Kaiju: giant monsters to the rescue

Kaiju: giant monsters to the rescue


The word Kaiju (怪 獣) is of Japanese origin and can be literally translated as "Strange Beast". A term that, ultimately, is not so far from "reality" is not. Yes, because the Kaiju are nothing more than gigantic monsters! Immense creatures with enormous power, Forces of Nature (almost always) uncontrollable, beings that can also be identified with real divinities!

Despite the fact that these figures are known , and loved, by a large group of fans for over sixty years, some modern productions, such as the Pacific Rim saga (including The Dark Zone, the Netflix exclusive animated series available from last March 4th) and the Monsterverse cinematic with films dedicated to the new Godzilla and King Kong, are making sure that the popularity of Kaiju towards the general public has lately been growing rapidly. So let's get to know these fascinating and terrible figures better, starting as much as possible from the beginning.

Godzilla, the Precursor

The term Kaiju was born in the 1950s, following the first appearance on the big screen of His Majesty the King of Monsters: Godzilla. We are talking about 1954 and Toho, a manufacturer of the Rising Sun, publishes this first masterpiece. The terror felt towards the atomic threat, strongly felt by the Japanese people for obvious reasons, was embodied in a huge reptilian creature, capable of destroying and polluting everything that happened in its path.

The original film, directed by Ishirō Honda, kicked off off the island of Oda, with the disappearance of some ships and boats. For some time the islanders had known that there was "something" in the ocean depths that shouldn't have been there, a foreign element that was ruining them, virtually eliminating fishing in the surrounding waters. The foreign element, and the one responsible for the disappearances of fish and boats, was obviously Godzilla.

Gojira (1954)

This film lays the foundations for what will later become a real own mythology about the King of Monsters, starting from its genesis which, with minimal variations, will always remain the same (a specimen of a dinosaur species that survived extinction, heavily mutated by radiation from various atomic tests) up to the "reboot" American of the Monsterverse which sees him as the last survivor of an ancestral species more ancient than the dinosaurs. Although the film was still in black and white and made with a technique that nowadays can only tear us a smile, the impact on the public was felt, obviously thanks to the references to the nuclear tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still really wounded. too fresh in the Japanese collective imagination.

Godzilla was only the first. Given the success of the film, this genre of cinematic monsters thrived exponentially in the years to follow, perhaps even exaggeratedly. Throughout the '60s and' 70s oriental cinema (and not only) was invaded by gigantic monstrous creatures increasingly improbable, literally making various film companies flourish, with first of all Toho, owner of the rights to Godzilla, which very often dealt almost exclusively with this type of film and going to create a real cinematic current, with well-defined characteristics such as, making a virtue of necessity, the monsters played by actors with bulky costumes that destroy (awkwardly) miniature cities made with materials from simple DIY.

The Origin of the Species

In this period of interest, which we could call the "classical age" of the kaiju genus, numerous other creatures were also born, both competing in a commercial sense to Godzilla (and Toho), like the flying turtle Gamera of the Daiei house (which despite the good number of fans has never managed to rival the most famous lu certolone), both part of the same narrative universe as allies or antagonists.

Gamera, Guardian of the Galaxy

Creatures who have gone to add pieces and details to the complex mosaic of the genre. Beings like Mothra, an immense moth generally benevolent towards mankind, many times adored as a deity, sometimes an enemy and sometimes an ally of Godzilla, but always able to restore balance to the destruction caused by the nuclear reptile and other kaiju. Or creatures like Baragon, another mutated dinosaur, who always take sides with Godzilla, eventually becoming a real shoulder to rely on.

Godzilla, however, has not only trusted companions and friends / loyal enemies. There are also malevolent, dangerous and relentless beings in the kaiju universe. Two in particular: Destoroyah, a cruel being from the folds of time, responsible for the brutal killing of Godzilla Junior (yes, Godzilla also had heirs) and King Ghidora, the true Nemesis of the King of Monsters, his greatest Adversary. . Ghidora, a huge three-headed golden dragon with devastating powers and a regenerative ability to rival Wolverine, is to Godzilla what the Joker is to Batman. There are obviously many other enemies, some even more powerful, but the real Nemesis, the real Adversary remains him, King Ghidora.

