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05 November, 2014

KAIJÛ 101: A Beginner’s Guide to the Giant Monsters of Japanese Cinema

Say “Godzilla,” and everyone knows what you mean and to whom you’re referring.  Say “Kaijû,” and most people say, “What’s that mean?”  Simply put, Kaijû are the giant monsters of Japanese movies: Godzilla; Rodan; Mothra; and their kin.  For those new to the genre, it can be a daunting task trying to sort out the confusing variety of Monsters, Aliens, and the movies associated with them.  While I’m far from an expert, I am going to try to give you the basic history of the Kaijû genre from 1954 to 2004, but with emphasis on the first twenty years of Godzilla’s reign.  These are the movies everyone should start with if they want to know Kaijû Eiga in general, and Godzilla movies in particular.  Though most would say there’s no difference, that would be shortsighted and factually incorrect, and would be comparable to saying that all Universal Horrors are Frankenstein movies.

          Also, those familiar with my columns know that they are often a mix of fact and opinion.  Where I state fact, I do my utmost to research and confirm those facts, and I want to acknowledge those sources now. 

          First and foremost in all my research is www.imdb.com.  This has got to be the best website ever devised for those looking for information on virtually any movie, classic or current; and my work would be much more difficult without it.  Also, two websites devoted to Kaijû films have proven invaluable for this article:  www.tohokingdom.com, and Gojistomp.org.  I heartily recommend them to Kaijû-lovers everywhere.

          As to my opinions… well, they’re my opinions.  You don’t have to agree with them, just don’t expect me to change them.

          And one last acknowledgement is in order, as well as a huge thank-you, to my fellow CreatureScape writer Elizabeth Haney.  Her assistance with the research on this piece has been invaluable, and it, as well as her friendship, is greatly appreciated.

          My purpose with this article is simple:  To share with you my love of Kaijû Eiga, (Monster Movies…) and hopefully give you an appreciation of them that will inspire you to delve deeper into these fascinating films.

          The World of the Kaijû—a Primer

          To really understand the World of Kaijû films, it is helpful to have a basic knowledge of some of the terms used to describe these films.  Most are Japanese in origin, and can be confusing for western fans.  Hopefully, I can help cut through some of the confusion, and make these films a little more accessible.

          First, you will occasionally see me refer to a “Goji.”  That is the diminutive of “Gojira,” and is usually used in identifying a Godzilla from a specific film, by identifying the version of the Goji-Suit used in the production.  The suits were named by a combination of some descriptive term from the film, often another Kaijû, and the “-goji” suffix.  Thus, Kingoji was the Godzilla from KINGUKONGU TAI GOJIRA  ~aka~  KING KONG vs. GODZILLA.  Here is a complete list of the various Goji-suits, courtesy of Gojistomp.org:

Shodaigoji (1954)
Gyakushugoji (1955)
Kingoji (1962)
Mosugoji I (1964)
Mosugoji II (1964)
Daisengoji (1965)
Musukugoji (1967)
Daisengoji (1965-1966)
Soshingekigoji (1968-1972)
Megarogoji (1973)
Mekagoji (1974)
Mekagyakushugoji (1975)

1984-Goji (1984)
Biogoji / Ghidogoji (1989-1991)
Batogoji (1992)
Radogoji (1993)
Mogegoji (1994)
Desugoji (1995)
Amerigoji (1998)

Miregoji (1999)
Giragoji (2000)
GMK-Goji (2001)
Kiryugoji (2002)
Kiryu-Mosugoji (2003)
Fainarugoji (2004)

          The reason there were so many variations is a simple one:  The suits seldom lasted through more than one production, and some barely survived one.  The foam rubber they were composed of broke down rapidly, and within a short time the suit would be unusable.  All that remains of virtually all the goji-suits now are bits of decaying rubber.  And each iteration of the suits would lead to changes; some minor, but a few major ones occurred through the years.

          Secondly, as you may notice in the headings for the following sections, I refer to the period of the early films as the Showa era, the era this article will focus on.  Toho’s Kaijû films are divided into three periods:  Showa; Heisei; (or “Versus” in Japan…) and Millennium.  The first two correspond roughly to the Japanese calendar; while the third, obviously, gains it’s name from the fact that it began in 1999. 

