One thing I love about monster movies is the monsters themselves. As they wreak havoc across the cities, uniting people to up their chances of survival, I can’t help but appreciate what the monster is doing for our fictional worlds.
Few monsters become icons on their own, but the most notable movie monster of all time has to be Godzilla (and the xenomorph is a close second).
Toho’s iconic King of the Monsters is the most well-known kaijū, but he isn't the only one. In fact, kaijū have become a phenomenon that have flown under the radar for most cinema. These giant monsters have been around long before Godzilla and continue to find their way to the silver screen to instill a life lesson in the audience through pure chaos and destruction.
Let’s break down what kaijū means and how the genre and its monsters aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Table of Contents
What Does Kaijū Mean?
Meaning "strange beast" in English, "kaijū" originally referred to monsters and creatures from ancient Japanese legends. The first appearance of the word was in the classic Chinese text, Classic of Mountains and Seas, also known as Shan Hai Jing, written around the 4th century BC.
After Japan’s isolationist foreign policy had ended in the mid-19th century, the term kaijū expanded to creatures from paleontology and legendary creatures from around the world. For example, it was suggested in 1908 that Ceratosaurus, a horned lizard, existed in Alaska.
The Ceratosaurs that was rumored to exists in AlaskaCredit: Mysteries of Canada
What Are Kaijū?
Kaijū is a Japanese genre of films and television that feature giant monsters. These creature features focus on the monsters, which are usually depicted attacking major cities and engaging the military or other kaijū in battle.
The kaijū genre is a subgenre of tokusatsu, a genre that makes heavy use of special effects. Tokusatsu often deals with science fiction, fantasy, or horror, but films and television shows in other genres can count as tokusatsu if there is heavy use of special effects.
The kaijū genre was defined by Winsor McCay’s 1921 animated short, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Pet, in which a mysterious giant animal with an insatiable appetite and starts devouring the city until it is taken down by a massive airstrike. The idea of a giant beast damaging cities would largely be popularized by giant creatures like King Kong and Godzilla.
The idea of a giant creature rampaging through a city, casually or destructively, is a strictly Japanese phenomenon. It is important to note that almost every culture has some form of creature that dominates their folklore like the Mothman or Norway’s trolls. These Japanese folktales are known as yokai, and they influence how these kaijū are created.
The Differences Between Yokai and Kaijū
In Jason Barr’s book, The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters, Barr notes a subtle difference between the traditional yokai and kaijū—their history.
Yokai are often akin to the urban legends of the United States, acting as a warning to stay away from bad decisions, bad habits, or other actions that could damage themselves, their families, or their culture. Yokai folklore is like most folklore: it’s often practical and encourages people to stay away from morally poor decisions.
Kaijū is a new phenomenon that often acts as a metaphor for modern failure in society. Godzilla is not a spirit that attempts to warn people. Instead, Godzilla is a consequence, a symptom of an illness, acting as a warning to not repeat that act.
A kaijū is not necessarily a modern-day yokai but fulfills many of the same folkloric functions.
The long neck woman, a yokai creatureCredit: Outsider Japan
There are no specific forms of kaijū, but, by Japanese standards, they are traditionally monstrous, about 50 feet or taller, and from somewhere far away like beneath the Earth or a South Pacific island.
Kaijū films expect the audience to enjoy the show rather than worry about the details of the creature. There is no set standard for kaijū except for the fact that they are big and are here to destroy cities. They are simply created with one thing on their minds, and when their mission is completed, they waddle or fly off into the sunset, leaving us waiting for their return.
The First Kaijū
The 1925 film The Lost World featured many stop motion dinosaurs that broke loose in London and destroyed Tower Bridge. The stop motion technique was pioneered by Willis H. O’Brien who would later animate the giant gorilla-like creature that would break loose in New York City for the 1933 film King Kong.
King Kong was an enormous success, becoming the breakthrough of movie monsters in cinema. RKO Pictures later licensed the character of King Kong to Japanese studio Toho and made his next debut in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla.
'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Then, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was released from the frozen, hibernating state due to an atomic bomb test. The American movie was released in Japan in 1954 under the translated title, An Atomic Kaiju Appears, marking the film’s title as the first to use the genre’s name.
While these kaijū roam the Earth, they were never considered the first kaijū film or characters. That title, instead, goes to the King of the Monsters, Godzilla.
Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer for Toho Studios in Tokyo, needed a film to release after his previous project was halted. After seeing how well monsters in Hollywood were doing and being a fan of them himself, Tanaka decided to make a movie monster for his next project. Tanaka combined the Hollywood movie monster with the re-emerged Japanese fears of atomic weapons after the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, a tuna fishing boat, was contaminated by nuclear fallout from the U.S. Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll in March of 1954.
When those two elements were combined, a giant, radioactive, lizard-like creature emerged from the depths of the ocean ready to destroy Tokyo.
'Godzilla: King of the Monsters'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Kaijū Monsters in the MonsterVerse
Many of the kaijū in Toho’s MonsterVerse are created by blending yokai with modern warnings, just like Godzilla. Many of these kaijū appeared in the franchise alongside Godzilla whether they were heroic creatures or the destructive, evil force to be reckoned with.
One of the most common recurring kaijū was the Queen of the Monsters, Mothra. The giant peacock butterfly, or moth, is the only kaijū that is wholly and utterly benevolent, created by Shinichiro Nakamura’s, Takehiko Fukunaga, and Yoshie Hotta’s series, The Luminous Fairies and Mothra.
