The Cambridge Free English Dictionary and Thesarus defines the prefix "neo" as, "new or recent, in a modern form". Today's modern cinematic landscape, particularly in America, is filled with post-modernism and metaphysical films such as 1996's SCREAM and 2003/2004's KILL BILL. Films are referencing and twisting the aesthetics of it's genre, including films which imitate aesthetics from foreign lands. The kaiju film is a sub-genre of the monster film.
Distinctly Japanese, the kaiju film's audience from the genre's heyday here in North America have now grown up and are making films themselves. Within the last five years, we have seen the come of two films, CLOVERFIELD (2008) and PACIFIC RIM (2013). These two films, the biggest and most notable giant monster films from the past five years, were influenced greatly by the kaiju sub-genre. The history of the kaiju film though is that of a foreign group of artists trying to put their own spin on a genre from a foreign land, America which produced movies like KING KONG (1933) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). The kaiju film has come full circle, with the country who originated the giant monster movie accept kaiju film aesthetics as their own. Now is the time to explore the genre.
Questions to be asked include what has been brought over from the kaiju genre, how the Americans have elevated the aesthetic, the reception of the new aesthetic in the source's home country, and the importance of the new aesthetic overall. These questions will help build a definition for a sub-genre of kaiju film, the neo-kaiju film.
DEFINING "KAIJU EIGA"
Long has the whole of cinema's monster films, from human sized monsters like Dracula and the Wolfman, to that of King Kong and the Kraken, been generally called monster films, which is interchangeable with the term "kaiju eiga". Yet has kaiju eiga been used to denote a regional sub-genre of a genre, similar to how the Italians made the "Spaghetti Western", a sub-genre of the western. In many books, such as Gina Misiroglu's THE SUPERHERO BOOK, one would get the impression that kaiju eiga is tied to the technique of suitamation, which all kaiju films exhibit. An accurate, though informal, appropriation of what would set "kaiju eiga" apart can be found in DAIKAIJU: GIANT MONSTER TALES. What is offered is as follows, "To us, daikaiju tales require monsters of unreasonable size, impossible and outlandish dimension, relativities that border on (And sometimes cross into) the utterly absurd... daikaiju are fantastical and provoke awe through the sheer audacity of their conception." Other qualities include, "A perchant for city-trashing and
apocalyptic destruction. Metaphorical undercurrents. A sense that the kaiju are more than just beasts - personality, in other words, albeit of a non-human kind. Pseudo-scientific and metaphysical pretensions. Vast scope. Incredible power. A certain cosmic inevitability. Daikaiju are not scared of Man... classic daikaiju scorn man's military might... They are more like inhuman gods than unnatural beasts."
To illustrate this point, we can compare and contrast the 1954 kaiju eiga GODZILLA to the 1953 giant monster film THE BEAST
FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Destruction is a lot more prevalent in GODZILLA, and when destruction is depicted, it is of a wide
scale. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS has a monster that can barely tower above the infrastructure the beast is put into by
the story tellers. Another defining aspect is that while THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS helped start off the tradition of nuclear bombs causing giant monsters to exist tradition, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS doesn't show that the characters are aware of or feel anything in regards to that relation, that the destruction caused by the bomb is not yet over with. GODZILLA, on the other hand, does, as well as a lot of the other kaiju eiga to have been produced since.
PROLOGUE: AMERICAN KAIJU
Past the numerous pop culture inspired jokes and what not many tv shows and films made of the genre, there has been only a couple of times in which original kaiju-eiga styled entertainment has been made. Not of such is Power Rangers, which is considered by the main stream audience as for kids, though a growing geek culture is seeing a change in that. 1996 and 1998 saw the release of two independent, straight-to-video productions: ZARKORR: THE INVADER! and KRAA: THE SEA MONSTER. These films use suitamation and models of a lower quality to depict their monsters, but the films are largely comedic and seem to go out of their way to replicate the cheese and schlock of the films that probably inspired them. Kaiju on television that was original by Americans is non-existent, though the closest one would get to is the 2012 Hasbro series KAIJUDO: MASTERS OF THE DUEL. KAIJUDO is an American animated series based on the card game of the same name (also produced by Hasbro), based on the Shogakukan-owned franchise DUEL MASTERS. The last venture into kaiju entertainment would be more independent ventures like Studio Kaiju's KAIJU BIG BATTLE. Enacted by a troupe lead by Rand and David Boren, the troupe stage kaiju fights in a ring littered with model cities.
