11.10.2013

PACIFIC RIM is the best kaiju film since GAMERA 3



When writings about the kaiju genre, the line between "what is" and "what isn't" is controversially quantified. Many say its subjective. Dracula would be called a kaiju in Japan. But, what is a kaiju eiga has to be a film in line with what popularized the genre and based on what it spawned, the collective aesthetic. Thus, criteria will be the presence of kaiju that are 100 feet tall plus the acknowledgement of Japanese kaiju eiga, whether it be mentions which matter to the story of the film to the aesthetics used in music, shot composition, ect. If a foreign adaptation of a Japanese kaiju is to count as kaiju eiga, then the character has to be represented respectably.

Chapter 1: "conscious of the heritage" - GDT

2004-2005 was death to kaiju eiga in Japan. The late 90's was the beginning of the tipping point. On one hand, Shusuke Kaneko predated Christopher Nolan by resurrecting Daiei's Gamera franchise with films whose quality juxtapose greatly with what came before. At the same time, the American Godzilla film premiered - an event in which fans were disappointed, Godzilla was made into a generic giant monster ripped of the qualities unique to the Godzilla character. All charm was drained out. Meanwhile, Toho tried to resurrect Godzilla from 1999-2004. Tomoyuki Tanaka had passed away, leaving Shogo Tomiyama to become the producer of Toho's Godzilla films.

Shogo Tomiyama is a producer who seems sketchy. In the documentary BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE, Tomiyama claims that he tries to emphasize a "sense of wonder" with Godzilla films. Elsewhere, Tomiyama exhibits that this sense of wonder is something Tomiyama associates only in the image and not the screenplay. Oriental Cinema mentions in their review for GODZILLA 2000 "According to a Japanese talk show, Tomiyama agrees that the human subplots shouldn't propel the main story of any Godzilla films." Tomiyama's misunderstanding continued on when commenting on 2001's GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL OUT ATTACK's success being more so than 2002's GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA. As shown in an interview on Henshin!Online [in context of box office numbers], "Not as well as GODZILLA-MOTHRA-KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK but better than GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS. I think, as in the case of GMK, last year's box office success was partly owed to the animated co-feature HAMTARO (Tottoko Hamutaro). But as a producer, I seriously tried to find any specific reason why GMK had been more profitable than GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA." GMK was almost the last Godzilla film of the Millennium series. GMK brought Shusuke Kaneko in to direct a Godzilla film many say is the best since the 80's, if not, since the Showa series. Shogo Tomiyama is a producer who lacks an artistic viewpoint that could balance out the business side of his thinking.

For the rest of the Godzilla series, Shogo Tomiyama brought back a director who had failed with GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS, Masaaki Tezuka, who luckily made two good Godzilla films, only to bring in Ryuhei Kitamura in a career-killing move to make GODZILLA: FINAL WARS where there was more emphasis on other film-source styled human fighting in lieu of kaiju fighting. While Kitamura's film was an aesthetic failure on an anniversary year, Tezuka's attempts were outshined by Hollywood productions. With GODZILLA, MOTHRA, MECHAGODZILLA: TOKYO SOS, box office attendance was skim considering that at the same time, Japan had American imports THE LAST SAMURAI and FINDING NEMO for the choosing.

The principle at play here is a paradox. Godzilla films have become entertainment without much of a social message and keeping on to the heritage kept to using suit (though CG has started being used as a main proponent, starting with GAMERA 3 from 1999). Problem is that the miniature effects alienate CG-savvy audiences who lack suspension of disbelief. Tomiyama saying in a HenshinOnline interview that Godzilla films are meant to be "entertainment, not political movies", something which has always been a backbone to give kaiju films substance to counterbalance the aesthetic-specific special effects, shows a lack of knowledge regarding the mechanics of the genre. The Masaaki Tezuka films from 2002 and 2003 tried to tell a tale of life after death in a very science based world, but it didn't work.

