movies were, and are, goofy fun and highly endearing not least because of their nature, but there was no interest, and more importantly no money, in making a more serious kaiju film.
So artistically kaiju movies were a dead end?
Until recently, yes. But like anything in pop culture, things shifted as fans grew up, became filmmakers, and began reinventing the franchises and ideas. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, for example, is a movie with a silly title, but a surprisingly gritty tone that returns Godzilla to being a serious menace. Big Man Japan is a bittersweet and smart mockumentary that rips on Japanese pop culture and satirizes the tropes of kaiju movies while also serving as a unique and clever kaiju film in its own right.
And Pacific Rim, of course, is a big budget kaiju film that takes the idea of giant monsters seriously. There’s a reason Hideo Kojima basically ordered every nerd in Japan to pack theaters: For some Japanese nerds, this is their Dark Knight moment, where a respected filmmaker has taken a genre they love and made something enormous and new out of it.
I kinda just want to see a robot rocket-punch the crap out of monsters.
Don’t worry: So does everyone else, including kaiju nerds. To tide you over until Friday, here’s a GIF: