Man and Super-Monster: A History of Daikaiju Eiga and its Metaphorical Undercurrents
In 1954, with the release of the Japanese monster movie Gojira, a distinctive subgenre of fantasy cinema was born. Referred to as "kaiju eiga" (which translates as "monster films"), or sometimes the more specific "daikaiju eiga" (giant monster films), the subgenre represents a strong and long-lasting tradition that deviates substantially in theme, tone and structure from the other significant giant monster film tradition – that of 1950s Hollywood. These fantastical Japanese extravaganzas, which have turned their most famous character into a worldwide anti-nuclear icon, do not always meet with critical approval and are generally greeted with little more than a smug indifference. Most mainstream critics find it difficult to get their facts right, let alone to show such a wildly divergent cinematic entertainment any kind of respect.
This casual and long-running dismissal of daikaiju eiga has several possible sources. Among them are culturally based genre expectations and divergent approaches to the semantics of cinema, poor dubbing and vandalistic re-edits. Arguably, there is also a wider prejudice at work. Critical attitudes that favour naturalism over fantasy as a representational mode are common; this impacts most strongly on genre films that feature the more outré products of human imagination. Some commentators, indeed, seem to confuse what is “artistically significant” in fictional cinema with documentary realism as such. In a sense, however, all fiction is fantasy, with meaning not relying solely on the accuracy of formal real-world correspondences, but rather on less obvious imaginative resonances that often require, and may even thrive on, a clear separation from normality. At any rate there is a distinct lack of perspective involved in any easy segregation that automatically equates the fantastic with “meaninglessness”.
And perspective is required in order to gain a proper appreciation of daikaiju eiga. The subgenre is built on an essential absurdity – not simply the notion that gigantic creatures can exist and will turn up at random to trash our cities, but also that they can adopt an abundance of ludicrous forms and display all sorts of supernatural abilities. Few daikaiju eiga attempt to rationalise their monsters; the assumptions underlying these films are fantastical rather than naturalistic. Some peculiar genre “givens” tend to apply. For example, as a matter of course the kaiju have names (and it’s common knowledge what they are); while often terrified, the populace is rarely surprised that such monsters might exist in the first place. A consequence of this for the storytelling is that plots do not have to revolve around the mere fact of the monsters’ existence but can get straight on with various kinds of wider human and kaiju conflict and more complex metaphysical dialogues. Meanwhile, by way of balance, assorted anti-monster taskforces – whether human or superhuman – will be there to deal with the kaiju in a properly organised manner when they start making a nuisance of themselves. In fact, the "average" daikaiju eiga is almost ritualistic in this respect; though variations exist, the subgenre is made to an implicit genre template.
As we shall see, absurdity is an important element of that template, and is central to the films' semantic framework. Psychological concepts of dream imagery as the transformation of suppressed desire into visual fantasy may be relevant to our understanding of how such absurdity can carry meaning in this context. It is a useful notion that a condensation of complex emotions and a displacement of them from literal actualities onto absurd constructions (as in dreams) can facilitate communication, and even psychological reconciliation, by bypassing rational inhibitions. Under this view, absurdity and meaninglessness are not the same thing.
Alternatively some consider that this breaking of the boundaries of normality may be simply a cathartic experience. The audience is in some sense freed from the tyrannies of conventional iconography and can find emotional release from the frustrations of a mundane worldview. For a while they can simply revel in the sensory and conceptual extremes and whatever resonances these extremes may carry.
Of course, as such a perceived low-point as Godzilla vs Megalon arguably demonstrates, daikaiju eiga filmmakers walk a fine line between silliness and effective storytelling; if the balance leans too far towards silliness, audience enjoyment can turn to derision. No one would rationally argue that daikaiju eiga are uniformly successful, but such judgements should at least to be made against a background of knowledge and genre awareness.
In this article I intend to focus on the subgenre's development from Gojira (known in the US, in significantly altered form, as Godzilla, King of the Monsters) through to the present day, with added reference to various offshoots and hybrid forms. I argue that the subgenre's origin in the nuclear-threat symbolism of Gojira has pre-disposed its major examples toward strong and unique metaphorical qualities and social meanings, developed within a context of colourful absurdity and apocalyptic sensory extremes. Even if these meanings were not always a conscious part of the initial creative process (after all, these films are primarily entertainments), they are nevertheless, I believe, part of the experience of watching the films. The power of such undercurrents has contributed to a popularity that has seen the subgenre thrive and develop over many decades.
Gojira: the Beginning
Gojira, the film that began it all, supposedly came about when Toho executive Tomoyuki Tanaka was forced by circumstances to find a quick replacement for a major project that had fallen through (see Ryfle 1998, p. 22). The 1952 re-release of the 1933 King Kong had recently attracted big business both in the States and in Japan. Moreover, a giant monster epic The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was then all the rage in the US. On a flight back from Singapore Tanaka allegedly read a news article about the crew of The Lucky Dragon, a Japanese fishing boat that had accidentally wandered into a cloud of radioactive debris created by a large US H-bomb test on 1 March 1954. Some of the crew subsequently suffered from radiation-related illnesses and the incident had been receiving considerable press. That, and the two successful US monster films, supposedly gave Tanaka the idea for "The Giant Monster From 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea" (the original working title). His decision was, therefore, both commercially opportunistic and serendipitous.
Creatively, from the start, Gojira was conceived in metaphorical terms – as a nuclear allegory. Comments on the film's beginnings by participants stress this: Akira Takarada, one of the film's leads, points to “the very controversial news story of the tuna boat that was exposed to radiation” as a significant inspiration. “The radiation – the sleeping Godzilla – is coming from the deep sea, [the director] Honda said. Those were the sorts of discussions we had" (Galbraith, 1998, p. 49). Director Ishiro Honda himself has commented: "When I returned from the war and passed through Hiroshima, there was a heavy atmosphere – a fear the earth was already coming to an end. That became the basis for the film." In Godzilla, he wanted to "make radiation visual" (Galbraith, p.23).