After GODZILLA:FINAL WARS, the kaiju genre quickly took a turn for the satirical. ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT, a henshin property with kaiju that has been able to survive due to television was the only real winner here, complete with a darker take on the generally light hearted franchise. Big productions otherwise failed. GUILALA'S COUNTER ATTACK, which contained potty humor with a sprinkle of meta-humor didn't click with audiences. GAMERA: LITTLE BRAVES was a good family film, with some great direction, but the changing of Gamera's roar was only the top of the list as far as why it didn‘t click with audiences. The American produced DEATH KAPPA went out of its way to be “traditional” when it was not matting images together while mixing in whacky humor, including a cameo by a transvestite. Meanwhile, the only success kaiju eiga had in Japan were smaller independent projects like G, GEHARHA, DEEP SEA MONSTER REIGO, RAIGA which gained notoriety for being quality productions, but the metaphysical comedy was still reigned in. There was a change in the audience. The dichotomy for what passed the test for realism grew more complex thanks to films like THE DARK KNIGHT or IRON MAN. Realism was traded in for realistic. Kaiju eiga is a mix of science fiction and fantasy, a mix which doesn't get a lot of audiences. If there was going to be any resurgence in the genre, it was going to be something unexpected.

The possible rebirth of the kaiju film came out of left field, from America. Fans doubted it possible, considering 1998. First was 2008's CLOVERFIELD, a film which utilized a shaky-cam aesthetic for realism with a film that knew its heritage with the back story being regarding the Tagurato oil rig, an Ifukube-esque end theme, and a manga pseudo-sequel. Kaiju eiga has been through aesthetics resembling blockbusters, Italian neo-realism, German expressionism, and now late 90's fake-documentary variation of cinema verite. A lot of the logical scientific questions a cynical viewer might ask would be forgone due to emphasis on characters and the effects of the monster's presence and lack of emphasis of the monster itself. This kind of film is what Shinji Higuchi, special effects director of the 90’s Gamera trilogy was talking about in his hour and a half interviews on the Gamera trilogy DVDs.

What helped turn audiences away from kaiju eiga will help bring it back. The comic book movie climate has started opening doors for the mass marketing of other properties that was once seen as niche and geeky. These doors would let pass films which would technically be superior to the franchise installments that preceded it. 5 years after Cloverfield, PACIFIC RIM and a reboot of GODZILLA are here. This is where, when speaking about terms of heritage, PACIFIC RIM fits into the scheme of things (bringing in the aesthetic of world creation).

CHAPTER 2.1: THE REVIEW

The beginning of PACIFIC RIM is not unlike what you might see in Cloverfield. We get a kaiju film which shows us the kaiju head on, and brings us into the world of the film not going metaphysical with its substance. We are shown the emotion a character who has lived through this since he was 15 is feeling. In this monologue, we also get wrapped up in a logical turn of events. The first kaiju attack was memorialized (like 9/11), the success of the Jaeger program spawned a merchandising franchise in the gun-ho spirit of success (like World War II with characters like Captain America and films like Kelley's Heroes), and now the latest downturn in the kaiju wars where the kaiju are evolving faster than the Jaegers are being improved, and our main character - in one of the most emotional scenes in the film where Raleigh Brackett, all grown up and getting to fight the kaiju that have haunted his world since he was 15, looses his brother in a fight with the kaiju Knifehead. PACIFIC RIM concerns the end of the war, with the audience being treated to emotion backed up by details that give the proceedings an air of realism. This done via some shaky cam footage via news station footage, rogue guerilla direction (focus on a main subject is kept, but there is an uneasiness in the movement of the camera). The knife head fight is filmed in the same way as the rest of the movie, regular.

Then we are treated to a beginning credits sequence not unlike that of a Masaaki Tezuka Godzilla film or 1989's Gunhed. Pacific Rim fits.

If the beginning credits didn‘t suffice, there are other instances in which Guillermo Del Toro and Travis Beachman‘s script show their skills as fictional universe creators. The question of kaiju corpses has been answered with architecture centered around kaiju bones echoing the modernist buildings structured around trees. It also has an answer in a kaiju black market, which parallel's China's very real black market for endangered animal parts which have scientifically questionable effects on one's physiology. The question of kaiju motivation is also answered via the same as GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO; aliens wanting to conquer (question of timing is answered due to global warming a la GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH, unlike 2001 YONGGARY). The Jaeger program's rise and fall play's into the question of kaiju evolution and biology, detailed like ever before. Present is a two brain explanation showing that, like Godzilla or Rodan, the main source of inspiration for the kaiju’s internal biology are the dinosaurs. The brief mention of kaiju cults is like an indirect reference to readings of kaiju by people like Norio Akasaka who saw Godzilla as "a representation of the spirit of soldiers who died in the South Pacific", though Pacific Rim seemingly dismisses it. The fantasy is not in the divine but how something that would be atomically unstable in this world could exist.

