Cinematic Kaiju: A Worm’s Eye look at Filmdom’s Biggest Monsters

In the sagas of film's biggest monsters, what qualifies as a Kaiju? And does the giant monster have to be a Japanese creation to be considered Kaiju?

Photo: Kaiju from Pacific Rim (2013)

In the sagas of film’s biggest monsters, what qualifies as a Kaiju? and does the giant monster have to be a Japanese creation to be considered Kaiju?

In 2013 a very big (and I do mean BIG) movie was released called Pacific Rim to generally positive reviews and more than respectable box office to the tune of double its budget. (Although many in the press pegged this film as a flop, due to its third place showing in its opening weekend, that third place haul was almost $40 million, and the first and second place films were the popular sequels Despicable Me 2 and Grownups 2.) For those of you who did watch one of those sequels instead of Pacific Rim, this big movie was about “Kaiju” or, as most people in the old US of A used to call them “Those great big old monsters like Godzilla or somebody.”

That definition (simplified, if you will, to simply “giant monsters”) fits “Kaiju” pretty well, to be sure, but any otaku can tell you that the literal translation of the word is “strange creature”. In fact, literally any “strange creature” from a guy the size of King Kong to something no bigger than your average zombified kiddo from The Walking Dead would literally fall into that category. Sticking with the concept of the kind of stories-tall real estate crasher that leaves tracks in its wake that could make Bigfoot himself say “Dude, I gotta change my nickname!”, the real Japanese word for these big beasts would be “Daikaiju”. The rest of the world either uses “Kaiju” or just “Giant Monster Thingy”.


King Kong (1933)

For The Next Reel, a film history and connectivity column, the question might be asked: “Where did these gargantuan things come from?”

From a real world standpoint, the easiest answer is “Japanese Folklore”, and the traditional Japanese point of view regarding nature. A monstrous animal or even storm could easily be re-imagined as a gargantuan threat that could wear your house as a shoe. By the time of the debut of the world’s most famous Kaiju in 1954’s Gojira (better known in the West as Godzilla), there was a far darker inspiration.

Unlike the more comical and often silly sequels (in which the giant lizard often morphed into something of a skyscraping scaly superhero), the 1954 film was a serious drama that served as a metaphor for the nuclear holocaust that was still immediate in the collective consciousness of the Japanese People (having taken place less than a decade before Gojira‘s release). Director Ishirō Honda filmed Godzilla’s Tokyo stomp as if the monster was a physical manifestation of an atom bomb attack, leaving human wreckage and radiation in his wake. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka further paralleled the monster with the bomb, saying “Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

Godzilla, however, was not the first Daikaiju, nor was Gojira the first Daikaiju movie, even in Japan. Naturally, giants (and giant monsters) appear all over folklore on just about every continent except Antarctica (we think). From the advent of film, monster movies have been popular with the occasional oversized beast popping up to ruin things for everyone. One prime example of this trend was 1925’s The Lost World with special creature effects provided by the groundbreaking artist Willis H. O’Brien. Sure by today’s standards the dinosaurs looked like plastic toys come to life. But let’s rewind and repeat here… they look like plastic toys… come to life! One look at the finalé which (spoiler alert) features a Brontosaurus running rampant through London and any film fan can see how influential The Lost World was on the genre.

However, it was Willis “Obie” O’Brien’s next film that was arguably the first real Kaiju film, and it wasn’t made in Japan. That film was, of course, 1933’s King Kong. The film that would be Kong started as adventurer Merian C. Cooper’s idea for a new and realistic jungle film. The concept was to have real gorillas in battle with real Komodo dragons, with stand-ins and puppets used for some of the narrative needs. He re-wrote the idea to center around one gorilla fighting the dangerous lizards. Although his film idea was rejected as too expensive for the great depression, Cooper (by this time an executive assistant at RKO Radio Pictures) caught a screening of the unfinished film Creation with effects by Obie O’Brien. Suddenly Cooper’s idea for the Gorilla picture coalesced into King Kong, a story about a giant ape captured in the jungles of Skull Island (actually RKO’s jungle set and O’Brien’s miniature effects laboratory) and transported to New York City where he makes a big splash on Broadway.