          In the Japanese method of date-keeping, a new era begins with the death of the current Emperor, and the ascension of his successor.  Thus, the Taishō era ended in 1926 with the death of the Taishō Emperor Yoshihito, and the Showa era began as his son, Crown Prince Hirohito, succeeded him.  In that calendar, GOJIRA debuted in Showa-29, the twenty-ninth year of the Showa Emperor’s reign…  And you thought Leap years and Daylight Savings time were complicated.

          Thirdly, of course Toho wasn’t the only studio in Japan producing Kaijû Eiga.  Daiei Studios had Gamera, Nikkatsu had Gappa… but Toho was king of Kaijû movies, and Toho’s who I’ll concentrate on here.



          The first of Toho’s Kaijû Eiga was and still is the best ever:  1954’s GOJIRA.  Directed by Ishirô Honda, this allegorical commentary on the Atomic Age was toned down and significantly altered to appeal to the American market when it appeared here in 1956 as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS.  While inferior to the original Japanese version, it retains the original’s stark, apocalyptic feel and dark tone that made it so effective.

          Perhaps the most influential Monster-Movie since 1933’s KING KONG, more than a score of sequels and dozens of imitators have followed this film, cementing Godzilla’s place as a pop-culture icon.

          The Early SHOWA-Era—(1954-1962)

          With the dramatic success of GOJIRA, Toho soon had a sequel in the works, as well as other Kaijû on the drawing boards.  Gojira no gyakushû ~aka~ GODZILLA’S COUNTER-ATTACK; GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN; GIGANTIS THE FIRE-MONSTER (1955), was released barely six months after GOJIRA premiered, and established Godzilla as a superstar in his homeland.  It also introduced a second Kaijû, Anguirus, who battled Godzilla thus beginning a long-running theme in the Toho films.  The next Kaijû to make their appearance came a year later, in the form of gigantic flying reptiles named Rodan.  SORA NO DAIKAIJÛ RADON ~aka~ RADON THE MONSTER OF THE SKY; RODAN (1956), was the first Kaijû film shot in color, and introduced not only the two Rodan, but also a beetle-like Kaijû called a Meganulon which the newly-hatched Rodans fed on. 

          RODAN was quickly followed by Chikyu Boeigun ~aka~ EARTH DEFENSE FORCE; THE MYSTERIANS (1957).  While this was, strictly speaking, more of a Tokusatsu, or Special Effects (Sci-Fi, in other words…), film, rather than Kaijû movie, Toho insisted upon at least one Kaijû in the production.  Thus was born Moguera, in his only appearance to date. 

          A year later Varan made his first appearance in DAIKAIJÛ BARAN ~aka~ GREAT MONSTER VARAN; VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE.  Though Varan was little more than a clone of Godzilla, (some stock footage of Godzilla was actually used by mistake…) it was still an interesting movie; at least, the Japanese version was.  It received the usual slice-and-dice edit job from it’s American distributor, who dropped in extra footage involving a U.S. Naval officer conducting secret experiments.

          The Kaijû scene was quiet for the next few years, as Toho concentrated on producing more Tokusatsu, such as UCHU DAISENSO ~aka~ THE GREAT SPACE WAR; BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE.  It would be 1961 before another Kaijû came along, in MOSURA ~aka~ MOTHRA.  One of Toho’s most popular monsters, Mothra became a recurring star in the Kaijû Eiga, with some variation of the Kaijû appearing in no less than 14 movies, spanning all three eras.

          1962 saw the return of Godzilla himself, along with a guest, in KINGUKONGU TAI GOJIRA ~aka~ KING KONG vs. GODZILLA.  The original Japanese version was intended to be light-hearted and comedic; aimed more at children.  Godzilla himself underwent several changes, even to the point of the Kingoji suit having a softer, friendlier appearance, thereby creating the worst looking Goji in the series.

However, an absolutely abysmal editing job on the part of Universal, the film’s co-producer and U.S. distributor, ladled on the melodrama with edited-in segments of “UN News” broadcasts featuring no-talent American actors, and ruined the intent of the film’s creators.  What should have been a funny, enjoyable comedy now gets its laughs for the entirely wrong reasons.

And let’s take the opportunity to dispel a myth that has sprung up concerning the Japanese, as opposed to the US, versions of this film:  That Godzilla wins in the Japanese version and Kong in the US edit.  Kong is the winner in both, and was intended to be from the beginning.  The only difference is in the sound effects in the last scene; in the Japanese version, you hear Godzilla’s roar as well as Kong’s as Kong swims away.

