With the release of “Pacific Rim”, there will no doubt be a resurgence of interest in one of the genres that inspired it. No, I’m not talking about mecha anime, although the influence is undeniable. I’m talking about the genre in which the antagonists get their name: Kaijū.
As stated in the opening of “Pacific Rim”, kaijū is a Japanse word made from two kanji symbols meaning “strange” and “animal.” It is colloquially understood to mean “monster.” In order to understand the history of the kaijū genre, we’ll take a look at the franchise that started it all – Godzilla.
When a Japanese-Indonesian co-production funded by the Toho Motion Picture Company fell apart, the producer in charge of the project, Tomoyuki Tanaka, was tasked with coming up with a film that could take the release slot of the failed project. On a plane ride back to Tokyo, Tanaka read about The Lucky Dragon.
On March 1, 1954, a Japanese tuna trawler, The Lucky Dragon No. 5, sailed too close to the Marshall Islands, where the United States was conducting the Castle Bravo thermonuclear test on Bikini Atoll. The entire crew was exposed to the nuclear fallout and eventually died from radiation poisoning.
The controversy surrounding the incident prompted Tanaka to pitch his idea to Toho Production Chief Iwao Mori, with the basic premise of a monster being awakened by nuclear bombs and rampaging through Japan.
The original story was drafted in less than three weeks by thriller novelist Shigeru Kayama, who had written several stories featuring mutated sea creatures. It was then turned into a screenplay by Takeo Murata and Director Ishiro Honda with many of Kayama’s ideas making it into the final draft.
Honda, in turn, drew inspiration from his time serving in the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II and having walked through the decimated Hiroshima on his way home after the war had ended. Because of that experience, he was able to make the allegorical connections between the monster and the atomic bomb even stronger.
The task of bringing Godzilla to life fell to cinematographer turned visual effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya, who drew inspiration from films like “King Kong”, which relied on stop-motion animation to bring the monster to life.
However, as they had only a few months to shoot the film, Tsuburaya figured that the best method for creating the monster was by having an actor wear a costume and stomp around on miniaturized sets—a process that was rarely, if ever, implemented in monster movies of the West.
The film was released on November 3, 1954, and met with mixed to negative reviews. Critics accused the film of exploiting the destruction of Hiroshima and The Lucky Dragon incident. However, the film gained respect in its home country, winning the Japanese Movie Association award for Best Special Effects.
The film eventually made its way to the U.S., first airing in theaters catering to Japanese-American communities during the ’50s and ’60s.
It was later re-edited to tailor it to American audiences including new scenes with actor Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin, whose “coverage” of the destruction was used to minimize the amount of dubbing needed.
With the success of “Godzilla”, a new franchise and genre was born. Tsuburaya’s unique use of suited actors and miniaturized sets paved the way for future films and television series in the genre. This is also where the genre goes through an interesting transition.
While the first film in the franchise was a serious drama reflecting on the ills science creates when left unchecked, the later films tended to be more light-hearted, embracing the sillier aspects of the “creature feature” as seen in the film’s direct sequel “Godzilla Raids Again”, where the monster re-appears in order to destroy Osaka like he did Tokyo in the original film. The film also employs the cross-over trope by bringing in another monster Toho had created named Anguirus, establishing the series tradition of Godzilla fighting other monsters throughout the series.
As the series progressed, Toho became aware of Godzilla’s popularity with children and, as such, began tailoring the franchise to be more kid-friendly with films such as “Godzilla vs. Hedorah”, where he’s made into a defender of the environment, à la “Captain Planet”. This is also seen with the introduction of Jet Jaguar (pronounced Jet Jagger) which is Toho’s answer to Tsuburaya’s popular “Ultra Series”.
When the franchise was rebooted in 1985, Toho attempted to return to its darker roots by once again making Godzilla the villain.
However, it wasn’t long before the cycle repeated itself as the studio sought to appeal to audiences across the board by making later films in the style of mainstream blockbusters, much like how superhero films are made in the U.S.
This series, known as the “Heisei series”, came to a head in “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah”, where Toho ultimately killed off the character by way of nuclear meltdown in order to make way for the upcoming “American Godzilla” film franchise that was being produced by Sony.
After the train wreck that was Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla”, Toho began producing Godzilla films once again, starting with “Godzilla 2000”, which was yet another reboot taking place after the events of the original film. This is something that would occur frequently throughout the Millennium series of films until the series ended with the film “Godzilla: Final Wars”, where Toho’s entire roster of monsters got together for one last rumble.
Since then, Godzilla’s appearances have been minimal, only coming forth in a dream sequence of the film “Always Sunset on Third Street 2”. However, another American reboot of the franchise is in the works and set for release in 2014, being produced by Legendary Pictures, the studio behind “Pacific Rim”.
While the genre at-present isn’t as prevalent as it was in its heyday, its influence can still be seen in numerous anime and tokusatsu programs that are currently airing.
As for the upcoming Godzilla reboot, after looking at “Pacific Rim”, I can definitely say that the film is in good hands. With the advances in CGI, we may see a renaissance of the genre some time in the future.