The Complete History of Kaiju
Movies like King Kong, The Lost World, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms left a massive impact on the film industry. Their massive monsters were larger than life on the big screen. But Japan broke the mold in the 1950s with the creation of kaiju — much bigger, more colorful, and more exciting monsters.
A film producer named Tomoyuki Tanaka was inspired by the monsters seen in America’s golden age of cinema. King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms were popular in both Japan and the United States. Back then, the stop-motion special effects were state of the art, and moviegoers arrived in droves to watch the sci-fi mayhem. Tanaka wanted Japan to have something similar. He was also inspired by the advent of nuclear weapons and the huge toll they had taken on Japan.
Tanaka and Toho Studios began assembling creatives for their atomic-inspired monster film. At the time, Toho was a company that produced mostly dramas, war films, and stage plays. But it was their monster idea that would ultimately put them on the map of cinematic history.
The key creators for the project were director Ishirō Honda, special effects expert Eiji Tsuburaya, composer Akira Ifukube, storyteller Shigeru Kayama, and writer Takeo Murata. They were the fathers of daikaiju eiga — giant monster films. Combining their talents, they put their monster project together in less than a year. They called it Gojira, a combination of the word gorilla and the Japanese word for whale, kujira. Meant as a metaphor for nuclear weapons, the titular monster needed to convey power and terror. When the film was released in 1954, it succeeded — and it did even more for the history of movies.
A sequel was a no-brainer. Then 35 more followed, and that’s just Godzilla. Kaiju have also appeared in countless other original movies, graphic novels, TV shows, and video games.
The emperor of Japan during the release of Gojira was called Shōwa. Accordingly, all Godzilla films made between 1954 and 1975 were grouped into the Shōwa Era. These decades coincided with growing global environmentalism, the hippie movement, expanding industrialization, and the Cold War. Therefore, the first era of kaiju films was filled with imagination and even a little craziness.
The first sequel to Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, was similar to its predecessor in that it was dark and gloomy. But that theme was mostly absent from the rest of the Shōwa films. Instead, the movies were billed as fun monster brawls. Whatever one feels about this change (remember, some Godzilla films were nothing more than goofy kids’ movies), there’s no denying that it was a smart move, earning the film world billions of yen and millions of dollars.
A genre had been created. Dubbed tokusatsu, the Japanese science fiction films were characterized by imaginative rubber creature suits, miniature cities and vehicles, and lots of explosions. It could be described as live-action anime — realistic destruction with comic book sensibilities.
The stars were the monsters. Though there had been giant beasts in films before, the Japanese ones were characterized by their wild designs, suit portrayal, and a size much bigger than your run-of-the-mill dinosaur. The kaiju had taken over the world of sci-fi. Not content with one monster, Toho created many more, some even in their own solo features. Released in the U.S. in 1956, Rodan featured an irradiated, volcanic pterodactyl. It was created by the same team that made Gojira. As such, the movie was dark and foreboding.
Mothra, Dogora, Space Amoeba, and several others are further examples of Toho branching out from Godzilla. Ultimately, however, many of the monsters entered back into the Godzilla universe one way or another. The Gorilla Whale was still King. In addition to original monsters, Toho also reimagined creatures from cinema’s past, including King Kong and Frankenstein.
Toho weren’t the only studio to cash in on the craze. Daiei created Gamera, a giant turtle that started out as a basic Godzilla knock-off for very young children. The turtle’s films were mostly cheesy and less well-put together than Toho’s creations, at least until Shusuke Kaneko later took the reigns in the Heisei Era.
Even other countries joined in the action. The UK (with the help of Ireland and the U.S.) brought us Gorgo, and the Danish created Reptilicus. In a wild twist, the son of North Korea’s leader even kidnapped a South Korean director in 1985 and forced him to make films like Pulgasari.
