Oh no! There goes Tokyo!
-Blue Oyster Cult
Japan’s problems seem to get worse every day. First the earthquake, then the tsunami, then Ernst Blofeld’s secret volcano lair blew up again and to top it all off, a horrific radiation disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. On March 25, 2011, Japan expanded the evacuation zone from 20km to 30km. On April 4, we hear about Tepco dumping millions of gallons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, in what seems like an almost deliberate attempt to create a gigantic atomic monster. I can’t help but think of the people who lived in the 20-30km zone, who were previously told to stay inside with a wet towel over their face. Reminds me of the old cold war joke, what to do during a nuclear attack. Bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye…
No denying this is a terrible disaster for the Japanese people – and perhaps for the rest of the world as well. But there’s also no denying that you can’t talk about this with anybody – well, at least anybody who grew up watching Creature Feature, Zacherley, The Cool Ghoul or even Mystery Science Theater 3000 – for more than 3 minutes without a Godzilla reference. So without further ado, here’s the official Sensitive Skin guide to daikaiju eiga, or as we call them back here in the states, Japanese giant monster movies.
First, a quick lesson in Japanese. Kaiju (怪獣) means “strange beast,” but is often translated as “monster”. Related terms include kaijū eiga (怪獣映画, monster movie), a film featuring kaiju, and daikaiju (大怪獣, giant monster). Finally, Tokusatsu (特撮) is a Japanese term that applies to any live-action film or television drama that usually features superheroes and makes considerable use of special effects, hence the term tokusatsu kaiju. Now this is an essay about giant monsters, not superheroes like Ultraman, but I thought I’d throw in that last glossary item as you may find it useful in your future travels.
To paraphrase John Lennon, “Before Godzilla there was nothing.” I should state, before I go any further, that I’m not here to deliver some hoity-toity semiotic lecture about post-war Japan’s most successful cultural export like some fancy-pants professor, to discuss the far-reaching political influence Godzilla has had upon North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, who kidnapped a film director in 1985 to make his own giant monster movie, Pulgasari, or even his influence on pop-culture, including everything from hip hop to monster trucks. No, I just think he’s cool.
Released in 1954 as Gojira (a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale), the eponymous monster arose from the depths of the Pacific ocean, rudely awakened from a 2-million-year nap by annoying H-bomb tests. Scientists want to study him – “This is a fantastic opportunity for Japan!” Yeah, just like nuclear power! Remember, this is less than 10 years after Hiroshima. So is Godzilla a metaphor for the a-bomb, or just a warning for its possible side effects? Or perhaps the imperial aggression of the U.S.? I dunno, but Godzilla was probably inspired by a combination of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, the Lucky Dragon incident, in which a Japanese fishing boat strayed near the Bikini Atol during h-bomb testing, and its entire crew suffered radiation poisoning, and the smash hit success in 1952 of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, in which a-bomb testing at the north pole unleashes a gigantic prehistoric monster.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
Sound familiar? Apparently, John Lennon should have said, “Before Godzilla there was The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.” The Gojira trailer claims it has “special effects surpassing American films.” The film was directed by Ishiro Honda, who began his career working as an assistant director to Akira Kurosawa. We here at Sensitive Skin are cineaste snobs, and care more for auteurs than stars, so almost all the films discussed in this article are directed by Mr. Honda.
Equally important as Honda is the brilliant composer Akira Ifukube, who did many if not most of the Toho/Honda/Kaiju soundtracks. Son of a Shinto priest, he suffered radiation exposure after WWII by carrying out x-rays without protection, a consequence of the wartime lead shortage – how’s that for irony? Ifukube spent some time in hospital due to the radiation exposure, and was startled one day to hear one of his own marches being played over the radio when General Douglas MacArthur arrived to formalize the Japanese surrender.
Over the next fifty years, he would compose more than 250 film scores, including his classic 1954 music for Godzilla.
Compare and contrast with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.
Ifukube also created Godzilla’s trademark roar‚ produced by rubbing a resin-covered leather glove along the loosened strings of a double bass‚ and its footsteps, created by striking an amplifier box.
Godzilla’s mighty roar
The film was released in the US as Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1956. Gotta love the shout out to Jules Verne in the trailer – does anybody even know who he is anymore? Raymond Burr was spliced in as a main character, with many VOs, to make the movie more palatable to American audiences. Unfortunately, it also rendered it incoherent. As we shall see, both inserts of American actors down on their luck and incoherence became staples in Kaiju eiga, or at least the American releases. Or, as the trailer puts it, “a psychotic cavalcade of electrifying horror.”