Make it visual he did. In Gojira, his monster is tempestuous, destructive and irresistible – a primal force that appears from the sea and wreaks terrible destruction on Tokyo. The monster looms darkly over the buildings and the fleeing crowds with an impact that even today remains strong enough to overcome the limitations of 1950s technical capabilities. Godzilla's attack on Tokyo lasts some 15 minutes and is, certainly for its time, a remarkably complex technical achievement. The viewer believes in the monster, even though he is a physical impossibility – and a man in a suit. We hear the roar that has become as much an icon of monstrous threat as Godzilla himself. His footsteps reverberate on the soundtrack as powerful and disconcertingly harsh percussive beats. Then he unleashes his radiation-breath, turning Tokyo suburbs into the sort of inferno that would have been all too familiar to survivors of the firebombing that the city experienced in March of 1945. This is no "cosy" monster film, not for contemporary audiences and not for us now. Later films, as they were increasingly aimed toward a younger audience, would tend to present a rather bloodless form of kaiju destruction, violent and destructive, but with Godzilla and the other monsters smashing oddly abandoned cityscapes – trashing the structures of humanity, but not the inhabitants. In Gojira, however, there is no escape from the implications of the monster's presence.
After Godzilla disappears back into the sea, Honda presents us with an aftermath sequence that offers no comfort or release. The camera pans over a city that has been totally decimated, leaving a charred and blackened wasteland that looks rather like pictures of Hiroshima taken in the wake of the A-Bomb. In the midst of a hospital crowded with the scarred and burnt victims of the monster's attack, the female lead, Emiko (played by Momoko Kochi), watches as a doctor takes a radiation reading on a young boy. Their expressions make it clear that the boy will not survive. Another child cries as doctors examine a woman's fractured skull – clearly the girl's mother – and then carry away the body, leaving the child wailing. Everywhere there are bewildered and dying victims. Such a potent depiction of the consequences of mass violence is rare in SF exploitation films of the 1950s. Certainly few monster films – even subsequent Godzilla films – are this forthright and unflinching. The metaphor – not only of nuclear warfare but also of war in general – is powerfully conveyed.
When at the end of the film this symbol of mass destruction can only be destroyed by the ethically troubled Dr Serizawa’s "Oxygen Destroyer", a scientific discovery even more potentially destructive than Godzilla himself, the audience must contemplate the terrible insecurity that has been unleashed upon the world and Honda's point is made more forcefully than any of its contemporary US anti-nuclear horror films ever managed.
Yet as naturalistic as many of the details may be, the cause of the destruction is totally fantastical. Though inspired by King Kong, Honda's own giant monster is profoundly different from the Great Ape. In part, this is one of the most significant innovations that Honda made to the existing monster film genre, such as it was; and it is that difference that gave birth to the daikaiju eiga genre itself. The rampant dinosaurs of Kong's predecessor, The Lost World (1923), Kong himself, and the Rhedosaur from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are all relatively "natural" beasts, their reality deriving from a distant past or merely tweaked by a slight exaggeration in scale. Godzilla's 50 metres in height (which grew to as much as 100 metres in later years), his fire/radiation breath, his near-invulnerability to ordinary weapons and (later) super-regenerative cell-structure, are characteristics of a super-monster, something at a significant remove from the natural world. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was a dinosaur awakened by atomic tests. Though its species was fictitious, it was designed to look like an actual dinosaur. At least it acts like one (or as we imagine one might act). For his part, Kong relates to the world we know in being an oversized ape and in the correspondence between our shared simian nature. He is even motivated by human passions -- desire, anger, fear, pride. What motivates Godzilla? We never know for sure, not in the first film anyway, and though some of the later films introduce the idea of territorial urges, anger, desire for radioactive sustenance or environmental concern, there is always something Outside and inscrutable about it. Godzilla is "of us", of course, in the sense that humanity made or awoke him, but he is also "beyond us" and our world. He is the "Dragon" of oriental mythology, more like an inhuman god than part of the natural ecosystem. Kong, of course, is referred to as "a god" on his island, but he is a god only within his territory, and in the midst of modern civilisation becomes a hunted animal. In contrast, Godzilla thrives on the destruction of our cities; he is at home amidst the flames and apocalyptic chaos. Though a super weapon defeats him in the original film, over time not the most advanced weaponry is allowed much of a chance in dealing with his unthinkable, indeed inevitable, threat.
To date, Japan is the only nation to have experienced first-hand the effects of a nuclear attack. In 1954, when Gojira was premiered, much of the audience would have been old enough to have lived through the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or would at least have known people who had lived through them. Japan is still today dealing with the Bomb's aftermath; we can only imagine the impact of Gojira's dark and terrifying imagery on contemporary local audiences. That they came in unprecedented numbers to watch it suggests more than a simple desire for spectacle. Rather, it suggests that the emotional core of the film spoke to them strongly and offered a means of expressing the fear, particularly where a direct naturalistic depiction of the incidents might have been too direct (not to mention proscribed by Occupation governance). This is what effective metaphors can do: offer a way of safely exploring and challenging our deepest feelings and anxieties. There is a subgenre of cinema in Japan known as "Hibakusha Cinema" – films that deal directly with the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ["Hibakusha" means "survivor".] Gojira and many of the daikaiju films that followed fit into this genre, but at a popular and peculiarly fantastical level.
