Giant monsters are back and they are bigger than ever.
Director Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” heralds the mainstream return of an offbeat, still durable cinematic genre known as Kaiju – literally translated from Japanese as “strange beasts,” but shorthanded by aficionados to stand for all manner of colossal monstrosities terrorizing a tiny human population as they bash and blast through crumbling skyscrapers.
In the long tradition of Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Rodan and similar rampaging creatures who reigned in Japanese cinema, “Pacific Rim’s” Kaiju are the nearly unstoppable heralds of invading extra-dimensional force, emerging from an ocean portal to wreck havoc across coastal cityscapes.
And del Toro – an unabashed lover of all monster movie genres and whose own takes include “Mimic,” “Hellboy” and the Spanish-language film “Pan’s Labyrinth” – adds a fresh twist by giving his monsters some fierce opposition in the form of gigantic human-driven, heavily armored robotic fighting machines derived from another Japanese pop cultural tradition known as Mecha and dubbed “Jaegers” (the German word for “hunters”) in “Pacific Rim.”
A fan of the Kaiju form since his youth in Guadalajara, Mexico, Del Toro says the style initially emerged in the 1950s (Japanese studio Toho’s 1954 film “Gojira” – better known in the U.S. as “Godzilla” – was the defining genre entry) as a Japanese take on Hollywood creature features such as 1933’s “King Kong” and the works of special effects artist Ray Harryhausen in 1953’s “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.”
The Kaiju genre flourished “because it became a coping mechanism for Japan to heal the wounds of World War II,” says del Toro. The monsters were typically the aftereffects of atomic fallout, an anxiety particularly poignant to the nation’s culture after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that prompted its surrender in World War II.
Travis Beacham, the screenwriter who crafted the story with del Toro, is one of generations of audiences who first fell in love with the Kaiju genre as children watching old, often badly re-dubbed films on television.
“It's part of my personal mythology in a really fundamental way,” Beacham says. “One of my earliest memories is seeing a Godzilla movie – not just my earliest movie memory, but ANY kind of memory. As a kid, I always gravitated towards that stuff: Kaiju movies, Ray Harryhausen movies, anything with a giant or a giant monster in it. I gobbled that up.”
“The appeal for the Kaiju is all about variation and their special abilities and where they come from and what they represent,” says Ryan Turek, editor in chief of the horror website ShockTillYouDrop.com. “I grew up watching Godzilla movies not knowing that Godzilla was born out of the Hiroshima angle, representing the souls of those who were lost. Godzilla is big walking monstrosity that represents angst and death and all of the other stuff, and then he was diluted as time went on.”
The Mecha format also bowed in the 50s with the film “Tetsujin-28go” (known as “Gigantor” in the U.S.) but was more precisely defined through the 70s, 80s and 90s largely in manga comic books like “Mazinger Z” and anime film and television like 1979’s “Mobile Suit Gundam.”
“Mecha is guilt-free,” says del Toro. “The relationship of Japan with the culture of technology is guiltless. They don't have this ambivalence that we have in the West, that technology is bad is going to destroy us and so forth. They embrace it and they love it, and that allows for the Mecha warriors to become almost like mythical figures. They adored them.”
“Pacific Rim” actress Rinko Kikuchi plays a rising hopeful in the Jaeger program who must be mentally paired with a like-minded driver – “drifting” – to operate the robot and fend off the Kaiju. As a Japanese native, she says, “I've loved sci-fi films since when I was a kid, so being part of this role is just kind of dream come true. A lot of really great Japanese directors made a lot of monster movies like Godzilla like Rodan and they also have a lot anime, so I hope most of the Japanese audience will love this movie.”
Del Toro says the enduring appeal of watching a colossal creature reigning devastation on the landscape lies in the sheer spectacle of the seemingly unstoppable destruction. “We rarely are able to enjoy seeing a force of nature personified,” he explains. “A Kaiju is like a hurricane or a tornado. Everybody secretly is in awe of a tornado footage lifting cars and going through skyscrapers, but when you see a Kaiju, you're seeing a character do that. And there is no guilt or moral downside to it because it has nothing to do with real life.
"You're not enjoying somebody having a brutal fantasy of aiming an automatic weapon to a crowd. You are literally being lifted into the realm of the gods, of the elemental gods, and you are able to be taken by that spectacle without any guilt.”
In fact, Turek says that force-of-nature parallel might strike a particular chord in contemporary moviegoers. “The Kaiju of 'Pacific Rim' certainly feel like Mother Nature's wrath,” he says. “We can predict when they're going to come out, like we can predict the weather sometimes, and every time they keep coming back, they're coming back more and more aggressively, which is certainly what we're seeing with the weather patterns today.”
But even with such far-reaching antecedents, the goal was to build on the inspiration of the past to create a new mythology that, with its familiar elements, felt extremely fresh.
“I didn't want it to be a Kaiju movie sort of reset in an American backdrop,” says Beacham. “I wanted it to be in the region of the Pacific, and to still be firmly anchored in the Asian tradition. The fresh stuff that I thought was really important to bring in was asking who these pilots were and the drama there.”
And despite the film’s blockbuster aspirations, del Toro chose to sidestep casting movie star “names” in his production, preferring to focus on a handpicked cast of well-regarded internationally flavored actors (including Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Kikucki, Charlie Day, Robert Kazinsky and del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman) and giving over the film’s star power to the Kaiju and Jaegers.
“If you're going to revitalize a subgenre, you've got to raise the stakes, up the ante, give us something that is absolutely mind-blowing.” says Turek, who believes del Toro’s resurrection of the Kaiju form succeeds admirably. “We've never seen anything like that before, and with spectacular FX, too. I love man-in-a-suit monster movies, but some of the stuff in ‘Pacific Rim’ you would never be able to pull off with a man in a suit, ever.”