Kaiju movies – or giant monster movies – are often dismissed as nothing more than motion pictures which feature strange, gargantuan creatures causing mindless destruction for the sake of entertainment. But, since their inception, they have often featured socio-political elements pertaining to the milieu their creator’s art is informed by and, as such, have covered a broad range of themes in which multiple interpretations can be made. Since King Kong (1933) laid the foundations for the genre to build upon – which Godzilla (1954) helped to define – the kaiju film has explored a myriad of subject matters ranging from nuclear panic, to capitalism, to environmental activism and more, perhaps best exemplified through the Godzilla franchise which saw the beast adopt an array of allegories throughout the years that have complemented the fears and issues of the contemporary climate.
With his book The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters (2016), Jason Barr provides the most comprehensive exploration of kaiju cinema to date, going in depth to provide insightful academic analysis of the movies which fall under this umbrella; from King Kong to Godzilla to Pacific Rim (2013), and everything in between, no film that falls into this genre is considered too dumb or mindless for analytical thought – and it might just make you view some of them in a brand new light once you’ve read it.
Kieran Fisher recently caught up with Barr – the author of one of the best books you’re ever likely to read if you’re a monster aficionado – to discuss this misunderstood type of cinema and his fascination with it.
Diabolique: Take us back. What initially drew you to kaiju films? When did you become a fan?
Jason Barr: I suppose my earliest memory was of the author of one of the best books you’re ever likely to read if you’re a monster aficionado, Godzilla vs Gigan and The Smog Monster (1996). I can remember that we lived in an area that only got a few channels (and those by antenna), so if you wanted to watch TV, then you watched whatever was on. A station out of D.C. would often feature midday creature films, so I enjoyed all sorts of classic horror—The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), The Wolf-Man (1941), and so on. But it was Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971) that was so fascinating to me; here was a giant monster battling another giant monster. Here was a culture I had no knowledge of; here was a completely new and yet wonderful creation. From there, I took the path that most children took: we kept an eye out for the “big monster” films and tried to watch them when they were on. I can also remember watching Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) and watching the creatures bleed and get seriously injured, which only deepened my fascination. Here were creatures that were huge, but also incredibly vulnerable. We found occasional toys (mostly knock-offs), and played with them. As I got older (and as my budget grew), I was able to find and enjoy many of these films on VHS, then DVD. I supposed, then, that I have been a fan since early childhood. When I think about how I grew up with kaiju films, the extension into thinking about them critically was natural.
Diabolique: What are some of your favourite kaiju films?
Jason Barr: My tastes don’t appear to be too unique; whenever I mention some of the best (from my perspective) kaiju films, other fans tend to acknowledge them as the de facto best as well. I enjoyed Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: All-Out Monsters Attack! (2001), and the 1990s Gamera trilogy the best. Other films such as Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) are also great. The original and heartbreaking Godzilla from 1954 is excellent as well, as is its growing reputation as a cinematic film to be treasured by all cinephiles. A bit further off the beaten path is the Daimajin trilogy and Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). I also have a soft spot for Space Amoeba (1970) and Gappa (1967), although those films are definitely an acquired taste, to say the least.
Diabolique: Your book, The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters, is the most comprehensive and in-depth exploration of kaiju films I’ve ever read. What inspired you to write it? Would you say it was partly due to kaiju films often being regarded as nothing more than big monsters smashing cities?
Jason Barr: The book was originally under contract to another press, and was focused entirely on the Godzilla franchise. I had found that many works about Godzilla, in particular, were almost always tongue-in-cheek or downright slapstick. Few works took a serious look at Godzilla and the cultural implications of the franchise. If you think about William Tsustui’s Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (2004), the book was a wonderful critical interpretation that often seemed to apologize for doing so, through humorous asides or poking fun at the films, itself, and the fans. I felt that a truly academic discussion of Godzilla was necessary to understanding the impact of the entire series, rather than the focus on just one film (almost all of the academic articles were about the 1954 Godzilla). The press, however, grew concerned about possible litigation from Toho and pulled out of the contract. As I looked through my notes and my manuscript about Godzilla, I realized that many of the themes I was finding in that franchise were appearing in numerous other kaiju films. So I rewrote the book almost entirely from scratch and McFarland Press picked it up.
I think a lot of the reluctance to seriously discuss kaiju film is found in the simple fact that, often, the fans and even the films themselves sometimes refuse to take themselves seriously. Many kaiju films falls into “cheese” or “camp,” and are quickly derided by critics. In the huge spectrum of academic publishing and academic research, I would imagine that saying “I study kaiju film” would carry some sort of stigma among the academic professionals in much the same way that one finds precious few researchers exploring giallo cinema. The Kaiju film is prone to being disrespected, pigeonholed, and regarded as niche.
Diabolique: Kaiju films have embodied a variety of themes since their inception; nuclear, environmental, political, to name a few. In your opinion, which films have been the most effective in getting their respective point across?