Recorded versions of the fights are available on DVD through their website. Such is similar with director Takao Nakano's
DEPARTMENT H kaiju fights with people dressing in kaiju suits to fight to the death (or strip). Merchandise included San Francisco-based MAX TOY COMPANY's original kaiju figures by Mark Nagata.
But then things got serious.
CASE STUDY #1: CLOVERFIELD
“Japan had this incredible history of having these incredible monster movies, and we, with the exception of King Kong, never really tapped into that. We started thinking what if America had its own monster.” -Bryan Burk, producer
In a 3 part interview of the ADV DVD release of the Heisei Gamera trilogy, special effects auteur Shinji Higuchi was asked, "The kaiju films you want to film don't need to have monster anymore?" The answer was "yes". Through what is commonly termed "shakycam" cinematography, CLOVERFIELD almost completely accomplishes this. Shakycam, an aesthetic popularized by THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) is a variant of a broader aesthetic: cinema verite (also known as neo-realism, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica). It is through the use of neo-realism which makes CLOVERFIELD aesthetically a parallel to the first known kaiju film, GODZILLA (1954). Ishiro Honda, applying his experiences as a Chinese POW in WWII and a witness to the direct aftermath of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki Bombings, Honda's rarely moving camera creates a documentarian style which is in line with another kind of post-WWII film, the Italian Neo-Realist film. As J. Hoberman mentioned in his booklet for Criterion’s release of the original Godzilla, “Its like a crazy documentary.”
The newer variation of the old aesthetic being applied to CLOVERFIELD was meant to reach the same depicting of anxiety like the original Godzilla. As said by Matt Reeves in his audio commentary for Cloverfield, "From the beginning, a lot of people were saying, 'wow, the movie, does it have this kind of 9/11, sort of, angle to it?' And in a certain sense, I think we were always aware that it did in that we felt like it was a way of dealing with the anxieties of our time in the same way GODZILLA (1954) was, you know. Genre movies hold that kind of spot in film in that they deal with very real anxieties that people have, that's why they are effective. Godzilla sort of came out of the whole A-Bomb nightmare for Japan and the idea of this sort of unfathomable, terrifying force and that sort of
destructive thing... and all of the anxieties that came out of that atomic age... those monsters spoke to everyone." Unlike THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which used shakycam to heighten the feeling of realism, footage in CLOVERFIELD had a direct real-life parallel: bystander-shot footage of 9/11. This was America's spin on what made Godzilla dynamic. In DOCUMENT 1.18.08: THE MAKING OF CLOVERFIELD, producer JJ Abrams' motivation for the film concerned Godzilla. "My son, Henry, and I, went to Tokyo last year. We went to a bunch of toys stores and I realized, at almost of them, Godzilla was still featured. It struck me that there was this iconic monster that still so many years latter still had meaning to the culture... I wish we had a monster like that."
When talking about the designing of the Cloverfield monster on the DVD, designer Nevil Page said, “How much has JJ told you about the whole Godzilla thing?” The Cloverfield monster works as a kaiju simply because of something else Nevil has said, “Its walking on two legs, and it has the emotive qualities of a human, but it clearly needs to look interesting and alien.”
Such influence was also part of the limited use of music in the film. As Matt Reeves recounts in the audio commentary for
CLOVERFIELD, "One of the fun things about the movie, because we were actually going to see the aesthetic all the way through... we would essentially make a movie with no score. And so there is no music in the movie other than source music... But then, at the end, originally, Kevin Stitt (editor) when he first showed me the cut of the movie, had taken the music from GODZILLA, this great score from the original Godzilla and it was just great, and we sort of thought, 'Oh, wouldn't it be fun for us to do our own version of that.' JJ and Brian had a great relationship with Michael Giacchino, and it turned out he was a huge monster movie fan, and that he loved all of that Godzilla music, and he relished the idea of this... overture at the end." All of the hallmarks of an Ifukube theme is there n the end credits theme, "Roar!". Ostanato, the constant repetition of measures within the music, is present with a lot of bass percussion accompanied by a Shobijin-from-Mothra-esque choir.