However, though the metaphorical nature of Gojira as "hibakusha nightmare" is obvious and potent, the film does not offer a simple identification of the monster with the Bomb. Honda's own statements suggest that the metaphor can be both narrowly and widely interpreted and could be seen as such from the start. "…[I]t was a matter of squeezing out the feeling I, as the director, was trying to cultivate," Honda said, "namely an intense fear that, having departed from the foundation of the atomic bomb and with scientific advances having passed through various developments, it has now become an environmental problem. Since those days I have felt the atomic terror would hang around our necks for eternity" (Galbraith, p. 23). Even beyond the Bomb, then, the metaphorical nature of Godzilla represents something ongoing, a never-ending problem of potential annihilation -- and so it would seem from the overall sequence of G films. In the 28 Japanese Godzilla films, the King of the Monsters is shown as returning again and again no matter what sophisticated and highly unlikely methods are used against him (such as a "black-hole cannon" in 2001's Godzilla vs Megaguiras). Having been evoked, he is not so easily gotten rid of.
A direct plot example of this is in the 1991 film, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, which added some interesting ideas to the generic mix and was successful enough to fuel another decade of G films. Deceptive visitors from the future convince the government that Godzilla is inimical to Japan's economic future. The only way to deal with him, they say, is to remove him from history. They travel to a Pacific island in 1944 and witness a prehistoric survivor – a Godzillasaurus – inadvertently rescue a besieged Japanese garrison from invading US forces. This Godzillasaur is the creature that will become Godzilla in the 1950s thanks to H-bomb tests on Bikini Atoll. So they remove the dinosaur, dumping it in the depths of the ocean. Ergo the Godzillasaur was not irradiated by the Bikini tests and Godzilla never created (never mind the temporal paradoxes involved in that chain of events). No more Godzilla. The future is secure.
But it's not that simple. The Caucasian Futurians have an evil plan, which is to ensure that Japan's future economic dominance does not happen. They make their own monster, one that is susceptible to their control, by leaving three genetically engineered creatures on Lagos Island, so that they join and mutate into the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah when the H-bomb tests take place. King Ghidorah then wreaks havoc on Japan with nothing, and no iconic hero-demon, to stop it.
Except Godzilla is inevitable, it seems (and this is, after all, a Godzilla film). The Godzillasaur is not only exposed to radiation anyway – radiation from a scuttled nuclear submarine – but the type of radiation is modern super-grade and turns him into an even bigger and more fearsome version of himself. He defeats King Ghidorah and puts an end to both the Futurians and their plans, even though he then becomes a menace in his own right and must in turn (and as per usual) be driven off, this time by a mecha-hybrid version of Ghidorah brought from the future by those who had opposed the earlier Caucasian faction's tactics.
I have gone into some detail about this particular film for two reasons. One is that it clearly demonstrates how the hibakusha metaphor could be adapted to different times and was allowed to express different nuclear, social and power-related issues. Questions of current economic and social concern could be referenced in this way, whether reflecting national pride or questioning Japanese economic growth and possibility, or whether, as in the later Godzilla vs Megaguiras, criticising government attitudes toward development and public accountability. Or, as in arguably the best of the Millennium Godzilla films (despite having the least serious and most generic title), Kaneko Shusuke's 2001 Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack, addressing a perceived failure of modern society to respect the sacrifices and sufferings of the past. In this film, Godzilla is unequivocally evil – a blank-eyed, rampaging avenger. Some reviewers have understood the film to jingoistically espouse a resurgence of nationalistic militarism. But that is to seriously miss the point, I believe, and to undervalue the universal nature of the metaphor. Instead, Godzilla here should be seen as embodying the consequences of ignoring the lessons of the past – all sacrifices, of whatever nation -- in the same way as the first Gojira questioned the dangers of placing powerful scientific advances in the hands of governments and irresponsible individuals, and forgetting how they would inevitably be used. Always, then, the spectre of the original nuclear theme remains, at least as an undercurrent -- but it is adapted to more immediate contemporary imperatives.
Sometimes this adaptation takes the form of a theme that is not driven by nuclear fear, as in Godzilla vs the Smog Monster, in which Godzilla fights to save humanity from its own self-destructive tendencies, as embodied in Hedorah, the amorphous monster that arises from and feeds on pollution. Even here, however, where there is no direct reference to nuclear fear or issues of warfare, we feel the metaphor's presence. Self-imposed destruction is, after all, self-imposed destruction, whatever form it takes. Apocalypse looms very close -- and daikaiju eiga are, one way or another, about apocalyptic potential.
It is informative in this regard that in English at least the word "monster" comes from a Latin root meaning "a divine portent or warning" (OED). The idea here is that malformed births (such as two-headed calves and cannibalistic horses) were a sign of something wrong in the moral texture of the world. The word came to refer to any "wonder of nature", but the sense of "wrongness" or "violation", as well as "ominous warning", continued. Monsters generally have this aura of unnatural threat, either in themselves or because of what they represent. What makes a monster a monster in fact is less that monsters are violent and might kill us, and more the implications of their existence; they contain within themselves moral and spiritual warnings (greed is self-destructive; irresponsible exploitation of nature will turn on us; usurping God's prerogatives is destructive; nuclear-enhanced warfare will destroy us all, etc.). Though “kaiju” in Japanese means simply “strange or mysterious beast”, the ominous quality of the English term is obvious in Godzilla and his daikaiju kin as well.
A second reason for describing Godzilla vs King Ghidorah at length is to highlight its fantastical and highly exotic nature. Time travel, alternative history, a cyborg, the creation of mutant monsters, mecha-King Ghidorah, flying saucers, complex evil schemes: this is much more outlandish than the original Gojira and represents something that became another vital component of the daikaiju eiga subgenre -- an embracing of the absurd in plot as well as imagery.
Absurdity is there in the first film, of course, though it is hidden beneath a veneer of noir realism. Scientifically, Godzilla is not possible. He is too big. Issues of heat dispersal, mass support, environmental niche status and several laws of physics all dictate that Godzilla cannot exist. Adding his super-powers to the mix is the icing on the cake. None of the films make any serious attempt to rationalise the monster's existence in terms of evolutionary development, diet, waste removal, non-human environmental impact, etc. He is fantastical, and gloriously so. To me, this lack of rationalisation serves to enhance the kaiju's essentially metaphorical, non-literal role – and the absurdities often inherent in the plotting add to the effect.