The Jaeger program has it all too. Reminiscent of Gundam G or Evangelion in its engineering, the process by which is a good source of drama for the characters that, while relatable, is fiction enough to make it fantastic. Of course, the Jaegers are there more for a visual since giant robots is a future reality for the viewers. There is Top Gun esque machismo which pilots of older Jaegers are ridiculed and the like.

Chapter 2.2: The Evolution of what giant mech mean for Japan

The Jaegers though bring about a subtext to PACIFIC RIM. The use of the mecha, and the appearance of a Mecha toy, is indicative of a cultural context. In the very quick prologue of the film, we already see the national pride that the Jaegers are cloaked in with images of a child waving to a Jaeger followed by a parade of soldiers in a Jaeger exhibition. At the final scene of the Knifehead battle, in Anchorage, Del Toro makes a visual allusion: a tin toy robot. Tin toy robots, some of the oldest Japanese pop culture toys, a predecessor to the culture that creatively spawned the Jaegers, are icons. Japan took over the industry, taking what was originally a Nazi-era German product (nice, considering the Jaegers have a German name) and made it Japan’s own to the point that they became the toy making capitol of the world, a title they still own. The mecha-pride doesn't stop there.

The fact that there is a good Japanese connection to the film means that the following shouldn't be taken with a grain of salt. Consider that Mako, the most important female character of the film, was very young when she lost her parents to a kaiju attack and was almost killed specifically by a Ganimes-like kaiju. She was very young at the time (and the majority of the film takes place in 2025), it is easy to see that Japan was one of the first countries attacked by Kaiju. In a country whose atomic tragedies have made it a post-apocalyptic country, a kaiju attack is almost a repeat of such. Where as Mako's character makes an interesting comparison for Ayana in GAMERA 3, Japan's history (as shown in the film) is not unlike an almost restaging of Godzilla. Very much a metaphor which could be applied to the Heisei Mechagodzilla, the Jaegers are not just the only thing which can handle the kaiju physically, but it is almost beckoning of WW2 and post-WW2 sentiments. As mentioned by Crispin Freeman in ANIME: DRAWING A REVOLUTION, robots in Japanese culture have taken on an almost divine status, the physical embodiment of science getting humans closer to the celestial, almost embodying a kami sentient being for Japan. Mecha like Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor) evolved out of this notion. WWII Japanese citizens imagined a giant robot laying waste to their antagonist, America. This is the role that a Jaeger might take for a character like Mako. The physical aesthetics of the Jaeger, particularly Gypsy Danger, could be seen as a point against this, but Mako riding Gypsy Danger talks more to the sense of teamwork that the countries that share the Pacific Rim took up. But, as Mako starts piloting a Jaeger (and the untold story of Japan’s Jaeger - Coyote Tango) it is almost as if Japan has turned a one time resent against who were ultimately the good guys and turned it toward a global threat - the world saving the world being a theme Del Toro has stressed.

Chapter 2.3: Kaiju

The physicality of the kaiju is what makes the film the most legitimate as kaiju film. As Del Toro has said in interviews, the kaiju were designed with one (of many) factors in place: the kaiju had to look as if they could have been alternatively played by a man in a suit. Not only that, but a good bunch of the Pacific Rim kaiju resemble kaiju we know and love. Knifehead looks like Guiron, Otachi looks like Gyaos, Leatherback looks like King Kong, and Scunner looks like Destoroyah (in the head). Alas, unlike the Godzilla from 1998 or even the Cloverfield monster, these kaiju take attacks head on and are more aggressive than any animal you have seen. There are energy attacks utilized as well as chemical ones which all
kaiju should have.

