Kaijuology 101 Lesson 1: What is a Kaiju?

Welcome to the very first lesson of Kaijuology 101! To explain briefly, this column is to discuss and explain various elements within the subgenre of Tokusatsu called kaiju-eiga (more on that later!). This column will provide details and facts about giant monster franchises such as Godzilla, Gamera, Ultraman and more as well as provide theories and professional analysis of various movies within the genre. So without further a due….

As the first lesson, let’s go over the basic principle that this column is about. What is “kaiju”? What does “kaiju –eiga” mean? What classifies a monster as a “kaiju”? These are all questions well get to in this lesson.

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First, let’s explain the root word of this lesson. “Kaiju” is the Japanese word for “strange beast” in the most common translation. This word is primarily used for things like monsters, since the whole concept of a monster is a creature that is abnormal whether it is size or freak abilities or even appearance. For example a kaiju can be a dinosaur that had been mutated by a freak accident, giving it an abnormal size and various abilities such as fire breath.

To further expand, kaiju are specifically apart of the genre of film and television called “tokusatsu”. Tokusatsu, or shortly Toku, is a line of Japanese film and television series that are focused on the use of special effects. The biggest examples of this genre are franchises such as Kamen Rider and Super Sentai (also known as Power Rangers in the US). The Tokusatsu genre is specifically a Japanese genre since it has a very distinctive visual and literary flare to it as opposed to American special effect pictures. In Toku, almost all the effects used within the production are practical effects. Men in monster costumes, miniature buildings, and props are all used within this genre.

Haruo Nakajima in the Godzilla suit stands along side Eiji Tsuburaya, the master of Japanese Special Effects, on the set of Invasion of Astro Monster (1965)
Haruo Nakajima in the Godzilla suit stands along side Eiji Tsuburaya, the master of Japanese Special Effects, on the set of Invasion of Astro Monster (1965)

The usage of CGI is the main factor that differentiates this genre from its American brethren because Tokusatsu rarely uses any computer rendering. However, as the technology improves and more widely available, CGI is being more integrated into the genre and the marriage between practical and CGI has become even better.

Let’s get back to the monsters! A word we mentioned earlier was “kaiju-eiga” and based on the information we’ve learned, we already know what the “kaiju” part of “kaiju-eiga” means. Simply put, “eiga” is just the Japanese word for “movies” or “films”. That simple, it means “monster movies” in Japanese.

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So, what exactly determines what is classified as kaiju-eiga or Tokusatsu or even a kaiju? This all depends on the origin of where the work of film or television is created. And since we’ve been using Japanese words through this column, I think you can guess what that means. Primarily, Tokusatsu and its subgenres, which include kaiju-eiga, are all Japanese made. So if it isn’t Japanese, it doesn’t count to put it simply.

That isn’t to say some other movie monsters aren’t technically kaiju as well. Monsters such as King Kong, Gorgo, and even the Kraken from Clash of the Titans can all be considered kaiju. The main defining characteristic is that they are massive creatures, often reawakened by humanity that will go out to destroy cities or safe people on occasion. However there is a specific way Japan uses kaiju as opposed to other countries which is pretty much defines what a kaiju really is.

Promotion still for King Kong (1933)
Promotion still for King Kong (1933)

banner_useinFilmKaiju are used in a variety of ways within Japanese film culture, often used as metaphors for social issues during the time. Since the dawn of kaiju-eiga began after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the US occupation, many monsters are used as metaphors for how atomic technology used irresponsibly can create horrors that mankind can barely stop. This theme that started with the granddaddy of all kaiju has still stayed with the medium throughout the years, only with some minor modification and then eventually evolved into broader social concepts such as over population, famine, etc.

Godzilla stomps his way through Tokyo, From Gojira (1954)
Godzilla stomps his way through Tokyo, From Gojira (1954)

In 1954, Gojira was released to the Japanese public and rather than be just a monster movie, Gojira presented the issue of atomic weaponry and used the titular character as one of the possible effects of the misuse of science. The film also was a statement against the recent “Lucky Dragon Number 5 incident” that involved a tuna boat wandering into a nuclear testing area of the coast of Japan and was involuntary witness to the largest atomic bomb of its time. Godzilla was presented as a force of nature amplified by the effects of the H-Bomb and mutating it into a massive threat.