Movie poster for Edo ni Arawareta Kingu Kongu: Henge no maki (1938)

Creation was never completed and the efforts were redirected into King Kong, which became a worldwide smash, including in Japan where it was released on 14 September 1933, just six months and one week after its New York premiere. But does King Kong really count as a Kaiju film, considering its pedigree?

That’s a big hair to split (and considering the subject, there are a lot of hairs to choose from), but there is no doubt that King Kong was remarkably influential on world cinema including, and especially, Japanese cinema. The shining proof of this fact is that, barring the exception of the first American sequel Son of Kong (also 1933), the first King Kong follow-up movies were made in Japan.

In October of 1933, Shochiku Studios, which released RKO’s King Kong in Japan released the faux sequel called Wasei Kingu Kongu, without the permission of RKO. At the time (1933 was pre-internet, you know) there was very little real information about how the special effects of King Kong were achieved. Reportedly an article was run in Popular Mechanics that suggested that the giant monster was actually a remote controlled robot of the same size as Kong. Thus, an actor named Isamu Yamaguchi aped the ape while dressed in a gorilla costume.

Five years later in March of 1938, a period piece was made called Edo ni Arawareta Kingu Kongu: Henge no maki or King Kong Appears in Edo. This ambitious film featured a giant gorilla (possibly an ancestor of Kong’s) attacking medieval Edo in very similar ways to Godzilla’s own attacks on Tokyo (which is, of course, the modern name for Edo), 16 years later. While Zensho Kinema also had no real permission from RKO to make a King Kong film, the production was groundbreaking and impressive. There is no actor credited as Kong and the effects were said to have been achieved largely with models, although SFX artist Fuminori Ohashi did admit to creating an ape suit for the role. Incidentally, Ohashi was also the creator of the original Godzilla suit.

Thus, arguably the first two Japanese Kaiju movies actually featured the American creation King Kong. So where are these old time cinematic gems? Unfortunately, both films are lost to this day, either due to poor film restoration (who could have predicted the people of 2013 would want to watch films from the ’30s?) or, sadly, due to the allied bombing runs on Japan during World War II. This, of course, brings us full-circle back to Godzilla.

World War II’s aftermath was obviously fresh on the minds of the surviving Japanese, especially after the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima made World War II into arguably the first Nuclear War. As the allied reconstruction of Japan took place, so did American movies return to Japanese screens. In 1952, the 1949 American film Mighty Joe Young was released in Japan. This film was also an RKO Radio Picture written and produced by Cooper and starring King Kong star, Robert Armstrong. It, too, was about an oversized gorilla brought to America for entertainment purposes. However derivative it may have been, it still managed to be a very fine film with a large worldwide following. If nothing else the 1952 release of Mighty Joe Young would have reminded the Japanese of Joe’s spiritual big brother, King Kong and perhaps helped to pave the way for Gojira to set foot in Tokyo.

Another clear precursor to the most famous Kaiju of them all was an American film from 1953 called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. An atomic bomb test in the Arctic Circle awakens a sleeping giant with scaly skin and a ridge of powerful fins up its back who can shoot nuclear flame breath from his mouth as he attacks New York City. This may sound a lot like a combination of Godzilla, King Kong and The Lost World and a case could be made for the later two, considering the special effects genius behind this monster was Ray Harryhausen, a legend in stop motion animation who learned the craft under none other than Obie O’Brien. The atomic testing and fiery breath both are said to have inspired those elements of Japan’s own Gojira.

Gojira ran with this formula and still stands as a serious science fiction and horror movie rife with metaphor and pathos. Unlike the American giant monster movies, which used stop-motion effects, but like the two Kaiju Kingu Kongu movies from Japan, the Godzilla character was realized by an actor in a rubber monster suit interacting with miniatures. Although that became a silly staple of later films, it looks excellent (and even convincing) in the original black and white film.

