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Trope Talk: Kaiju

Trope Talk: Kaiju
When is a giant monster not a giant monster? When it's a giant METAPHOR! Let's do this. So '

kaiju

' is a Japanese word that literally means 'strange beast', but it's typically used to refer to a specific kind of monster in monster movies where the monster is giant. Now what exactly defines a

kaiju

is a matter of furious academic debate, but most people agree on the classic biologist's answer of: *non-commital noises* "you know when you see it." Now, in general,

kaiju

are big and destructive and typically enjoy pushing over buildings and screaming a lot. Let's not get too specific. That's how you attract philosophers. Now

kaiju

movies are usually about two things: the

kaiju

itself and how people react to it. A lot of this is because

kaiju

make extremely convenient analogies for any kind of large scale threat or fear an audience might be facing.

Kaiju

are typically huge, powerful, and impossible to control, persuade, or stop with conventional weapons. And, notably, they're not really comparable to anything else. Like a horror monster, but bigger and less personal. Like a natural disaster, but with a lot more agency. "How would people handle this" is an interesting question, because

kaiju

don't have easy real-world parallels.

Kaiju

ask the question: what would you do in the face of something so vast and powerful that you couldn't overpower it? And if a society has some big, nebulous fear that they can't...
trope talk kaiju
really deal with (as most societies do), You can take out the nebulous part and turn that fear into a monster and then ask the question again. It turns speculative fiction into social commentary. Now what exactly that big, nebulous fear is can vary a lot. Godzilla, the archetypal

kaiju

, originated as the terror of the bomb, the post-World War Two fear of the consequences of nuclear weaponry. More recent

kaiju

movies like Pacific Rim and even some of the Godzilla remakes, cast the

kaiju

as more analogous to climate change, the current big nebulous threat. And with King Kong, Who was a

kaiju

before

kaiju

were cool, He's a giant monstrous ape from a far-off land that kidnaps a terrified white lady and one extremely popular interpretation is that he's analogous for the racism in the xenophobia that was oh-so popular in 1930's America.

Kaiju

let us cast nebulous invisible fears as skyscraper sized giant monsters, which is useful, because it's easier to think about a giant monster than a disembodied fear. In fact, it's a grand old sci-fi tradition to make your monster an allegory for a current threat, like in Heinlein's The Puppet Masters where he very specifically reminds the audience on multiple occasions that these mind-controlling alien parasites are just like those gosh-darn communists. Anyway,

kaiju

were often used to embody the prevailing social fear of the day be it xenophobia, McCarthyism, or various apocalyptic threats. This also means that

kaiju

...
trope talk kaiju
narratives are heavily dependent on the social context they're created in, and they often change as the society changes. So let's start by diving into the archetypal

kaiju

: Godzilla. Now Godzilla first appeared in 1954 in the Japanese movie Gojira. Now before I get into the story of the movie, I need to provide a little bit of real-world context surrounding the production of this movie. First of all, The obvious: World War II. Godzilla was released nine years after the war ended; nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first and currently last use of nuclear weapons in warfare. The director of the film, Ishirō Honda, was a World War II veteran who passed through Hiroshima on his way home and had been horrified at the devastation. Now, the U.S. occupied Japan until 1952 and during that time they censored Japanese media. Notably, nobody was allowed to actually *

talk

* about the atomic bomb, which meant that for seven years, all that nationwide nuclear fear couldn't be directly addressed. After the U.S. occupation ended, they decided to keep tickling the proverbial dragon's tail by restarting the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, beginning with the Castle Bravo test where the U.S. detonated a high-yield thermonuclear bomb approximately 1,000 times more powerful than either of the atom bombs dropped on Japan nine years earlier. Now while Bikini Atoll is a couple thousand miles away from Japan, it is *kind* of their oceanic backyard, and the currents...
trope talk kaiju
in that region do lead back to Japan . Now, the problem was the Castle Bravo test detonated an extremely dirty bomb. It produced a ton of fallout - much more than the report officially stated and probably more than anyone expected. Sometimes, nuclear physics is a little more art than science. Now, some of this fallout contaminated a nearby Japanese fishing boat, inflicting the 23 crew members with acute radiation sickness, killing one of them and sparking an international incident. The U.S. denied that the fallout could have affected the boat, Japan said the fallout had to have come from somewhere, tensions rose and a Polish scientist crunched the numbers and confirmed the detonation had produced much more radioactivity than the U.S. admitted. The media got a hold of it, the U.S. quickly paid reparations to Japan and nuclear paranoia spiked. It wasn't really a good look for the U.S. People were starting to realize that nukes were seriously bad news for literally everybody, and the U.S. was kind of just dropping them willy-nilly in the ocean without making sure nobody was gonna get hurt first. By the way, if you ever reeeaaally want to piss yourself off, look up what happened to the people who lived on Bikini Atoll. So this was the immediate social context surrounding the creation of Godzilla. Two nukes dropped nine years prior, not allowed to

