Friday, April 16, 2021

To Love a Kaiju

Remember when you were little and a sibling would build a little town made out of Legos and you'd take your stuffed T-rex and rampage through it, destroying everything while they went crying to mom? 

No? Then you were probably the younger sibling. 

Either way, from that time to the latest Godzilla Vs. Kong to hit theaters, there's always been something appealing about a giant monster destroying a city, causing untold property damage just by taking a single step. 

Why is that? 

Defining a Kaiju

Kaiju (Japanese for "Strange Monster") is the franchise featuring giant city-leveling monsters. This can range from the aforementioned and arguably the granddaddy of them all Godzilla to Rita Repulsa's monsters destroying Angel Grove in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to even moderately sized monsters like the rampaging rex in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. I'd even argue that Clifford the Big Red Dog's shannegains counts as kaiju action, especially if you're the guy working for the city who has to clean up after Clifford goes walkies. 

The genre isn't just defined to action movies like the Godzilla franchise or Pacific Rim, they appear in horror films like Cloverfield, family comedies like Honey I Blew Up The Kid, anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion  and  Attack on Titan and even heartwarming animations like The Iron Giant. 

Why do We Like Them

Kaiju have the same appeal as zombies where they act more of a force of nature than something that can be reasonably defeated. When encountered, typical humans can only run away and hope that the thing passes without them getting stomped flat or eaten. Unlike disaster films though, the kaiju is a living being, which means that it's driven by want and need, and thus the disaster itself can become a character in the film. Sometimes that character is sympathetic, since it didn't choose to be a 300 foot tall gorilla, sometimes it's beyond our comprehension and whatever it wants we have no way of knowing, and the thing decapitating the Statue of Liberty is just its way of venting frustration. 

The kaiju film gives us the cathartic sense of wanton destruction with the empathetic connection we get from seeing another living being, which can either be turned toward identifying with the creature or being repulsed by the creature, depending on what the film is trying to accomplish. We feel terror at the Cloverfield  monster because we don't see it and therefore don't know what it is or what it wants. We fear Godzilla because he's destructive but also root for him when he destroys other, more intentionally destructive beings. We sympathize with the Iron Giant because he's trying to be human despite being a giant space robot. 

We're Not Here For The Humans

Quick question: While watching Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers were you most eager to see: 

A: The teens sitting at the juice bar discussing their Full House level problems

B: Bandai's intercut action scenes where hitting someone resulted in a firework going off

C: The heroes piling into robot dinosaurs and wrecking a guy in a Styrofoam costume

If you're answer was C you get my point but for those who it wasn't let me hit a point. 

When I first saw 2014's Godzilla  I was disappointed when a majority of the run time was taken up by the tragic love story of a soldier trying to get back to his wife and kid after being separated by Godzilla. Whenever everyone's favorite radioactive lizard was on screen the camera would pan to people reacting to him or cut to footage of the monster wreaking havoc on a TV in the background while we saw characters try to figure out how to stop him. 

I nearly walked out of the theater. 

The human element is necessary to give us scale and context to the monster's destruction, but nobody's here for them. In some character driven dramas like Attack on Titan where they have time to flesh out the characters and show their reaction to living in a world where they are under constant threat of monster attack, that's a different story, but when you have two and a half hours to tell a story and the major pull is that giant monsters will be destroying cities, get your character stuff set up fast because we won't remember their names anyway. 

Here's a second question for you just to drive my point home: What is the name of Clifford's owner? 

When you have a kaiju in your movie, everything else surrounding them is a garnish, meant to enhance the presentation not overpower it. The kaiju is the Thanksgiving turkey of the table, a giant Thanksgiving turkey that will step on anyone in its way. 


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