The Mid-Showa Films—(1963-1969)

          Though 1963 didn’t see the release of a film starring one of the more popular Kaijû, it did give us a very good movie that blended the Kaijû and Tokusatsu formats.  Kaitei gunkan ~aka~ UNDERSEA BATTLESHIP; ATRAGON was a skillfully done Sci-Fi epic, and introduced us to Manda, a dragon-like sea serpent that was the defender of the undersea kingdom of Mu.  The original Manda was destroyed by the Submarine Gotengo, but there were obviously others, as the Kaijû has made repeated appearances.

          1964 was a big year for Toho’s growing stable of Kaijû.  Not only were there two Godzilla films released that year (the only year that would see twin Goji releases…) but it would also produce Uchu daiKaijû Dogora ~aka~ SPACE MONSTER DOGORA; DAGORA, THE SPACE MONSTER. 

While this would be this Kaijû’s only appearance, it was a memorable one, and it is deserving of more attention than it gets.  Looking like a gigantic space jellyfish, Dogora was certainly one of Toho’s strangest Kaijû; at least, until much later in the series.

          Also released in 1964 was MOSURA TAI GOJIRA ~aka~ MOTHRA vs. GODZILLA; GODZILLA vs. THE THING.  Always a popular Kaijû, Mothra’s second appearance is the one most western audiences remember when they think of the giant moth.

          But the best Kaijû film of 1964, and the one that had the greatest impact on the Showa series, was San Daikaiju: Chikyu saidai no kessen ~aka~ Three Giant Monsters: The Earth's Greatest Decisive Battle; GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER.  This was the seminal film of the Showa period, transforming the three main Kaijû, especially Godzilla, into the anointed protectors of Japan.  It also introduces the quintessential villain of the series, King Ghidorah.  Ghidorah, three-headed dragon monster, would plague Godzilla throughout the franchise, appearing in no fewer than seven films in all three periods.

          1965 brought the return of King Ghidorah, this time with a new name and under alien control.  KAIJÛ DAISENSO ~aka~ WAR OF THE MONSTERS; GODZILLA vs. MONSTER ZERO, was basically a continuation of the previous film; only this time, Ghidorah was under the control of the Xilians, a race of aliens bent on world conquest.  While this was the first time aliens made such an appearance in a Godzilla film, it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  Alien races soon became a staple plot point of the Godzilla writers.

          The other Kaijû film released in 1965 should be familiar to regular readers of this column… a couple of months ago I listed it as one of the three worst movies in my collection:  Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon ~aka~ FRANKENSTEIN vs. THE SUBTERRANEAN MONSTER BARAGON; FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD.  Though in its original form it might very well be a decent Kaijû Eiga, it was so horribly chopped down for the export market that it lost all of whatever charm it might have possessed.

          Godzilla returned in 1966, in what was his weakest Showa outing thus far:  Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no daiketto ~aka~ GODZILLA, EBIRAH, MOTHRA: BIG DUEL IN THE SOUTH SEAS; GODZILLA vs. THE SEA MONSTER.  You know, over the years Kaijû lovers have had to put up with some rather outlandish creatures; giant moths, a giant animated rose, Raymond Burr… but Ebirah the giant shrimp has to take the prize.  Fortunately, the other film produced that year was much, much better.

          Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira ~aka~ FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTERS: SANDA vs. GAIRA; WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, was a direct sequel of the previous year’s FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, but far exceeded the earlier film in terms of quality.  The Kaijû, Sanda and Gaira, were the offspring of the Frankenstein’s Monster from the previous year; unlike that monster, these two were somewhat interesting.

          Continuing the trend of the previous two years, Toho released two Kaijû films in 1967, one featuring Godzilla, and one that didn’t.

          The Godzilla franchise continued a decline in quality began when Honda left the series as director, after GODZILLA vs. MONSTER ZERO, with Kaijûtô no Kessen: Gojira no Musuko  ~akaMonster Island's Decisive Battle: Godzilla's Son; Son of Godzilla.  This, Jun Fukuda’s second outing as director of a Godzilla film, marked the beginning of the series’ shift to cater to the children’s market.  The Musukugoji suit used through much of this film (the Daisengoji suit was used for the underwater scenes…) had a much softer, friendlier appearance, similar to the Kingoji suit used five years previously.  The plot was also rendered kinder and gentler, though certainly not better.

