Pacific Rim: Uprising hit our screens this weekend with it brought back the giant fighting robot Jaegers and their monstrous Kaiju foes. The latest in a long line of films to feature giant monsters, the Pacific Rim sequel is far from the first to make use of giant monsters to entertain its audience.
The term Kaiju is distinctly Japanese, and instantly brings to mind film franchises such as Godzilla this is not actually where giant monsters in cinema started, though it would be where it found its home.
Arguably the first Kaiju film came back in 1933, with the release of RKO Pictures’ King Kong. Though when people say the term Kaiju, it brings to mind creatures such as the monster from Cloverfield, Kong very much is one too. He’s been reimagined many times over the decades since his creation, varying in size dramatically depending on the version of the film, but he’s always been a creature that could never exist in the real world; an ape of such huge proportions that he has fought dinosaurs, giant robots, and is even due to face Godzilla in 2020 in Godzilla vs. King Kong.
King Kong stunned audiences on its release, and changed the way that films could be made. Using unique camera tricks, an all original musical score, the first ever animated central character, and Magnascope screenings, King Kong was unlike anything at the time, and helped to elevate what could easily have been a schlocky monster film to a cinematic masterpiece; one still celebrated almost 100 years later.
The success of King Kong meant that others were quick to try to recapture the magic, leading to a number of films that featured giant monsters, such as Mighty Joe Young (which featured another giant gorilla), Them!, and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Whilst these films did celebrate some success, with Them! going on to attain cult status, it wasn’t until the release of Gojira in 1954 that Kaiju films became big business.
Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer for the Toho film company, originally conceived of the idea of creating a monster movie when another project fell through, and said that he was in part inspired by The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. After creating an outline with a working title of ‘The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’, the project was approved.
Thanks to the events of World War Two and having suffered two Atomic bombings, Japan was still dealing with the horrors that had been unleashed upon their country. These themes became intricately entwined within Gojira. Tanaka said: “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”
These sentiments were also echoed by director Ishiro Honda, who added: “If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannon ball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”
Because of these deeper themes, a well written script that was taken seriously at all times, and wonderfully crafted effects, Gojira became a success. Two years later the film went on to be released in America under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Whilst the film was a huge success with US audiences, it was not the film that was originally made, with close to twenty minutes of footage having been removed, any political, social, or anti-nuclear themes gone, and new scenes inserted to make Canadian actor Raymond Burr the lead. Despite being very different from the original’s tone, it introduced Godzilla to western audiences, and helped to start a love affair that would last decades.
Kaiju became a genre that was not only a commercial success, but also garnered mainstream appeal. Dozens of films followed over the next decade, such as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Deadly Mantis, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, and Rodan.
Monster movies began to lose their appeal in the US as the 50s moved into the 60s. Less films such as Tarantula were being produced, but those who still wanted to experience Kaiju films were drawn to Japanese productions, where the genre was still going strong.
Over the next few decades Japan would embrace Kaiju, creating a number of successful series’ such as Gamera and Mothra, though Godzilla would remain the most successful with 30 films having been produced so far (with more still on their way).
Kaiju proved popular in film and also became successful on television in Japan during the late 1970s, largely due to the release of Spider-Man. The Toei produced Spider-Man series shared the look of the Marvel Comics character, but differed drastically; his powers, origin, and story were completely different. One of the main differences was that Spider-Man would make use of a giant robot called Leopardon to fight giant Kaiju-like versions of the show’s monsters. An approach that was be adopted for the Super Sentai franchise.
Thanks to the adaptation of Super Sentai into Power Rangers in the early 1990s, Kaiju were introduced to a whole new audience who eagerly tuned in each week to watch their heroes battle giant creatures using their huge robots. It’s surely no coincidence that within a few decades of American children being exposed to Japanese monster shows, there has been an influx of films such as Cloverfield, Megashark, and Lake Placid vs. Anaconda.
The Kaiju genre began a long time ago, and has gone through many changes over the decades, thanks to different cultural, political, and social influences. They have played a part in translating the fears of the film-makers, whether it’s been atomic war, pollution, or nature turning on humanity, and have sometimes just been for the sheer enjoyment of watching giant things beating each other up.
Whether it’s high production pieces such as Pacific Rim, Ramapage, and Godzilla, or cheap b-movies like Sharktopus and Piranhaconda, Kaiju films have become a genre unto itself; one that wall continue to evolve with its audience, becoming as enduring and unkillable as the creatures it presents.