talk

about it for seven of those years and only eight months earlier, 23 of your citizens were poisoned by a nuclear superweapon....
Accidentally. And the US is still testing those bombs in that area. Everyone is tense, everyone's *way* too familiar with the effects of nuclear weaponry, everyone's really hoping it doesn't happen again, but also knows it's completely out of their hands. And then they release Godzilla. Now, just for a moment, let's all pretend we've never heard of Godzilla. "Godzilla?" "Pfbth. What's that? Some kind of soda name?" Well, the movie starts off strong with a Japanese fishing boat full of dudes having a grand old time until the ship is destroyed and the crew is killed by some unseen force and a blinding flash of light. Uh oh. It sounds a lot like that thing that just happened earlier that year, but worse. Huh. So they send a boat to investigate and the boat is destroyed They send a third boat and the boat is destroyed. An island is devastated in the night and 17 houses are crushed. It could have been an earthquake, it could have been a typhoon. But neither of those would explain the radiation, and they *certainly* wouldn't explain the footprints. So yeah, Godzilla 1954 is a *horror* movie, unlike literally any of its sequels. Godzilla's kept hidden for much of the movie, and it makes sense this would be played for horror because he is the personified terror of the Bomb. I want to take a hot second to jump forward in time and

talk

about Chernobyl both the nuclear disaster and the miniseries recounting it. I've seen some...
people describe the first episode is something like Lovecraftian horror and they're totally right! The exposed reactor in the radiation its releasing is like some otherworldly dark god. It reaches through walls right through your skin, looking at it will kill you flat-out, Being in the same building as it will make you wish you were dead, gets into the water, the air, you could even say it's a mYsTeRiOuS cOlOr UnLiKe AnY sEeN oN eArTh. It's horrifying to watch if you know what's happening, it's horrifying to watch if you don't. You don't get forces like that on terrestrial planets, you don't get them outside of stars. In a very real sense the power that is unleashed by a nuclear weapon or a nuclear accident are otherworldly, eldritch, incomprehensible and extremely deadly. And that is how they play Godzilla. Nobody can even figure out what Godzilla *is* for a while because he keeps killing everything that gets close. He can't be stopped by buildings or walls, weaponry has no effect on him and anything he can't smash to pieces he melts with the pure radiation he breathes. When he levels Tokyo, the damage he does is almost identical to what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it's slower. So you can see it all in vivid detail. Buildings crushed and burned, bystanders killed and nothing they throw at him even slows him down. Now if there's one advantage Godzilla has over allegorical narrative devices it's that the...
characters in his movie are completely willing to acknowledge and

talk

about the thing he's in allegory for. Feels like every five minutes, one of the characters goes "Hey, remember the bomb? Sucked, right?" Characters outright draw the analogy between Godzilla and the bomb and in the official lore of the movie, Godzilla is only a problem *because* of the bombs - specifically, the nearby nuclear testing like the Castle Bravo incident. The scientists in the movie explained that Godzilla's natural habitat under the ocean must have been destroyed by the h-bomb testing because the radioactive signature he's leaving behind is unique to h-bombs Godzilla is only radioactive in the first place *because* of the bombs So he's in this interesting place where in-universe he's a victim of reckless nuclear testing and attacks, but from a meta-narrative perspective he's an embodiment of those attacks both an allegory and a victim and if you look at the way the narrative is framed Godzilla is NOT representative of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as is often phrased. He's representative of the nearby nuclear tests in their implications He's the threat that Hiroshima and Nagasaki could happen again. This was a deeply political movie So Godzilla's basically nuclear irresponsibility on two legs, a way to embody an invisible ephemeral terror that was unfortunately all too real. And there's actually another facet of the movie because the only...
way they can find to kill Godzilla is to unleash an even worse weapon they call an oxygen destroyer the scientist who creates it is so hell-bent on making sure it's never used in a global arms race that he burns all his notes and kills himself when they use it on Godzilla. The message is incredibly overt. These weapons are awful, they do damage in ways we can't possibly predict, it might already be too late, but we have to stop while we still can. Now this is...moody It's dark it's tragic It's not very hopeful. It even ends with one of the characters stating that if nuclear tests continue there could very easily be another Godzilla So nobody's having a good time So it's not all that surprising that NO SEQUEL follows this format because this is *heavy* stuff And sometimes you want a deeply tragic terrifying movie to help you process your communal trauma and warn the rest of the world against hubristic self-destruction, and sometimes you just want to watch a giant nuclear dinosaur beat up a dragon from space So after this trend-setting