As far as the story's content is concerned, the rather large focus on the human characters is a distinguishing factor. But make no mistake, the Cloverfield monster ravashes New York City, not even a nuclear bomb is able to stop it (at the end of the end credits, you hear a voice say "Its still alive"). Cloverfield follows through, in its own way, all of the qualities which would make CLOVERFIELD fit in the dichotomy of "kaiju eiga".
CASE STUDY #2: PACIFIC RIM
If CLOVERFIELD mirrored the original GODZILLA, then PACIFIC RIM mirrors the middle 60's kaiju heyday. The further along
the Godzilla franchise went, the lighter Godzilla became. The audience grew younger, and the films pandered to that young audience (which only grew since the original film). Along with an audience change, the fusing of Godzilla with other kaiju properties (particularly 1961's MOTHRA, a fantasy) an the entering of screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa gave the kaiju personalities, common enemies, and made Godzilla a dynamic character. To Eiji Tsuburaya, the Godzilla series' special effects director, Kaiju were action science-fantasies (more science fiction though than fantasy). Tsuburaya once said, "My heart and mind is as they were when I was a child. I loved to play with toys and to read stories of magic. I still do. My wish is to only make life happier and more beautiful for those who will go see my films of fantasy." This is the kind of kaiju film that PACIFIC RIM director Guillermo Del Toro mentions in "Pacific Rim Featurette: Kaiju", "there is something very pure and very full of love in monster movies, even more so in kaiju movies." That is not to say Del Toro doesn't know of the darker origins of the genre. When being interviewed by the Criterion Collection (which released the original GODZILLA in 2012), Del Toro said, "Well, the first Godzilla, which I saw as a kid, was such a gloomy movie for me. It was like a social realism, it had such drama in it, such sense of tragedy."
Unlike CLOVERFIELD, which shows little of its single kaiju and has a color palate of desaturated white, brown, black, and some
green, PACIFIC RIM shows a lot of its multiple kaiju in an environment which utilizes more than a rainbow's worth of color.
Where as CLOVERFIELD was minimalist when showing the kaiju, PACIFIC RIM has them front and center. Del Toro's view since
childhood was, "When I watched giant monster movie, the big money shot was the monster, and in Japanese kaiju films, that's what its about." Mirroring the variety of kaiju the Godzilla and other franchises had, numerous monsters were necessary. Numerous kaiju resemble, partially or to a good extent, kaiju from the Godzilla and Gamera franchises. Knifehead looks like Guiron, Scunner resembles Destoroyah, Otachi is considerable to a Gyaos, so on, so forth. Design technicalities aside, Del Toro challenged his kaiju designers. one of the rules I gave kaiju designers was I wanted to think how a man in a suit would fit in there. The kaijus are trying to honor the spirit and feeling of the classical kaiju, we are keeping them two legged... remind you of the spirit of the classical ones."
Remind, not copy exact sequences. As Del Toro has said, “One of the first things I did is make it a point to not check any old movies or any other references." To be more specific, “We should not re-watch Gamera, or re-watch Gojira, or re-watch War of the
Like CLOVERFIELD, PACIFIC RIM has a soundtrack that adheres to the usual sound design of a kaiju film's score. The main
theme for PACIFIC RIM, though heavy on a rock and roll feeling, use of percussion for the feeling of an Ifukube piece every now and again. This would be repeated through out the rest of the soundtrack. In an interview with Wired, composer Ramin Djawadi said, "For the kaiju, he wanted to stay more on the traditional side, to pay homage to the Godzilla-type theme, so we used big trombone sections.So based on those conversations, I sat down and started writing theme ideas. Before we even put music to picture, I played him these, and then we started plugging them into the film to see what would work."