But let's get to the very concept of kaiju: what are they? Where they come from? The answers could be extremely varied and complicated to frame with absolute precision. Let's say right away that it is really very difficult to give a definition of “standard kaiju”, since their shapes, sizes and powers are the most heterogeneous you can find. We start from the overgrown ape, but still of acceptable size, to arrive safely at the insect creature 80 meters high or beings of even worse shapes and sizes.

This enormous variety of shapes is due to the multiple stories of backgrounds and origins of each creature. In principle, each kaiju is an individual in its own right, unique or at least one of the few still existing of its kind. A kaiju could be a survivor of forgotten ages, a deity, an alien creature from deep space or another dimension, the catastrophic result of massive forms of pollution and many other case histories.

Godzilla of 1998, contemptuously called Zilla, or Gino (Godzilla In name Only)

All this because, especially in past years, the creators of kaiju have really indulged themselves, even ending up getting carried away. In fact, the "first wave" of giant monsters has degenerated into the grotesque. Kaiju sprouted like mushrooms, one more absurd and unlikely than the other, eventually falling into the lowest-tier trash, resulting in a loss of genre appeal and an inevitable drop in takings.

Fortunately, starting from the second half of the 80s, it was decided (at least by Toho) to make a nice reboot of all this "Monsterverse ante litteram", restarting the saga of Godzilla and associates from scratch. Spectacular films then began to appear, made with more advanced means, but with the precise stylistic choice of representing monsters in a somewhat vintage way. A rather bizarre choice in our western eyes, but with a certain effect. But the biggest change took place on the very tone of the plots.


Among the various causes of the birth of a kaiju, genetic engineering is therefore the master, for example, even if there is definitely no shortage of extremely bizarre (and somewhat disturbing) genesis such as that of Biollante. Specifically, we are talking about a carnivorous rose over two hundred meters high, created by the accidental mix of Godzilla cells, a rose (in fact) and those of the deceased daughter of the scientist on duty. A decidedly unconventional birth.

If Japan was working hard again on the production front of kaiju, thanks also to the release in 2016 of Shin Godzilla by Hideaki Anno (the father of Evangelion) even the West did not stand idle. From America, titles such as the 1998 Godzilla began to arrive, a not perfect but fascinating reinterpretation of the atomic lizard, the mysterious Cloverfield, a film that made theories and assumptions its real workhorse, the aforementioned Pacific Rim, which combines kaiju and giant robots, Del Toro's superb tribute to Japanese genre fiction and, finally, the Godzilla of 2014, the opening work of the recent Monsterverse, continued with Kong Skull Island, Godzillla King of the Monsters and with the now next Godzillla vs Kong.

These kaiju are also much more mature than their predecessors. In the West, perhaps much less attention has been paid to precise stylistic choices, seeking the sense of wonder and spectacularity through a massive use of computer graphics and screaming effects.

As time went by, merchandising also appeared dedicated to kaiju and, inevitably, giant monsters also colonized other types of entertainment, books, comics and video games including, just to name a few, King of the Monsters 1 and 2 for Super Nes, the archaic Rampage, War of the Monsters for Playstation 2 and the whole infinite series of titles dedicated to Big G, or Godzilla, including the homonymous game on the Playstation 4 much mistreated but which also provides some very interesting ideas. In general it is almost always a fighting game of various kinds, since it is the category of videogames that best suits our beloved monsters.

On the comics side, on the other hand, a particular mention should be made of the series of books published by saldaPress in this period, which is showing a more than interesting range of stories and situations starring the inevitable Godzilla and his various supporting actors.

If in the previous titles a harmless children's film quality, in these new chapters the kaiju are characterized in a much more raw way. They growl, drool, bleed, get badly injured and brutally die. All obviously seasoned with a terrifying trail of destruction and death that they leave behind. The imaginative genesis of the creatures, however, were generally not distorted that much, but were adapted to the most modern times in the best possible way.

The figure of the kaiju, the giant monster intent on destroying defenseless cities, is now an integral part of the fantastic world imaginary, not only in Japan. Many people may not even know the meaning of the word itself or not know the hierarchy of the Monster Island by heart, but everyone (really everyone) will recognize the figure of Godzilla, the King, the one who definitively started this cultural phenomenon. . Long live the King of Monsters, then, but long live his court and all that they helped create!

To find out more about these terrible and fascinating creatures, we recommend Godzilla and other Kaiju. Guide to the giant movie monsters, which you can buy here.

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