While Godzilla took a break after 1975, Japan continued to make kaiju movies. Ultraman, created by Godzilla effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, was a massively successful sci-fi empire, and it remains so to this day. Featuring a powerful race of heroic beings, the franchise was made up of dozens different TV shows, a number of films, and countless appearances in comics and merchandising. The Ultramen fought a huge amount of kaiju over the years. These beasts were inspired by Godzilla creatures, and several of them were basically rehashes of already existing monsters. The Godzilla suit from Mothra vs. Godzilla was even repurposed into a new monster called Gomess.
Between all the films and TV series, the Ultra saga hasn’t had much of a break since its inception in 1966. The stories just keep coming.
Godzilla made his triumphant return in the aptly named The Return of Godzilla, released to Japan in 1984. It went back to basics, portraying Godzilla as a destructive force of nature rather than a kick-boxing superhero. The movie’s darkness was also enhanced by its thinly veiled Cold War themes.
The next few Godzilla movies were quite imaginative. Several fan favorite monsters, like Mothra, Ghidorah, and Rodan, were brought back for some killer monster battles. Though still portrayed through suitmation, the beasts looked a lot better and more expressive than they did before.
Meanwhile, the 1990s also saw the resurrection of Gamera. Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, the Heisei Gamera trilogy was so good that it even put its Godzilla contemporaries to shame. The movies featured mystical themes, complex plots, and dazzling special effects that rivaled Hollywood blockbusters.
At the same time, Toho produced a new Mothra trilogy. The series went the opposite route of Gamera — it was mostly geared toward younger viewers. Mothra had always been popular as a symbol of beauty and heroism, and her ’90s films were lighter in tone. The Rebirth of Mothra trilogy, featuring many more female characters, was an example of Toho expanding its demographic. The Heisei Godzilla films were doing something similar with their heavy focus on psychic character Miki Saegusa.
Though the King had died in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, kaiju continued to be featured in anime and comics. Stories with live-action kaiju included Super Sentai, the original versions of the various Power Rangers shows before the West got its hands on them.
Over the years, the anime art form has consistently featured giant monsters. From Gundam to Attack on Titan, comics and animations have a bit more artistic freedom than live-action properties, as they’re not tied down by a special effects budget.
The entire kaiju genre, especially the Godzilla franchise, has influenced nearly every aspect of Japanese science fiction. A lot of anime films are very similar to Godzilla movies, but the reverse is also true — films like Godzilla X Mechagodzilla and Godzilla X Megaguirus were clearly inspired by anime.
It made sense for Godzilla to eventually be given the full anime treatment. A trilogy of films was released on Netflix in recent years: Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle, and Godzilla: the Planet Eater all explored deep religious and technological themes. The trilogy featured a dystopian future Earth ravaged by monsters, cult-like extraterrestrials, and a few plot points more than a little similar to Star Trek.
A second anime series, Godzilla: Singular Point, was also released on Netflix in 2021. Written by a physicist named Toh EnJoe , the show was a lot more technical than the last anime batch, but for a Godzilla series, it didn’t really feature much Godzilla. Other anime properties with kaiju include Neon Genesis Evangelion, SSSS.Gridman, and Rage of Bahamut.
Godzilla was also brought back in 1998 — by the United States. The film made a decent amount of money, but nowhere near what the studios were hoping for. This was due to many fans not liking it at all.
The monster, sleek and skinny, looked more like a lizard than Godzilla. It also wasn’t very powerful. Missiles actually killed it. On top of that, the characters and the dialogue were heavily criticized. Some still enjoy the film because, technically, it’s a fun, bombastic popcorn movie, just like many of the Japanese films.
The people at Toho saw the American Godzilla film and decided to start making their own again. Of course, they made them a lot closer to the source material, so the new series was more well-received.
The Millennium Era took advantage of improved special effects, including CGI. Still, the films mostly consisted of miniatures and suitmation. Godzilla was brought back to dark roots for the majority of this series. Eventually, the Godzilla Millennium Era came to an end in 2004 with the kung fu acid trip known as Godzilla: Final Wars. It brought back most of the key monsters, and served as something of a farewell party for the big G. No Godzilla films would be made for another 10 years.