A brief history of the development of the subgenre will suffice to show how the form was gradually defined and expanded, adding extremes of plot and layers of absurdity to it in response to a variety of artistic and commercial pressures.
The Post-Gojira Development of Daikaiju Eiga
The second Godzilla film, a quickly produced sequel with the title Godzilla Raids Again (1955), made to cash in on the success of the first, introduced another Godzilla – not the same one that was disintegrated in Tokyo Bay by the Oxygen Destroyer, but a relative – and added yet another characteristic of daikaiju eiga to the developing genre: a kaiju opponent. Anguirus is a four-legged, spiny-backed dinosaur mutant for which no explanation is offered. The two kaiju are discovered fighting each other and continue to do so to the detriment of Osaka, until Godzilla kills his natural enemy and, caught up in the excitement, proceeds to ravage Hokkaido. Compared to the first film, this second looks like a rush-job (Honda was not involved, though special-effect guru Eiji Tsuburaya's work is still top-notch). But in its original form it is not the senseless C-grader that it became after Hollywood got to it and turned it into Gigantis the Fire Monster.
Godzilla Raids Again was followed the same year by Half Human, a tale of the Abominable Snowman that is only available in an appallingly re-edited, and rare, US version. The Japanese original is said to have been rather effective in its portrayal of the monster as a variant of humanity, the last of its breed; but it was perceived in Japan as containing unacceptable racial stereotypes in its depiction of the Ainu natives, and was withdrawn. It has remained virtually unobtainable ever since. Though by all reports it isn't classic daikaiju eiga (as the kaiju is only a little above human-size), it nevertheless contributed to the development of the subgenre, and contained elements that would be re-used by Honda in later films, particularly in seeing the monster as, in some sense, sympathetic.
The next genuine daikaiju eiga appeared one year later -- Rodan (or Radon in the Japanese), featuring a pair of huge mutant pterodons, whose destructive activities end tragically, as one of the pair allows itself to die in a volcanic eruption along with its doomed mate. As in Half Human, there is a mingling of dread and pity; the ending leaves the audience feeling sympathy toward the creatures, much as we are left sorrowing over the dying Godzilla in Gojira, as there the new super-weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer, dissolves him to the poignant strains of Akira Ifukuda's masterful music. Despite the apocalyptic potential of these monsters, pity is evoked for their passing. Such ambiguity of response is also an important element of the subgenre.
Toho's next major film was The Mysterians (1957), an alien invasion epic, though by now Toho (the primary studio making genre films) had realised the popularity of giant monsters, and so added a kaiju somewhat arbitrarily (it would do so again in 1962's Gorath, where a giant walrus appears – an almost complete irrelevance in a film dealing with Earth's response to planetary destruction threatened by an approaching star). The Mysterians's kaiju is a giant robot called Mogera, which the aliens use to soften up their opposition. Robots would become a significant part of the subgenre further down the line, especially in anime form, as technology was incorporated into the concept. For now, Varan the Unbelievable (1958) offered another uninspired flying kaiju – a sort of reptilian squirrel – though all other elements of the film remained much as dictated by the already solidifying daikaiju eiga formula, including an emphasis on the futile military response.
Mothra (1961), however, rang some significant changes. From this point, daikaiju eiga would become a distinctive form of fantasy film, no longer tied to the traditions that spawned it. Though this gentler, mystical film does have a nuclear subtext, in that the Pacific island that is the home of the giant moth-god, Mothra ("Mosura" in the Japanese), has been affected by nuclear testing in the form of plant and animal mutations, the film is very different in its approach to its monster. In part a satirical inditement of commercial exploitation, the film features tiny fairy princesses, a tribe of exotic natives who worship Mothra, colourful ceremonies, jungle adventure, and a plot that brings the monster to Tokyo not in the cause of random destruction, but in order to rescue the Fairies. The film represents a significant break from the documentary, objective style of US giant monster films, abandoning it (as Stuart Galbraith says) "in favor of color-filled, dream-like imagery" (p. 168). Unlike the earlier Gojira, which was black-and-white and in Academy ratio (1.37:1), Mothra was filmed in colour and in widescreen (or more precisely TohoScope, 2.35:1). This gives it a breadth and a vibrancy that further adds to the otherworldly effect. It was a tendency that would govern the subgenre from thereon in.
The idea of pitting monsters against each other continued in the next G film, King Kong vs Godzilla (1962), which ups the satirical ante of Mothra and offers a running gag that casts the central conflict as a contest between the two monsters, like a commercial wrestling match. This conceit, and the inclusion of various prominent comic talents in the cast, proved hugely successful and the film did record-breaking box-office.
Inspired by the success of these last two films, Toho next assayed the stratagem of bringing two of their own most identifiable monsters together, in 1964's Godzilla vs Mothra (known as Godzilla vs the Thing in the US as distributors there felt that giant moths weren't something that would attract more pragmatic American monster fans). This film, which many feel is the archetypal daikaiju eiga and the best in the G series after the original, continued with the commercial satire of Mothra (though without the blatant humour of King Kong vs Godzilla) and also further developed the nuclear theme, giving the Infant Island inhabitants a reason to distrust the civilised contingent that comes to their radiation-devastated land asking for Mothra's aid in dealing with Godzilla. The sentiment "we must trust and respect each other or humanity is doomed" plays a major role in the outworking of the well-constructed and imaginatively compelling plot.