In 1956 a re-edited and Americanized version of Gojira was released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (although the original film had previously been released as Godzilla with English subtitles). The 1956 version featured Raymond Burr (TV’s Perry Mason) as a reporter in Japan who witnesses the attack firsthand and interacts with the main cast thanks to body doubling and voice dubbing. Although the film has a very different feel to it than the original and many condemn the Americanization of Gojira, King of the Monsters was among the first “American productions” to show Japanese people in a very positive and heroic light since World War II began. Further, this re-edit helped to introduce (and endear) Godzilla to a much wider audience and helped the film series to become a huge success.

In Japan the success of Gojira was so great that the Toho studio immediately put a sequel into production. Gojira no Gyakushū (1955) featured Godzilla’s first counterattack and the first time he was paired up with another monster for a big, fat, radioactive donnybrook. The monster in question was Anguirus, a spiny, turtle-like Kaiju who was pretty much as bad as the monster king himself.

Like Gojira, this second film was released in the USA with heavy changes, but this time even the very name of the title monster was altered to play down any connection to Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Thus was released Gigantis, the Fire Monster (1959), which included a new prologue, deleted subplots, a very different tone (thanks to the dubbing) and a new musical score. Naturally, the main audience for a giant lizard movie would probably have been that of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, so the very idea that Warner Bros. Would attempt to distance this film from the original and disguise it as a non-sequel is as ridiculous today as it was then. Critics and fans were displeased with the alterations and future Godzilla films were released in the USA as Godzilla films.

The year 1956 also saw the release of Rodan, a Daikaiju-ized pteranodon (the original film gave the creature the Japanese name “Radon”, which was changed to “Rodan” in the USA to avoid confusion with the radioactive element radon). Rodan was accidentally released from a giant egg and soon grows to his full Godzilla size to terrorize the Japanese countryside, creating sonic booms in his wake. Also the product of the Toho studio, Rodan/ Radon would later be incorporated into the Godzilla mythos, sometimes as a friend, sometimes as a foe.

Believe it or not, Godzilla and Japan had not yet cornered the Kaiju market. Throughout the ’50s, other giant monster movies had seen the flickering light of the silver screen. Them! (1954) featured giant ants on the rampage and Kronos (1957) featured a giant alien Kaiju robot sent to consume all of Earth’s resources and bring them back to his dying planet. Also from Toho and Ishiro Honda was 1958’s Daikaijū Baran or Giant Monster Varan. Ironically, though one of very few Kaiju films to actually feature the word “Daikaijū” in the title, Varan is among the least renowned of Toho’s monsters. The American version was also heavily edited, which is ironic considering the fact that Varan was originally intended for American television.

Among the next giant creature features to ignite movie screens was 1961’s Gorgo, a British film surrounding a giant reptile that awakens, attacks and is brought to London as an entertainment attraction. Mayhem ensues. Needless to say, the film borrows heavily from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Lost World and King Kong and was obviously meant to cash in on the success of Godzilla and its first (to date) sequel.

Surprisingly, in spite of its later inclusion as an episode in the turkey skewering series Mystery Science Theater 3000, Gorgo is really not that bad of a film. Though utilizing many of the same techniques as Godzilla, including the rubber suit, great pains were taken to ensure that the Gorgo creature wasn’t a Godzilla clone. Expensive sets of different sizes were made to interact with the giant beasts and groundbreaking slow motion photography was utilized to give greater impact to the destruction. Further, the monsters of Gorgo aren’t exactly villains, but victims of man’s greed and inhumanity. Gorgo went on to inspire a novel and a comic book series.

Meanwhile, back on the archipelago of Japan, another giant monster spread her gossamer wings Mothra debuted in the 1961 film (drumroll) Mothra and brought with her two “Luminous Fairies”, tiny twins with a mental link to Mothra that allows them to speak on her behalf. Like Rodan, Mothra began in her own series, but was soon amalgamated into Godzilla‘s mythology. However, Mothra has also continued in her own non-Godzilla properties. While occasionally an ally to the big guy, Mothra is also an ally to humanity and holds the most victories against Godzilla (though never solo).


1977 Kingu Kongu tai Gojira reissue poster

With Rodan, Mothra and Anguirus introduced to the world, the proverbial floodgates were poised to open for a great number of Monster Matches that pit Godzilla against a series of Japanese Kaiju monsters. Surprisingly the first of these Godzilla Vs. films didn’t depict a Japanese monster. Yes, the third ever Godzilla movie was Kingu Kongu Tai Gojira, or King Kong vs. Godzilla. This time, however, Toho did have the rights to the King Kong character and, in fact, the story itself came from a treatment by none other than Obie O’Brien himself.