Godzilla, with Raymond Burr
This is perhaps the best use of inserts till Caligula. Or maybe Snakes on a Plane.
Snakes on a Muthafuckin’ Plane
Is there anything better than watching Godzilla pull down high-tension wires? The gentlemen of Blue Oyster Cult don’t think so! BTW, I love BOC, as they’re really smart art school guys (Patti Smith was romantically involved with the lead singer and wrote several of their songs) pretending to be dumb. As opposed to one of my least favorite things, something really dumb pretending to be smart. Like Inception.
Blue Oyster Cult – Godzilla
Rodan, The Flying Monster (Sora no daikaijû Radon), released in 1957 and directed by Honda, was the first color daikaiju eiga. Deep underground, miners are attacked by a clutch of prehistoric insects (Meganulon, for you budding zoologists out there) which escape to the surface after a massive earthquake. The Meganulon in turn are fed upon by a pair of enormous flying reptiles called Rodan. Once all the Meganulon are devoured, the Rodans begin preying on humans, ultimately destroying a city and terrorizing the entire world. The Japanese military locates the Rodans lurking in a cavern and launches a missile barrage which triggers a volcanic eruption. The Rodans attempt to escape, but one succumbs to the forces of the eruption and plummets to earth. The other, refusing to abandon its mate, joins it in the fiery lava. Why, why do the monsters always have to die in the end?
Title theme from Rodan, Flying Monster From the Sky
Rodan, original Japanese trailer
The third installment of the Godzilla series, King Kong vs. Godzilla, is…well…it’s just plain fucked up. On Faro Island, a giant octopus attacks a native village. It seems that the giant gorilla, King Kong, also lives on Faro island. Kong arrives and defeats the octopus. He then drinks some red berry juice, gets drunk and passes out. Yadda yadda yadda, it goes on and on, Tokyo burns, etc etc. This movie features perhaps the crappiest gorilla suit of all time. I mean, look at his head, it’s all deformed and misshapen, King Kong looks like he’s been on the methadone program for 20 years. This movie really pissed me off when I was a kid because not only did the monkey not look anything like King Kong, the whole thing just didn’t make any damn sense! Damn, I’m still pissed off!
King Kong vs. Godzilla
At any rate, as you might guess if you ever see it, this film was plagued by pre-production nightmares. Willis O’Brian, the special effects genius behind the original King Kong, who invented stop motion photography for the 1925 silent adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, was originally involved in this mess, when he conceived of King Kong battling a giant Frankenstein monster in San Francisco. Now there’s a movie I’m glad was never made.
The Lost World
Besides inserts of bad American actors, the other common daikaiju eiga technique for pandering to Western audiences is the use of our monsters. So what could be worse than ruining King Kong? How about if we call pretty much the same monster in the same lousy suit Frankenstein instead of King Kong?
Hey, what’s on Creature Feature this weekend? Frankenstein Conquers the World? That’s definitely not a Universal with Karloff or even Glenn Strange, sounds like a British Hammer film with Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, worth checking out. Huh? WTF? That’s not Frankenstein! Yes, Frankenstein Conquers the World, from 1965, features a Japanese version of the Frankenstein Monster, who becomes giant-sized to fight the giant subterranean monster, Baragon. This was also the first of three Toho-produced films to star Hollywood d-lister Nick Adams. Mr. Adams had small roles in Mr. Roberts, Rebel Without a Cause and Love Me Tender, and palled around with James Dean, Elvis Presley and Dennis Hopper in the ’50s. By 1965 he’s making daikaiju movies and by 1968 he’s dead from a drug overdose. Oh, what’s that you say? Oh, my bad, it was a prescription drug overdose, that makes it respectable.
Anyway, FCTW gives us two tropes for the price of one – a cheesy American actor and an awful adaptation of an American monster! Guess how it turned out? Notice I’m not including a clip here. So why bother mentioning it, other than as an excuse to put James Dean, Dennis Hopper and Elvis Presley in the story for SEO purposes? Because of its amazing sequel, War of the Gargantuas.
What do you do when Nick Adams is, er, indisposed and you need an American down on his luck to portray a hip and groovy Western scientist? You call Russ Tamblyn. Russ is best known for his portrayl of Riff, leader of the Jets, in 1961’s West Side Story but by 1966 it was daikaiju time for the finger-popping gang leader. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Plenty of A-list American celebrities have appeared in Japanese TV commercials, even the great Sammy Davis Jr., here hawking Suntory Whiskey, filmed in 1974, about the same time he was getting deep throat lessons from Linda Lovelace and attending services at Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan.
