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Midday Movies: What Is Kaiju?

July 10, 2013 10:36 a.m.

Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts Reporter and Author the Blog Cinema Junkie
Dr. Ramie Tateishi, Assistant Professor at National University
Miguel Rodriguez, Host of Monster Island Resort Podcast and Director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival

Related Story: Midday Movies: What Is Kaiju?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: On Friday, Guillermo del Toro will release his film, Pacific Rim. This time he serves up a legion of giant monsters out to destroy humanity. The monsters are called Kaiju, a Japanese term for strange beast. But it's also come to define a specific type of Japanese Sci-fi.

ACCOMANDO: For this month midday movie, I decided to reconvene the Geek Roundtable, and I'm holding it at my home. I thought this was an appropriate place to get a couple of my friends together and talk about Kaiju. Right now, I have two fans sitting in my living room, watching "Destroy All Monsters."

(Audio Recording Played)

TATEISHI: I love the commentary

RODRIGUEZ: He sounds like a sportscaster. Godzilla knows what's up.

(Audio Recording Played)

ACCOMANDO: Kaiju is something most American moviegoers might not be familiar with. So professor, why don't you tell us what Kaiju means?

TATEISHI: It comes from the Japanese kanji characters, Kai is strange, and Ju is beast. It just sort of means monster, or dai kaiju, giant monster. And it's the more modern evolution of the spiritual, more mythological Japanese creatures.

RODRIGUEZ: I would go a step farther and say a modern evolution of Shinto Gods and monsters. Where they have roots in nature, roots that are mythological in scope, which is tied to this whole idea of the personification of natural elements.

ACCOMANDO: The most familiar Kaiju for American audiences is probably Godzilla who came about in 1954. Tell us what he represents and how he fits into the genre.

RODRIGUEZ: Godzilla was a mix of what we were just talking about, ancient Shinto or Yokai type monsters and the atomic age. It was poignant in Japan. So it hit home with Japanese audiences and the cast and crew who worked on the familiar, including the producer that nabbinga who was just absolutely in love with this creation of his. There's a lot of backstory that goes into Gojira and Godzilla. And a lot of that is why he has become so resonate with the world around.

ACCOMANDO: And talk about Godzilla in the culture in terms of what he represented and the changes in science fiction and a way to express the bomb.

>> I think the idea of Godzilla just as a monster, representing all of the cultural angst and fear and atmosphere of that period, it's more than just a giant monster stomping on things. It represents or embodies a lot more. So at that point, Gojira, the first monster was the emblem of all of that culture anxiety of the time, monfested in this giant creature that couldn't be stopped.

ACCOMANDO: In the movies in Japan, there's a particular style to the way the monsters are presented. And it's something that has a real charm and something very special about them. So these were all men in suits.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, it's really interesting how this came about. It started out of pure necessity. That nabbinga, the producer on the film got together with Honda, the director on the film, and they wanted to do something like the beast from 20,000 fathoms. Of course they stop-motion animated that beast. But because of the Japanese film industry, they had I think six months to shoot the film. And while it was a huge budget for a Japanese film, it still was nothing compared to what we were doing in America. So they decided instead of doing stop-motion animation to have a man in a suit. But what ended up happening is they accidentally created a new art form. The original Godzilla actor, nabbinga Jima, has said that he believes Godzilla appeals to people largely because there is an actor in the suit and humanity shows through.

ACCOMANDO: What do the men in suits mean for you, and what do you find appeals about that?

TATEISHI: In Japan, there's the theatrical tradition of no. It's very much about the movements that the characters make. So the audience has already the precondition to pay attention to and to respect the idea of the movement of a performer. So I think that mindset carries over into accepting watching an actor or performer in this monster suit. You see the more natural movements imparted through the physicality of the performance that really just gives a different feel to these monsters.

ACCOMANDO: One of the things that about Godzilla that it appealed to me is the fact that it is a man in a suit. And there's so much personality that comes through. When you see Godzilla fighting off these other monsters, you really get the feeling this is a creature with personality! And that's one thing that American movies fail to do when they have these creatures. There's not the sense that the creature has a personality. And part of it is because a lot of times it is created through CGI or other things.

RODRIGUEZ: I think it's really significant. He has a name. They all have names. And I'm talking about the pantheon of giant monsters that have come out of Japan. They all have name, they all act a certain way. They all have certain characteristics that go with them. You can tell Gojira from mothra from Rodan, they all are very, very different. And it captivates people if who see it for the first time, especially when you see it as a child. It draws you in. I know I was in love with it from the beginning.

ACCOMANDO: And also, there's some symbolism involved. A character like Ghidorah represented China.

