Godzilla vs Kong and the future of Kaiju cinema: Why MonsterVerse films herald new direction for the genre

Godzilla vs Kong belongs to the Kaiju genre of cinema that began in Japan in the 1950s, but has since spread across the world, especially Hollywood.

Aditya Mani Jha March 27, 2021 09:32:35 IST
Godzilla vs Kong and the future of Kaiju cinema: Why MonsterVerse films herald new direction for the genre

Still from Godzilla vs Kong (2021)

There are several moments in Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs Kong (released in India on Wednesday, 24 March) where the influence of its two most important ‘source texts’, the Japanese-language Godzilla (1954) and the English-language King Kong (1933), can be felt most clearly. My personal favourite is when King Kong is revealed to have learned sign language through his frequent interactions with Jia, a young Maori girl (not more than 11 or 12) who the super-massive primate has formed an emotional bond with. “Why didn’t you tell me,” asks Jia’s adoptive mother Dr Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall). “Kong didn’t want me to tell you,” replies Jia.

There’s a lot to unpack here: the classic cinematic pairing of a ‘lethal weapon’ (the beast, the creature, the human-but-invincible assassin) with a small child, Kong’s instinctive distrust of scientists, and of course, the suggestion that even the otherwise heroic Dr Andrews isn’t above a certain kind of greed frequently seen among onscreen scientists (progress, no matter what the price!). Kong’s instincts tell him that notwithstanding Jia’s kindness, nothing good can come out of the lab coat-clad humans learning the true extent of his capabilities.

Many of these themes can be understood a little better in the context of the genre that Godzilla vs Kong belongs to — the Kaiju genre of cinema that began in Japan in the 1950s, but has since spread across the world, especially Hollywood.

Quite simply, ‘Kaiju’ refers both to the genre and the giant monsters that populate these movies (even though, as we shall see, a Kaiju film has several other signature themes). The gigantic, nuclear radiation-powered sea monster Godzilla alone has accounted for over 30 films in Japan and the USA since the 1950s.

Godzilla vs Kong is the fourth installment in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse series, after Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). Together, these four films are both a throwback to the classic Kaiju themes of their artistic forbearers, and a leap forward for the genre — especially after the disappointing Godzilla movie and series of the late 1990s (the last time the character was adapted by a Hollywood studio).

Godzilla vs Kong and the future of Kaiju cinema Why MonsterVerse films herald new direction for the genre

Godzilla (2014)

Kaiju: Origins and key motifs

There is a definite lack of attention to the way elements of Japanese art and culture ended up influencing Kaiju films, both structurally and in terms of monster-lore. In Jason Barr’s The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters (2016), the author tells us about some of these cultural connections. Several monsters from Kaiju films have been borrowed from yokai, “the often hideous creatures that populate Japanese folklore”. King Caesar, the lion/dog bipedal hybrid from Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974), resembles his yokai counterpart the ‘shisi’, for example. The spider-like yokai tsuchigumo was adapted into the gigantic spider Kumonga from Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

The Japanese puppet performance called Bunraku is a relatively easier influence to spot. In the early Kaiju films of the 1960s and 70s, the ‘monsters’, of course, would be puppets controlled by professionals (much like Yoda from the original Star Wars trilogy was portrayed by puppeteer Frank Oz). In fact, this cultural proximity to the Bunraku form was one of the reasons why the quality of CGI/special effects continued to be relatively poor in Japanese Kaiju cinema in the ‘70s and ‘80s, even as the rest of the world made leaps forward.

The narrative structure of Kaiju cinema has also been deeply informed by Kabuki theatre, another Japanese art form (remember the Kabuki scene Tom Cruise witnesses in The Last Samurai?). In Kabuki, the story generally starts quite slowly before gradually building up to a spectacular climax, followed by a quick resolution of dangling narrative threads. As Barr writes in The Kaiju Cinema, this structure is mirrored both in the original Godzilla (1954) and also its most recent reboot Godzilla (2014), directed by Gareth Edwards, which kicked off the MonsterVerse series.

Godzilla vs Kong and the future of Kaiju cinema Why MonsterVerse films herald new direction for the genre

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Talking about the 1954 original, Barr says: “In total, Godzilla, in his initial feature, appears for around eight of the film’s 96-minute run time. This “slow burn” technique, again culled from the structure of kabuki, rarely appears in American kaiju films. (…) Edwards, in the opening credits of Godzilla, pays homage to the opening film not only as a thematic prequel but also as a structural parent. In 2014, in other words, the full effect of kabuki on kaiju films was still in place in American cinemas.”

In terms of motifs, if the Kaiju cinema is not defined by the monsters alone, then what are its foundational features? Once again, Godzilla (1954) offers the clearest answers. In the movie, Godzilla is roused from his deep sea slumber thanks to underwater hydrogen-bomb testing. Godzilla is, therefore, a creature of radiation waste; one of his most feared powers is the generally blue-colored ‘atomic breath’ that it deploys at will. Man-made disasters apart, Godzilla appearances are also marked by Nature wreaking havoc on mankind. In Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019), Godzilla literally causes a tsunami in Hawaii just by waking up, for example. In other Kaiju films down the years, earthquakes and landslides have marked the sea monster’s arrival.

