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Killer Kaiju!!

As a student of film of all kinds, I often feel it necessary to watch movies I don’t especially have a yen to see. Recently, I decided it was high time I did some learnin’ about the giant monster movies from Japan. Did you know that giant monsters that attack buildings are called Kaiju? Well now you do! I wasn’t expecting much from the movies; I had seen a few of the many Godzilla films prior. “Godzilla vs. Megalon” is one of the more ridiculous ones, featuring Godzilla fighting a number of silly creatures, eventually being aided by a robot named Jet Jaguar, who was invented just to sell little Japanese kids merchandise and eventually get his own set of movies. He never appeared again. But the movie did end with a nifty song about him. Listen to the Jet Jaguar song!

But I figured I’d go back to the beginning and check out not only Godzilla, but some of his contemporaries. I was pleased to discover that they didn’t start out very dumb at all. In fact, they were done very seriously and actually well for the time period. The thing that was most amazing is the care that was given to the model work. Obviously, the conceit of these films is that there’s a guy in a rubber suit marauding a mini version of Tokyo (or whatever city it happens to be) and to do so, there needs to be a mock-up of the city. The models look really fantastic and they’re shot to showcase this. You can tell they’re fake, but they’re the most realistic kind of fake you can have. Reminds me of when I was a kid watching Thomas the Tank Engine. Remember how elaborate those sets were that the toy trains were driven around on? It’s just like that, only with big guys in suits destroying everything.

The first film in the cycle, the first Kaiju film ever, is “Gojira” (1954). This is actually a super suspenseful movie, and, like “Jaws” after it, much is done to keep the giant lizard hidden for the better part of the movie. It’s aided by the black and white photography and the majority of the attacks take place at night. Practically, this is also a way to keep the effects from being too noticeable. A few of the closeup shots in this film are actually done with a hand puppet, which went by the wayside later on. The story is pretty simple: nuclear bombing has caused mutations in a dinosaur creature living on a remote island. He gets enormous and attacks Japan, and it’s up to scientists and the military to destroy him before the country is decimated. True of the first few of this movement, “Gojira” actually develops its characters realistically and there’s even a tragic love story. The film is also a obvious allusion to the horror of nuclear warfare that befell Japan only a few years before. There’s a portion of this movie where displaced women and children huddle together in a makeshift shelter and wail at the loss of their homes and husbands. It’s a much darker moment than one would expect from a giant monster movie, and was completely cut out of the American release.

After that came the immediate sequel, “Godzilla Raids Again,” (1955). This movie suffered from sequel syndrome and things didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It also lacked the direction of Ishiro Hondo, who would become synonymous with Kaiju films until his final entry, “The Terror of Godzilla” in 1975. In “Raids Again,” Godzilla fights a big ol’ Ankylosaurus called Anguirius. The version I saw was dubbed into English, and badly. I wouldn’t suggest watching this one unless you’re like me and doing a retrospective on them. There’s a cool fight by an ancient-looking temple and that’s about it.

My first break from the big green guy came in the form of “Rodan” (1956). Rodan is, apparently, one of the big three in Kaiju, and is a big pteranodon. The interesting thing about this movie is that it’s only 75 minutes long and Rodan is only present for the final 15. The bulk of the movie depicts a group of miners who are digging far into the Earth’s crust only to discover a clutch of giant, prehistoric insects called “Meganulon.” They’re about the size of a horse and attack and kill a number of people in the small mining community. These beasts turn out to be nothing more than food for the two Rodans who hatch from giant eggs and attack the entire world. The last 15 minutes of this movie, though, are almost worth the rest. Again, great effects, and watching a big dinosaur fly around and crash through buildings and shit was pretty spectacular.

Next up was “Mothra,” (1961) and is possibly my favorite of the bunch. It follows the exploration of an irradiated island and the discovery of a primitive culture thereupon. Among the strange peoples, the explorers find tiny little twins who sing. Not like midgets, but indeed twin miniature Japanese women. And did I mention they sing? Well they do. What do they sing about? Well, Mothra of course. When the rich and greedy Nelson, the financier of the exploration, kidnaps the sisters to exploit them for monetary gain, the sisters sing their Mothra song and summon, you guessed it, Mothra, a massive caterpillar-like creature who hatches from a big-ass egg and makes a swimming b-line to the sisters in Japan in order to save them. A scientist, a reporter, and a photographer who were on the mission take it upon themselves to try to free the twins before Mothra destroys everything. It takes them a long, long time, enough time for Mothra to create a cocoon around itself and metamorphose into the flying insect creature we expected from the name. It continues destroying everything in its search for the girls until they’re finally delivered by the good guys. Then everyone waves as Mothra takes them back to the island. No hard feelings I guess.

Really no hard feelings, since the next film is “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” (1964). A similar storyline to the first film with the exception of Godzilla added to muck things up. A giant egg is washed ashore and examined by a slew of people. Turns out the egg belongs to Mothra and the tiny twins reappear to warn everyone to give the egg back, lest they feel Mothra’s wrath, but of course they are immediately ignored, cuz they’re little, and again enslaved for theatrical purposes. After getting freed by the same collection of good guy jobs as before, the girls return to their island. Good thing too, as that is the exact moment Godzilla decides to rise from under the ground and attack the city. Luckily, Mothra has come to claim her egg and in a considerable show of niceness, decides to fight Godzilla, but gets killed. The egg then hatches and two Mothra larvae are born and do battle with Godzilla. This movie, while not as entertaining as the first Mothra, is still fun and is the last film to feature Godzilla as an all-out bad guy.

