Entry updated 27 December 2021. Tagged: Theme.
Though the Japanese word kaijū literally means "strange beast", it is usually translated as Monster and has become synonymous with Japanese Monster Movies and similar tales told on Television – also Anime and Manga – that feature giant monsters as the main character, traditionally wrecking Cities whilst fighting the military or other giant monsters. In a live-action film or television show they are considered part of the Tokusatsu genre: media that rely heavily on special effects. With Kaiju this often involves "suitmation", where the creature is played by a person in a monster suit (as opposed to using stop-motion, mechanical or – in recent decades – CGI animation): however, this is not compulsory. Normal animals made huge tend not to be considered Kaiju, though this is not a hard and fast rule. Exceptionally huge or powerful Kaiju are sometimes known as Daikaiju. Human-sized monsters are called Kaijin ["mysterious person"] and are usually humanoid but monstrous in some way.
In the listed film and television shows, if the English title is used the original Japanese is included after the date. The US versions of many films were cut and/or uninspiringly translated/dubbed, sometimes with added material featuring American actors and the plot drastically changed.
Though the lost film Daibutsu kaikoku (1934) is about a giant statue of Buddha that comes alive, it is not usually classified as part of this genre: there is a lack of conflict, as the statue apparently only wanders round and sees the sights; the film was remade as The Great Buddha Arrival (2018; Daibutsu Kaikoku).
The Kaiju genre is considered to have begun with Godzilla (1954; Gojira), with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. The success of Godzilla led to a boom in Kaiju films, often with special effects by Tsuburaya himself: aside from the numerous Godzilla sequels, these include such franchises as Rodan, beginning with Rodan (1956; Sora no Daikaijū Radon; vt Radon); Mothra, beginning with Mothra (1961; Mosura) and Gamera, beginning with Gamera, the Giant Monster (1965; Daikaijū Gamera; vt Gammera the Invincible). There were numerous sequels to these films, either with the titular monster as the main character or as part of a multi-monster cast invariably including Godzilla. An example of the latter is the Ghidorah sequence, beginning with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964; Sandai Kaijū: Chikyū Saidai no Kessen); these all featured Godzilla (plus other Kaiju) so are considered part of that franchise.
Other examples include Half Human (1955; Jū Jin Yuki Otoko); Varan the Unbelievable (1958; Daikaijū Baran); Dogora (1964; Uchū Daikaijū Dogora), about a giant alien jellyfish that eats diamonds (and other carbon) and is eventually killed by wasp venom; the Japan/US Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965; Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon) wherein Dr Frankenstein's heart, a gift from the Nazis, is exposed to the Hiroshima blast, grows into a Frankenstein Monster and later fights a more traditional kaiju; the Japan/US The War of the Gargantuas (1966; Furankenshutain no Kaijū: Sanda tai Gaira), a sequel to the preceding film in which a Clone, of sorts, of that film's Frankenstein becomes an ocean-dwelling cannibal that eventually battles its original; The Magic Serpent (1966; Kairyū daikessen), a fantasy that culminates with a fight between a giant serpent and a giant toad, who are the transformed antagonist and protagonist, respectively; Daimajin (1966; vt Majin the Monster of Terror), a fantasy where the giant stone idol of a mountain demon god (see Gods and Demons) comes to life to kill a local warlord – there were two sequels, Return of Daimajin (1966; Daimajin ikaru) and Daimajin Strikes Again (1966; Daimajin gyakushû), where evil warlords are again vanquished; The X from Outer Space (1967; Uchūdaikaijū Girara); Gappa the Triphibian Monster (1967; Daikyojū Gappa; vt Monster from a Prehistoric Planet), in which a baby monster is taken and put on display in Japan, whereupon its angry parents arrive and wreak havoc – the plot is similar to Gorgo (1961), and a scene from the film was used in the Red Dwarf episode "Meltdown" (1991); the Japan/US King Kong Escapes (1967; Kingu Kongu no Gyakushū) has the villain Dr Who (no relation) creating a Robot King Kong and later kidnapping the real one – eventually they battle; and Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967; Taekoesu Yonggary).