The original version of Dogora, the Space Monster (1964), which features jewel thieves and a giant space jellyfish, continued the comedic thread that had run through previous films. This was clearly seen as a profitable way to go by studio executives. In terms of the development of the subgenre, the trend encouraged a light-hearted approach that persisted for many years – and in fact increasingly repositioned Toho's monster films toward a youthful, and eventually, juvenile, audience. Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (also 1964) is not comic, but is outlandish and colourful in a manner than speaks more to a love of the bizarre than to a desire for serious social commentary. Ghidrah (a prototype version of the monster that featured in the later Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, though having a different origin) is a three-headed dragon-like creature whose arrival from space is heralded by prophetic visions that also speak of universal destruction. The film runs a plot that involves foreign spies and Interpol agents. An assassination attempt on a visiting princess occurs, though a UFO mysteriously rescues the princess from the resulting mid-air explosion. She subsequently comes to believe that she is the reincarnation of the last native of a planet that had already been destroyed by Ghidrah in an earlier epoch (or perhaps she is possessed by said spirit). In the event, the concept of monsters battling each other is further expanded as Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan stop fighting in order to fend off the greater threat to their home planet. It is Mothra, urged on by her Fairies, who with some difficulty convinces Godzilla and Rodan to do this; at one stage the monsters sit down to a war council in an attempt to reconcile their differences. Given that scenario, the film might have been purely juvenile fare, but the characterisations, the violence and the general approach keep it sufficiently oriented toward adults to continue to draw a general audience.
In an escalation of colourful absurdity, Toho (and Honda) next produced a film that, along with its sequel, represents some sort of bizarre extreme in the subgenre's development. Frankenstein Conquers the World (made in conjunction with the US company UPA in 1965) begins with Dr Frankenstein's castle being invaded by Nazi troops during WW2. They take the still-living heart of the good doctor's creation and send it by submarine to a research institute in Japan, hoping thereby to learn the secret of its unending life. The heart arrives in Hiroshima in time for the dropping of the A-bomb, whereupon, over the next 10 years, radiation causes it to regenerate a body. In the present, a US-led research team studying the effects of radiation, on the spot as it were, comes across a street urchin who has been frequenting the lab that had housed the unnatural heart. The urchin grows to enormous size and the rest of the film follows the scientists' attempts to save the monster from the military. In the midst of all this, a dog-like burrowing kaiju named Baragon turns up, creating havoc that is blamed on the Frankenstein monster. Naturally it is the misunderstood Frankenstein monster that must save the day, in mortal combat with the interloper.
As if that wasn't weird enough, the film's sequel (actually more of a follow-up), War of the Gargantua, came along a few years later (1970), offering the proposition that cells of the Frankenstein monster (now referred to as the brown Gargantua and named Sanda) have regenerated into a twin, the Green Gargantua Gaira. This latter is, however, an evil twin, who deliberately wrecks airports and chateaus and eats people in the process, so that inevitably the two "brothers" must fight. This film is particularly surreal, with its agile (and very ugly) monsters, some genuinely scary moments, forthright violence, futuristic hardware, and a giant octopus. According to Galbraith, "Next to the original Godzilla, this was probably the most influential kaiju eiga for Japanese audiences…" (p. 181).
At about this time, while Toho was producing Monster Zero (an alien invasion tale featuring Godzilla, King Ghidorah and Rodan, along with some very '60s space imagery), film studios other than Toho started to get in on the daikaiju eiga act. Daiei created Gamera, a giant nuclear-powered turtle, who could fly by turning himself into a spinning saucer, biological jets squirting flame from the leg-holes in his shell. The series of seven Gamera films from this period were aimed squarely at children (though the first was seen as having a more general audience) and tend to involve plots that send Gamera to the rescue of usually rather precocious kids, variously threatened by brain-eating alien beauties, a monster-shark with a saw-like horn, giant bat-monsters, a squid with a parrot-face and similar wonderful monstrosities. Gamera was billed as "Friend of Children". The films are weird and visually extravagant – and mostly a lot of fun.
This aspect of monster-as-hero is a long-running and firmly entrenched one, taken up and re-conceptualised by Kaneko Shusuke in his dramatic remake of 1995, Gamera: the Guardian of the Universe. In this, and its two sequels, Kaneko manages to re-create the absurdities of Gamera in a realistic, dynamic context, taking it all with a straight face and exploring issues of heroic responsibility with considerable power. In these new visions of the turtle-hero, Gamera is a bio-engineered protector, created by an ancient, though advanced, civilisation, now lost to the past and their own mistakes. He awakens when the Earth is threatened, but finally, and most obviously in the final film of the trilogy, it is made clear that he is not mankind's protector, but Earth's. If humanity becomes the threat, then humanity becomes Gamera's enemy: a more-than-implied warning.
This ambiguity of role has applied to many of the kaiju, but especially to the King. Lured into a reluctant defender's role in Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla had become a hero to children and all humankind by Godzilla vs the Smog Monster and stayed that way over the following decade. Though in the 1990s, and even more so post-Millennium, his dark side makes a resurgence, there is an ambiguity to his motivations that plays a significant part in all the G films. A scene that captures this ambiguity most forcefully occurs in Godzilla 2000 Millennium (1999). At the end of the film, having defeated an ancient alien enemy that has sought to use Godzilla's regenerative powers to give itself an invulnerable form and is threatening to bring about humanity's demise, a character asks somewhat rhetorically, "Why does he [Godzilla] help us, when all we do is try to kill him?" As though in reply, Godzilla breathes flame in a widening circle through the sprawling suburbs of Tokyo. It is pointless and random destruction, and as the credits roll over the flames, we are left with the reflection that it is not humanity Godzilla defends, but his own territorial dominance. Godzilla may be "in all of us" (as one of the characters remarks), but this merely ensures his right to be the one that does the annihilating. Once again, Godzilla may have been created by us, but (like our technological advances in general) he can be either friend or foe depending on how we treat him and the world we both inhabit.
