22 Oct 2016

A History of Horror #4: Kaijus

Please excuse him. He's a Kaiju groupie, he loves them.


After years of failed relationships, undelivered career prospects and disappointing movie sequels, you decide to go on a soul-searching trip to Japan. You sample the food, speak with the locals, become embedded within the culture. In your luxurious Tokyo hotel, you are woken up by the sound of a terrific roar. The shaking ground gets inevitably more violent as you scramble around putting on your clothes and begin exiting the building. You soon realise it has returned. Due to the frequency of these attacks, the city already has the infrastructure and transportation to quickly evacuate its citizens. That, along with Japan's orderly and highly-disciplined culture in the first place means the streets are empty by the time you leave the hotel. One particular jolt sends you flying onto your arse. You look up to see the giant behemoth towering high above. It's a kaiju attack!


A Japanese word meaning "strange beast" (怪獣), a kaiju is subgenre of horror that feature monsters attacking a major city in Japan. These creatures often come from the sea (see my post on Sea Monsters for more insight), but may also come from beneath the planet's surface or even outer space. When we use the word "kaiju", our mind may first turn to one on the scale of Godzilla (pictured above). The character was conceptualised in the early 1950s during the Allied occupation of Japan. It was illegal to make films about nuclear bombs during this time due to censorship laws forbidding criticism of the United States or other Allied nations. When one watches Godzilla (1954) with this in mind, it is painfully obvious that the similarities are there, even if it was released after the occupation had ended. Godzilla is a monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation as a result of H-bomb tests by the United States in the '40s and '50s. Once he is awake, he engages with the Japanese military in a series of destructive attacks that leave many areas devastated. The link between this and nuclear devastation is clear - and one of the reasons why Godzilla and daikaiju films have become an important part of Japan's culture.

The Toho Godzilla franchise remains one of the most successful ventures in Japan. Since the 1954 film, 29 films have been produced (Destroy All Monsters is my personal favourite). While early films focused on Godzilla's path of destruction against humanity, the series would quickly evolve into a "monster vs monster" affair. New creatures were created, or already-existing ones crossed over, to fight Godzilla. The films jumped the shark many times, however the series did return to a more grounded and serious level many times, namely in The Return of Godzilla (1984) and the two American adaptations. The culture of kaijus in Japan extend beyond Toho-produced films. Daimajin (1966), The X from Outer Space (1967) and Gappa: The Triphibian Monster (1967) were all inspired by Godzilla, and former Toho employees even helped work on some of them.


In western cinema, Kong is one of the most iconic giant monsters.
In western cinema, kaiju and giant monster films began earlier than Godzilla. The monsters shown in these flicks tend to be based on real land animals as opposed to the reptilian sea creatures that appear in Toho films. In 1933, Radio Pictures released King Kong, about a giant gorilla-like ape who dies in an attempt to possess a beautiful young actress. Special effects innovations in the 1950s brought about a new wave of monster and kaiju movies. Them! (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) are considered quintessential entries in the genre for this time period. The independently made Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) brought a human element to monster movies in that it featured an ordinary woman grown to giant size through extraterrestrial intervention. The popularity of kaiju movies dwindled in the west after the 1950s. King Kong was remade in 1976, and again in 2005. 1993's Jurassic Park revitalised interest in giant monster flicks with high-budget special effects. The film set a new benchmark for special effects and still holds up well to this day. After Jurassic Park, kaiju flicks became popular again. Anaconda (1997) and Godzilla (1998) appeared a few years later, and in the 2000s films like Reign of Fire (2002), The Mist (2007) and Cloverfield (2008) proved the genre was only getting stronger. Godzilla received another remake in 2014 which paved the way for a new shared universe between Godzilla and Kong, which is also promised to feature key characters such as Mothra and King Ghidorah.
Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958) has one of the most iconic movie posters of all time.
In regards to horror fiction, the thing I love about kaijus is how terrifying they can be in urban settings. The amount of destruction they pose is tantamount to a nuclear bomb; able to completely decimate cities and landscapes. And you'd be so powerless to their will. Thousands killed as a building collapses. Think of it as like when you come across a bug. You can kill it, capture it, or let it do its own thing. You hold its fate. That's exactly the power that Godzilla has. Perhaps it's on a more personal level, such as the relationship between Ann Darrow and Kong in King Kong, where a giant monster could target you alone. Is that more frightening?

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