O’Brien’s concept began as King Kong Vs. Frankenstein in which a Daikaiju-sized Frankenstein’s monster (if you can imagine that) would battle the big fat hairy deal himself. With RKO no longer making films (but still owning the rights to Kong), O’Brien and producer John Beck began to shop the script around. The project morphed first into King Kong vs. the Ginko, then King Kong Vs. Prometheus (bringing it closer to the Frankenstein mythos which they, mistakenly, believed that Universal Studios owned). Unfortunately, the cost of making a stop motion film in the early ’60s made the screenplay a hard sell to everyone but Toho. Thus Beck sold the screenplay to Toho behind O’Brien’s back and the father of King Kong was never credited for his idea. The other father of the character, Merian Cooper attempted to sue to stop the production of the film but he was proven not to be the sole owner.

O’Brien-style stop motion techniques were initially envisioned for the project, but this proved too expensive and both Godzilla and King Kong were portrayed by actors in monster suits. While Godzilla looked largely the same, Kong looked like a caricature of his former self with buck teeth and a silly look on his largely unchanging face. This film also marked a decided change in the tone of the Godzilla franchise, from dark and message-heavy to light-hearted and kid-friendly, much to the chagrin of fans of the series.

Again, changes were made for the American release of King Kong vs. Godzilla, including an English-language wraparound segment. One change that has long been rumored was that the Japanese and American films had two different endings, with the Nihongo version featuring Godzilla as the victor and the English version watching Kong win the fight.

The Future of Kaiju

This rumor is untrue. Although King Kong vs. Godzilla did turn the franchise into a sillier series, Godzilla was still considered a villain, not a hero. Although he later became a symbol of Japanese strength, at that time, the monster was still an evil city-smashing metaphor for the US bombing of Japan during World War II. King Kong, on the other hand, was the monster who attacked the United States and had been, not coincidentally, a favorite for the Japanese moviegoing public. The idea of Godzilla getting a Kong-sized footprint on his hindquarters would have pleased Japanese audiences to no end (and it did). The closest thing to an alternate ending is as follows: In the Japanese version, Kong’s growl is heard at the end of the credits sequence, followed by Godzilla’s scream. In the U.S. release Kong’s growl resounds alone.

Both versions proved to be a massive box office success and the Godzilla franchise was expanded and kicked into high gear, largely because of this film. Ironically, considering the path to production, it was Universal that released the film internationally and even more ironically, one of the two biggest Kaiju films of 1965 was Frankenstein Conquers the World featuring a super-sized Frankenstein’s monster battling a giant reptile named Baragon. Luckily Willis H. O’Brien died in 1962, just four months after King Kong vs. Godzilla‘s American release, so he didn’t have to witness this second slap in the face.

The other big Kaiju film from 1965 was Daikaijū Gamera or Gammera the Invincible in the USA. Gamera, a giant turtle with fangs, was not the product of Toho Studios, but a rival company called Daiei Film Co., Ltd. Daiei did set out to catch some of the glory of Toho’s Gojira series and was actually quite successful, releasing 12 films featuring the big snapper over the next 41 years. Sure five of these films became Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, but then again, Godzilla wasn’t free from their lambasting, either.

Thanks, in part, to his battle with Kong, Godzilla’s fortunes grew into almost 30 films that ran into the next century, keeping Toho very happy in the monster category. Most of these films featured Godzilla at war with other monsters and almost all of these had the word “Vs” in the title. Mothra Vs. Godzilla hit screens in 1964 and Mothra, Rodan and Godzilla all teamed up to fight Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster later that same year. However, Toho wasn’t so lucky in its plans for further sequels with its version of King Kong as RKO was none too keen on the idea. However, RKO had licensed its “biggest star” to an American production company Rankin/ Bass for the Saturday morning cartoon The King Kong Show (1966 – 1969) which was animated in Japan. When it came time for Rankin/Bass to exercise their rights to make their show into a movie, it was Toho who got the co-production job, whether RKO liked it or not. After all, it still had Ishiro Honda and it still had that goofy-looking King Kong costume lying around since 1962.