Sammy Davis Jr. Japanese Whiskey Commercial
Anyway, WoTG introduces two giant, hairy humanoids called Gargantuas, which spawned from the discarded cells of Frankenstein’s monster from the “previous” film, Frankenstein Conquers the World. The Green Gargantua is violent and savage, preying upon human beings; as he lives in sea water, he is given the name Gaira (ガイラ?, from kai, “sea”). The Brown Gargantua had been raised in captivity, and is docile and gentle; because he resides in the Japan Alps, he is called Sanda (サンダ?, from san, “mountain”). The film follows the investigation and military engagements of these creatures until their climactic confrontation in Tokyo.
Several ambiguous references are made to FCTW, such as the mention of a severed hand, but the only direct link between the original film and its “sequel” is the term “Frankenstein”, which appears in the title and is used to refer to the Gargantuas (“Frankensteins”) in the original Japanese dialogue.
I’ll admit it – we probably wouldn’t be so enamored of the War of the Gargantuas – although the battle scene in Tokyo harbor is pretty cool – if it weren’t for the famous lounge song/cocktail bar scene.
The Words Get Stuck in my Throat
Covered by Devo in 1978
Mothra first appeared in the serialized novel The Luminous Fairies and Mothra by Takehiko Fukunaga, Shinichiro Nakamura, and Yoshie Hotta. “She” is a giant lepidopteran with characteristics both of butterflies and of moths.
The original Mothra (aka Mosura) film was released in 1961, and may be seen as a precursor to the “cuteness culture” (kawaisa) that swept Japan in the 1970s and continues to this day. I’m not going to get into the massive philosophical and sociological ramifications of how a country could go from the rape of Nan King to Hello Kitty in two generations, because hey, I just like bad monster movies. Hmm, brutal sadism plus cuteness! That gives me an idea for a game show! What if we got a bunch of Japanese school girls to stick their heads up through holes in the floor, strapped pork chops to their foreheads and terrorized them with a gigantic monitor lizard!
A fun game show!
Mothra is a weird, different kind of monster, essentially good – though I imagine the French would beg to differ after Mothra breaks the Eifel Tower in half and builds a cocoon on its ruins. Mothra comes to the aid of two fairy princesses, who for some reason live in a birdcage, whenever they get in trouble. The princesses “call to Mothra in prayer and song, and are connected to Mothra on a deep level beyond their control, and it is this connection that impels Mothra to find them no matter where they are”. Whatever. I saw this movie as a child and was deeply, deeply confused. Here’s the original wacky Japanese trailer.
Mothra marks the beginning of the descent of daikaiju eiga from dark and foreboding films with serious underlying messages to the weird and downright silly trifles they later became, but one thing’s for sure – I love the Mothra theme song! The princesses were played by The Peanuts, a Japanese vocal group consisting of two twin sisters, whose unique sound is produced because their voices are almost exactly, but not quite, identical, so they sound like they’re going through a reverb filter. Here they are singing their smash hit, Mosura.
Mothra Theme Song by The Peanuts
Translation: “Mothra ya Mothra..with the power of your mother, blessing all of your servant who waking you and show us your power.”
The fifth film of fifteen in the Toho series, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, is the first to portray Godzilla as a sixties-style anti-hero, along with his pals, Mothra and Rodan, re-cast as sort-of good guys, as they try to protect Tokyo from the outer-space monster, King Ghidorah.
As we all learned back in grade school, Venus’ once thriving civilization was destroyed by an evil, golden three-headed dragon named King Ghidorah, who has now arrived on Earth on a meteor. Ghidorah begins laying waste to Japan, because that’s how he do. To combat Ghidorah, the Japanese government enlists the aide of Mothra. Mothra attempts to persuade the quarreling Godzilla and Rodan to team up against the evil alien but both refuse, with Godzilla stating they have no reason to save mankind as both he and Rodan “have always had trouble with men and men hate them”. (I’d love to see the WikiLeaks transcript of that meeting.) Unable to convince them and despite being vastly overpowered, Mothra calls them dopes and resolves to fight Ghidorah by herself. Mothra engages Ghidorah and is continually blasted by his gravity beams. Luckily for Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan, impressed by her courage and selflessness, arrive to help and a titanic battle against Ghidorah begins. Ghidorah gets his ass kicked and flies off to outer space.