          I’d like to say that Toho’s second production of 1967 was better, but that would be stretching the truth.  KINGUKONGU NO GYAKUSHU  ~aka~  KING KONG’S COUNTERATTACK; KING KONG ESCAPES was purportedly a sequel to KING KONG vs. GODZILLA, though in fact it bore no similarity to the previous film.  In comparison, it was fairly decent; though the plot, as in many Kaijû Eiga, was superfluous.

          1968 saw the release of only one Kaijû film, but it also marked the return of Ishirô Honda to the director’s chair of the Godzilla series.  He quickly restored the franchise to some semblance of its former glory, giving us one of the best Goji-films ever:  KAIJÛ SÔSHINGEKI  ~aka~  MONSTER INVASION; DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.  Featuring virtually every Kaijû yet encountered by Godzilla, plus a few that had made solo appearances, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS had everything a Kaijû epic should… massive destruction; alien invaders; mega-Kaijû battles; and, of course, King Ghidorah getting his ass kicked.  It’s still one of my favorite movies.

          Once again, Toho returned to the formula of two Kaijû films for 1969, with one being a Godzilla picture.  Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Oru Kaijû Daishingeki  ~aka~  Godzilla’s Revenge was Honda’s next-to-last Godzilla film, though his run didn’t end soon enough.  Easily the worst of the franchise’s fifty-year run, GODZILLA’S REVENGE was a Goji-film for the Sesame Street crowd; a juvenile romp seen through the eyes of a young boy who befriends Minilla, the son of Godzilla.  Whether this happens in the boy’s imagination or not is uncertain; but this somehow gives him the ability to defeat an entire gang of criminals.  The genius that had been behind the special effects of the Godzilla franchise from its inception, Eiji Tsuburaya, was bedridden during the filming, (he would die within months…) and Honda supervised the effects work himself.  Most of the sequences featuring the various Kaijû were stock footage, cobbled together from earlier films.

          The second release that year was a return to the Tokusatsu / Kaijû blend of a few years before.  Ido zero daisakusen  ~aka~  LATITUDE ZERO: GREAT MILITARY BATTLE; LATITUDE ZERO, was one of the most eccentric Eiga released by Toho, with the crew of a submarine named the Alpha doing battle with the evil Dr. Malik, played by Cesar Romero.  Yes, I’m talking about the Joker.  One of Malik’s creations is a 100-foot lion; with giant condor wings surgically grafted on, and for some reason named the Black Moth.  As Kaijû goes, perhaps not the best concept, but then, maybe that could be said for the film as a whole.


The Late Showa—(1970-1975)

          1970 was the first year since 1963 without an appearance from Godzilla, or in fact any of Toho’s other A-list monsters.  But that doesn’t mean the year was Kaijû-free, with the release of Honda’s Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaijû  ~aka~  Gezora, Ganimes, Kamoebas: Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas; YOG: MONSTER FROM SPACE.  One of the better late Showa films, it’s unfamiliar to most American viewers, but the excellent Tokyo Shock / Media Blasters disc, sold under the title Space Ameoba - Gezora, Ganime, Kameba is worth seeking out.

          Yoshimitsu Banno briefly assumed the helm of the Godzilla franchise in 1971 with GOJIRA TAI HEDOR  ~aka~  GODZILLA vs. HEDORAH; GODZILLA vs. THE SMOG MONSTER.  Purely a environmentalist’s infomercial, it’s a very boring outing for the Big G despite a few interesting segments, including a scene of Godzilla flying, using his nuclear breath for rocket propulsion.  So poorly was this film received that the Godfather of the G-franchise, Tomoyuki Tanaka, exploded in rage at Banno, informing him that he had ruined the series.  A new Godzilla film was immediately rushed into production, and a planned sequel to GODZILLA vs. HEDORAH was quickly cancelled.

          Chikyû kogeki meirei: Gojira tai Gaigan ~aka~ EARTH DESTRUCTION DIRECTIVE: GODZILLA vs. GIGAN; GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND, released in 1972, marked Jun Fukuda’s return as director, with a better effort than usual from him. 

True, there is a certain level of silliness that Fukuda just couldn’t avoid, including a scene where Godzilla and Angirus are speaking to each other.  While this was done in the original Japanese edit through the use of cartoonish “word balloons,” in the English-language version we actually hear the Monsters speaking.  Still, in comparison to the previous GODZILLA vs. THE SMOG MONSTER, I can live with a little silliness.

