Where Art Thou, Kaiju Monsters of Yesteryear?

You still have a place in the wellspring of my heart, old friends.

In 1954, a Japanese stuntman by the name of Haruo Nakajima wriggled into a suit made of 270 lbs. of stiff vulcanized rubber.  The limbs were inflexible and painful to wear, the body unventilated and stifling, and the tail pulled his spine into an unnatural curve.  Under the haze of dozens of halogen studio lamps in a cramped Tokyo soundstage, he paused until the instant he heard the director shout the repeated phrase “Haimemashou!” (“Begin the action!”)

With that, Nakajima began a dangerous game of filmmaking chicken — pushing himself to stay conscious in the extreme discomfort of the poorly-constructed costume and searing film lights… just long enough to destroy as many papier-mâché skyscrapers, cars, tanks, trains and villagers as possible before the overwhelming pain and exhaustion of the scene pushed him into heat stroke.

Several weeks later, in a separate soundstage, an actor by the name of Jiro Mitsuaki turned his gaze to the empty ceiling overhead as the cameras rolled on him,  awaiting him to summon every ounce of his strength to shout one, very strange word at the top of his lungs. He was to yell as loud as the condenser microphones could register. One word out of fear for his life. At the time, it was a nonsense word. But a terrifying one.

“GOJIRA!” he screamed. “GOJIRA! GOJIRA!” he shouted again and again.  Gojira. Literally translated, “Gorilla-Whale”. Nonsense.

Gojira.

KING OF THE MONSTERS!

Then and there, history claimed a champion. The reluctant warrior king of Monster Island would reign supreme against his gargantuan and often perplexing kaiju foes for another 28 films, three television series, dozens of video games, and leave an immeasurable cultural impact on the soft and impressionable minds of young boys everywhere the world over.

But now they’re gone.  The “boss Tanaka” monster movies have ceased production, the cardboard cities lay untrampled in a darkened storage room, dusty and forgotten.  The Godzilla franchise now appears to be in permanent development limbo.

Little did the filmmakers at Toho Company, Ltd. know that fifty-six years later, it wouldn’t be an experimental Oxygen Destroyer weapon or sentient pollution or a mutant cosmic space clone that finally killed the beloved giant radioactive lizard.

It would be J.J. Abrams.

Hey there!

Before I begin receiving angry emails from bloggers and J.J.-Heads or whatever the superfans call themselves, please know that to blame Abrams exclusively would be ludicrous. I’m well aware that he is just taking marching orders, and the fall of kaiju monster movies and their ilk is really the fault of the Hollywood industry itself that funds and greenlights what becomes popular culture.

If anything, I feel sorry for Abrams. I enjoy his movies for the most part.  He obviously has a deep and abiding fondness for Japanese superbeasts, and has probably done more than any other filmmaker in the last decade to try to resurrect them in mainstream narrative fiction that I’m aware of working in the studio system today. In Abrams own words, he explains his inspiration for “Cloverfield” on a trip to Japan with his son:

“We saw all these Godzilla toys, and I thought, we need our own American monster, and not like King Kong. I love King Kong. King Kong is adorable. And Godzilla is a charming monster. We love Godzilla. But I wanted something that was just insane, and intense.” – J.J. Abrams, 2008

But the fact of the matter is that while the creatures he’s created and inspired with his new wave of monster flicks are often part of a truly ripping story, fully loaded with eye-bursting special effects, emotional resonance and slick visual storytelling, all of these “good” elements of modern American cinematic hyper-reality are the complete opposite of traditional kaiju awesomeness.

Let’s compare, shall we?

KAIJU MONSTERS OF OLD:

THE “NEW” MOVIE MONSTERS:

Am I the only one left feeling that the monster designs of this “new generation” come across as… well, bland?  Sure, the Toho school of men in rubber suits might seem a little hokey. That was the point. As a viewer, you’re rooting as much for the guy trapped in 9 hours’ worth of cheap latex to survive the next tripwire stunt as you are for the monster on the screen.

With this new batch of Abrams-inspired beasties, you have little more to cheer at than a tennis ball on a stick that’s been painted out by a digital artist over  months of post-production.  Not to mention they all… uh… look and behave almost exactly the same.  Whatever happened to the cinematic cojones it took to make a monster out of an endangered condor?

What’s to be learned from all of this? Not much. Hollywood isn’t likely to change its mind on recycling the same hyper-sleek copycat production values, and the closest thing we have to contemporary kaiju films from Tokyo herself is the occasional appearance of very post-modern arthouse films like Big Man Japan:

Hilarious, but just not quite the same.

In the mean time, all we can really do is appreciate the classics for the lost art that they are and wait for the rest of the world to come to their senses.  Until then, we always have the live action efforts of admirable reinactment groups like Kaiju Big Battel as a fine port to weather us through the storm.

Keep fighting the good fight.

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About Aaron J. Waltke

Aaron J. Waltke is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the National Lampoon, Comedy Central and in his secret diary that his older sister is never, ever supposed to find. He enjoys antiquarianism, obscurantism and sesquipedalianism.

Posted on August 18, 2011, in Aaron Waltke, History Lessons, Movies, Pop Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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