Overseas enthusiasts call Japanese monsters “Kaiju,” a Japanese word meaning “monster,” to clearly distinguish them from “Monsters” in their countries. Probably, they feel that Kaiju characters, including Godzilla, Gamera, Alien Baltan and Pigmon, are something totally different from monsters. Japanese counterparts call Alien and Predator “Creatures” not “Kaijin,” which means humanoid Kaiju. Somehow, boundaries are drawn between those terms. How are they different, then?

Knifehead from a 2013 film Pacific Rim (left) and Godzilla from a 2014 film Godzilla (right). Both are CG characters but they are designed to look as if played by suit actors
*All the figures shown in the photographs are the author’s personal properties.

Roots of Godzilla

In July 2013, the film Pacific Rim was released. The film was about a gigantic life form coming from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To fight against it, governments across the world built huge humanoid robots. This gigantic life form was called “Kaiju” in the film. It obviously referred to a Japanese word “Kaiju.” The end credits showed a dedication to “monster masters,” Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda. Ishiro Honda directed Godzilla and many other special effects Toho films. Director of Pacific Rim Guillermo del Toro has expressed his admiration for Honda and Godzilla on a number of occasions. However, monster films originated in the United States not Japan. They all started with the enormous worldwide success of King Kong 85 years ago.

On the Skull Island where dinosaurs still lived, a giant apeman Kong was deified by the natives. Kong was captured to be put on show and taken to New York, where Kong ran rampage. An image of King Kong climbing the Empire State Building must be familiar to quite a few people even if they haven’t seen the film. To cash in on the success of King Kong, films like Wasei King Kong (Japanese King Kong) (1933) and Edo ni Arawareta King Kong (King Kong Appears in Edo) (1938) (*1) were released. That indicates that the film caused a great sensation in Japan, too. Eiji Tsuburaya, dubbed the “God of special effects,” possessed a special effects part of Mighty Joe Young (1949) made by some of the crew members of King Kong. Tsuburaya studied it intently (*2). Another monster master, Ray Harryhausen was also impressed by King Kong and went into the world of monster films.

In 1953, Harryhausen made his debut as a model animator in full charge when he was working as the number-one protege of Willis O’Brien (*3), the special effects artist of King Kong. Harryhausen’s debut work was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) about a dinosaur Rhedosaurus that came out of hibernation due to a nuclear bomb test in the Arctic Circle. Rhedosaurus landed at New York and waged fierce battles with military forces. This film was a great success and followed by a number of films about living things mutated into monsters by radioactivity one after another. They included Them! (1954), Tarantula! (1955), Beginning of the End, The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and War of the Colossal Beast (1958) (*4). Godzilla premiered in 1954 was one
of them. It was obvious that the film was strongly influenced by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The storyline was almost identical. An ancient animal living in a seabed cave (*5) lost its habitat due to a hydrogen bomb test and arrived at Tokyo. The working title of Godzilla was “The giant monster from 20,000 miles under the sea.”

What is the definition of “Kaiju”?

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms undoubtedly had a great influence on Godzilla. However, if Godzilla had been a mere rehash, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), re-edited adaptation of Godzilla as its overseas version, wouldn’t have become such a huge success across the world. In fact, Godzilla was remade in Hollywood twice several decades later. It is reasonable to think that Godzilla has something that differentiates it from other earlier monster films.

What is the difference, then? First of all, the ways of depicting monsters are completely different between the U.S. and Japan. King Kong and Rhedosaurus are animated by a technique called stop motion. In this technique, a rubber model supported by a metal skeleton is moved little by little as it is photographed frame by frame. The model looks as if it is moving as the frames are played back quickly in sequence. The conventional films are shot at 24 frames per second, which means that a model has to be moved 24 times for only one second of film. It requires great patience and takes time and money. That is why many Kaiju characters including Godzilla are played by suit actors. Except that Kaiju suit designs have to be basically similar to a human silhouette, this technique has a number of advantages. Naturally, the movement is smooth whereas stop motion is associated with the common problem of flicker (*6). In addition, huge sets of miniatures made to match the suit size give the action scenes a solid look and swiftness far from comparable to stop motion pictures (*7). King Kong and Rhedosaurus did destroy buildings and vehicles in New York. However, compared with Godzilla that devastated Tokyo, I must say, their rampage was fairly modest. A monster immune to military attacks and capable of striking back, with breathing out a heat ray was unprecedented. The destructive power and vital force of Japanese Kaiju go beyond human knowledge.