kaiju

movie broke onto the scene it was followed by a parade of sequels that were almost unilaterally structured as Godzilla becomes the lesser of two evils Pit Godzilla against another giant monster and we're *probably* gonna root for Godzilla just on the grounds of familiarity. Heck his third movie ever was Godzilla vs. King Kong, which is *pure* spectacle. On the subject of King Kong, there's...think pieces...
about various ways it can be interpreted, but I don't think it's exactly controversial to suggest that a movie made in the 30s about a giant savage ape who is captured by white men, transported across the ocean in chains, and then abducts a white woman could *possibly* have some racial coding involved. And for the sake of my comments section, please do not try to defend the political sensitivity of a movie made in 1933 Can we just accept that the giant ape is probably racist? Okay moving on Now the thing is, King Kong didn't shake his allegorical implications as easily as Godzilla did. While Godzilla got sequels and character development aplenty, most King Kong movies were remakes. A handful were sequels or alternate versions, but nothing really stuck And as long as the movies were following the original format they were stuck with either the allegorical baggage of "large ape-man becomes obsessed with and kidnaps white woman" or the alternative version: (Awkward enthusiasm) Where the white lady is into it, so it's consensual...! I don't know anyone who was comfortable with THAT angle, but they did try it a few times Godzilla, meanwhile, underwent a gradual heel face turn. Over the course of nearly a dozen sequels he slowly drifted from "lesser of two evils" to "cranky protector of the earth" His most significant character development came in "destroy all monsters" where he teams up with every other

kaiju

in the world...
to fight noted three-headed space dragon King Ghidorah. After which point every appearance is functionally fully benevolent He's still cranky and he gives humans the stink eye whenever they pollute and stuff, but this Godzilla is basically a giant grumpy Captain Planet. He's a protector of the earth; he only squishes things accidentally. And this was a very popular direction to take

kaiju

. In the current remakes of both Godzilla and King Kong, the protagonist

kaiju

are functionally Gaia's vengeance - protectors of nature disturbed from their peace or hibernation exclusively by human intervention (and the occasional evil space dragon). And with King Kong it's kind of flipped his allegorical implications from good ol thirties racism to a kind of anti-colonialist message where he's this noble and wondrous being in his home habitat shouldn't be taken away or harmed (Smooth advertisement voice) Take only pictures, leave only footprints, visit scenic Skull Island today :) Now, this character drift is convenient because unlike the terror of the bomb allegory or, you know, good old thirties racism, this characterization gives the

kaiju

a moral compass and let's your protagonists be on their side Instead of hopeless and powerless in the face of unfeeling nuclear Armageddon - or not white people... With *this* kind of

kaiju

narrative it less existential horror and more... Well, more Captain Planet. More good people versus bad people conflicts only the good...
people have the power of Godzilla and anime on their side Gee, I wonder why *anyone* would want to write something like that. Wish fulfillment? Never heard of it So

kaiju

movies ask the question: What would humanity do in the face of something terrifyingly powerful, unthinkably enormous, and functionally unstoppable? Godzilla answered it with "die a lot and then risk a global arms race to destroy it once and for all" The post-1954 sequels answered it with "cheer from the sidelines while it beats up something worse" and the post-2014 remakes double down into "leave the

kaiju

alone, and they will solve all your problems - including global warming." And listen, I LOVED 'King of the Monsters' I LOVE spectacle fighting. But this character drift can have very weird, not very good consequences I mean the remakes take Godzilla - a character that was an embodiment of "the terror of nuclear devastation" - and, without removing *any* of his nuclear power or radioactivity, makes his strongest advocate a middle-aged Japanese man who was personally affected by the very event Godzilla represents The character of Serizawa exists in the remakes to metatextuaIIy remind the audience of Godzilla's Japanese roots and very *specifically* his connection to the bombing. (Hesitantly) This is...cute. I think. It's...fanservice right up until Serizawa *dies* by manually detonating a nuke to revive Godzilla and this is treated as catharsis for his...
character because the nukes he hates and fears were used for good...but the good it did is reviving a giant monster who originally represented the very thing that scarred this character in the first place. But he doesn't represent that in *this* movie But Serizawa's character is meant to remind us of a time when he *did.* So...is this cool? Is this weirdly manipulative? What IS this? Is this America taking a Japanese anti-nuclear weapons narrative and twisting it to be completely *pro* nuclear weapons to forgive themselves for what they've done...? WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?! The allegory's all twisted up on itself and while it's a beautifully done scene, the more you think about it the weirder it gets Anyway, taking these terrifying giant monsters and making them benevolent is a very appealing way to answer the question of "How would humanity handle this?" because it changes the question right at the source. "Well these things, we don't NEED to handle them They're not functionally unstoppable forces of malevolence; they're just misunderstood. And they don't kill innocent bystanders indiscriminately. At worst, it's an accident. And if there *are* monsters that are actively malevolent and kill people we like, there's always a GOOD monster there to fight them Godzilla's isn't an embodiment of nuclear armageddon. He's our friend (And also maybe nukes are a good thing). Godzilla likes us because we're the...
good guys Because if there's one thing nuclear Armageddon is known for, it's discerning judgement" And honestly I think that's a big part of why those recent movies fell a little flat They've got all the flair and much better graphics, but none of the WEIGHT These

