Not too long ago I was walking down a San Francisco street and saw a 1965 Datsun Bluebird. It was in mint condition all the way down to the old fashioned license plate. I felt an inexplicable surge of happiness but could not articulate it in any way so I just waved my hands around like an idiot for a while. My companion, who knew I’m no car buff, was baffled. I was finally able to blurt out, “It’s a Godzilla car!”
What we loved when we were children, we will always love. An object can trigger the adult re-experience of that same simple, indiscriminate love. Sudden remembrance can be a powerful feeling; that car almost set me to weeping because it evoked my childhood love for kaiju movies.
When I was a tiny scrapper in the late 1960’s I watched kaiju on TV. In Los Angeles at that time local television stations aired many after-school dubbed Japanese shows like “Johnny Socko”, “Kimba” and “Speed Racer”. At night, between Bogart and Fred Astaire, I watched Godzilla and Gamera. I watched them all thoughtlessly and with great emotion, as impressionistic children do. When I grew up and VHS tapes became cheap quick-buys at the drug store, I bought and watched films like “Godzilla vs. King Kong” and “Gamera vs. Barugon”. Again, thoughtlessly and with great emotion.
I recently re-watched a bunch of kaiju flicks with the intent of writing some kind of critique for Cool Ass Cinema but I quickly realized that I am really only intrigued by the subjective emotions that make up the world-wide kaiju phenomenon. While we all have our reasons for loving kaiju, and we express them in many different ways, I can actually only understand my own reasons. I will try to explain my thoughts.
If asked, I would claim to be a “fan” but I have no interest in learning the names of monsters, actors, or directors. I don’t want to acquire an understanding of the genre. I don’t even care about the plot, which usually moves too slowly for my taste. Yet I wax lyrical on the genre simply because I have a big goopy crush on Godzilla and Gamera, and I love the crap out of “the happy parts”.
“The happy parts” means Datsun Bluebirds falling off cliffs, tiny tanks firing sparkly-puff missiles, cardboard HQ control panels bleep-blooping, model boats wobbling across bathtub waves, and 60’s-stylish hysterical Japanese mobs running from collapsing balsa wood houses. As if that isn’t adorable enough, there is a parade of colorful, texture-crazy rubber monsters with absurdly expressionless eyes all fighting and shrieking and smashing stuff – pylons, trees, hydraulic dams, banks, monorails, freeways, skyscrapers – just smashing every single thing they encounter. So much adorable destruction! I find the chaos irresistible.
Most of the films are quite stylish but the one I favor nowadays is “Destroy All Monsters” (1968). The mise-en-scenes are excellent, the sets and costumes are kitsch-tastic, and there are lady-aliens, adorable miniatures, and tons of bitchin’ monsters.
The happy parts are totally awesome but I do demand something more from kaiju films. My emotional requirements for them have not matured since I was five and thus are pretty atavistic: no “bad monster” movies because they make me sad. I do not like the evil Godzilla. I cannot actually enjoy “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” (1956) because no matter how truly iconic this film is, there is just too much drama for my immature emotions. I do not want to see Godzilla represent the ghastly fear of atomic devastation, nor do I want to see the remarkable bravery and nobility of the Japanese survivors. I feel great discomfort when Godzilla is a metaphor for the horrors of war. I just need him to make me feel happy.
Godzilla’s transformation from soulless instrument of mass suffering to big goofy heroic friend in the later children’s kaiju films is, for me, a wonderful shift. The happy-monster film was a miniature fairyland in which my young self escaped, and in which I still occasionally retreat. In that happy world humans are kind, smart and beautiful and monsters are helpful friends; pain is toy-like and solutions are far removed from any kind of real-world danger. In that world both monsters and children are intrinsically kind and brave. And because they are virtuous, they are protected and loved. They perform heroic deeds, don’t die, vanquish evil, save the world, and then bid a fond farewell to each other. I felt a real sense of safety in that clean, upright, adorable 1960s Japan.