More American Films
With Godzilla slumbering behind the desks at Toho, the world was ready for a new batch of kaiju. In addition to the steady stream of monsters portrayed in comics, anime, and video games, Western cinema made a couple of their own.
Peter Jackson, the visionary behind the Lord of the Rings films, remade his favorite monster film, King Kong, in 2005. The movie was a smash hit, and it featured a slew of fantastic dinosaur monsters. The special effects, including the motion capture used to create Kong, were revolutionary. Similar things had been done in Jackson’s past films with the breathtaking effects work of WETA Digital, but Kong really upped the ante in terms of scale and detail.
While most iterations of Kong aren’t nearly as large as the creatures of tokusatsu, it’s only fair to call him and his enemies kaiju. Kong is still big, and after all, he served as the main inspiration for the original Gojira.
Another film released in 2005, War of the Worlds, also featured hyper realistic effects. By most definitions, the tripods controlled by the aliens were kaiju, and they were terrifying. This film was an example of the somber tone movies started to take after 9/11.
Pacific Rim and the MonsterVerse
In 2013, Guillermo Del Toro reinvigorated the kaiju genre with his own take, Pacific Rim. It featured massive robots called Jaegers controlled by skilled pairs of human warriors. These machines fought against a host of kaiju inspired by many sci-fi films. The film and its 2018 sequel both had a Godzilla feel, which likely contributed to their success at the box office. Audiences were clearly hungry for Godzilla again.
They got their wish granted in 2014. Gareth Edwards, the director of an alien kaiju movie called Monsters, directed the brand new Godzilla film for Legendary Pictures. All around, it was a superb movie — far superior to the first American Godzilla. The tone was decidedly dark, and the King looked better than he ever had before while remaining faithful to the original design.
A new cinematic world was created: Legendary’s MonsterVerse. The film was followed by a 2017 prequel called Kong: Skull Island, which featured a much larger version of the ape fighting against soldiers and Skullcrawler monsters in the era of the Vietnam War. Like Godzilla, the new Kong movie was a hit with audiences.
Two massive sequels to Godzilla were also released. In 2019, we got Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Like the other MonsterVerse films, the movie used motion-capture technology to bring massive monsters to life, including some fan favorites: Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah were resurrected for the digital age.
The next sequel was a pure showdown movie: Godzilla vs. Kong. Cinema’s most celebrated pair of monsters met for the first time since 1963, and most people seemed to love it. After the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the movie world, studios and audiences alike needed a giant spectacle to get the box office flowing again. GVK made $467.9 million worldwide from screen showings while also streaming on HBO MAX.
Manga properties like Attack on Titan were always hugely popular. This saga featured human society living behind walls for fear of massive, disturbing entities called Titans. As comic and anime productions continued, Shinji Higuchi directed a live-action Attack on Titan. The film’s success led to Higuchi’s next big project — the resurrection of the original Titan.
Toho was pleased with the success of America’s Monsterverse. “Good job,” they must have thought. “But we can do it better.” That certainly seemed to be their mindset, as in 2016, they began Godzilla’s Reiwa Era with Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla. Translating as “New Godzilla” or “God Godzilla,” the movie deviated from the source material more than any film since the first American Godzilla. The monster, laden with strange mutations, evolved several times throughout the film, eventually becoming a god of destruction. Featuring new abilities, the monster was the most powerful version yet.
Most people don’t watch kaiju movies for the human characters, but the ones in Shin Godzilla were more interesting than usual. Their reactions to Godzilla were very realistic, and the dialogue took a not-so-subtle dig at the political world. Shin Godzilla won the Japanese version of the Academy Award for Best Picture.
For nearly seven decades, Godzilla and the other kaiju have kept audiences at the edge of their seats. Kaiju represent the larger-than-life dangers we face as humans, such as nuclear war and alien invasions, as well as the unstoppable power of nature itself. From black-and-white suitmation to CGI and motion capture, kaiju are here to stay.
Which kaiju film is your favorite? Who’s your kaiju champion? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!