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Midday Movies: What Is Kaiju?

Before You See ‘Pacific Rim’ Learn What Japanese Monsters Are All About

The usual suspects of kaiju from

Credit: Toho

Above: The usual suspects of kaiju from "Destroy All Monsters."

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


Guillermo Del Toro's "Pacific Rim" opens Friday and serves up a Western take on kaiju or giant monsters. But kaiju has a long history in Japan.

Guillermo Del Toro is known for giving us sympathetic monsters in films such as "Cronos" and "Hellboy" but this time he serves up a legion of giant monsters out to destroy humanity. The monsters are call kaiju, which is a Japanese word for “strange beast.” But the term has also come to define a very specific kind of Japanese sci-fi and fantasy film, and to some purists, what Del Toro is doing is misappropriating the term.

Miguel Rodriguez objects to the fact that in "Pacific Rim" the so-called kaiju have no names, no personality, and are too easily defeated by humans. In Japan, the genre started with "Gojira" in 1954, and he was a personification of the atom bomb. Humans were not capable of destroying kaiju, only nature or other kaiju could do that job.

Ramie Tateishi says kaiju in Japan are like a force of nature and offer a variation on the yokai of Japanese mythology. He also notes that the kaiju in Japanese movies were generally played by men in suits and drew on traditions of Noh Theater.

Suggested Viewing

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Toho

The charm of many kaiju films is that the monsters are played by men in suits, as in "Godzilla" films.

Some must-see Toho kaiju movies would include: "Gojira" (1954), "The Mysterians" (1957), "Mothra" (1961), "King Kong Vs. Godzilla" (1962), "Mothra Vs. Godzilla" (1964), "Ghidorah" (1964), "Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero" (1965)"Destroy All Monsters" (1968), "Godzilla Vs. Destroyah" (1995), "Rebirth of Mothra" (1996), "Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack" (2001), "Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S." (2003), "Godzilla: Final Wars" (2004).

Additional titles would include any of the "Gamera" films or any of the "Ultraman" series.

Additional Geekiness

You can listen to Rodriguez discuss King Ghidorah with Tateishi on his Monster Island Resort Podcast. And you can hear Tateishi speak more on Godzilla with me here.

You can find a list of Toho kaiju films here.


Here's a trailer for Godzilla's kaiju battle royale, "Destroy All Monsters," the film we watch in the segment.

Trailer: "Destroy All Monsters"

Here's the trailer for "Pacific Rim" for comparison of the depiction of kaiju.

Trailer: "Pacific Rim"

And check out Gamera, guardian of the universe, friend to all the chichildrendrean, and a flying turtle.

Trailer: "Gamera"


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