Then there’s the critique of science, scientists, evil corporations (ie human greed) and the human cost of international politics. The radiation tropes are a nod to Hiroshima/Nagasaki, sure, but things have gone comfortably beyond that in recent years. In Godzilla vs Kong, for example, a company called Apex illegally stows away a ‘Titan’ skull (the MonsterVerse films call their Kaiju ‘Titans’) and tries to build their own manually controlled Mecha-Kaiju with the help of an artificial neural network. It’s a very 2021 version of the Frankenstein story. Similarly, in the South Korean blockbuster The Host (2006), the Kaiju at the heart of the story is created out of toxic waste dumped into the Han river by American military personnel (the real-life South Korean government indeed accused the Americans of doing this in 2000); American interventionism is thus criticised directly.

Godzilla vs Kong and the future of Kaiju cinema Why MonsterVerse films herald new direction for the genre

(L-R) Posters for Kaiju movies Godzilla, 1954; Godzilla Raids Again, 1955; Rodan, 1956. Images courtesy Toho Company Ltd, via Wikimedia Commons

It must be understood, also, that the Kaiju film exploded in popularity at a time when low-cost Hollywood films featuring scary monsters were very much in vogue: Snow Creature (1954), It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) and King Dinosaur (1955) et al are examples of the same. As a result, Hollywood’s embrace of the Kaiju film came at a price: these were often re-edited beyond recognition, with poor-quality voice acting and dubious translations in many cases.

Essentially, as Barr points out in The Kaiju Cinema, America saw gigantic monsters like Godzilla as a “blank slate”, a “tabula rasa of sorts” wherein they could project all manner of socio-political messaging if need be — or to do nothing at all and reduce the monster to a flat, marauding force of meaningless destruction, to be enjoyed on the big screen and immediately forgotten thereafter. Which isn’t to say that this ‘blank slate’ cannot be creatively used — in Cloverfield (2008), for example, the ground-level action (before we actually see the monster itself) has been shot in a way that resembles found footage shot on 9/11; people fleeing, panic in the streets (Marvel tried a watered-down version of this in the first Avengers movie). Essentially, Cloverfield became the first post-9/11 Kaiju movie. It asked the question, ‘What if our greatest city was attacked by an enemy that cannot be reasoned with?’

Godzilla vs Kong and the Future of Kaiju cinema

As we mentioned before, the MonsterVerse movies have rejuvenated the Kaiju genre in Hollywood. Godzilla vs Kong continues this good work forward — minute for minute, it is every bit the spectacle-heavy blockbuster that audiences wanted. The two massive fights between its titular Kaiju, one in either half of the movie, are thrilling and worth the ticket price. But also, in its own way it pushes back against some outdated constraints of the Kaiju genre.

It is much less male-dominated than most Kaiju films, for example. Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) drives much more of the action here than she did in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). Much like Jia becomes the moral anchor for King Kong, their conversations reminding the audience of Kong’s innate goodness, Madison does the same for Godzilla. She keeps reminding her father (and anybody else who’ll listen really) that Godzilla has never attacked without provocation.

Godzilla vs Kong and the future of Kaiju cinema Why MonsterVerse films herald new direction for the genre

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

She shows remarkable emotional maturity, too. After witnessing her mother’s horrific death during the events of the last movie, she trusts her judgment enough to launch an impromptu infiltration operation against Apex, the evil mega-corporation that serves as Godzilla vs Kong’s primary antagonist. Historically speaking, Kaiju films have seldom drawn female audiences in any significant numbers; with young superstars like Brown (whose Netflix series Stranger Things is one of the most-streamed shows in the world) leading the way, that’s changing very quickly.

Godzilla vs Kong is also a disapproving commentary on tech firms entering the world of warfare. Increasingly, Big Technology around the world has been keen to get into business with the American military and the government, whether it’s sophisticated surveillance measures, drones of ever-increasing versatility and efficiency, or even backdoor diplomacy efforts on behalf of the government (Google executives have, in the past, acted in this capacity, for example).

In the movie, Apex Corporation wants to develop its own “alpha predator” in the form of a gigantic, neural network-based killer Kaiju robot, the kind seen in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim for example. But of course, they half-ass the operation and claim American exceptionalism when called out for it (“we’re pushing past the limits of human capability”, their CEO says in a supremely defensive moment). None of this is radical, you could argue — the real-life American military, after all, keeps tabs on every single Hollywood movie that includes a portrayal of them, and so the critique can only go so far.

But it’s a start, and an impressive start at that. The MonsterVerse series has, through its first four films, boosted a somewhat flagging genre and there’s no looking back now. Godzilla vs Kong proves, once again, that Kaiju cinema presents a wide array of interconnected templates and themes before the enterprising filmmaker. The era of the ‘man in the rubber suit’ Godzilla movies is over and a smarter, more versatile variant is taking over Hollywood.

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