“Pacific Rim: Uprising” debuted two weeks ago to widely negative audience and critical appraisal. Of course, it could still be a financial success, especially thanks to the foreign market. But if its sales don’t improve soon, there’s a good chance that we won’t see a PacRim3.
That is unfortunate, because the kaiju—giant monster—film genre was essentially dead in the West before Guillermo Del Toro’s smashing revivification in 2013, 15 years after the disastrous U.S. “Godzilla” reboot in 1998. This was a chance to keep that streak going strong, especially when the third era of the Japanese Godzilla franchise ended in 2004.
That era saw another seven fantastic films released before the end of 2004. Then, with a colossal total of 28 silver-screen appearances, the big aquatic dinosaur went back into hibernation again. Gamera popped back up in 2006 for a solo outing. It took Del Toro’s unique vision to bring the kaiju back to the West in a meaningful way.
Exorcising the Demons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
But to truly understand why people care about giant monsters destroying cities, you need to go back to 1954. That became the most important year in Japanese cinema history, and by extension one of the most important in world cinema history. In that year, Japan culturally healed from the wounds of World War II thanks to Toho Studios.
Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” took a fallen, disgraced people and personified them as persecuted peasants who sought the protection of Ronin from a gang of bandits. But these Ronin acted like honorable samurai despite their dishonorable position. This was a powerful message to a beleaguered people struggling to recover their honor. It said honor was a disposition of the soul, not an outward appearance.
Gojira, the Japanese name for Godzilla, is a sort of portmanteau of the Japanese words for whale and gorilla. He helped the Japanese exorcise the truly horrific demons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla is, after all, a walking atomic bomb, melting buildings with his radiated breath. His actions also mimic the destructive force of nuclear weapons laying waste to entire cities.
In the film, the people stand up to this apocalyptic monster and survive. The story gave them a powerful metaphor for their own national resilience. Ironically enough, that symbol of perseverance in their darkest hour became an icon of their joyous cultural resurgence.
Kaiju films went on to be much less serious during the rest of the initial era (1954-80), but they were always built upon this existential foundation. They also became a shared cultural expression between the United States and Japan, allowing the hatchet to finally be buried.
Despite the popularity of the poorly dubbed, re-edited American versions, the U.S. film industry never really created its own kaiju until now. Lots of giant monster and dinosaur films have been made in the United States, including various King Kong remakes and the Jurassic Park franchise. But real kaiju are more than dinosaurs and large monsters.
Giant, Ancient Gods from Other Worlds
Kaiju are actually deeply connected to one of the few truly American myths: H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Cthulhu and his ilk are giant, ancient gods from other worlds. That is what kaiju truly are as well. They aren’t just mutated ants, giant tarantulas, or massive dinosaurs. They are lost gods from ancient times.
The original King Kong was one of the primary influences on Gojira. While King Kong was basically just a gigantic ape, the natives of Skull Island worshipped him. He was a god to them. When he was released into the modern world, he wreaked havoc, just like Lovecraftian monsters do.
While this Lovecraftian theme has always been there, it is Del Toro’s deep infatuation with all things Cthulhu that finally made it overt. In the PacRim series, kaiju actually get an origin story, and it could almost be ripped from the pages of Lovecraft’s “Necronomicon.”
In PacRim, an alien race called the precursors live in a different universe from ours. They have opened a portal to earth and start sending giant monsters at us to pacify the planet for their final invasion. These precursors essentially function as Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. They are literally the “ones who come before,” and they created the kaiju to finally destroy us.
Universal’s MonsterVerse uses a similar but less spelled-out mythology. In “Godzilla” 2014, the king of the monsters is described as “The top of the primordial ecosystem. A god, for all intents and purposes.” And in the follow-up “Kong: Skull Island,” “This world never belonged to us. It belonged to them. The question is, how long before they take it back. Kong is not the only king.” This is very similar to the Cthulhu mythos. Humans are merely passing through a world ultimately dominated by bleak, indifferent forces of immeasurable destructive power.
A Shift in Concern for the Individual
But our current period of kaiju film is distinctly and truly western for the first time. That’s not just because of how it has embraced Western influences like Lovecraft, but the places it pushes back on that same narrative. The stark contrast between Western kaiju movies and traditional ones is that in the West the human is the main character and the kaiju are not really characters at all.
“Godzilla” 2014 made this abundantly clear. That movie is about a family and how their lives are ripped apart by a kaiju war. It was filmed always from an angle that a regular person in the screaming masses could’ve actually seen.
Conversely, the main appeal of traditional kaiju films are the gigantic battles filmed like a sporting event. The camera swirls around above the monsters, closing on the eyes and face to make every detail available to the viewer. The people getting stomped underfoot don’t really matter. Godzilla, Gamera, Rodan, etc. are the real stars of the show.
This is very Lovecraftian. The call of Cthulhu isn’t really about humans, it’s obviously about these horrifying, otherwordly monster gods. While the humans are constantly coming up with new plans and weapons in an attempt to beat the kaiju, they are essentially at the mercy of these elder gods.
This is not so with PacRim. The humans are the central characters of these stories, and they have found a way to fight back (with gigantic robots, of course). In the western kaiju genre, this is unique to the two PacRim films so far, unless the last-live action Power Rangers is included.
The emphasis of the MonsterVerse films has been more on the futility side, but the stories are still fundamentally human. PacRim’s primary purpose is just to be fun. Lovecraft’s monsters may be creeping around, but completely gone is his nihilism, replaced by a hope in the seemingly limitless capabilities of early twenty-first-century technology.
It’s a Monster Renaissance
“Pacific Rim: Uprising” was one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in a while. There are legitimate stand and cheer moments. But it’s a specific kind of fun. There’s the drama of pilot rivalry combined with epic, world-ending stakes. That balance between internal and external conflict, keeping together a team that can’t get along to stop this alien invasion, is about as entertaining as it gets.
Yes, these are just big dumb monster movies full of special effects. But they also have a lot of heart, and that goes a long way in forcing an audience to suspend disbelief.
There can be no question that we are in a Kaujusance. The MonsterVerse has released two successful films, with two more on the way. 2016 saw Toho release the first new Japanese-based Godzilla film since 2004.
On top of that, the venerable company is making a trilogy of amine Godzilla films that will be gradually available on Netflix. Additionally there are the Cloverfield and Monsters (by Garreth Edwards) franchises. (Admittedly, these are more like films in a kaiju setting than they are actual kaiju films.)
The PacRim films are set up for a third and potentially much larger universe, depending on how much money comes in. A new Gamera film has been rumored for several years, and hopefully there will be more wonderfully weird indie fare like last year’s “Colossal,” where Anne Hathaway discovered she had the power to connect to a kaiju in South Korea.
The rubber suits are all gone, but Ishiro Honda’s visionary legacy may be stronger than ever. Shockingly enough, that’s happening in the West just as much as in Japan.