Kaiju Crush: The Monsters You’ve Never Heard Of

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This week’s big new blockbuster is Pacific Rim, and for a change it’s actually worth running right out and seeing. A splashy, flashy, brazenly old-fashioned story of man versus monsters that’s broad and arch enough for just about any audience but invested enough in its own cinematic heritage to name its giant monster antagonists Kaiju.

Translated literally from the original Japanese, it means “strange beast.” But it’s come to be the global shorthand for the towering creatures that headline “daikaiju eiga” – aka “Japanese Giant-Monster Movies” – which attained a level of international ubiquity rather staggering in scope for films made outside of the U.S. or Europe before the digital age, perhaps owing to their main characters communicating in the universal language of roars and punching.

Godzilla is the best known figure in this massive, franchise-spanning genus of creature (which also frequently includes the larger enemies of tokusatsu series like “Power Rangers” or “Ultraman”). Though, thanks to MST3K, plenty of people have heard of Gamera the giant turtle. The genre has spread even wider, well beyond the borders of Japan and even filmmaking itself. Here, in celebration of Kaiju once again invading U.S. theaters, is a short catalogue of some of the most obscure and unusual examples to have come before…

DAIMAJIN

From the Daimajin series.
The Daimajin franchise is an oddball fusion of Kaiju action and samurai melodrama from the Godzilla team, based around a giant stone statue of a Samurai warrior that comes to life and wreaks havoc, usually against human villains, in feudal-era Japan. The first (and best) film in the series sets the template for all that followed: A local noble is oppressing the people, who turn to praying to a giant idol-statue in the mountains for deliverance. In a cute twist, he has a monster-face reminiscent of a samurai faceplate under his more humanoid plate. Once the bad guy’s action become egregious enough, Daimajin comes to life and stomps down the mountain so the film can get to its reason for existing: Imagining how people might fight off a Godzilla-style assault with medieval weaponry.

DOGORA

From Dogora
Dogora isn’t one of the better scifi movies launched by Toho in it’s 1960s golden years, but its title creature is one of the most original. One of the few cinematic representations of an atmospheric beast, Dogora is a huge translucent jellyfish that eerily drifts down from the clouds to siphon up carbon. Preferably diamonds, which puts it into amusingly odd conflict with a cops and robbers subplot playing out on the ground.

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MAGUMA

From Gorath
Internationally, Toho Pictures is best known for its highly-marketable monster movies. But they were actually extremely active in the broader field of science fiction, fantasy and adventure films. Gorath, for example, is about a team of scientists trying to prevent Earth from being smashed out of orbit by an impending collision with the “rogue planet” of the title. However, the already-clear megapopularity of Kaiju internationally led the studio’s bosses to order director Ishiro Honda to include one somewhere in the film so that it could be advertised as a monster-movie. Honda reportedly objected, but ultimately acquiesced.

As such, what is otherwise a fairly serious early-60s scifi drama features an oddly out-of-place six minute scene wherein the construction of orbit-displacing rocket-boosters in the Arctic is imperiled by the accidental release of a frozen prehistoric giant walrus called Maguma. Ironically, while it was assumed that said giant walrus was needed to make the film more attractive to U.S. distributors, removing Maguma from the film entirely was the first thing the film’s actual U.S. distributor did. How obscure has this left Maguma? I couldn’t even find a proper video of the sequence to link to.

GAPPA

From Gappa: The Triphibian Monster
Nikkatsu Corporation, Japan’s oldest movie studio, only made this one foray into the daikaiju eiga genre, which wasn’t enough of a success in it’s own country to make any more. But it became a cult-hit in the U.S. when distributed direct to TV as Monster From The Prehistoric Planet. It’s unique among its genre for being a family affair: When a baby monster gets nabbed from its island home and spirited back to mainland Japan, its king-sized mother and father come looking for it. The Gappas are nifty-looking, at least – part bird, part turtle, part dinosaur.

MOZLAH

From Thunder of Gigantic Serpent
Some hardcore genre fans refuse to count any monster not made in Japan as a true Kaiju, while others are content to grandfather in non-Japanese creations that fit the subgenre’s surprisingly strict guidelines. I imagine most of that second group would give the thumbs-up to the main monster of this Hong Kong-spawned rarity… providing they’d heard of it. In the “plot,” a super-science device sought by rival spy organizations falls into the hands of a young girl who wants to use it as a house for her pet snake Mozlah. The title kind of spoils what comes of that.

YONGGARY

From Yonggary: Monster From The Deep
South Korea’s attempt at a Godzilla-wannabe features the expected giant dinosaur and cookie-cutter monster storyline, save for the… unique twist that Yongarry was weirdly susceptible to music. A heavier rotation in public-domain made it well known enough to inspire a truly terrible 1999 remake from comedian turned filmmaker Shim Hyung-Rae, who parlayed his experience on that film into the more widely seen (but no less notorious) Dragon Wars.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.


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Image of Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.