TATEISHI: Ghidorah came back in 1964 when China conducted it was first atom bomb test. You think of the dragon being a symbol of China, and it was this dragon with three heads. And it was very chaotic. They were all just flailing about and shooting lasers all over the place.

ACCOMANDO: So I mentioned Gojira, probably the most popular and well known. What are some of the other ones that you particularly like in this pantheon of giant monsters from Japan?

RODRIGUEZ: I'm going to have to go Mothra. Growing up for other people, the few other people I knew who really loved these movies, Mothra was not a favorite because she didn't seem like that much of a threat. A big, beautiful moth with pretty colors like a rainbow. And she had these two twin fairy girls who would swing to awaken her.

(Audio Recording Played)

RODRIGUEZ: This whole idea that really drew me to Mothra, it's almost Christ-like. She would die and be reborn through the larva. And she's the only one who is overtly female. So I always thought that was very interesting as well.

RODRIGUEZ: Also just on the level of film making, I thought Mothra was really interesting. If you think about the moth or the larva, neither of the creatures is capable of much movement. There's not much you can do. And yet when it comes to those fight scenes, they just find so many imaginative ways to get the monsters into the action and have them doing a variety of things.

ACCOMANDO: All these monsters we've mentioned so far are from TOHO, the studio in Japan. Another one comes from a rival studio, and that is gamura. It was a giant flying turtle. Again, you don't necessarily think of a turtle as menacing. But tell us about gamura.

RODRIGUEZ: The turtle shows up in a lot of Japanese folk lore. It comes from a rival studio. It was their answer to Godzilla. But it was a giant turtle who could fly like a flying saucer by putting his head and legs into his shell and spinning around.

TATEISHI: I also want to bring up at this point the monsters from subut raya, another studio who created the ultra series.

ACCOMANDO: There have been some American films, Pacific Rim, and there's also the one American version of Godzilla that came out. But what do you think these films represent in terms of the cultural perspectives or the perspectives on what these giant monster movies are?

RODRIGUEZ: In the worse than audiences, they're used to seeing the giant monster as just another film conflict that needs to be defeated or destroyed. Whereas with the Japanese Kaiju, when we get from them, it goes back to these monsters are not just animals that run around destroying things. They are more like forces of nature. Godzilla is not just a big lizard. It is the atom bomb personified. So that's not something that can be defeated. And the problem of the Kaiju has to be solved among the Kaiju themselves. Whereas the tanks will come, and the cannons will come, they are completely worthless. Whereas you did mention the other Godzilla, when they bring Godzilla over in 1997, Godzilla is chased into a bridge and killed with four missiles, which is absolutely unthinkable to this. And so it really shows a completely -- I think drastically culture difference in what it's been able to do here. And I think the Japanese really wanted to use these monsters to pinpoint the arrogance of humanity. And so the monsters were used as a way to show the danger of mankind's arrogance. Whereas the American ones almost celebrate mankind's arrogance. Beast from 20,000 fathoms for example, we have a nuclear isotope that he shoot into the monster's mouth to kill it, and hurray! Everybody's happy! And it's a very different feeling whereas in the 1984 reboot of Godzilla, when they were able to stop Godzilla because he falls into a volcano, it's a very sad ending. Everybody is looking around, the threat has been stopped for a while. He's not killed obviously because you can't kill him. But nobody -- there's no feeling of elation, there's no feeling of triumph.

ACCOMANDO: And also that wouldn't be man killing him. It's nature getting him. And talking about that, it also points to the fact that Americans really have a hard time with stories in which they can't conquer what's attacking us. Japan had the two bombs dropped on them. They understand what it feels like to not be the victors, and Americans seem to reflect this lack of ability to see that.

RODRIGUEZ: That's a great point. Empero Hirohito, he was adamant about keeping the war going. And it took two atom bombs before we could stop that. It did leave the Japanese with I think a sense of looking for an identity, a lost identity. Certainly this vast military, they demilitarized. So there was a lot of crisis of identity where whereas with Americans, you bring up a good point. It's almost like manifest destiny still exists in the film world.

TATEISHI: That's a good point about that search for identity. That was happening around that time postwar in the 50s. Kurasawa really dealt with that. The recreation of a cultural and social identity amidst the rebuilding of physically the environment and the surroundings.

ACCOMANDO: Let me ask you each if you have a favorite Kaiju film.

RODRIGUEZ: In addition to the original Gojira, it's probably Godzilla versus Mothra. It's one of my favorite films in definitely.

TATEISHI: Definitely the original 1954 Gojira. That's probably at the top of everyone's list. But also the greatest battle on earth from 1964, the first one where the main three monsters met Ghidorah for the first time.