Epic destruction, Giant monsters which are called kaiju that go so far as to have energy weapons, what next? PACIFIC RIM has
come at a time where every country is picking sides in a multi-angled build up to an unknowable event. The economy is terrible,
religious extremists are waging war in the middle east, the last truly communist country is escalating it's nuclear capabilities, and America is coming down. This is a time where a lot of people believe that they are living times fulfilling prophecies regarding the apocalypse. In a movement of international optimism, PACIFIC RIM's story at large is about the whole world. As Guillermo Del Toro has said, "I didn't want the film to be about a country saving the world, I wanted it to be the world saving the world". The weapons responsible for "cancelling the apocalypse" are weapons which armed forced do not control, with the Jaeger forces going more in tune with an independent "Ranger" style, which sub-textually offers a reason why the Jaeger forces win. It isn't the military or the navy, its
THE JAPANESE CONNECTION
Other than the obvious influence that kaiju eiga has had on these two (soon to be three with the up-coming reboot of GODZILLA, from the same company that produced PACIFIC RIM) films, the films have a common connection via events in Japan.
In CLOVERFIELD, all we hear about Japan comes from the main character Robert Hawkins' going away party for a trip to Japan.
While such is ironic considering he is going to be the victim of a kaiju attack, an almost genre-referential joke, it is also ironic considering the CLOVERFIELD universe's story which is kept in viral marketing videos (which are easter eggs on the DVD and Blu-Ray). In the viral marketing, Tagruato - a Japanese company responsible for the production of the Slusho beverage - has an Atlantic oil rig attacked by the Cloverfield kaiju. Interesting is that while english "coverage" of the oil rig attack mentions Tagruato doesn't know what happened, a Japanese television report quite clearly and frankly says at the beginning of the report "kaiju".
With PACIFIC RIM, kaiju are actually caled kaiju, complete with a dictionary-esque definition before the film plays. One of the main characters, Mako Mori, is an english speaking Japanese jaeger pilot. PACIFIC RIM's Japanese connection is much more well fleshed out with a couple of important plot points having taken place in Japan or part of the universe-specific vocabulary being taken from the Japanese language.
Alas, the films also help by being received in Japan well. Cloverfield got a prequel manga serial the same year it was released. Published by Kadokawa Shoten, CLOVERFIELD: KISHIN, takes place in Japan before the events of the Chuai rig incident.
PACIFIC RIM was well received enough that Japanese professionals like Katsuya Terada and Yoji Shinkawa making their own
professional posters for the film simply because they loved the film. Hideo Koijima wrote a multi-tweet message about PACIFIC
RIM, saying, “Dear twitter friends, The followings are my comment regarding "Pacific Rim". Luckily I was allowed to tweet in public by WB.I have never imagined that I would be fortunate enough to see a film like this in my life. The emotional rush I had inside me was the same kind I had when I felt the outer space via "2001: A Space Odyssey" and and when I had touched the dinosaur in "Jurassic Park". Animation and special effects movies and shows that I loved in my childhood days - they all truly exist in the screen. Director Guillermo del Toro offers this spectacular vision of massive kaijus and robots in PACIFIC RIM. This film is not simply a film to be respected, but most importantly, it let us dream the future of entertainment movies. Pacific Rim is the ultimate otaku film that all of us had always been waiting for. Who are you, if you are Japanese and won't watch this? I hope you would accept this inspirational love
letter that had traveled across the Pacific, written by Director Guillermo del Toro.”
COMMONALITIES: DEFINING "NEO-KAIJU"
This new breed of kaiju film from America can be called "Neo-Kaiju" through following what CLOVERFIELD and PACIFIC RIM
has in common in terms of style and substance. When it comes to the kaiju, the main kaiju (singular or plural) has to be close to 250 feet tall in being able to effectively cause mass amounts of property damage within a metropolis. American neo-kaiju are usually four armed and two legged with the ability to be bipedal. The kaiju also have problems with parasites.
The films themselves retain a close tie to Japan, whether it be a destination or the nationality of a character. The film also ties itself with Japanese visual aesthetics and musical aesthetic, filming the monster at a good portion of the time at eye level regardless of logic that would say otherwise and a score which uses ostanato and brass percussion for a bellowing dramatic theme or themes.
The content of the film has to show that while it has themes tied in with the emotional toll of the story, the themes ties back to the society that the viewer of the film is experiencing. CLOVERFIELD deals with post-9/11 paranoia, PACIFIC RIM deals with a world whose countries have to trust each other after a time of political turmoil, and who knows what the future will hold.