The body of Godzilla, the source of the power, is huge. King Kong is 12 to 15 meters tall and Rhedosaurus is about 20 meters tall. The first Godzilla is much taller and it stands 50 meters. Accordingly, opponents are made to match the size of Godzilla. King Kong in King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) is enlarged to 45 meters in height. The latest Kong in Kong: Skull Island (2017) is 31.6 meters tall, standing double the height of the first Kong. That is because Kong is expected to fight against Godzilla in Godzilla vs Kong to be released in 2020. That is quite an unusual move. The Hollywood version of Godzilla released in 1998 emphasized the hugeness in the teasers and the film itself. Its slogan was “Size Does Matter.” The same goes for Pacific Rim. The huge body, as big as skyscrapers, may be one of the features that overseas people see as the Kaiju-ness.

Left: Cosmo Liquid, giant liquid Kaiju, from Ultraman Taro
Right: Bullton, four-dimensional Kaiju, from Ultraman (1966) (Top), Gatanothor, the great darkness, from Ultraman Tiga (1996) (Bottom)
The so-called Ultra Kaiju characters vary widely. Some resemble bipedal dinosaurs. Some are moving objects in weird shapes. Others have a non-human silhouette, which is enabled by more than one actors donning a suit.

After the success of Godzilla, Toho began to make Kaiju films constantly and other movie companies, such as Daiei, Toei, Shochiku and Nikkatsu, followed suit. This was the “first Kaiju craze.” However, the main battlefield for Kaiju moved from the cinema to TV. In January 1966, Ultra Q, a TV series made by Eiji Tsuburaya, who headed Tsuburaya Productions, went on air. The show is the precursor to the Ultraman series that is still continuing. A half century has passed since Kaiju, which could be only seen in the cinema, appeared on TV every week. Now, well over 1,000 Ultra Kaiju characters exist. In addition to ancient creatures staying alive till the present like Godzilla or undergoing separate evolution, there are creatures coming from outer space or another dimension, robots, cyborgs and even those that can be only described as yokai (Japanese specters) or demons (*8) in the Ultraman series. They vary tremendously in size from germ-size to human-size, to 50 meters or 100 meters in height and to infinite (*9). I am only talking about the Ultra Kaiju not all the Kaiju characters. During the “second Kaiju craze or henshin (transformation) hero craze” that lasted several years from 1971, a vast number of characters were produced including human-sized Kaiju (Kaijin) in the Kamen Rider (masked rider) series. Furthermore, Kaiju also appeared in anime as villains as opposed to heroes, for instance, in robot anime series (*10) before Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). Kaiju characters played by suit actors even appeared as cast members in some variety shows such as Macha-aki, Maetake, Hajimaruyo! (1971) (*11). It was the age of mass-production of poor quality characters. At the same time, it could be said that the potential of Kaiju was made the most of during this period. When it comes to Kaiju, anything goes. That is probably true more than overseas enthusiasts think. Monsters in overseas films know their place. For example, dragons basically appear in fantasy films, space creatures in science fictions, and ghosts in horror. In Japanese films, dinosaur, alien, zombie, dark god or any other creature strays into modern society and stages an action-packed battle scene against a hero or a defense force. That is the de-facto standard. In other words, appearing in the modern world may be one of the key elements that make them Kaiju (*12).

Now, I will try to draw some conclusions. Although people seem to vaguely have a common image about Japanese Kaiju, it is hard to define. In fact, when special effects lovers gather together, they often start a lively discussion about the definition of Kaiju and usually get nowhere. However, we will be able to expose requirements for being Kaiju. Firstly, one of the requirements is to appear in the present time, the near future or the recent past. For example, Harryhausen worked on a number of fantasy films featuring dragon, Cyclops and griffin after the success of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958. Kaiju seems to be recognized to be totally different from those monsters in the world of “sword and sorcery.” Secondly, Kaiju should be gigantic. Small and adorable Kaiju do exist like Pigmon and Kanegon, which are mascot-like characters in the Ultraman series, but an extraordinarily huge size should be one of the essential features. With that enormous body, Kaiju destroys buildings that symbolize civilization. Kaiju is a kind of disaster whereas Kaijin is close to a criminal or a terrorist as it implies a likely threat, making you believe that you could be targeted next. Kaiju flattens and burns up everything regardless of who the victim is. There will be many different opinions and exceptions. However, this article proposes the definition of Kaiju simply as a gigantic creature that destroys even buildings. The next part will be about how Kaiju characters produced abroad by the influence of Godzilla have destroyed cities across the world.

