Daikaiju, I Choose You!
October 24, 2012
Toyota. Honda. Pokémon. Hello Kitty. These Japanese imports are now part and parcel of American culture. Here’s another: daikaiju. "Wait, I’ve heard of the others, but what’s a daikaiju?" you say. Just like everyone now seems to know the name of at least one Pokémon, everyone knows the granddaddy of all daikaiju. He's so famous that he even has his own rock and roll song.
The Japanese have a genre of film and TV known as tokusatsu, which means something like "non-animated special effects extravaganza." American superhero and scif-fi action films seem to be the closest equivalent in our culture. One of the most distinctive subgenres of tokusatsu is the kaiju ("strange beast") film, the equivalent to the American monster movie. However, there are monsters, and then there are MONSTERS. You know, enormous mutated beasts that tower over buildings as they swat jet fighters out of the sky and shrug off artillery fire like insect bites. These are the daikaiju, or giant monsters.
King Kong (1933) may have been the first giant movie monster, but the most iconic* is Gojira, from the Japanese gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale). Instead of calling him Ape Whale, we Americans know him better as Godzilla. Nowadays, we love these films for their B-movie charm, but the 1954 Toho Studios film Gojira by Ishiro Honda was a serious film. Released less than a decade after the end of World War II, it’s pretty easy to see why a tale of a giant radioactive monster laying waste to entire cities might have struck a nerve with the Japanese populace.
In 1956, an edited version (with inserted scenes featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter in Japan) was released in the US as Godzilla, King of the Monsters and was a surprise hit. If you’ve only ever seen the Americanized version, check out the Sony Master Collection version from MCPL. It’s a very dark film, and one of the better SF films of the era. The serious tone of Gojira did not carry over into all subsequent daikaiju films. In many, Godzilla and other daikaiju like Gamera and Mothra evolved from "metaphors for nuclear war" to "our only defense against hostile daikaiju, usually from outer space." Toho Studios went on to be the dominant force in daikaiju ("filmed in magnificent TOHO SCOPE!"), but Daiei Film Co. offered some strong competition with its Gamera franchise.
I personally remember seeing a few of these films at the Twin Drive-In in Independence (Rodan, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster), but it was television that would come to satisfy my growing obsession with daikaiju. One of our local KC stations would dedicate a whole week each year to showing these films in the afterschool time slot, and I would literally run home from elementary school so as not to miss a single moment of bad dubbing, oddly translated dialogue, ridiculous plot lines, and men in rubber monster suits stomping on miniature buildings while being shot at by model airplanes flying jerkily about on very visible wires.
It’s hard to pick favorites out of this cornucopia of B-movie goodness, but Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Son of Godzilla, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, War of the Gargantuas, and the supremely silly Gamera films are particular standouts in my mind. The original Gojira is in a class all its own. The 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla, with New York standing in for Tokyo and Matthew Broderick for Raymond Burr, proved that big budgets and improved special effects don’t always improve a franchise. However, the Toho Godzilla franchise has shrugged off that offense and survived right up to the present, and I'm particularly fond of the scene in 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars, where the one true Godzilla lays the smack down on the Emmerich 'Zilla.
Perhaps the true successors to Gojira are the Korean films: The Host and Dragon Wars, J.J. Abrams' Cloverfield, and Gareth Edwards' indie hit Monsters. My daikaiju hopes rest with Edwards' 2014 Godzilla, which looks to be a very faithful return to the monster and tone of Gojira. And then there’s geek idol Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, due out next summer. In addition to giant monsters, this film also features that other staple of Japanese tokusatsu, GIANT ROBOTS! We will take a look at mechas, Gundams, and Transformers et al in my next blog post.
Oh no, there goes Tokyo,
*Yes I know King Kong is pretty famous, but does he have his own rock song? No. Does he have an awesome metal band named after him? No. I rest my case.