THE KAIJU FILM (Barr 2016) Book Review

The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters Book Review

In “The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters” (affiliate link), author Jason Barr takes on an incredible task. He has decided to cover the breadth of the kaiju genre from 1933-2014, and attempts to present a “critical study” that is more serious than the typical review of what detractors call “cheese”. At the same time, he intends to keep the subject from getting too arcane; with the minutiae being debated in the magazine G-Fan, it is easily to get bogged down in the details. For the most part, Barr maintains a healthy balance that will enlighten fans without scaring away the newcomers.

One of the first tasks is, of course, defining the kaiju genre. Literally, the word translates to “strange beast”, and has come to mean unusually large, strange beasts. Often, at least traditionally, this includes “men in rubber suits”. Barr’s take on kaiju is interesting in that he expands it more than some might accept. Godzilla is obviously in the genre, as are his cohorts Gamera and Mothra. Barr also includes King Kong in here, which would not have occurred to me, but is generally accepted. I concede that I feel “kaiju” is inherently Japanese, but I am apparently in the minority. But then Barr gets crazy, extending the genre not just to “Pacific Rim” (understandable), but to the giant animal films of Bert Gordon, and even “Ghostbusters”, because the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is a strange, giant beast. Really? This seems a bridge too far to me, but a quick Google search shows that Barr is far from alone. (Some people include the Bumble from “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, which makes the Marshmallow Man seem reasonable.)

And then Barr takes his broad view and draws a boundary. He feels there needs to be an underlying message, just as “King Kong” (the first kaiju) featured a “moralization about capitalism, greed, and the destructive tendencies of humanity.” He specifically points at such films as “Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus”. By Barr’s definition, these creatures are kaiju, but he refuses to acknowledge these sorts of things as being in the genre because they are “hollow”. Saying a film with kaiju is not a kaiju film seems odd, but if it brackets the endless onslaught of shark movies out of the discussion, all the better.

Barr successfully places the kaiju film within the context of Japanese culture, in ways few have probably considered. He discusses yokai (folkloric demons, literally translated as “attractive calamity”). This seems even more timely with the rise of popularity for the cartoon “Yo-kai Watch”. We also get into bunraku (puppet theater) and kabuki. While Godzilla did not arrive on the scene until the 1950s, we can see that his roots really begin much earlier than that. He is just an offshoot of much older Japanese cultural traditions.

One way Barr’s book is important to the discussion is his commentary on nuclear energy and atomic bombs. While the first creature to be awakened on film by an atomic blast was in “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, it becomes far more central to the Godzilla and Gamera stories. Japan is the only country to be hit by an atomic bomb (twice), and they have also been subjected to nuclear reactor leaks, and the largely forgotten (outside of Japan) Lucky Dragon incident. In that case, radiation from the Bikini Atoll bombings hit the Lucky Dragon ship, which not only irradiated the crew, but potentially tainted the tuna on board. And yet, this tuna entered into the marketplace!

Sometimes the topics expressed by the atomic bomb go beyond the idea of the bomb itself. In “Gamera” (1965), Japan is hit by a nuclear bomb after an American jet shoots down a Soviet bomber. Barr points out (correctly) that while this could be seen merely as a minor plot point, it suggests something bigger: Japan’s frustration at its role in the Cold War. The country was aligned with the United States, but shared a border with the Soviet Union. Americans may not think much about how Japan felt during the Cold War, but the Japanese were painfully aware of the position they were put in.

The American occupation of Japan is a touchy subject. Not long after the bombs were dropped, Americans set up bases in Japan and intended to store nuclear missiles there. The Japanese people and government, not surprisingly, did not want the missiles in their homeland. Being occupied means your voice is muffled, however, and the nuclear missiles were shipped to Japan just the same.

Japan’s anxieties over nuclear weapons showed up on screen, though often in thinly-veiled ways. The original “Godzilla” features a weapon known as the Oxygen Destroyer. The scientist who designed this weapon knows it has the power to stop Godzilla and save humanity. But he also knows that using it a single time will only make the world’s militaries and governments hunger to have their own weapons. Is destroying Godzilla worth the risk of arming the world with such a destructive weapons?

We again see a similar theme in “Godzilla vs. Biollante”. While the invention here is not nuclear, there is that same fear (and awe) of science. Genetic hybrids are useful, but if the technology falls into the wrong hands it could create monsters. Biollante first appeared in 1989, at the dawn of the modern genetics movement. As of 2016, such science has grown (cloning is now a reality), and while the fears have been mostly unfounded, the underlying anxiety still exists. In the wrong hands, genetic research could create a “monster” in the form a deadly strain of influenza, or worse…

The exploration of pollution in kaiju is well-done and merits further research. “Gamera vs. Zigra” has pollution killing sea life, and many films in the genre (including “Godzilla’s Revenge”) feature smokestacks even when not called for. The intent is clear: relevant to the plot or not, the filmmakers wanted the Japanese public to see how filthy their country had become. This theme is most blatant in “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster”, but runs as an undercurrent through much of the 1960s and 1970s.

For me, the strongest section of “The Kaiju Film” is the chapter on the role of women. Barr spends only eight pages on the topic, but it clearly has the potential to become much longer; perhaps a master’s thesis? Women are seen as background characters for the most part. This is not just a kaiju concern, but indicative of the Japanese culture as a whole. In the kaiju film, women are either dismissed entirely or portrayed as some sort of evil alien. There is little chance of finding a female character with depth or construction. Again, this is primarily in relation to Japanese culture as a whole, but Barr is quick to point out that “Pacific Rim” – more modern, and decidedly not Japanese – suffers from the same problems, with women being more or less used as love interests rather than three-dimensional characters. “Godzilla” (2014) should have solved these issues, but no… actress Juliette Binoche even commented to the media on how disposable her character was.

Sadly, there are two shortcomings to Barr’s exploration of kaiju. First, he attempts to draw links between the genre and terrorism. He successfully makes the connection with “Cloverfield”, but that is about it. Maybe he is just too early, but there seems to be no line between terrorism and genre as a whole. He also falls short on his discussion of “body horror” in the kaiju genre. This is an interesting idea, and he does offer a few examples (such as “Matango”), but it never fully gains traction. There is a larger problem here: the definition of “body horror” is still in flux. We have reached a point where it has become an accepted subgenre of horror, but there seems to be no agreement on what is or is not included.

These minor quibbles don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the book. Jason Barr has done his research, and has obviously sat down with these films – even the most obscure ones – more than a few times. With “The Kaiju Film”, (affiliate link) he joins the ranks of Godzilla scholars alongside such notables as David Kalat.

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