– Article by Sidian Lazarus
Many of you might already know my first kaiju film experience was Godzilla vs Megalon, but of course as I got older I discovered that even the U.S. produced a large number of giant monster films – most of them prior to 1960. Yet It doesn’t take long to realize these cinematic ventures are horses of a different color, as they differ greatly from their Eastern counterparts. Personally I find these differences to be fascinating, and they can even tell us a bit about our respective cultures.
The American monster. Likely that phrase brought to mind images of King Kong, a true classic film and one of the most famous movie monsters to ever grace the screen. Kong himself though is quite the anomaly among his giant brethren as his story is really quite tragic and he never really fits the traditional “rampaging monster” archetype. Instead he is more of a victim and ultimately he pays for their attempted exploitation with his life. The immortal line “Twas beauty that killed the beast.” alone makes Kong a creature we can sympathize with. Other monsters with a tragic side would try to cash in on the big brute’s success, such as the 50ft Woman.
“No Carl, I’m pretty damn sure it was the fall.”
Kong would only be the beginning as a slew of western monsters flooded the screen such as Rhedosaurus, Kronos, and THEM!, all becoming iconic symbols of B-movies of the 40’s and 50’s. A common theme was simply taking a animal or even a human and just magnifying them to immense proportions. Insects became one of the more popular choices to turn into terrifying behemoths, with movies like The Deadly Mantis, The Beginning of the End, The Black Scorpion, and more, giving audiences their fill of the creepy crawlers. Unlike Kong and his copycats, these monsters usually weren’t meant to be sympathized with and only presented an object to fear and an obstacle for the protagonists to overcome. However a new type of monster would soon emerge – and it would change the face of pop culture on both sides of the globe.
Cultural statement: Alcohol abuse was alive and well in the 1950’s U.S.
By now we all know the story, and perhaps chills still run down our spine when we hear the iconic roar and classic theme. In 1954 Japan gave us (who would come in the West to be known as) Godzilla. In hindsight the title King of the Monsters was less a marketing ploy and more prophetic than anyone could have imagined at the time. Godzilla quickly became the new archetype. His size dwarfing that of his Western forefathers, the destruction left in his wake was unlike any yet captured on film. It made sense symbolically as he represented something completely different than those that came before him. He wasn’t just some animal of gigantic proportions, he was the embodiment of a natural disaster. A living act of God. Unlike many of his counterparts from the U.S., he was impervious to conventional weaponry.
He wasn’t the only one of course, quickly followed by other monsters like Rodan, Mothra, and Gamera. Godzilla simply set the standard for what was to be the genre we know and love today. American giant monster films became a rarity beyond 1960, with production of the genre almost purely coming from the far East. Some western countries did try to emulate those coming out of Japan, with films such as Gorgo and Reptilicus, however none caught on as a franchise. It could be argued that Toho and its stable of kaiju had killed the American giant monster film. Did Japan simply build a better monster?
He gets about 31 smashed buildings to the gallon.
Its well known that Godzilla’s concept was the product of the tragedies at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and I believe that also seems to help explain the difference in how the U.S. handles its monster films compared to Japan. Perhaps the film King Kong vs Godzilla illustrates this this the best as Kong had to be blown up to several times his original size, made impervious to human weaponry, and was given an ability to become stronger from lightning to even compete with Godzilla. Rarely did Western monsters approach these awe-inspiring sizes or feature armored hide that made them nigh-unstoppable. Even in the 1998 film Godzilla, an American production, he was more animalistic in nature and was killed by a flurry of missiles, something the Japanese version would have simply shrugged off.
It becomes clear that Hollywood treats monsters as a challenge but not beyond our military’s power to finally put to rest. In Japan, however, they are treated much like forces of nature. They cannot (usually) be destroyed but simply contained and dealt with. I think its pretty obvious that to this day the concept is born of the Atomic attacks on their country. That isn’t to say the United States hasn’t had its share of horrific disasters, however the scale of the country makes how we empathize far different in my opinion. For example – Hurricane Katrina was a terrible tragedy, yet being a resident of New York it still felt lightyears away. What Japan endured would be like the cities of Buffalo and Albany simply being obliterated, a concept my brain struggles to wrap itself around. Not to mention that this was of course no natural occurrence and a very real attack on their country – I don’t think we could, at this point in time, truly understand what sort of emotion that carries with it.
Sadly at a time when scifi in the United States is at an all time high in popularity, the giant monster film is still a rarity and struggles to earn respect in the industry, seemingly unable to shake the “b-movie” stigma. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the most recent big budget American giant monster films are far more like their brethren from the East. Most fans are surely familiar with Cloverfield and Pacific Rim, and while they are indeed original properties with their own merits, I believe that they are far closer to their Japanese cousins in concept than their American ancestors. The trend will continue with the new Hollywood produced Godzilla film looking like it will be faithful to the character’s roots, and a sequel to Pacific Rim in development.
Crossover heaven. A man can dream can’t he?
Ultimately this is all just food for thought, and the product of a lot of opinion and speculation, so take from this what you will. Whether or not kaiju films ever do see a resurgence in the States, it is clear that the Japanese archetype for these monsters isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Thanks for reading!