Through many of the Godzilla films there exists this uneasy tension between Godzilla and humanity, a tension that teeters between needing the monster and being threatened by him. In different films the balance veers one way or the other, offering a different mix of the two extremes, but always unable to fully dismiss the monster as unambiguously dispensable. In Godzilla vs King Ghidorah he is essential to destroying the Futurian plans and ensuring Japan's economic future; but once Ghidorah is defeated, he poses as grave a threat to that very potential as ever. As one industrialist – in 1942 a commander whose besieged regiment was saved from invading US forces by the Godzillosaur – learns the hard way, we can honour Godzilla for his defence of us, but he will destroy us and our works nevertheless if we get in his way.
The recent Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla presents a different version of the dilemma; here the ultimate weapon against Godzilla is formed from the first Godzilla's bones and is hence genetically related to him. An attempt to use Kiryu (the cyborg Godzilla) against the Big G results in a "race-memory" feedback that sends the ultimate machine into an uncontrolled destructive frenzy. As the young daughter of the project's lead scientist maintains – and Mothra's Fairies warn in the sequel Godzilla, Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS – all life is valuable and must be treated with respect. Attempts to subvert these moral imperatives come at a high cost; our response to a major threat must recognise this. We are responsible for Godzilla and cannot easily toss that responsibility aside.
That the kaiju must be treated with respect, even protected, is a major theme of the TV series, Ultraman Cosmos. Made in 2001-2003, this was a popular incarnation of the long-running Ultraman franchise; and at its heart is the idea that the kaiju are as much a natural part of the world as humanity (despite the fact that these kaiju are among the most weird and unnatural to be found in any daikaiju eiga). EYES, the semi-military scientific defence force set up to deal with monstrous threats, is encouraged to take this point-of-view on board by Musashi -- secretly the human channel through whom the galactic giant Ultraman is able to manifest in time of need. EYES spend more time defending the monsters than they do fighting them. The incursions of a mutating space virus that takes over the “natural” monsters and drives them into destructive fury often forces EYES to take an aggressive stance, but moral responsibility toward the victimised kaiju persistently hinders them from engaging in carefree violence. At times, the team find themselves at odds with other less ideologically sensitive arms of the military establishment.
At any rate, by the late 1960s the nascent daikaiju eiga style was set and fantasy had become the norm. Budget restraints sent Godzilla into a tropical island phase in order to avoid the high cost of constructing cityscapes for demolition, but the resulting films were effective nevertheless, with the familiarisation of Godzilla proceeding apace. Godzilla vs the Sea Monster (1966) and Son of Godzilla (1967) were effective, bright adventure films, colourful and well-crafted, giving the franchise a brief but serviceable boost. The film studio Shochiku produced the wonderfully silly The X from Outer Space (1967), with its giant space chicken; Nikkatsu sent a family group of Gappa monsters on a destructive trip to various tourist destinations throughout Japan in Monster from a Prehistoric Planet (1967 aka Gappa the Triphibian Monster); the iconic familiarity of Godzilla was explored in a film about the difficulties facing latch-key kids in Godzilla's Revenge (1969); the very weird Yog (or Space Amoeba) descended on an island paradise (1970); and Godzilla faced up to the problem of pollution in Godzilla vs the Smog Monster (1971). Meanwhile, Majin, a huge stone idol, came alive in ancient Japan to exact revenge on the wicked, in three films that effectively joined the samurai genre with daikaiju eiga (Daimajin). In King Kong Escapes (1967), Honda re-cycled elements of the original King Kong story into a comicbook adventure fantasy (it was not so much a sequel to King Kong or King Kong vs Godzilla, but a spin-off from a US animated TV series), adding a world-threatening plot by evil genius, Dr Huu, Bond-like espionage, a sexy female spy and cute Mechani-Kong, a bad-tempered Gorosaurus, a sea-serpent, a kitschy hover-craft and an exciting climactic tussle between Kong and Mechani-Kong up the side of Tokyo Tower.
Under pressure from Gamera's child-oriented successes (albeit relatively moderate), Toho turned the Godzilla franchise almost totally in the same direction, though only Godzilla's Revenge replaced adult leads with children. Godzilla vs Gigan (1972) and Godzilla vs Megalon (1973) are generally regarded as the nadir of the Godzilla franchise, with unsophisticated plots, absurdities that readily tip over into the ridiculous, and lots of recycled footage. They were made in the 1970s when the subgenre was going through a lean time – most of the "classic" personnel having departed and budgets having dropped to a record low due to diminishing box-office returns. To be fair, however, the films make good use of their limited budgets, and are fun if you're in the right mood. In Gigan, Godzilla even talks to his now-buddy Anguirus – via manga speech balloon in the Japanese version, and through a hideous mechanical growl in the US re-edit. This generates some scorn from commentators, but oddly enough from one point-of-view the conceit fits well (in the Japanese version), reflecting stylistically the manga theme that runs through the film. In fact, Godzilla vs Gigan can easily be seen as some sort of pseudo post-modern reflection on Godzilla (and the other kaiju) as social icons.
Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974) introduced a robotic version of Godzilla along similar lines to the earlier Mechani-Kong. Mechagodzilla would reappear again in the following year in Terror of Mechagodzilla, then again in 1993 with Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla  (only now he is a weapon developed by the military to defeat Godzilla, rather than the pawn of an alien invader), and again in the duology Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) and Godzilla, Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003). In these latter films, in which Mechagodzilla is a cyborg created by the government, metaphysics – and the afore-mentioned thematic thread relating to the need for all life to be respected – gets in the way of ultimate success in defeating the Big G. What all these films do encapsulate is a fascination for technology – one we can readily associate with the Japanese and their often eccentrically applied expertise in this area; it will turn up again when we discuss some offshoots of the subgenre.