The heart of the kaiju though is the question of what kind of place the kaiju hold in nature. In a move which kaiju fans (particularly ones who grew up with the kaiju eiga of the 80's-90's), Raleigh Beckett likens the kaiju in this narration, "There are things you can't fight - acts of God. You see a hurricane coming, you get out of the way. But when you're in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win." The kaiju are a force of nature, reinforced with the use of the anti-kaiju wall, a parallel of _. Are the kaiju a force of nature? If the answer is yes, then wouldn't they have to be naturally occurring? Indeed, foreign life forms (in this case, extra terrestrials) taking over an eco system for their own use is natural. Its a gargantuan in magnitude example of competition. But considering that the kaiju are actually genetically engineered by an intelligent cause (other than man no less), are they really a part of nature? Is it the new phase of resource competition or something else? Looking back on the Heisei Godzilla films where Godzilla was a force of nature, the fact that instead of being awaken he was awakened makes us re-question such a dichotomy, a need to define or redefine "force of nature" considering the kaiju coming from a non-natural occurrence. This is what the Jaegers are fighting against. And these two backgrounds are what makes PACIFIC RIM a good piece of dialectic filmmaking, a film that interacts with film heritage.

Chapter 2.4 - Direction

The script for PACIFIC RIM does what its creators intended it to do. It kept itself simple, without delving too much into commentary of socio-political topics or too much emotion. Considering the filmic landscape as of recent, it is quite refreshing. Even a master like Akira Kurosawa said that good movies should be, enjoyable. Too much brain in a film might turn off viewers who, while liking some brain in their film, do not want to do miss out on other qualities of the film. Occasionally, such makes sense. Not too much substance to follow is a relief to the casual viewer. The lack of focus on Raleigh’s pain not only keeps his pain from trumping Stacker Pentecost’s, but also makes Raleigh seem like he has done a good job of covering up his brother’s death - something he must get over if to pilot Gypsy Danger again. A certain coldness that comes upon men who become dogs of war. But the real reason why the simplistic script for PACIFIC RIM is that such simplicity juxtaposes with the other half of filmmaking - the actual filming.

Though, as Scorsese has said, digital images have made film into a more painterly medium, mis en scene is still a factor. Del Toro drew inspiration from paintings such as Francisco Goya’s THE COLOSSUS, Hokusai’s THE GREAT WAVE, and the boxing paintings of George Bellows. Along with a close connection to films such as WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and other Showa era works, Del Toro studied so that he could attain the “Sense of wonder”, that “sense of awe”. When it comes to the scenes with kaiju and/or the Jaegers. The fight scene in Hong Kong is the best example of this, many shots which are well directed. Del Toro makes it so that the angle of coverage and movement of the camera compliment and magnify what is actually going on. Leatherback's grandios apperance has two shots - one being sharing the shot with an out of focus Cherno Alpha, Striker Eureka being covered up in the shot by Leatherback emerging, with the following shot using Leatherback's jump in the air and the water falling off of him and his added height from being ontop of Cherno Alpha just making Leatherback seem that much more gargantuan. The lighting in the middle of the shot helps intensify Leatherback's presence all the more. The same goes for when Leatherback grabs at Gypsey Danger. Del Toro frames the shot so that Leatherback’s arms cover most of Gypsy Danger, and all around great waves of water fill the frame, covering Gypsy Danger even more. The direction not only shows what is happening, but uses colors, lighting, and how characters and objects in the frame to add to the actions an emphasis.

The color timing for the SFX scenes is also directed (as mentioned by Del Toro in official youtube videos). The color code of the film seems to be that if you are fighting in a place that is primarily colored blue, then the kaiju are going to win. The closer you are to colors of green, yellow, magenta, red, the more likely the Jaeger are going to win. If it is a scene in the daytime, then the Jaegers are going to win. As Del Toro told the Wall Street Journal, Pacific Rim utilizes“crazy color palettes” and “very romantic, crazy atmospherics.”

Other good tibits of direction include digital effects when it comes to the filmming of regular scenes with actors and actresses. Such is when Raleigh looks at the Jaegers in the Shatterdome, with Raleigh moving at normal speed and everyone else going as if the shot was filmmed at a faster frame rate. We have a very Ang Lee-transition where a work person in the Shatterdome moves past the camera, on one side of the person is the previous shot, the other side is the next shot. Not to mention, in the last bit of Mako's reminicience, we have a transition where the same rock formation that the camera pans in front of transitions to a much wider aerial shot, with the camera not zooming out or panning upwards.