And so debuted Kingu Kongu no Gyakushu or King Kong Escapes in 1967. Featuring a mix of American and Japanese actors and a villain named “Dr. Who” (not kidding), King Kong Escapes featured a none-too-subtle matchup between the giant ape and big green dinosaur (not Godzilla officially). However, inspired by Toho’s successes with the Godzilla monster match-ups, Kong’s greatest rival here is a robot doppelganger called “Mechani-Kong” which looks just about as goofy and cartoonish as Toho’s own Kong. The American distributor of King Kong Escapes was, again, Universal and these two Japanese productions were the only claims that company had to the Kong name (and its own theme park Kong attraction) until the 2005 Peter Jackson film.

Kong was brought back to the big screen in the 1976 remake produced by Dino De Laurentiis with makeup artist Rick Baker creating the new Kong. This time, however, the American film followed the lead of the Japanese entries and created a campier version of the story, starring Jessica Lang, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and Rick Baker himself as King Kong (in an ape suit, without any stop motion added to the mix). The film was a box office success, but didn’t quite achieve critical praise (though it did score better than the introduction of Mechani-Kong). A sequel followed in 1986 called King Kong Lives that was a laughable critical and commercial failure. If you’ve ever wanted to see the courting rituals of two men in ape suits, your movie is, most assuredly, King Kong Lives. Sadly, neither character was as lively as Mechani-Kong.

Interestingly enough, the theatrical bow of Mechani-Kong predates that of the similarly themed Mechagodzilla by seven years, but Mechagodzilla did appear in many more films, along with other crazy Godzilla clones like SpaceGodzilla. By this time the Godzilla films had gotten decidedly campy with 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon being one of the best unintentionally hilarious sci-fi films ever made. When the first “Showa Series” of Godzilla films ended, a Godzilla animated series was launched in 1978 which further toned down the big green guy and even added an adorable “cowardly cousin” named Godzooky for the kids to adore.

When Godzilla went out of control in its silliness, Toho rebooted the series with a new film also called Gojira (1984) or The Return of Godzilla. This film ignores the continuity of (most) every film from the Showa series between 1955 and 1975 and acts as a direct and more serious sequel to the original 1954 film. This allowed the American release, retitled Godzilla 1985 to again feature Raymond Burr, reprising his reporter role from Godzilla, King of the Monsters. It didn’t help, though, as Godzilla 1985 was universally panned by critics. Gojira (also known as The Return of Godzilla), from 1984, marked the dawn of the Heisei series which lasted until 1995.


The Return of Godzilla (1984)

At the end of the Heisei series, Godzilla as we know him went on vacation (save for a short-lived animated series called Godzilla Island from 1997) and an All American film was attempted starring a redesigned, CGI version of the giant lizard. The film was written by disaster masters Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich and directed by Emmerich. Although it starred Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno and Hank Azaria and featured many cutting-edge (for the time) special effects, the film underperformed at the box office. Although projected to beat the somewhat similarly themed Jurassic Park movies, it fell far short (although it made almost three times its budget back).

Critics were less kind than moviegoers and the film currently holds a “25% Rotten” rating from RottenTomatoes. Further, the redesigned Godzilla alienated longtime fans of the character and many found it to be too similar to Jurassic Park. A planned sequel was never developed but another animated series picked up where the film ended and continued the story for two seasons on Fox Kids.

Later that same year Disney released a remake of Mighty Joe Young that did much better than Godzilla with critics, but much more poorly at the box office. The mechanical Joe earned the production a Best Visual Effects Academy Award nomination (though the statue ultimately went to What Dreams May Come).

The very next year, Toho returned to the character with Godzilla 2000 (1999), the first film in the Millennium Series of films. Again, all prior films were ignored except for the 1954 film that this twenty-third film purports to be a direct sequel to. Ironically, Tristar Pictures, the company behind the 1998 American Godzilla film licensed this next movie for distribution in the United States, spending over a million dollars to re-dub it into English.