kaiju

don't *mean* anything Instead of embodying some primal terror that will resonate uncomfortably well with the audience, they're just saying: "Hey guys, wouldn't it be rad if a giant monster came and fixed global warming for us?" And yes, that *would* be rad. But it's *very* unlikely. (Dramatic voice) But one man, one man dared to stand against the tide of meaningless empty spectacle. To raise a fist skyward in solitary defiance and say: "If humanity were faced with an onslaught of malevolent unstoppable giant monsters, humanity would make giant robots to punch those giant monsters IN THE FACE." So let's

talk

about Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro is a man who understands monsters. He understands the complex interplay between humanity and inhumanity and he knows that sometimes a person is a monster, sometimes a monster is a person, and sometimes a monster is a monster. You got "Hellboy" and "The Shape of Water" and..."Blade 2" apparently, where he explores inhuman monstrous protagonists that are fundamentally people on the inside: emotional, compassionate, lonely. (Inhale) I don't actually... (I haven't watched...
Blade 2) The point is, sometimes his monsters are people and sometimes they're monsters, and when they're monsters, they're usually allegorical Del Toro went on record stating that the Pale Man - a child-eating antagonist in Pan's Labyrinth - represents institutional evil feeding on the helpless and outright says it's no coincidence that it's a "pale" "man". Bold. So when del Toro took a break from directing horror to make a badass action "giant robots vs. giant monsters" punch up He did what he does best: He made the monsters *mean* something. The protagonists, Raleigh, at one point describes being in a Jaeger as being powerful enough to fight a hurricane and win; that humans face down colossal mind-numbingly destructive threats and respond by making themselves big and strong enough to fight it hand-to-hand It's a very uplifting message about human nature, the power of teamwork, and how nothing is strong enough to keep us down if we decide to fight back. Pacific Rim is a movie about humans being human. So the monsters are monsters - more specifically, they're hurricanes It's no coincidence they're given cute nicknames and ranked with a category system for one to five. And specifically, in-universe, they're part of a hostile terraforming effort from an extra dimensional race of colonizing aliens. The

kaiju

in Pacific Rim are - in the most literal sense - climate change, in that they are physically...
*changing the climate*: battering down coastal cities like hurricanes strengthened by warming waters, poisoning the oceans with chemical spill blood, overwhelming storm walls built in anticipation of much smaller threats Hell, Charlie Day's character outright draws the comparison - suggesting that human-made climate change has already done most of the alien terraforming and now they're just sending in the

kaiju

for the finishing touch. Essentially, humans *accelerated* the process of the aliens changing the climate - do you get it? Okay. Pacific Rim very specifically harkens back to Godzilla's origins as a global existential threat personified, raising the stakes by making the threat lots of

kaiju

instead of just one and makes the danger they represent immediate and extremely relevant. It sends the message that yes, we made this happen, and yes, things are very bad and getting worse, but it also says that yes, we *can* fight back If we put aside our differences, ignore all our useless political squabbling, focus on the only thing that *really* matters, and then confront the apocalypse head-on, we *will* be able to PUNCH IT INTO SUBMISSION! (And also drop a nuke on it) (

Kaiju

movies can *never* agree if nukes are good or bad) Anyway, the point is

kaiju

movies frequently make statements about the world, the things that scare us, and what we can do about them, and as a result are often extremely political when you look at them. Sometimes they say we *can't* do...
anything about them. Sometimes they say the problems are our fault. Sometimes they bounce back to wish-fulfillment and imagine a world where the giant unstoppable force is a good thing that'll fix our giant unfixable problems. And sometimes they say it's up to *us* to work together and face the problem head-on, to admit that things are bad and to fight to the very end to make them better again. And also....sometimes it's just FUN to watch two incomprehensibly giant monsters kick the crap out of each other. *Two giant, incomprehensible monsters kicking the crap out of each other* Red: "Oh hell yeah!" Red (more conclusively): "So yeah"