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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?

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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