The Millennium Series lasted for only six films, ending with 2004’s appropriately titled Godzilla: The Final Wars. As yet another Anniversary (this film marked Godzilla’s fiftieth birthday), this future-set film featured many characters and Kaiju from the previous entries including, interestingly enough, the American version of Godzilla. This character was renamed “Zilla”, as Final Wars director Ryuhei Kitamura felt that Hollywood had taken the “God” out of “Godzilla” and is handily defeated by ‘the REAL Godzilla” in a metafictional nod to the film’s unpopular American predecessor.

In fact, the largely negative reception to both Godzilla (1998) and Mighty Joe Young (1998) led to giant monster movies in general to fall out of favor and Kaiju was relegated to the back burner. This included Universal’s remake of King Kong which was then-set for a 1998 release date with Peter Jackson set to direct the film. After the cancellation of King Kong, Jackson went on to make The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy for New Line. After that series won seventeen Academy Awards and made an Elven King’s Ransom of almost three billion dollars at the box office, Universal suddenly called Jackson and asked if he was still interested. I’m sure he was as unsurprised as you are.

Although slightly disappointing at the box office (at least as compared to The Lord of the Rings), Jackson’s CGI-rendered King Kong was convincing enough to earn the film $550 million (from a $207 million budget). The groundbreaking work in CGI and motion capture technology which turned Andy Serkis into a giant ape with little suspension of disbelief required, led to a new level of SFX glory in a “Kaiju” film.

Was King Kong the shot in the arm that giant monster flicks required? Perhaps, as Japanese company Kadokawa Pictures released the twelfth Gamera feature the very next year in Gamera the Brave (2006). Although not exactly “Kaiju”, the Transformers series of “giant robots hitting each other” movies kicked off in 2007 to almost inexplicable great success. A fourth film is already in production. In 2009 a very Final Wars-esque film was released by Warner Bros. Entertainment Japan called Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy. If Godzilla fought an inordinate amount of monsters in The Final Wars, pretty much everybody fights everybody in Mega Monster Battle.


Cloverfield‘s monster “Clover”

However, a much more serious take on the Kaiju phenomenon was found in 2008’s Cloverfield, a cinema verite-style “Found Footage” film depicting a monstrous Kaiju awakening in the Atlantic Ocean and attacking, you guessed it, New York. Note to PopMatters readers, you might want to avoid Tokyo and New York if you hear anything about a creature much taller than a giraffe running around. Something about those two cities are just monster-bait. London doesn’t sound too safe, either.

Due to its thrilling, serious nature and brilliant viral marketing campaign, Cloverfield earned over $170 million and cost only $25 million to make. I guess the idea of seeing the Statue of Liberty’s head bouncing down the street was too much to resist.

In 2013 the aforementioned Pacific Rim was released. Directed, produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, the film speculated on a world where Kaiju suddenly begin attacking modern day cities (including, no doubt, New York, Tokyo and London) in modern times. The solution is, of course, gargantuan robotic bodies called Mecha controlled by humans. Pacific Rim borrowed heavily from Japanese themes, especially the Daikaiju of monster movies and the giant robots seen in Shogun Warriors, Robotech and Gatchaman.


Godzilla returns in 2014 for his 60th birthday

The future for Kaiju movies is, it would seem, very similar to its past. There are no current plans for Gamera, King Kong or Mighty Joe Young to return to the screens just yet, although a sequel to Pacific Rim is a possibility. However the arguably most giant name in giant monster movies is poised for yet another return. That’s right, the mighty Godzilla is returning in the 2014 American film Godzilla. Unlike the 1998 film which featured the more iguana-like reimagined “Zilla”, Legendary Pictures is set to deliver a Godzilla that the fans want to see, with the elements of the character that have made him the staple of Kaiju since 1954. Sounds like the beast will be looking great for his 60th birthday.

So the future of Kaiju is the past of Kaiju with the genres main man and poster child Godzilla leading the way in his, now fourth reboot. I guess it’s true what they say. “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.” See you in The Next Reel, true believers, provided, of course, that Next Reel is not in Tokyo, New York or even London.

Readers may also enjoy PopMatters‘ special feature,Godzilla at 50

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