Kaiju Primer

Greeting, Action Force.

So yesterday, Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain was a featured daily deal on Amazon’s Kindle store, and it went swimmingly from what I can gather.  The book was in the top 100 of Kindle sales ranking, and last time I checked, it’s still there, even though it’s now regular price.  Might be a fluke with Amazon’s ranking updates and it’s hard to take these numbers too seriously not knowing how Amazon determines such things.  But it was there, and I can only assume we moved a lot of electrons.  So thanks to everyone who helped spread the word.

I’ve decided the ALM Action Force is an actual thing now.  I am working on an official logo and motto and will eventually have a Action Force kit of some sort.  Maybe a cool poster and a badge and an official registry of Action Force members.  Everything else on the internet has a fan club?  Why not me?

But if you’re worrying that this blog is going to degenerate into a series of self-promotional appeals, rest assured this will not be the case.  Let’s put aside the Action Force business, and talk about something really important.

Giant Monsters.

This summer, there are two movies I’m pretty jazzed about.  The first is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 because I love the first one.  It succeeded in being a fun, energetic, and original film, a sort of weird science meets The Muppet Show adventure.  The sequel looks to have the same wonderful charm, and it does even have a few giant food monsters too.  But these are not the giant monsters I’m here to talk about.

The other film is, unsurprising if you know me or have read any of my books, Pacific Rim.  It’s been a while since we’ve had a big budget giant monster film in America, and it’s high time the genre got another shot.  Generally, giant monster cinema falls under the heading Kaiju Films, and it is a time honored tradition, going back to the original black and white epic King Kong and beyond.

Kaiju is a genre I dearly love, but like any genre, it has its ups and downs.  Today, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on the genre in general and hope that you’ll see the tradition Pacific Rim is coming from.  I’m not saying you should go watch all these movies, but it might help you appreciate the subtleties of enormous monsters smashing each other to pieces for the fate of the world.

The two most obvious classics are the original King Kong and Godzilla.  Both remain fine films and outstanding cinema in my opinion.

The B&W King Kong is still one of my favorite kaiju films.  While the 70′s remake has its moments, and the tepid Peter Jackson version has a cool fight where Kong battles three T-rexes at once, the original is just great fun.  The stop motion animation is still great, and the story is neat.  There are some unfortunate elements that haven’t aged well.  The natives couldn’t be more ridiculous, and there isn’t really an ounce of sympathy for Kong as he is stolen away from his home and forced to meet his tragic end through no fault of his own.  But that’s part of what makes it art, folks.  Not just dinosaur fights, but those elements of our past we tend to forget.

King Kong is more of an adventure film, but the original Godzilla is an obvious metaphor for the dangers of unfettered nuclear threat.  Not surprising, considering it was made by Japan after having dealt with the horrors of the atom bomb.  For the longest time, the American edit of the film removed or downplayed those elements in favor of a more traditional monster flick.  But a few years ago, the uncut original was released, and it is a great movie.  Though Godzilla is most renowned for fighting other monsters in increasingly absurd romps, the original is a somber piece about helplessness, destruction, and self-sacrifice.  Godzilla isn’t friendly here.  He’s just a force of nature who lives to destroy.  Many of the familiar elements of Godzilla weren’t yet in place.  By far, the least “fun” of the films I’m going to list, but also, a powerful piece of moviemaking.

I’m going to go ahead and mention the American Godzilla adaptation too.  It often gets a bad rap as a stupid film, and I can see why if you were expecting Godzilla you might be disappointed by it.  But for me, it is a part of the older tradition.  I much prefer to think of the American film as an adaptation of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a film that came before the original Japanese Godzilla.  Taken as an adventure story about a monster versus the military, the American film is a lot of fun.  It still has some of my favorite kaiju action sequences, including one where Godzilla fights some submarines.  Yes, I know it’s default to say the movie is terrible, but far from it, it’s a great action adventure flick featuring a monster wreaking havoc on a city.  And because the monster is not invulnerable to conventional weaponry, there’s a real excitement to the action sequences.  I know I’m in the minority on this one, but a film I rather enjoy.

However, in the end, my favorite type of kaiju story is where monster fights monster.

The Godzilla films have along and varied history, and they are a decidedly mixed bag.  Rather than focus on the weaker films, I’d rather comment on the few that really stand out to me.