Most kaijū represent the strength of destruction, but Mothra represents the end times of war. She is a fighter but prefers feelings of tranquility and sacrifice to bring about peace. Mothra is one of the few kaijū that acts as a counterpoint to humanity, and showcases righteous acts to bring a means to an end.
Everyones favorite kaiju, MothraCredit: Toho
Rodan, the mutant pteranodon, was a representation of Russia’s nuclear threat. He is Godzilla’s sillier, wimpier sidekick who soared through the air, destroying cities with a series of supersonic booms. Immune to Godzilla’s nuclear breath, Rodan makes a great right-hand man to Godzilla, but that is all there is to him.
Unlike Rodan, King Ghidorah is a menace that is focused on taking out mankind. King Ghidorah is the manifestation of people’s hate, resentment, and bitter feelings of vengeance after a destructive act. Coming from Chinese folklore, King Ghidorah is a representation of China’s and Japan’s difficult relationship. King Ghidorah’s hate is more powerful than any nuclear bomb, creating a fight that determines the course of humanity as seen in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monsters, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
King Ghidorah in 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Kumonga is a kaijū that has a notable link to yokai. The massive spider was directly inspired by a legend of a large spider that terrorized local villages. The legend states that when the spider is killed, the bodies of thousands of dead villagers would slide out of its belly. This spider creature appears repeatedly in Japanese folklore and is often responsible for the destruction or sickness that plagued a town or city.
One kaijū that represents traditionalist fears of the rise of technology in daily life is the artificial weapon created to rid the world of kaijū, Mechagodzilla. The robot kaijū was first created to destroy the threatening Godzilla, the physical representation of man vs. nature. As time has evolved, the theme has changed to man vs. nature vs. technology, as Mechagodzilla takes on a life of its own, breaking away from the wants of man. What happens when a robot kaijū obtains free will? It destroys cities and fights Godzilla.
Outside of Japanese folklore, American-made kaijū represent issues that plague our society. King Kong, the giant rampaging gorilla, is a metaphor for race and the perception of Black masculinity by rich, white elitists. The 1933 film King Kong premiered at a time when Black people were regularly depicted as offensive caricatures. In the most recent adaptation of the kaijū, Kong: Skull Island, King Kong has transformed into an anti-colonial figure that wants to protect his island and its inhabitants from violent invaders, but he is still the King Kong that was created with heavy racial undertones.
'King Kong' (2005)Credit: Universal Pictures
Kaijū are physical representations of tradition and modern culture blended for better or worse. The fears of their creators seep into their character design, personalities, and actions, creating metaphors that display a culture's deeply embedded racism, the underlying fears of war, and the consequences of hate.
Eiji Tsuburaya and His Revolutionary Suitmation
Movie monsters in the U.S. favored stop motion to animate their creature, but Eiji Tsuburaya decided to make Godzilla stomp across the screen in a different way.
Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects coordinator for Godzilla, Mothra, and many more kaijū films, developed a technique to use miniatures and visual effects instead of stop motion. To animate the kaijū, Tsuburaya created suits from latex or rubber materials that the actors would wear and walk around miniature models and scaled-down city sets to create the illusion of a giant creature in the city.
This technique is known as suitmation.
Tsuburaya supervising 'The Great Monster War'Credit: Toho
While suitmation was revolutionary, it was not easy to shoot in. Actors wore creature suits that were, at their lightest, 220 pounds and incredibly stiff due to the latex and rubber. They breathed in kerosene from the fumes of a tiny Tokyo model burning beneath them, and actor Haruo Nakajima says that he lost 20 pounds in the production because of the physically strenuous conditions of wearing the creature suit.
Due to the extreme stiffness of the latex or rubber creature suits, filming was done at double speed to make the monster’s movements smoother and slower when the film was shown. For shots that were physically impossible for the suit actors to perform, puppetry was used in place of suitmation.
Tsuburaya’s work built a foundation for film culture in Japan. As CGI and stop motion has increased in use for certain special sequences and monsters, an overwhelming majority of kaijū films produced in Japan favor suitmation. Outside of his suitmation, Tsuburaya’s aesthetics, effects, and ethos influence kaijū films, monster films like Pacific Rim, and endless Godzilla films that are still hitting theaters today.
Tsuburaya and the Queen of the Monsters, MothraCredit: Toho
The Most Famous Kaijū Movies
Giant monsters have been facing off in films since the birth of cinema to determine who becomes the top kaijū. Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah are just some of the best-known kaijū, but other giant monster movies don’t feature Godzilla or his pals that deserve some love.
Here is a quick list of kaijū films that don’t feature any creatures from the MonsterVerse:
- Pacific Rim (2013)
- Space Amoebaor Gezora, Fanimes, Kamoebas: Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas(1970)
- The Host(2006)
- Legend of Dinosaurs & Monster Birds(1977)
- Gamera: Guardian of the Universe(1995)
The Legacy of Kaijū
It is safe to say that the kaijū genre and giant movie monsters are here to stay, and probably will be in cinema for years to come.
With giant sandworms devouring people, machines, and buildings in Dune and otherworldly creatures coming from up from Hollow Earth, kaijū continues to remind humans how small we are and how destructive emotions can consume the world we are fighting to save.
'Dune's' sandworm is, by all accounts, a kaijuCredit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Try to create your own kaijū by writing a monster that is a physical representation of your or a society's fears. It is a fun way of bringing fear to life and making it seem invincible. How do you live with this fear, or do you seek to destroy it? Can it be destroyed? There are so many possibilities to make your creature, so grab a pen and paper and start bringing the monster to life.
What is your favorite kaijū character or film? Let us know in the comments!