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Here Comes KAIJU – Japanese Monster with Personality

2018.04.13

In the recent blockbuster release, “Pacific Rim Uprising”, monstrous beasts appear from the deep ocean to destroy civilisation.  They are called KAIJU.  It is a Japanese generic word for a monstrous creature, but it often refers to a specific one.

Some people know what it is.  It is a homage to the original Kaiju, Godzilla.

Inspirations from Movies and the Real Life Event

Like many movie makers in the 1950s, Godzilla’s creators were hugely influenced by the release of “King Kong” in 1933.  The image of an enormous gorilla, causing panic in New York, climbing up the iconic Empire State Building, is so powerful that many young movie fans can easily recognise it.

But the most direct influence for Godzilla’s production was “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”.  In this ground-breaking movie, a Hydrogen bomb experiment near Alaska caused ice to melt, resulting in the 100 million years old dinosaurs waking up.  It was released in 1953, and  has inspired many movie makers that closely followed.  Then, there came a turning point.

On 1st March 1954, a fishing boat from Japan was exposed to a nuclear fallout caused by an H bomb experiment in Bikini Atoll.  It is said to have claimed the life of the captain, caused mass disposal of contaminated fish and highlighted the far-reaching danger of powerful nuclear arms.

In Godzilla, released in November 1954, the influence of the H-bomb experience was pictured as a real and current threat to any civilian.  Godzilla wakes up due to the H Bomb experiment in South Pacific, just like the one in real life.  The initial scene of the movie recreated the shock and fear of those who were on board the fishing boat:  They were the first to encounter the original Kaiju.

Kaiju Is Not Just a Monster …

The name of the beast, Godzilla, referred to the ocean god of the island where it landed first.  In English, a word God is used to show its strength and significance, which humbles human beings.  It exhales radioactive fire (or a beam) to cause destruction.  None of the conventional weapons were effective against it.  It can only be defeated by creating a new weapon with advanced technology, and with the will of the people to save the city.

Since the worldwide success of Godzilla in 1954, many films have followed this template:  A previously unknown giant beast comes to a shore, destroys cities, terrifies human, and then gets defeated by courageous fighters.

… But a Creature with Feelings

By the end of the 1950s, the use of Tokusatsu (Special Effect) techniques have all been available to complete the new genre, Kaiju Movie.  The contrast between the sheer size of Kaiju and the tiny edifices of human civilization, together with powerful hyper beams, radioactive flames, and various villains and young heroes, were essential parts of the story.

One of the unique aspects of Japanese Kaiju movies’ success is the use of “suitmation”.  King Kong, The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms and other Western predecessors mostly used Stop Motion Animation for the beasts’ movement.  But the Godzilla creators wanted more verisimilitude to the creature’s reactions and more character to its movements.  To achieve this, they used an actor in a rubber suit, specifically made to look not too scary.

Mechatronics (Animatronics), automated mechanical parts, were used to film smaller body parts of Kaiju, for example, facial expressions close-ups and very sharp yet delicately moving finger parts.  It has given the monster a personality that allowed viewers to relate to the beast’s feelings.

These original techniques are still used as part of modern production to give the desirable outcome – giving the human touch – where Computer Graphics allow the creators to recreate almost anything they can imagine.

Original and Personal Love for the Beast

King Kong was “discovered” by explorers and pioneers venturing into unknown territories.  It was understandably an angry and disturbed monster.  Godzilla was provoked to come out of its own habitat.

Kaiju are not the original aggressors. Rather, it is human activities that cause the havoc.  They only destroy human creations.  This element of the story attracted the future movie producers:  Kaiju is the ultimate warning to the arrogance and hubris of human beings.

There followed two decades of trying to capitalise on these iconic beasts as a proven formula for success.  Even very dedicated fans got bored of the conveyor-belt of movies with similar stories without much substance.  It caused a downturn in its popularity.

Kaiju had to wait for the re-boot by a new generation of filmmakers in the 2000s, with a lot more focus on the encounter between Kaiju and the people.  The affection for the original charactors is what is significant, together with the emotions of fear, grief, and hope portrayed, and not just the effects and tricks. These are the keys to the resurgence of this much loved movie genre from Japan.

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