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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.

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