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Kaiju vs. Me: How Giant Japanese Monsters Stole My Heart

The Story Begins

My love for Godzilla started in the 90s. Through cable television, I was introduced to some of the fun and campy Godzilla movies, where Godzilla himself took on a heroic role against evil monsters. Son of Godzilla and Mothra vs. Godzilla are some classics, but the absolute best was Invasion of the Astro-Monster. These movies were already 20–30 years old by the time I saw them, but it didn’t matter. Godzilla would use his blue radioactive breath, and occasionally the help of other good monsters, to defeat his opponents. The evil aliens all wore matching silver uniforms and sunglasses, and the dubbed English dialogue was cheesy. Sometimes the plot went over my head, but I didn’t care. Giant monsters were fighting!

The local video rental store also had a pretty good supply of Godzilla movies, like Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, and King Kong vs. Godzilla. Spoiler: King Kong vs. Godzilla is a pretty bad movie. The suit design is awful and the plot is fractured. But little-kid me LOVED it!

Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965)

As I was falling in love with Godzilla, I was also falling in love with another pop culture phenomenon of the 90s: Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. A colorful team of heroes summon their giant dinosaur robots and battle evil space aliens. It was another example of good vs. evil being played out in giant battles, and it had everything I loved about comic book superheroes combined with the giant monster battles I saw in Godzilla. I can’t tell you how many drawings I had around the house of Godzilla teaming up with the Megazord to battle King Ghidorah and Goldar. Boxes of crayons died as I drew my favorite characters.

As I got older, I slowly outgrew my love for Godzilla and the Power Rangers. None of the films made in Japan in the 90s ever showed up in my local video store. I vicariously kept up with the Power Rangers through my younger cousin, but they were now In Space or something. Godzilla wasn’t even really Godzilla anymore—he was a giant iguana that didn’t even have radioactive breath.

My passion for Godzilla was briefly reignited while I was in high school with the release of Godzilla 2000, but when I retraced my steps as a Godzilla fan thanks to the advent of the internet and saw some of the movies I missed from the 90s, they were cool, but not very good movies. That was that. My time as a Godzilla fan was in the rear view. Or so I thought.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Years later, I was browsing Best Buy and saw a collector’s edition of the 1954 Godzilla, which also included the original Japanese version, Gojira. That seemed like cool thing to own. I decided to pick it up as sort of a “these are my roots” thing—just to put on display… Little did I know that would be a turning point in my life. That was the day I fell down the rabbit hole.

I realized that giant monster movies—no matter how unbelievable—can be an effective way to tell stories, with real lessons and emotions.

Themes from the original 1954 movie that had escaped me as a child now found their mark. This wasn’t a heroic character. This was a real life warning about the use of nuclear weapons, told through the lens of science fiction. Godzilla was born out of our testing nuclear weapons, the result of our own actions coming back to hurt us. I realized that giant monster movies—no matter how unbelievable—can be an effective way to tell stories, with real lessons and emotions. They are just another canvas for works of art.

Gojira (1954)

I became engrossed in the storytelling through kaiju movies (as this genre of giant monster films is called). I was fascinated with the special effects of the time. While some of the methods are laughable by today’s standards, the creators of the time had a vision and wanted to see that vision come to life through any means necessary—even if that meant someone putting on a three-headed monster suit and being suspended from the ceiling with wires. That determination and drive to bring an artistic vision to life is something that motivates me now. I think of those actors, and directors that encouraged these ridiculous ideas because they believed in what it would produce.

And it’s not just the visuals—the musical score of these movies is just as much a part of the storytelling. Akira Ifukube, the composer of these scores, is credited with Godzilla’s early success as much as anyone, and rightfully so. I never thought that old Godzilla movies had bad music, but how did I miss how GREAT the music was? The driving and dramatic melodies parallel Godzilla’s plodding, unstoppable, trudge as he wades up on to the shore. The upbeat tones of the military as they assemble with fervor to try to defeat this new menace makes you want to march in place. Ifukube’s music stands up even today, and is still referenced and rearranged for modern movies in the Godzilla franchise. Much of his work is now my writing soundtrack.