The final film I decided to watch was “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster,” (1964). The plot to this film is SUPER convoluted and involves a princess who may or may not be from Venus warning the people of Japan that King Ghidorah, the horrible three-headed monster is coming to decimate them. What exactly he’s king of is anyone’s guess. While this is all happening, Godzilla and Rodan appear and decide to fight each other, to the detriment of the surrounding cities. Larvae Mothra arrives with the twins to convince the other two evil things to help it fight Ghidorah. Theres’s a whole sequence where the three beasts speak to each other in their respective growls and chirps with translation provided by the tiny twins. That’s the moment I knew that I was done watching these movies and they’d passed irreparably to the realm of hokeyness. The three good creatures fight the bad creature with the three heads and then it’s over. Good production value and typically fun, this movie is marred by too many Kaiju and a nearly incomprehensible plot for the human actors to be involved with.
There are a plethora of other Kaiju films, like “Gamera,” (1965) the giant turtle creature movie produced by a rival company to Godzilla’s Toho, but I decided to stop there. Before they got TOO silly. But, just to let you know, Gamera is filled with turtle meat. It says so in the song.
Watch these movies for good fun happy times.

You’re welcome.

Images: Toho

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  1. DefconDan says:

    Nice job on the article… was fun to read. I’m surprised that it was the last movie that got too hokey for you. Would imagine it would have been the cute if ANNOYING singing duo from the Mothra movies that would have jumped that shark for ya… still fun stuff.

  2. NotarySojac says:

    Check out “Big Man Japan” for a send up of the kaiju genre in documentary style.
    Masaru Daisatô’s family line has been the hereditary protector of Nippon, dealing with those pesky monsters, but now that sort of thing is just not done, so Daisatô is neither needed or wanted and is eking out a minimum wage living. Until things like a giant human headed tapeworm show up…

  3. Frank Rodriguez says:

    I’m right there with you guys on “War Of The Gargantuas”. Hands down, my all time favorite Kaiju movie. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many others also recommended it. I routinely check my TV listings to see if it is coming on. I keep telling myself I’m going to buy it online one of these days. It’s that good.

  4. Geoff says:

    Watched a lot of these with my dad when I was a little kid, but I haven’t seen any in years. This post really makes me want to revisit them. As cheesy as they were, Gamera was probably my favorite. You can’t beat a giant turtle with rockets for feet.

  5. Kyle Anderson says:

    So what you’re all saying is I should watch War of the Gargantuas.

  6. Kaijucast says:

    It’s great that you covered some of the best kaiju films from a classic era in Japanese film production. If you haven’t done so, in addition to the already mentioned War Of The Gargantuas & the 1990s Gamera trilogy, you should definitely try to find Destroy All Monsters (don’t let the number of monsters deter you) and the Daimajin films.

  7. Cobalt says:

    @Kurt is on the money. The Heisei-era (’90s) Gamera films are amazing. Compared to the original Gamera films, which tend to devolve in quality and intent as they went along, those three are mind-blowing. Gamera, Guardian of the Universe has some moments that are about as scary as the original Gojira. As for the older ones, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is very unique in style and even has animation. There are also some quality smaller sized monsters Toho was responsible for, including Matango (unpleasant people ship-wrecked on an island get their just deserts from eating radioactive mushrooms), and H-Man (yakuza turn into radioactive slime).

  8. Andreas says:

    I saw a lot of these as a child, and I have a nostalgic fondness for them (in original and MST3K’d forms). This is a really nice little summary.

    I have to echo the endorsements of War of the Gargantuas, which had West Side Story’s Russ Tamblyn; another of my old favorites is Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, whose American hero is Nick Adams. (Best known from Rebel Without a Cause and the Karloff movie Die, Monster, Die!)

    Some really fun movies – thanks for the reminder!

  9. Kurt says:

    No one can top Godzilla, but the 3 Gamera films made in the ’90s are top quality Kaiju. Godzilla vs Hedorah and Godzilla vs Monster Zero are 2 of my favs. p.s. Don’t knock the silly. Campy and ridiculous are just as worthy of your entertainment attention as the serious stuff.

  10. Jon says:

    I saw it was already the first comment, but I had to also mention Kaiju Big Battel. Seriously awesome.

  11. John Lewis says:

    4 words: War of the Gargantuas.

    My all time fave. (See Amanda’s post).

  12. Todd S. says:

    I’m partial to the two monsters my friend named his cats after, Barugon and Gamera.

  13. Tom Steele says:

    Of course, all MST3K fans remember the translation:

  14. NeuroMan42 says:

    The Jet Jaguar song made me tear up. Godzilla rocks out with his radioactive wang.

  15. Amanda says:

    I’ve been watching these ‘Kaiju’ japanese monster movies since I was a wee one (not that I don’t love my Da for making me watch them) and by far, after seeing practiclly everyone, I still love to this day Honda’s 1966 ‘War of the Gargantuas’. I was real excited though when I saw this review up. Thanks for the read.

  16. smartbunny says:

    Are you nerds aware of Kaiju Big Battel out of Boston? I have been a fan for years. Check it out, you must!