Released in the States in 1965 as a double feature with Elvis Presley’s (him again!) Harum Scarum, the film replaced much of Akira Ifukube’s score with library music from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! It received an excellent review from Vincent Canby at the Times: “This fascination, on the part of contemporary Japanese filmmakers, with the destruction of their land by fantastic, prehistoric forces only 20 years after Hiroshima, might be of interest to social historians. The film, otherwise, is strictly for the comic book set.” Well, it is a good review, if you like comic books!
Destroy All Monsters
Perhaps the ne plus ultra of Japanese giant monster movies, Destroy All Monsters, released in 1968, was the ninth in Toho Studios’ Godzilla series, and features Mothra, King Ghidorah, Rodan, as well as Gorosaurus, Anguirus, Kumonga, Manda, Minilla, Baragon (aka Frankenstein), and Varan.
At the close of the 20th Century, all of the Earth’s kaiju have been collected and confined in an area known as Monster Island. As these things usually go, somehow the monsters all escape and begin attacking world capitals, so Captain Yamabe and the crew of his spaceship, Moonlight SY-3, investigate. They discover that the scientists who were supposed to keep the monsters in captivity have become mind-controlled slaves of a feminine alien race identifying themselves as the Kilaaks. I hate when that happens! Their leader demands that the human race surrender, or face total annihilation. NOTE: this film contains John Bolton’s wet dream, the UN building in NYC destroyed by Godzilla.
As Kanye West once almost said, “Destroy all Monsters is the greatest Japanese giant monster movie of all time! Of all time!”
You thought Mothra was weird? How about Gamera? Gamera (ガメラ) is a giant, flying turtle with sharp fangs and a missile-proof shell. He can also pull his arms, legs, head, and tail into his shell, shoot flames out of his arm and leg holes and spin around like a flying saucer. Created in 1965 by Daiei Motion Picture Company to rival the success of Toho Studios’ Godzilla during the monster boom of the mid-to-late 1960s, Gamera has gained fame and notoriety as a Japanese icon and is a friend to all children. Gamera also marks another turning point in daikaiju eiga, which started out on a serious note, then became drive-in staples for teenagers, and finally ended up appealing to the kiddies.
Gamera vs. Guiron
Gamera vs. Guiron introduced a new generation of film buffs to daikaiju eiga when it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the early 90s (one of our all-time favorite TV shows). Joel Hodgson and his robot friends came up with their own lyrics to the Gamera theme. NOTE: don’t miss the best part, starting at around 2:00, when Mike Nelson performs his Cole Porter-inspired version of the Gamera song.
The end of an era
Terror of Mechagodzilla was released in 1975 and was the 15th and final film in Toho’s Godzilla series, and also the last directed by Ishirō Honda with a score Akira Ifukube. It’s the second film to feature Mechagodzilla, a titanic cyborg created by ape-like aliens of the Third Planet from the Black Hole (which is a delightful place for a vacation, but man I wouldn’t want to live there), who sets out to destroy the genuine Godzilla and conquer Earth. The oil crisis of the mid-to-late 1970s caused a crash of Japanese cinema, and the Godzilla film series was forced to go on hiatus after ToM.
Terror of Mechagodzilla
Godzilla was revived in 1985 in the Heisei series, which lasted till 1995. The Heisei-era films (seven in all) differed drastically from the Showa-era films in a variety of ways, the most prominent change being that they quit portraying Godzilla as a hero. While occasionally Godzilla would take the role of an antihero, he was still hazardous to humanity. The Godzilla suits was updated to look more realistic and much more intimidating than previous outfits.
The Millennium series of Godzilla films are the third and currently last of the film series. The six films were released from 1999 through 2004. But I’ve never seen any of these, although I wish I knew more about Godzilla Jr.
There was an American version of Godzilla in 2000, and another in 2014, but the less said about those the better. I’ll stop here and leave this guide incomplete for the time being. Perhaps some day there will be a part two, and we can discuss non-Japanese giant monster movies, give Ray Harryhausen, master of stop-motion, his proper due, go into excruciating detail about King Kong, Mighty Joe Young and, yes, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. I’d like to write a lengthy exegesis of Reptilicus, the one-and-only Danish giant monster movie (they should have stuck to the soft-core porn); and modern giant monster movies like Cloverfield and The Host. But for now, I’ll leave you with a clip of the one great American kaiju, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, as we say goodbye.