CHAPTER 2.5 - CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

PACIFIC RIM is a tightly written film. A film full of subtleties when it comes to the human characters, this will become a film which the more you watch it, the more you will notice little tibits which, while subtle, will help give a fuller view of the Pan Pacific Defence Force Characters. As mentioned by other people who have written about PACIFIC RIM, there are little things to notice like how the Kazinski's behave toward eachother (the wife being easily the more expressionate in combat and in simple human things like calling a husband to lunch), while Mako dies the tip of her hair to the blue she was wearing when she was attacked by Onibaba. There are other, maybe better, examples of this within the film.

Such is with the TOP GUN-esque drama between Chuck Hansen, pilot of Striker Eureka, and Raleigh. Its not so much that Raleigh is dangerous, but another layer added is Raleigh being made a reason why the Jaeger program had resources shut down and the government cancel the Jaeger program until Striker Eureka saved Sydney, Australia from a kaiju. Travid Beckham and Guillermo Del Toro know better though and add more to the dynamic. The first thing to realize is the respect that is given to Raleigh by Stacker Pentecost and Chuck's father, Herc Hansen. Another thing to pay attention to is the pro's given to Raleigh's fighting style. Very much in a Jeet Kun-Do manner, it is commented by Mako as deviating from standard combat style, being unpredictable in the risks taken. Raleigh even quotes Bruce Lee from ENTER THE DRAGON when he fights Mako saying that "this is not a fight, this is a dance". A third thing to mention is that, unlike Iceman from TOP GUN, Chuck Hansen and his father end up making the same kind of mistake that Raleigh and his brother make at the beginning of the film by disobeying Stacker Pentecost, going into a situation they did not understand the full parimiters of, and have Leatherback send out an electromagnetic pulse disabling Striker Eureka. But, alas, Chuck isn't such a bad guy. Though saying to Raleigh that he quite likes his life and doesn't want to die, he ends up dying like the hero he has set himself up to be when needing to take out Scunner and Slattern.

Then we have the whole bit in reguards to Stacker and Mako's history and the process of Raleigh, being proffessionally close to Stacker and personally close to Mako, learning of the history. Something the film does is use different aspects of this same process to keep us from wondering too much and guessing, correctly or not, what happened. Such is when we might start getting some feeling that Stacker adopted Mako, after seeing Mako's pleading with Stacker (in Japanese) to keep his promise and seeing that Mako was saved by Coyote Tango. Before we find out anything, we become distracted with the next scene of Stacker - in an elevator - wiping blood from his right nostril and taking a pill to help relieve such. Alas, when it comes to Raleigh finding out Stacker is sick, we see that Mako is kept in the dark of such. Having drifted, if Mako knew her father figure was sick, Raleigh would know (and Mako's inexperience with the drift is evidence, she is not able to hide or not take certain memories from the drift). Mako's having to leave her father behind, knowing he will die because of the cancer, because of the wages of battle, or because of the bomb strapped to Striker Eureka's back, is just that much more tragic because she did not know until a couple of hours (at most) before that her father figure was sick.

CONCLUSION

There is probably a lot more that can be said about PACIFIC RIM then what has been talked about above, but this is what I have noticed after seeing the film only three times, weeks in between each viewing. At G-FEST, a lot of people showed dissapointment with the film, while I say it is a kaiju-sized achievement. For those eagle eyed viewers, you will notice that the film means to show visuals that use color nicely and have those being the main show of artistry rather than the writing, while the writing might be good enough to capture the attention of some of the more tentative viewers. Broken away from the totally metaphysical and self-refferential except in style, PACIFIC RIM might reinvigorate Japan's movie makers to make kaiju one again, a film to point to where the genre can and could go. Its flashy without outsourcing from other films, it interacts with themes from its genre-brethren, and is truly epic. PACIFIC RIM is part of a sub-genre of the kaiju sub-genre (which is a sub-genre of monster films in general, separated by aesthetic differences) that I christen the Neo-Kaiju genre, and it is this film - unlike CLOVERFIELD or the upcomming GODZILLA, that I think Eiji Tsuburaya would have wanted to make for Eiji's favorite audience, the children. Here's to PACIFIC RIM 2!