Children’s kaiju films capitalize on one of children’s deepest desires: No Parents. In these movies parents have minimal presence and children are allowed an enormous amount of freedom. The quirky inventor father finds nothing unnatural in expecting his child to help him build a world-saving machine. And he totally understands his kid’s desire to befriend a giant monster. Really, the kaiju film parent is not a parent at all; he is a relatively powerful companion and ally. Is this not every child’s fantasy relationship with adults? To be protected and treated with respect? To be useful and valued? To be free to explore and learn, and to save their friends and the world? A dream worth striving toward.
I think that at the very same time that children identify with the fantasy lifestyle of that one lucky little parent-free boy who gets to hang out with a monster, they also identify with the monster. I think kids love Godzilla not just because he is adorable but because he is also extremely powerful. He is huge, free, spontaneous and self-actualized. He may not be very smart but he doesn’t hesitate to act on his intuitive righteous impulses to protect his city, the kids, and their silly parents. He can beat up and and kill his enemies without fear of punishment from a higher authority. He IS the authority. He can do a crazy amount of damage, even smash an entire city, and people don’t hate him for doing it. They love him. He is a hero. He is a demi-god.
As an adult viewer of kaiju films, I no longer identify with the child. I am the monster. That monster is something I am very deep-down afraid that I am, and at the same time he is who I want to be. Some of us who have felt the effects of hard nurture on our nature can probably sympathize with bad monsters. Human ignorance and cruelty – war, radiation, bombs, and science – mutated them into a huge, dangerous, horrible, aggressive beasts, and then very same assholes who created them ruthlessly exterminate them. Ugh, such a tragedy.
Of course the idea of selfish, insensitive humans causing endless amounts of needless suffering for the innocent turtles and Tyrannosaurus Reges of the world is nothing new. I don’t know how old the “Frankenstein” icon is but we have reincarnated him in storytelling fairly frequently, and we probably will do so until we can find the light and restore balance to our terrible world. In almost all these stories Frankenstein, King Kong, Godzilla and other sad persecuted monsters are usually understood and accepted by only one (or two if they’re lucky) pure-hearted people. That role, the solitary voice of righteousness and justice, is not surprisingly almost always filled by women or children. They are there to tell us to come to our senses, and to remind us that compassion is the only truth. Often these voices are too gentle and weak to protect the monster. Just like real life.
Since I identify with the monster, I kinda prefer a happy ending. I want to see those big crazy bastards be happy heroes that people love and don’t want to exterminate. In “Destroy All Monsters” the people of the world unite with the monsters to fight off enemies from outer space. The message, however superficial, is one of unity. Compassion and tolerance for monster-diversity triumphs over war, division, invasion and fear. Everybody wins, except the evil aliens, who could just as easily be a viral epidemic. And when the monsters’ hard work is done they return to graze the hills of their island in peace, just hanging out and being what they are: powerful, self-actualized, spontaneous, adorable demi-gods. That symbolism is powerful and uplifting. I sincerely wish the same ending for each and every one of us.
But all of this is fleeting. In the end, my little feelings are a blink of the eye and they just don’t matter. Impermanence is life. A sense of this “floating world” is always present in kaiju films, and it makes them extra special to me. I always feel a worshipful awe for the ephemeral nature of art when I see the kaiju genre’s countless incredible costumes and miniature models.
Fans know about the enormous time, effort, and care that went into these creations. Every single beautiful, skilled, detailed miniature set was made for the sole purpose of being smashed by some guy in a rubber suit so they could make one silly scene for one silly movie.
Like Tibetan sand paintings or champion sand castles on the beach, these sets are true labors of love that evoke the ethereal, fleeting nature of art and life. The moment of their destruction expresses the duality of yin and yang; creation and destruction; life and death. When I see these wonderful sets go down in flames and rubble, I feel all the joy and sadness of what I perceive as a truly magnificent act of devotion. In the end, for me, the kaiju film’s deepest meaning can be found in their exuberant, joyful, adorable destruction. It is the true beauty of chaos and the real meaning of love.
LINKS AND INFO:
This essay was originally written for Cool Ass Cinema‘s 2014 Kaiju extravaganza. Check out the interesting kaiju articles!
More behind-the-scenes pictures of miniature sets here and here.
The Gamera gif
“Tyrannosaurus Reges” is the correct plural form. Awesome, right?