Godzilla 2000 was released in America shortly after the American version.  In this film, Godzilla faces Orga, an evil alien bent on assimilating the King of the Monsters and destroying the Earth.  The story is solid, and the FX are excellent.  The final showdown as Godzilla battles a flying saucer, then Orga himself, is full of creative moments and outstanding execution.  Really, just an amazing battle for the fate of the world with a jaw-dropping conclusion.

In the older films, a personal favorite remains The Terror of Mechagodzilla.  I’ve said before how I hate villains who are just an evil version of the good guy, but Mechagodzilla is more than just a robotic version of Godzilla.  Mechagodzilla shoots lasers, has finger rockets, and is just badass.  The film features a second antagonist monster, Titanasaurus.  Titanasaurus isn’t very powerful (and this is even stated in the film), but combined with Mechagodzilla, the King of the Monsters faces a serious threat.  At one point, Godzilla is buried alive only to (spoiler alert) burst from the ground and continue the fight.  This is just an outstanding kaiju adventure.  Highly recommended.

There’s also Godzilla versus Mechagodzilla.  This is actually the first appearance of Mechagodzilla, and Godzilla must team up with King Caesar, a legendary dog/lion kaiju to defeat the evil robot.  One of my favorites, even if King Caesar is a bit goofy looking.

Really, I would recommend nearly any Godzilla film.  They are almost all great, though they range in appeal from goofy to serious to thrilling.  I would avoid Godzilla versus the Sea Monster and Destroy All Monsters.  The sea monster is a disappointing antagonist, and Destroy All Monsters has a ton of Toho Studio monsters in it, but it also is just disappointing in terms of kaiju action.

Special recommendation to Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: All Out Monster Attack.  It might be a mouthful, but it is a heck of a cool film.  The twist is that in this particular film, Godzilla is the bad guy, and the other monsters are the prophesied monsters to save the day.  That’s right.  King Ghidorah is playing the good guy in this one, and while that threw me off at first, it has some great adventure and cool monster fights.

Also, Godzilla: Final Wars is a movie where Godzilla himself is transformed into an unstoppable juggernaut who smashes his way through the entire Toho Studios cast of kaiju.  It’s terrific, over-the-top sci fi adventure.

Outside of Godzilla, I must acknowledge that my favorite kaiju series doesn’t have the big guy in it.  No, as much as I adore the King of the Monsters, I find that the pinnacle of the art form was achieved in the Gamera series of films.  I’m not talking about the original six films, which are a lot of fun, but the reboot that happened in ’95.  These three films: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Gamera: Attack of Legion, and Gamera: Revenge of Iris are each a truly awesome spectacle.

While I think of Godzilla as the Schwartzenneger of kaiju, Gamera is akin to the Jackie Chan of the genre.  Endlessly inventive, and with spectacular and engaging kaiju battles.  If you don’t believe watching a jet-powered turtle have a mid-air battle with an evil alien isn’t high art, you will after seeing this series.  Gamera is cast as the good guy, a super weapon from Atlantis out to save the world from one of their failed experiments.  Each film of the trilogy explores a different element of the kaiju genre, and does so in surprising and clever ways.

In the first film, Gamera is psychically linked to a young girl.  In the second, the link has become broken and while he’s not a bad guy, he also is a lot more reckless in his mission to save the Earth.  There is a sequence in the third film that is truly mind-blowing in presenting the terror of having giant monsters battling in your city.  The third film casts Gamera as an overworked hero who will fight on no matter what.  And damnit if I don’t think of that level of determination in my own struggles.

I could go on with this all day.  While not technically kaiju films, both Aliens vs. Monsters and How to Train Your Dragon have some amazing giant robots / monster elements.  And there are plenty of lesser known kaiju flicks that might be worth your time.  Frankenstein Conquers the World is incredibly strange but fun, too.  Kaiju is a weird and wonderful genre, capable of intense goofiness, amazing adventure, and surprisingly relevant thoughts on what it means to be human.

Give it a shot, if you’re so inclined.  If you like my books then you just might discover something it’s not so easy to dismiss as you once thought.

Any genre that features rocket punches and aliens cyborg chickens with buzzsaws in their chess must have something to recommend it, right?

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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One Comment

  1. Leland
    Posted May 10, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget War of the Gargantuas. Gave me nightmares as a kid. It falls under the same kind of horror of how an attack of kaiju would affect the little people… Great stuff.

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