THE RETURN OF GODZILLA
Legendary, being a company that specializes in movies based on properties with large fan bases with a CEO who is a fan of what his company produces an the franchises associated, is now finishing their Godzilla reboot, 10 years after GODZILLA: FINAL WARS and 16 years after Tri-Star made their film. A lot of what the Tri-Star film could have meant for the genre could now be fulfilled with Legendary's new film. In an interview, the late producer of the Showa and Heisei Godzilla series Shogo Tomiyama thought that foreign made Godzilla films were a logical step in the life of the franchise. Shogo said, "When Godzilla dies at the end of the first movie, a Japanese professor says there might be more than one Godzilla. This time even though he dies, the one who comes back for Tri-Star could be a different Godzilla." The 1998 film came and went, thus the new American Godzilla might not be all that different, with everyone involved with Legendary's Godzilla saying a variation of the film going back to the themes of the 1954 Godzilla. Interestingly enough, the proof of concept trailer for Godzilla included a monologue by J. Robert Oppenheimer, explaining his guilt for becoming the "Father of the atomic bomb". Guilt could be a theme in the up coming Godzilla film.
As of this writing, Pacific Rim has yet to be released on DVD and blu-ray, much less on cable television, so Pacific Rim's full impact on the culture has yet to be felt. Cloverfield's intentions for a kaiju for America can only be met if they were to make a sequel that captures anxieties unique to a would so many years after world, depending on how the film's universe reacted to the New York Attack. Are kaiju here to stay? No one knows, with talk of summer blockbuster fatigue and kaiju maybe not catching on with the general movie going audience. But these three films, Cloverfield, Pacific Rim, and Legendary's Godzilla are part of an interesting new wave of kaiju film. A wave of kaiju film which the aesthetics, created by a foreign country, have perfected the genre and have come back to be reinvigorated with special effects and other modern filmmaking techniques by the filmmakers who were inspired by the old kaiju films of old. It is a product of two influence cycles. Now we can look foreword to more independent Kickstarter-started kaiju comic ventures like KAIJU RISING and WORLD WAR KAIJU (comic books), KAIJU COMBAT (a video game), and a Syfy channel kaiju television series produced by Bryan Singer (Who helped reinvigorate the comic book genre with his X-MEN films).
It has come to my attention that talks of a “new era” are about on the forums and what not. In this rather informal appendix, I would like to point out a couple of truths.
The first truth is that there is a line of what is and what isn’t a kaiju film. TROLL HUNTER and THE HOST are not kaiju films. These films are in a class of their own, particularly with THE HOST, a film more akin to Cronenberg’s THE FLY than Godzilla. Peter Jackson’s King Kong isn’t even a kaiju film. It doesn’t borrow any of the aesthetics of such and was made long before the start of the Neo-Kaiju genre’s birth.
The second point is where future Japanese kaiju productions lie. If one was to look at more all-encompassing terms like “monster movie” or “kaiju movie”, then yes, PACIFIC RIM can be grouped along with the newly announced Gamera film Kadokawa Pictures recently announced. But once the dichotomy has reached its end, there is a difference between the two films. The Gamera film is, first and foremost, Japanese. Aesthetics seen in the way of a pre-Pacific Rim world are going to be shown. Pacific Rim might have caused a surge of intrigue into the over-arching genre (kaiju), but Pacific Rim – like Cloverfield and the new Godzilla film – are films which take that Japanese aesthetic and view it through a different lens.
As for the odd time between GAMERA THE BRAVE and the upcoming Gamera film, such films are not of the Millenium era. Rather, they are part of a metafictional series. The films were self-referential of their own genre, and they cannot be credited as the seemingly rising interest in kaiju – most of these films faired poorly at the box office.
A good analogy for what is and what isn’t neo-kaiju eiga comes from the evolution of the western. The western, like the giant monster movie, was started in America. A foreign country took it and made it their own (Japan turned giant monsters into kaiju, Italy turned the Western into the Spaghetti Western), and now we have the genres coming home (the Spaghetti Western has DJANGO UNCHAINED, kaiju has PACIFIC RIM).
Before we start using classifications fandom-wide, let’s make sure that such make sense.
BTW, interesting how spot on certain things about this writing have been spot on, considering the original version of this was published a good bit before MUTO toys and such were leaked.
BTW, interesting how spot on certain things about this writing have been spot on, considering the original version of this was published a good bit before MUTO toys and such were leaked.
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