The last Godzilla film for about a decade (according to Toho executives) was Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), in which Godzilla goes up against a pantheon of re-envisaged kaiju in the thrall of invading aliens – not to mention a government-funded squad of mutant soldiers. The result is a worldwide near-apocalypse that leaves every major city much the worse for wear. Not much thematic profundity is apparent here, but plenty of full-on kaiju indulgence. In many ways the film is a celebration – in terms of narrative, style and characters – of the whole Godzilla phenomenon.
By now it should be clear the extent to which realism had ceased to be a priority in daikaiju eiga. The films' divergence from the pseudo-realism of US giant monster films – a genre prevalent in the 1950s, also redolent with nuclear paranoia and apocalyptic fears – represents one of the significant differences between that subgenre and daikaiju eiga, which is much more attuned to the absurd and readily fills the scene with surreal imagery and colourfully ludicrous events. The daikaiju eiga subgenre is, as I have been arguing, metaphorically driven at its core. The nuclear theme is generally much more a token plot device in US monster films of the 1950s rather than representing the sort of significant conceptual framework that fed into Gojira -- not surprisingly, in that the nuclear threat was, for the Japanese, not a theoretical one. Given Cold War issues, the American giant monster films seem driven by other unstated social struggles – and the films are as likely as not to "support" the use of advanced science, even the Bomb, as an unmitigated answer to conflict. There is little real moral ambiguity. The Japanese, meanwhile, also attack their monsters, but they feel guilty about it afterwards.
The issue may run deeper than this. Much has been written about the 1950s US "alien invasion" film tradition – with its plethora of giant insects, spiders and gila monsters – and I don't intend to go into that large and complex topic here. But it is important to get some sense of the difference between the American films and their Japanese variants. Chon Noriega, in his influential article "Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When 'Them!' is U.S.", points out the difference in Japanese and US monster films, emphasising that within US giant monster films American ethical sensibilities quickly shift from "we are responsible" to "it is the enemy": the monster becomes a purely external threat. "The films effectively destroy any causal relationship, thereby constructing the monster as complete Other. The Americans in the film, freed from implication in the monster's threat, can now use nuclear or other force to destroy it." On the other hand, in daikaiju eiga the Japanese embrace their monsters. Unlike American monsters (the Its, Thems and Things), Japanese monsters always have names, and personalities and histories to go with them. This seems to represent a tendency to own the monsters and relates, according to some commentators, to differences in US and Japanese conceptualisations of the Other.
For example, Takao Suzuki writes: "whereas Western culture is based on the distinction between the observer and the observed, on the opposition of the self versus the other, Japanese culture and sentiment show a strong tendency to overcome this distinction by having the self immerse itself in the other" (quoted in Noriega, 1996, pp. 67-68). Hence the monsters are brought into the culture and accepted. Differences in the two cultures' founding religious principles also provide insight into the opposed approaches of the two giant monster film traditions. On the one hand, there is the West’s drive to dominate nature, inherent in the Biblical injunction that gives Man dominion over the Earth. On the other lies the more celebratory Shinto and Buddhist-influenced approach of Japanese culture. These attitudes to the world and “the Other” are reflected in daikaiju eiga in general. Its influence can also be seen in the original Gojira (even though terminal action is taken against the monster), dictating that he would continue to arise to provide a way of dealing with ongoing cultural definitions of the self he represents. They also allow for "the monster as ambiguous hero", as we have seen.
Moreover, the subjective nature of the monsters gives filmmakers working in the daikaiju eiga subgenre license (and even encouragement) to take a free-ranging approach to their physical form. Where US giant monsters tend to be direct versions of naturalistic beasts, simply grown large, the Japanese kaiju are fantastical creatures, unlikely amalgamations of divergent shapes and body parts increasingly removed from the strictures of the objective world. This subjective extravagance of form and plotline not only escalated throughout the subgenre's developmental history, but was also absorbed into other areas of popular culture, taking new and sometimes daringly extreme forms.
One of the most popular and ubiquitous of these hybrids is a long-running television show that crossed sentai (superhero) and daikaiju eiga tropes into a unique mix that has been continually produced, in one form or other, since it was first aired in 1966. Ultraman chronicles the adventures of a space giant (from Nebula M78, later the World of Light), a law enforcer who is chasing an intergalactic felon when he accidentally collides with the aircraft of Hayata, a member of Earth's Science Patrol. Rather than allow Hayata to die, Ultraman joins with the patrolman, so that now, whenever there is a need, Hayata holds up his Beta Capsule and changes, channelling the ornately helmeted, red-suited giant warrior into existence to fight an endless stream of giant monsters that appear to plague the Earth. This first series ran for 39 episodes, from 17 July 1966 to 9 April 1967.
But that wasn't the end. Many relations of Ultraman would appear over the years, on TV and stage and in movies. We have already discussed Ultraman Cosmos; other incarnations range from Ultra Seven (1967) through to the most recent, Ultraman Nexus (2004-2005), and Ultraman Max (2005-2006). There have been twenty or so TV series, plus an array of one-off TV specials, compilation movies and original cinema releases, including Ultraman Tiga, Ultraman Dyna and Ultraman Gaia: Battle in Hyperspace (1999) and Ultraman: The Next (2004).
Ultraman was created by Gojira special-effects master Eija Tsuburaya, who set up his own company to do so. Many of Gojira's personnel were involved, including the Big G himself, at least in the form of the Goji "rubber suit", re-worked with added appendages and frills. Though generally aimed at children, Tsuburaya's superhero creation appeals to a wide-ranging audience, the tone of the series and movies being generally optimistic and life-affirming. Some recent movies – and in particular the Ultraman Nexus series – are less oriented toward children, with character-driven plots, thematic complexity, and a level of darkness that all speak of an attempt to re-align the show, even if briefly, toward an adult demographic. But the optimism, even sentimentality, remains.