The 1970s began with Space Amoeba (1970; Gezora, Ganime, Kamēba: Kessen! Nankai no Daikaijū; vt Yog-Monster From Space), where a crab and other sea creatures become giant (see Great and Small) when controlled by an amoeba-like Alien; Daigoro vs. Goliath (1972; Kaiju funsen–Daigoro tai Goriasu), in which a man raises the orphan monster Daigoro, who grows up to battle the invading alien monster Goliath; the Japan/Thailand collaboration Jumborg Ace & Giant (1974; Janbōgu Ēsu to Jaianto in Japan, Yuk Wud Jaeng Vs. Jumbo A in Thailand) has the Thai demon Yuk Wud Jaeng – star of the Thai monster movie Tah Tien (1973) – battling Japanese Superhero Jumborg Ace; Orochi, the Eight-Headed Dragon (1984; Yamato Takeru), a fantasy in which a prince travels to the Moon to battle the god Tsukuyomi, who transforms themself into Orochi; Reigo: The Deep-Sea Monster vs. the Battleship Yamato (2005; Shinkaijū Reigō; vt Reigo: King of the Sea Monsters), where in 1942 the world's largest battleship fights the sea monster Reigo after killing its youngster, having mistaken it for an enemy submarine; The Deep-Sea Monster Raiga (2009; Shinkai-jū raiba; vt Raiga: God of the Monsters), which despite the variation in spelling is a sequel to the previous film, though different in tone – a Raiga attacks Japan, then another of its species – and is a Parody; Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit (2008; Girara no Gyakushū: Tōya-ko Samitto Kkikiippatsu), a light-hearted sequel to the 1967 Monster X film (see above); Death Kappa (2010; Desu Kappa), where a nuclear explosion creates a traditional Kaiju that goes on the rampage – fortunately the explosion also creates a giant Kappa (the frog-like humanoid of folklore) which defeats the first monster; and Kaiju Mono (2016; Daikaijū mono), where a giant man fights a giant Kaiju.
There is also the American tradition of Monster Movies in a similar style that began with King Kong (1933), which had a boom period in the 1950s and whose plotting was often not dissimilar to Kaiju movies: an example is The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) – which pre-dated Godzilla and was called Genshi Kaijū ga Arawareru in Japan (note the use of "Kaiju"), whose plot concerns a Dinosaur awoken from the Arctic ice following nuclear tests, who ends up in New York. Thus there are many non-Japanese works that might also be classified as Kaiju films, if the prerequisite that the country of origin should be Japan were to be ignored. Non-Japanese films that consciously evoke the genre include Pulgasari (1985; vt Bulgasari) from North Korea; Zarkorr! The Invader (1996) and Kraa! The Sea Monster (1998) from the USA; Yonggary (1999; vt Yonggari; vt Yonggary: 2001 Upgrade Edition; vt Reptilian) from South Korea, a sequel of sorts to Taekoesu Yonggary (see above); Garuda (2004; Paksa wayu) from Thailand; and the US Notzilla (2019), another Parody.
There have been many live action television series that feature Kaiju – but these are usually sf or Superhero shows such as Ultraman (1966-1967), where another character is the focus of attention. Those that were Kaiju-centric include Marine Kong (1960), about a giant dinosaur Robot used in an attempt to take over Japan; Kaiju Booska (1966-1967), a Children's SF show featuring a friendly Kaiju; Kaiju Ouji (1967-1968; vt The Monster Prince), about a boy and his Brontosaurus pal called Nessie (see Loch Ness Monster); the miniseries Giant Phantom Monster Agon (1968; Maboroshi no Daikaijū Agon; vt Agon: Atomic Dragon), with a dinosaur mutated by nuclear testing (see Mutants); and Daimajin Kanon (2010), a retelling of the 1966 Daimajin film set in the modern day. [SP]
- Sean Wallace, editor. The Mammoth Book of Kaiju (London: Robinson, 2016) [anth: The Mammoth Book: pb/The Red Dress]
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