Rather than just having it be an animal mutated, the film makers wanted to push the fact that Godzilla was as much of a victim of atomic weapons as Japanese citizens were. Many design choices included not have the famous atomic breath be just a stream of fire, but almost like a mist that resembled one of the after effects of an atomic blast called “shi no hai” or “death ash” which was what the crew of the Lucky Dragon Number 5 experienced. Another choice was having the skin of Godzilla look burned and cracked as if the monsters skin was scorched by the blazing hot temperatures an atomic bomb gives off after it detonates. Even as the kaiju smashed through Tokyo, its most harmful ability was that due to be irradiated by atomic weapons it would leave heavy amounts of radiation in its wake, potentially killing thousands of people just by being near its footprint.

Godzilla shooting his atomic fire, From Gojira (1954)
Godzilla shooting his atomic fire, From Gojira (1954)

Godzilla was to be shown as a ancient creature lashing out at man for disturbing its long slumber with the use of atomic fire and presented as a physical representation of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With Godzilla being the trendsetter for many kaiju throughout the decades, many kaiju-eiga use the concept of atomic weapons heavily and how the monsters within the movies are but tragic figures, not wishing to be disturbed from their homes or slumber but suddenly awakened by the folly of man

As stated before, this idea has only had slight changes through the decades, but only to meet the standard of the time the film was set in. For example, 1995’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe allowed the antagonizing kaiju called Gyaos to be a solution to waste produced by humanity but quickly grow out of control and would be further fueled by the heavy uses of fossil fuels, deforestation, and other harmful acts humans were doing to the planet. Kaiju aren’t used just simply for entertainment value, but challenge the audience and present ideas that normally movie goers wouldn’t necessarily think about.

The Shadow of Evil, Gyaos, hunting humans for food, From Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
The Shadow of Evil, Gyaos, hunting humans for food, From Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

This isn’t to say that all kaiju are social messages as well. In fact, many times they are often used as a nuisance for characters of a television show or film to overcome. The Ultraman franchise is famous for doing this, having a new monster appear every week to challenge the characters and having it defeated by the hero saving the day. Some concepts such as the kaiju being an ancient animal sleeping then suddenly reawaken stay in form, most of the political and social messages that you would see from something like Godzilla aren’t necessarily carried over. This is primarily due to the fact that when this use of kaiju is practiced it is often used for children’s entertainment. The idea of radiation sickness and burns would be a bit too much for children and Japanese film makers will leave some of the more complicated subjects out.

There are however some exceptions of course such as monster Jamila from the original Ultraman (1966) who was an astronaut lost in space finally returning to Earth only to be mutated and wishing to take his rage out onto the world. Many of the enemies from the Kamen Rider franchise are often said to be victims of an evil organization or force and are unwillingly experimented on (though these are called kaijin, but we’ll get to that on another lesson!). There are instances of heroic kaiju as well, the famous example being Gamera. These kaiju carry over some of the traits stated previously, but would rather protect humanity rather than harm it and the movies or tv shows these “heroic kaiju” are in will show that humans are a part of nature and to harm humanity is to harm the Earth in turn.

Astronaut turned space monster, Jamila, attacks the United Nations building, From Ultraman episode "My Home Is Earth" (1966)
Astronaut turned space monster, Jamila, attacks the United Nations building, From Ultraman episode “My Home Is Earth” (1966)

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In conclusion, we can fully say that kaiju are massive creatures that are either hellbent on destroying mankind or there to protect us from harm. The idea of the kaiju has changed over the years but the monster as a metaphor will always stay true for kaiju-eiga.

And that it folks! The very first Kaijuology 101! I would very much appreciate if anyone could leave some feedback on this so that we can always improve this column. I know this piece isn’t the most scholarly, but I’m going to improve further on that in upcoming entries which will include my sources of information and more. So until the next lesson…..Thank you!
-Freddie