Monster-wise, the Ultraman universe offers the most bizarrely multiform creations of them all, as though naturalism has been totally abandoned. Even Ultraman Nexus, with its more rational approach to plotting, revels in kaiju absurdity and offers all sorts of fantastic creatures – such as a bipedal grotesquery with a mouth in its chest, permanently contorted into a Munchian scream, and a gigantic mutated snail monster that can manoeuvre like an antigravity spaceship and fire energy bolts from its eye-stalks.
In all its incarnations and variants, the “Ultraman” series explores themes such as heroism, courage and the power of communal and personal love. The kaiju function as massive visualisations of the diversity of life and the obstacles that face anyone in meeting its challenges. Though their metaphorical resonances are less direct than those of Godzilla and other anti-nuclear monsters, the Ultra monsters nevertheless provide a focus for related issues of responsibility and ethical courage, if only in offering a threat to these ideals. A sense of ritual is particularly strong, driven by the episodic, 30-minute time structure within which most of the shows have been constrained; this formulaic structure takes on an almost religious power, within which subconscious fears can be addressed and dilemmas overcome. Ultraman represents, in Japan, the most popular, if not the most iconic, use of daikaiju eiga, and as such has played a vital role in expanding the cultural power of these giant monsters as an imaginative resource. Though primarily an entertainment like all the daikaiju eiga, the Ultraman series’ absurd visualisations are carried on a metaphorical wave similar to the one that was so prominent in Gojira.
The subgenre has expanded beyond this direct line now, and its influences can be broadly seen in other popular works. Though representing a separate subgenre, with its own dynamic, the “mecha” tradition often draws on daikaiju eiga elements. “Mecha” primarily occurs in the form of manga and anime rather than as tokusatsu (live-action special effects films); it involves giant robots, most commonly piloted by human operators who must face fearsome adversaries as well as their own emotional crises. Growing out of Tetsuwan Atomu (original series 1963-1966; aka Astroboy), Tetsujin 28-go (1963; aka Gigantor) and Getter Robo (1974-75), more recent examples include the Macross series (aka Robotech), the many Gundam variants, Mazinger Z, Gasaraki and Full Metal Panic. Generally set in the future, in post-apocalyptic wastelands or on alien worlds, these sci-fi anime often reflect the aesthetics of daikaiju eiga, at least in terms of their use of size differentials and apocalyptic violence. As a whole, however, they explore more technologically driven themes.
One “mecha” series that more directly aligns with daikaiju eiga is the well-known Neon Genesis Evangelion. The series is based on a mecha format, featuring giant humanoid machines (EVAs) that can only be piloted by adolescents – or more precisely, those born in the aftermath of an apocalyptic incident that occurred 15 years earlier. The series rings changes that take it much beyond ordinary mecha tropes. With its surreal, metaphysical “Angels”, its city-based battles, its sinister conspiracies, secret genetic experiments and apocalyptic escalation – not to mention the semi-sentient, fleshy nature of the EVAs – Neon Genesis Evangelion presents a complex kaiju scenario that on one level examines generational relationships and on another explores concepts of physical and spiritual evolution. What is really going on in this series rarely happens on a surface level; the symbolic interplay of imagery serves to externalise emotions and implications, with the result that the overall effect is that of an all-encompassing metaphorical construct – an extended metaphor.
Evolution and change is often presented in terms of such apocalypse. Daikaiju elements abound in the animated feature films of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly Princess Mononoke (1997) and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984). Neither of these can be described as daikaiju eiga, but such images as that of the huge, striding spirit of the forest in Princess Mononoke – an incarnation of the typically kaiju metaphor of environmental retribution – draw strongly on the tradition. The much less innocent visions of the anime feature film Chôjin densetsu Urotsukidôji (1989; aka Legend of the Overfiend), and the series from which it was derived, even more directly reference daikaiju eiga traditions, particularly in the film’s outrageously violent and apocalyptic climax, as the gigantic incarnated Overfiend unleashes Armageddon on Tokyo and the world in a frenzy of mutilation, city trashing and monstrous sexual perversity. In thus encapsulating the vast potential for destruction and violent change inherent in human evolutionary nature, the film (based on a longer manga and anime series) offers further indication of the daikaiju eiga subgenre’s imaginative power.
Though Gojira's immediate commercial impetus came from the US films King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the production quickly mutated into a uniquely Japanese work, driven by traumatic memory of the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and contemporary incidents connected to a massive atomic bomb test on Bikini Atoll. Godzilla became a concrete incarnation of nuclear fear – powerful and iconic – finally only answerable to a technology vastly more frightening than the one that gave him form – and later not even to that.
Subsequent Godzilla films – over many decades – would develop his persona into a vastly ambiguous one, part ungodly menace, part inhuman hero. Other kaiju would feature in their own films, becoming increasingly more colourful and absurd, as though born of a worldview over which humanity had lost control in the aftermath of its own mad science.
More unbelievable, more extreme and more profound than their US equivalents, daikaiju eiga have a strong sensory appeal – in the colourful imaginative exuberance of their creatures, the incredible scope of their imagery and the extent of the destruction that results from their often irrational existence. This apocalyptic sensory appeal, wed to themes of technological or environmental consequence and its terrible responsibility, is what gives the genre its drive and its profundity -- even when individual works may seem trite and ridiculous. In daikaiju eiga, absurdity and significance are joined into a powerful apocalyptic vision.
Note: This article is based on a paper delivered at Swancon 30, Perth, on 28 March 2005.
Galbraith IV, Stuart (1998), Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films, Feral House: Venice, CA.
Noriega, Chon (1996), "Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When 'Them!' Is U.S." in Broderick, Mick, ed., Hibakusha Cinema (London: Kegan Paul).
Ryfle, Steve (1998), Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G", ECW Press: Toronto, Canada.