1973’s GOJIRA TAI MEGARO ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. MEGALON was the most interesting Goji-film of the 1970’s, and while aimed almost exclusively at the youth market, still manages to entertain.  It was also a vehicle for one of Toho’s most spectacular publicity campaigns, one which invited children to design a character for the film.  The winning design was an Ultraman-like character named Jet Jaguar.  This heroic robot was able to use martial arts, fly, and grow to enormous size to battle evil.  He and Godzilla quickly unite to battle Megalon and Gigan, in a Kaijû fight that must be seen to be believed.

1974 gave us a new evil Kaijû to root against, a new ally for Godzilla, and marked the Big Guy’s 20th anniversary.  GOJIRA TAI MEKAGOJIRA ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. MECHAGODZILLA; GODZILLA vs. THE COSMIC MONSTER was also Jun Fukuda’s last turn as director; unfortunately, it worked no better than most of his films.  It did introduce the villains of the last two Showa films:  Mechagodzilla, a mechanical replica of Godzilla designed to beat him in combat; and the aliens from the Black Hole who created him. 

We were also introduced to a new Kaijû protector of Japan, Kingushîsâ, or King Shisa.  In the English-language version, this became King Caesar.  King Caesar is the embodiment of the lion-dog guardian spirits (or Shîsâ…) that are represented by statues on the island of Okinawa.  This would be his only appearance until GOJIRA: FAINARU UÔZU ~aka~ GODZILLA: FINAL WARS in 2004.  (See my review of GFW in Creatures Featured, elsewhere on the CreatureScape site…)

The Showa era ended, not with a bang but a whimper, in 1975.  Ishirô Honda returned one last time to the director’s chair; but he had very little to work with in MEKAGOJIRA NO GYAKUSHU ~aka~ MECHAGODZILLA’S COUNTER-ATTACK; TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA.  The plot was little more than a rehash of the previous film, and not even Honda’s talent as director could overcome the film’s negatives.  The series ground to a halt, and would lie dormant for nearly the next decade.

The Heisei Era—(1984-1995)

The Heisei era (also known as the “Versus” era in Japan…) began, as did the Showa, with GOJIRA ~aka~ THE RETURN OF GODZILLA; GODZILLA 1985, released in 1984.  It ended just over a decade later with GOJIRA VS DESUTOROIA ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. DESTOROYAH.  A much darker series, it ignored everything that had occurred following the original, 1954 film.  This Godzilla was no protector of Japan, and gone too were the kid-friendly plots of the late ‘60’s-early ‘70’s.  The death of Godzilla at the hands of Destoroyah in 1995 ended the Heisei era with one of the best, albeit most emotional, outings in the franchise’s history.

The Millennium Era—(1999-2004)

Following the failure of Tristar Pictures’ 1998 version of GODZILLA, directed by Roland Emmerich, to capture the affections of the Kaijû faithful, Toho decided that the public was ready for the return of the real Godzilla, and the Millennium era began with GOJIRA NI-SEN MIRENIAMU  ~aka~  GODZILLA 2000: MILLENNIUM; GODZILLA 2000.  (See my review of G2K in Creatures Featured, elsewhere on the CreatureScape site…)  Easily the best-looking Godzilla production yet, the special effects had progressed to the point where CGI sequences were used for the first time in a Godzilla film (I don’t count GINO…) and work wonderfully in combination with the Suitmation techniques pioneered by Toho.  The Millennium era would only last five years, but produced some of the franchises most memorable films.  Certainly GODZILLA: FINAL WARS must be considered one of the best since the heyday of Ishirô Honda.

The Future of Kaijû Eiga—(?)

With the end of the Millennium era, and Toho’s reluctance to discuss future Godzilla films, fans are left to wonder how long it will be before that familiar roar is once more heard rising from the waters of Tokyo Bay.  For Godzilla to have fought his last battle is incomprehensible to me, as I’m sure it is to many of my fellow Goji-fans.  Godzilla, as others have observed before me, is a force of nature; an elemental being, whether for good or bad.  He’s not a dinosaur run amok, or an experiment gone wrong.  He simply… IS.  To imagine that coming to an end would mean the death of something that I’m not prepared to see die.  And if I’m lucky, I’ll never have to be.

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