[21 April 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
According to the myth, the world is constantly under threat from Kaiju insurrection. These massive alien beasts with a proclivity for city stomping have waged their own private war among the urban sprawl of our fair planet for eons, and their legion is mighty and more than a little incensed. Kaiju (a shortening of the Japanese term “daikaiju,” or “monsters,” and the label given to Godzilla, Gamera, and countless other Tokyo titans) are broken up into factions, some good, some bad, others fighting for their own mercenary reasons. The groupings are:
Team Space Bug—monsters with nothing but evil on their minds. Such strange beings as Sky Deviler and Mota Naru are lead by Uchu Chu, a green insect baddie with mayhem on its creepy-crawly brain.
The Heroes—lead by the American Beetle, and featuring such levelheaded luminaries as the Silver Potato and Los Plantanos, these do-gooders defend the world against the hordes of hotheaded critters.
The Rogues—though they follow no one, these self-serving Kaiju love to scrap with their fellow fiends. Their ranks feature some of the most hideous and awful participants in the entire Kaiju universe, including Kung Fu Chicken Noodle, D. W. Cycloptopuss III, and Call-Me-Kevin.
Dr. Cube’s Posse—a human scientist with a mangled face, Dr. Cube (who covers his head with a box) uses technology to craft his ultimate wicked fighting force. Along with mindless zombies known as The Minions, he relies on such unstoppable fighters as Hell Monkey and garbage monster Gomi-Man to do his tainted bidding.
The Humans—Since all Kaiju “battels” are run by the Kaiju Regulatory Commission, a certain amount of human interaction must occur. The mysterious Commissioner sets up and controls all confronts, while Referee Jingi and ring announcer and Kaiju commentator Louden Noxious make sure each battel runs without a hitch.
When Kaiju tensions run high, the Commissioner stages public spectacles—“battels,” as they are called—and differences and vendettas are pseudo-solved in the arena. But Dr. Cube will not rest until he controls the world, and he plans on using the Kaiju and their Commission for his own megalomaniacal purposes.
Welcome to the Next Big Thing. Toss out your Pokémon. Set fire to your anime fan-subs. Ignore Vince McMahan and his WWE BFD and get with the right side of what’s hip and happening in entertainment. Though it’s incredibly disconcerting (for all the right reasons—more on this later) and could quickly outrun both its premise and its particulars, Kaiju Big Battel is one of the most amazing concepts you will ever experience. This is not just some publicity piece puffery or an attempt to garner favor with aficionados. While there are elements here that don’t work, and the occasional slip into amateurish aspects, this is still an impressive take on the increasing influence of Japanese and Asian culture into the Western geek world. Though Kaiju creators Rand and David Borden may not fully acknowledge their agenda—this is, after all, more or less wrestling taken to terrific and tacky extremes—they have hit upon a sensationally satiric idea, the melding of two dumb bumpkin ideas into a magical meditation on the fringes of fun.
As suggested before, one of the reasons why Kaiju Big Battel is so disarming is that it contains so much imagination and invention that you have to step back and collect your shattered low expectations. If someone were to tell you that a homemade concoction of crowd-pleasing spectacle that combines backyard wrestling, cardboard cityscapes, Godzilla/Gamera movie homage, and a knowing nod to the Japanese ability to mass market any and all crazy character fads would be both incisive and deeply satisfying, you’d swear they were high.
But the only buzz you’ll be feeling is the one of being in on the semi-ground floor as you get to witness Kaiju Big Battel before Spike TV or Comedy Central snags it and shuttles it directly into the crass consumer mindlessness of the mainstream. Without the connection to corporate realities, Studio Kaiju (the Bordens with lots of help) get to create their own reality, polishing their personal universe into a wholly original entity that supports its own rules, stretches its own time, and defines/defies its own logic.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, what the Studio Kaiju guys get right instantaneously is the iconography of the entire J-Pop mindset. Combining a propaganda poster ideal with eye-catching graphic design, the Kaiju world is advertising gone insane and arcane. The monsters themselves blend perfectly into this stratagem. From their ridiculous design to their ludicrous list of special powers, each beast is just to the left of straightforward, easily imaginable as a Toho Studio player, but with enough peculiarity that we immediately get the joke. Using the Internet and the power of a wired fanbase to get their manic message across, Kaiju Big Battel has grown exponentially. While they will always be primarily known for the staged events—the “Battels,” if you will—the Kaiju company offers t-shirts, posters, souvenirs, - even DVDs.
A recent release entitled Kaiju Big Battel: Shocking Truth is basically an introduction to everything in and that happens behind the scenes in the rubber monster universe. It offers up a wonderful explanatory piece about the entire premise (“What is Kaiju”) before launching into what can best be described as a tabloid style exposé (“The Secrets of Dino Kang, Jr.‘s Cave”) peppered with commercials, an episode of a Mighty Morphing Power Rangers-like television show (“The Neo Teppen Show”), a video overview of one monster’s ascent/descent in the Kaiju ranks (“The Rise and Fall of Silver Potato”), and a final epic confrontation between Dr. Cube, American Beetle, and Team Space Bug (“The Swarm”). Intermixed are lampoons of famous films (Braveheart and Spartacus being the main ones), nods to Japanese television (the occasional incomprehensible product ad), and clips from Kaiju Battels. Indeed, if you are looking for more of the square circle action, then mosey on over to the DVD bonus material. There you will find actual full-length Kaiju events, which give you a much better idea of how this all plays in front of a crowd.
At nearly 73 minutes, the show within a show within a show design can run a little flat. Not every joke works and some of the gags are so insular that you really have to be a longtime Kaiju follower to understand the parameters of the prank. Still, the amount of creativity and vision here just can’t be dismissed. Unlike other similar scenarios—comics, webcasts, etc.—where ingenious people want to fashion their own fastidious world, Kaiju Big Battel leaves no gaps. A character dies? They get a shrine in the Kaiju graveyard. Need to know a Kaiju’s powers? There are occasional snippets during the presentation (as well as a big bonus feature on the DVD), which provide a complete comic bio of each fiend.
But most importantly, even inside foam rubber and felt, cardboard and crepe paper, we get personalities—cleverly crafted participants we can root for and rally against. When a homemade product has you instantly wanting to don a Dr. Cube t-shirt, or buy the brand new tie-in book, you know you’re hooked. Certainly, the salesmanship is effective. But without something to back up the packaging, you eventually feel flim-flammed. Happily, Kaiju Big Battel talks the talk…and walks the monster walk as well.