If the box office is anything to go by, Godzilla – the most famous Japanese monster of old (kaiju) – is enjoying a rebirth.
Just yesterday, Guillermo del Toro’s kaiju-inspired Pacific Rim invaded Chinese cinemas and raked in record opening ticket sales of $9 million. Meanwhile, news of Godzilla redux, set for release next May, is sparking heated chatter online, following an appearance of the film’s director Gareth Edwards at Comic-Con in San Diego last month. Speculation over the nature of the two new monsters to surface in the upcoming kaiju flick, among similar concerns, have been egged on by leaked images and trailers, including one of the monster’s behemoth tail released by Warner Bros. Pictures yesterday.
While Godzilla may be the old-time monster getting the most love these days, a six-meter-tall robotic King Kong puppet can currently be seen and heard bounding about and roaring on stage at Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Australia, in a musical version of the classic 1933 western fantasy tale. It’s worth mentioning that Godzilla and King Kong duke it out in the 1962 Japanese film King Kong vs. Godzilla. We won’t give away the victor.
What gives these monsters their staying power? Matthew Alt, a Tokyo-based localizer of Japanese pop culture content and co-founder of AltJapan, as well as author of a book on Japanese monsters titled Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, is well qualified to answer that question.
“There's something visceral and shocking about seeing giant monsters wreak havoc on civilization,” Alt told The Diplomat. “We really love giant monsters because they are symbols. They are approachable stand-ins for the real terrors our cities face, both natural (such as earthquakes) and man-made (such as nuclear meltdowns or terrorism).”
In addition to fulfilling this psychological function, for Alt Japanese monster tales pack “A perfect mix of fun, absurdity, and cool factor. I still love the designs of those classic films, from Godzilla himself to the spacecraft and weapons humans build to attempt to defeat him.”
For Alt, kaiju had his attention from a young age. “I think every boy goes through a dinosaur phase, and Japan's monster movies were like a straight shot to the brainstem,” he said. “As a kid, hands down, my favorite was Mechagodzilla. The thought of having to build an equally sized robot doppelgänger of your enemy obviously deeply influenced the makers of Pacific Rim as well.”
As the name suggests, Mechagodzilla was a mechanized version of his flesh and blood counterpart. In the 1974 film Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, the colossal automaton is sent to Earth to attack Japan by the Simians – an alien humanoid race of warmongering ape-like beings. In place of Godzilla’s scales, Mechagodzilla had metal plates. While Godzilla breathed fire, Mechagodzilla could blast anything in sight with a devastating laser beam.
While the monsters in Japan’s original kaiju movies were played by men in costume laying waste to miniature, painstakingly detailed model cities, the epic action scenes seen in cutting edge films like Pacific Rim today would be impossible to pull off without help from digital wizardry. While the computer generated imagery (CGI) seen today is slick and sometimes hard to fathom in its lifelikeness, for Alt something has been lost.
“There's still something visceral and satisfying and ‘real’ to me about guys in suits smashing models of cities,” he said. “Looking back it can seem kind of quaint, but a whole lot of time and effort went into making those suits and sets and I think it really gives the films a humanity that is tough to achieve with CG.”
Tokusatsu was the art form that allowed gave this human touch to Japan’s original monster flicks. As explored in a recent article by Roland Kelts in The Japan Times, this cinematic technique, which later gave us anime, is dying. As this technique fades into memory, a unique sense humor goes with it.
In the article, Kelts writes: “Other nations produced sci-fi epics and monster movies, of course, but no one did so with the style, élan and sometimes comic absurdity of Japan.”
Alt echoes this sentiment. “Japanese filmmakers and viewers are willing to suspend disbelief and appreciate monster movies on their own merits,” he said. “It's about theatricality and pure fun. That's why I think those who dismiss monster movies as ‘cheap’ miss the point.”
This isn’t the only point where Japan’s monster pantheon diverges from the West. Acknowledging that Godzilla was inspired in part by monster disaster movies being made in America then, Alt said that Japan “really took the ball and ran with it. The sheer variety of Japanese monsters is amazing…in Japan, nearly anything is fair game to become a giant monster, including plants and bugs and even (if you're counting the monsters from kids shows) even inanimate objects from everyday life.”
According to Alt, Japan’s capacity to dream up this vast array of monsters is rooted in the nation’s folklore, populated by creatures called yokai. Just as the yokai mythos is alive in Japan today, Godzilla is ensconced in the West’s own pantheon of monsters.
Perhaps this should not surprise us. He has been called “King of the Monsters”, after all.
“Until he was recently dethroned by Doraemon, Godzilla was the top-grossing movie character of all time in Japan,” Alt said. “Godzilla’s name is known throughout the world. He even added the suffix ‘-zilla’ to the English language. From that standpoint, he's never truly gone away.”