This wasn’t a heroic character. This was a real life warning about the use of nuclear weapons, told through the lens of science fiction.

Then my descent really began. At first, I sought out to own every Godzilla movie on DVD, just as a collector. My collection then expanded to contain every Toho (the company that owns Godzilla) kaiju movie, like Rodan, Mothra, and War of the Gargantuas. Then there were other modern kaiju movies, like Cloverfield and Colossal. And before I knew it, I was buying every movie that has featured the most famous Godzilla knock-off, Gamera, as well as any seasons I can find of the classic Ultraman TV series. I think my next step is to not worry about having English dubbed dialogue. Half the time I watch the old movies in their native language with subtitles anyways. This rabbit hole isn’t ending, is it?

Three Films that Define the Genre

I think there are three movies that define the genre. Three movies, each from a different era, with unique sights and sounds that tell very different stories. The first is Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1954). If you have the opportunity, do yourself a favor and watch the original Gojira. There are some editing differences that make the original Gojira just a bit more impactful. The heart of this movie is that when we act out of hate, such as to create weapons that kill, terrible things can happen. If we all just acted a bit more out of love—wanting to help our fellow man—the world might not be such an awful place. Gojira also serves as an environmental and philosophical warning about what we are doing to our planet. There’s a lot to unpack from this single movie, and it’s definitely worth watching even to better understand the time period it was made in.

Promotional image for Pacific Rim (2013)

The second is Pacific Rim (2013). Director Guillermo del Toro has been quoted saying that this film is his love letter to the entire kaiju genre. (I recommend watching the movie with his commentary available on the DVD release. If you are unsure that kaiju movies could utilize artistic storytelling, his commentary should convince you otherwise.) Unlike in Gojira, these kaiju attack unprovoked and were not caused by human ignorance or mistakes. The hero is not a giant alien or benevolent kaiju: it’s regular people who must find a way to work together. And not just in a “we have brash personalities, but a common goal” type of shallow storytelling. Two pilots must link their minds while piloting the giant Jaegers. All of their thoughts and secrets are on display for the other pilot. That complete trust and vulnerability with another person can be terrifying.

Then, not only are the two pilots in a unique relationship, but there is the team back at headquarters keeping them updated, the scientists researching the kaiju, and all of the workers that physically built the Jaegers. The survivors are rallying together, clinging to the belief that they can overcome this threat. This movie is about how we must work together with those around us, living and surviving together.

As long as you know that Gamera is a benevolent giant turtle that breathes fire, you have all the information you need.

Finally, while Godzilla may have more mainstream attention, he’s nowhere near the hero that Gamera is. Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris (1999), is the third in a trilogy of movies. But as long as you know that Gamera is a benevolent giant turtle that breathes fire, you have all the information you need. Besides boasting some of the best special effects in the industry of this era, Gamera is everything Godzilla is not. Godzilla (while awesome in his own right) is a selfish, territorial beast who merely defeats opposing kaiju because they threaten his home. Gamera protects people. There are times that the human characters have a part to play, but it’s not their job or concern to defeat kaiju. That is Gamera’s job. There is no hero to build or battle to win. Just relying on the guardian’s strength to defeat the threat. Now, it can be scary knowing you’re powerless… but that’s why it’s important to focus on helping those you can while Gamera saves the day.

Which Brings Us To….

So here we are at today’s release of Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Early reports from longtime kaiju fans are positive. Will this be one of the movies that’s added to a “must watch” list, alongside Gojira, Pacific Rim, and Gamera 3? Are there lessons and concepts that can keep us thinking after we leave the theater? I hope so.

This is my nerd fandom. This is my journey from casual giant monster fan to being passionate about kaiju movies and appreciating the art that they are.

Randy has lived in or around Akron, Ohio his whole life. He's a husband, father, punk, writer, artist, and tabletop game designer. He currently writes board game reviews for Gaming With Sidekicks.

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