Wasei King Kong was released one month after the original King Kong and Edo ni Arawareta King Kong was released five years later. Their master copies are both considered lost and they cannot be seen today. It is said that Kong in the former film was played by a suit actor and that the one in the latter was a human-sized Kaiju.

When Tsuburaya was appointed special effects director for King Kong vs Godzilla in 1962 and King Kong no Gyakushu (King Kong Escapes) in 1967, he made the most of what he studied then. The list of homages to King Kong in later films is endless. They include a scene in which the first Godzilla overturned a train in Shinagawa Station and the full-scale arm of Gaira actually built to grab people for Frankenstein no Kaiju: Sanda vs Gaira (War of the Gargantuas) (1966).

I only touched on him as the topic would sidetrack me. Willis O’Brien was one of the stop motion animation pioneers. He made animations utilizing his stop motion techniques from the silent film era. He was a great technician, who some might call the father of all the Kaiju. He was awarded an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for Mighty Joe Young.

All those films, except for the first two works, were directed by Bert I. Gordon. Gordon was nicknamed Mister B.I.G. as he made many giant monster films. Most of his works were produced by filming live creatures like insects with photographs of sceneries, which created distinctive, impressive pictures.

In the film, Godzilla was described as “a creature somewhere between a marine reptile and a land beast that had occasionally lived from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous.” Such a creature does not exist. Godzilla, as its birth already suggests, is the epitome of a “mysterious creature.”

Flickering is caused because the object to be filmed remains still unlike something actually moving. It was a technical drawback inherent in stop motion animation but it was later overcome by technical innovation by Jim Danforth, Phil Tippett and other successors. In quite a few cases, the jerky, choppy movements produced a favorable effect on the contrary.

Harryhauzen used an extremely time-consuming process. He hung debris of buildings piece by piece with wires and depicted their falls by stop motion animation. The use of miniatures was limited to a minimum because of a reduced budget and a large set like those used in Japanese special effects films was not built. Special effects, whether it uses stop motion or suit actors, require time and money.

Some Kaiju characters in Ultraman series were not living things but rather spiritual. For example, Hydra was gone with the soul of a boy killed in a traffic accident. Woo was the reincarnation of a mother who died leaving a small daughter behind. In subsequent Ultra series, yokai-like Kaiju characters also appeared. Those included Mochiron which embodied Terrans’ fantasy notion that a rabbit is pounding mochi (rice cake) on the moon, Enmargo sealed in a jizo (Ksitigarbha) statue, and Jihibikiran resembling Kintaro (Golden Boy), a fairy tale character, that was the disguised god of sumo.

Darii in Ultraseven was a kind of space germ inhabiting human lungs. Ballonga absorbing energy and growing infinitely appeared in Ultra Q. Vacuumon in Return of Ultraman was a nebula-like creature that sucked energy from planets.

Before Mobile Suit Gundam, giant robot anime series were about cyborg Kaiju sent by invaders and robots piloted by young defenders of justice to fight against the invaders’ Kaiju. Mobile Suit Gundam broke the stereotype. Robots, which were mobile suits, were treated as a tool of war between humans. It pioneered the trend for realistic robot anime that followed. Mobile suits such as Zaku and Gouf were classified as Kaiju in the 1980 and 1981 editions of Zen Kaiju Kaijin Daihyakka (All Kaiju Kaijin encyclopedia) published by Keibunsha in an attempt to cover all the Kaiju characters appearing in Japanese special effects films, TV shows and anime series.

Those Kaiju characters were Maetake Kaiju Berobero modeled on the MC Takehiko Maeda and Macha-aki Kaiju Garigari modeled on the other MC Masaaki Sakai. Although the show didn’t last long, their PVC figures, typical Kaiju toys, and their pictures were put on the market. Those characters are still known to some enthusiasts.

There are some exceptions, such as Captain Ultra set in the space pioneer era in the 21st centry (1967), Kamen no Ninja Akakage (masked ninja Akakage) depicting ninja heroes in the age of provincial wars in Japan (1967), and Majin Hunter Mitsurugi (Demon hunter Mitsurugi) supposing that aliens invaded the Earth in the Edo Period (1973).