Jason Barr: For all of the ire directed at the 2014 Godzilla, I felt that it handled the spectre of nuclear annihilation very well. The American military’s kneejerk desire to set off a weapon that would make the previous nuclear weapons “look like a firecracker” was a disturbing moment that exposed some of the nuclear-powered hubris of the United States: if we don’t understand it or can’t control it, we’ll bomb it.
The newest iteration, Shin Godzilla (2016), focuses almost entirely on politics, which is why so many fans and critics alike have struggled with it. It steps beyond the big monsters stepping on things to discuss the ideas of the “old guard” and the “new guard,” and the subtle shifts in philosophy toward domestic and international threats. There is a sense that politicians and governments need to be more proactive in dealing with threats, and in some cases, even more impulsive, rather than the paralysis of in-depth decision-making and policy-making. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) deals with much the same themes, but cherishes, ironically, tradition and the old guard in spite of those reckless millennials who kill dogs, drive badly, and spray graffiti on things. Of course, in this film, Godzilla is an embodiment of the war dead of World War Two, and he is awakened by the collective forgetting of his legacy. Only the “guardians,” such as Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Baragon, can prevent the rampage and restore order.
Other films outside of the (in)famous Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster haven’t dealt as transparently with pollution, but it does appear—Pacific Rim’s (2013) narrative features kaiju that defecate highly polluting material and the idea that the Earth, due to manmade pollution and climate change, had become far more hospitable to the invading kaiju.
Diabolique: Out of the litany of giant monsters in cinema history, which ones do you think are the most impressively horrifying?
Jason Barr: I don’t know if I’ve found kaiju too horrifying, and it’s primarily because many of them are not terribly grotesque, or, if they are, they’ve borrowed ideas from pre-existing horror films. Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995), for example, heavily borrows from Alien (1979), as does segments of Cloverfield (2008). Yet, the newest version of Shin Godzilla reveals a far more disconcerting version of Godzilla, one that initially appears, really, without the ability to walk or move. Instead, it crashes through buildings and flails about wildly. As Godzilla evolves, it becomes even more physically disturbing, with skeletons attached to its tail, hideously scarred skin, and a mouth that opens more like a dislocation, perhaps like a sea creature. Shin Godzilla is an entirely unique creation in just the Godzilla franchise alone.
Otherwise, I think the old stone deity of Daimajin (1966) is also unique in a frightening sort of way. The being, impassive for many of the films, eventually removes his stone mask to reveal an incredibly grotesque and undoubtedly angry face. The “reveal” of this face is much of the climactic fuel for the Daimajin series.
Diabolique: The Godzilla franchise has been around for over 60 years. There is a Kong reboot on its way in a matter of months. After all these years, why do you think audiences continue to be drawn to giant monster movies?
Jason Barr: Yes, but I’m not quite sure if it is for the “right” reasons. I think that American companies, in particular, are prone to following trends, and with big-budget films that focus almost entirely on explosions and devastation (The Avengers (2012) or Batman vs. Superman (2016) comes to mind), kaiju films are a natural extension. Lengthier and more thoughtful pieces are slowly giving way to action-packed but ultimately hollow blockbusters. Even films such as Pacific Rim were essentially bash-‘em-up films with only fleeting commentary. Godzilla (2014) was criticized for being too slow and plodding. Audiences want big set-pieces and CGI can deliver that. Kaiju films will be around for much longer, but it may be that the underlying “heart” of kaiju films will move to more independent features, such as Monsters (2010) or Colossal (2016).
Diabolique: What is your dream big monster battle? Furthermore, if it happened who do you think would win?
Jason Barr: I have to agree with most fans that Gamera squaring off against Godzilla would be highly entertaining! But, unlike many, I would have to give serious consideration to Gamera coming out on top, if only because Godzilla can rarely handle flying kaiju well. Godzilla versus Mothra or King Ghidorah or even Megaguirus always seems to slow the big guy down.
Big battles aside, any film that features Mothra will draw me in, mostly because her backstory is so interesting. Put Mothra against any kaiju, and I will watch. I have to say the same as Kiryu, the last (for now) incarnation of Mechagodzilla. A brilliant and sympathetic backstory will do wonders for any kaiju.
Diabolique: Do you have any other projects in the pipeline you can tell us about?
Jason Barr: Kaiju studies have only just begun! As I stated in The Kaiju Film, I really wanted my first book to be an introduction to the ideas to the field, and the book was certainly not supposed to be the only or the final word. To that end, I am co-editing a new book, due out from McFarland in the next year, that focuses on the intersection of kaiju and pop culture. We have several magnificent essays from some great writers that will continue the conversation on the role of kaiju in the world, discussing such disparate topics as Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Godzilla, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Gamera, and other depictions of kaiju. Beyond that, who knows? I may return to the genre soon, but I want to be sure to let other voices be heard so that kaiju film can really continue on the path to academic viability and understanding.