In which we encounter some monsters.
As I write this, we’re less than a month out from Legendary Pictures latest giant monster movie, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I am beyond stoked.
I can't remember the first time I saw Godzilla. I can't remember the first time I saw King Kong, either. But I can tell you exactly when I became devoted to giant monster films: 1998.
1998 saw the release of two giant monster movies: Godzilla, starring Matthrew Broderick, and a re-make of the 1949 movie Mighty Joe Young*, this time anchored by Charlize Theron. Both movies are just okay, with the former bordering on bad. It might be better to say that both movies were disappointing, especially when compared to their originals.
In a coincidence of timing, I watched the original version of Mighty Joe Young as part of an assignment for a film studies class in college. Watching it sent me out to scour the local video stores for the original Godzilla. Which lead to a re-watch of King Kong. And Them!. And a ton of other black-and-white giant monster movies.
Fast forward twenty years and we've got a new Hollywood take on Godzilla as well as a new Toho take on Gojira. We’ve also had an update to King Kong, the giant-robot vs. giant-monster franchise Pacific Rim, and the Cloverfield monster. So, what is it about giant monsters? Why are they so ingrained in our imagination that we keep re-telling these stories over and over?
In this issue:
What We're Learning: Kaiju
What We're Reading:
Down the Rabbit Hole: King of the Monsters
Let's get to it.
What We're Learning:
I’ve long held that all alien movies are either ghost stories or monster stories. In ghost stories, we (humans) are confronted with something we don’t understand and don’t know how to fight. But, in monster movies, we’re confronted with something we can fight, but only by working together.
Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman - The Whale, or great fish, is probably the first giant monster story many of us hear. Like Moby Dick, centuries later, it shows man’s hubris.
This is not a perfect theory. A lot of our myths and legends are the one super-human (Hercules or Perseus) fighting and defeating the creature all on their own. The flip-side to that is that we have just as many stories where taking on the monster single-handedly leads to one’s own doom. (Looking at you Ahab.)
But back to working together to take down the monsters: cooperative hunting has been the name of the game since we came down out of the trees. It’s what (among other things) that allowed us to form communities and civilizations. Individually, taking down a mammoth or a whale was an impossible, or maybe just suicidal, venture. As a team, however, the impossible became possible and thus, Leviathan was slain and the village ate for a month.
Modern life does not offer us many giants to slay. But it sure as hell gives us enough individually insurmountable problems to contend with. In their list of “Films Featuring Giant Monsters,” Wikipedia says it’s a reaction to man-made disasters and tragedies like the atomic bomb, radioactive waste, and 9-11. Or the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the wake of a tsunami.
The movies often take one of two paths: either the monster is the result of man’s actions (nuclear waste causes ants to grow to monstrous proportions) or the disaster is the result of the monster’s actions. A lot of times it’s a little from column A and a little from column B.
But the point is, no matter who caused the problem, these are all problems we can’t fix as lone individuals, even if we knew how. Instead, we make movies and write books and create stories in hopes of preventing, or at least lessening, the next disaster.
There was a lot I just couldn’t get to in this issue, like the Biblical origins of so many monsters like Leviathan and Behemoth, or the giant monsters of myths like the Titans and dragons and the Kraken. And then there’s the lesser known origins of kaiju, like Namazu, the catfish who lives under the Japanese archipelago and causes earthquakes with his movements. But behind all of that myth and legend and storytelling is the true science of paleontology and lesson left by giant monsters who once roamed the earth:
The dinosaurs disappeared because they could not adapt to their changing environment. We shall disappear if we cannot adapt to an environment that now contains spaceships, computers — and thermonuclear weapons.
— Arthur C. Clarke
*The 1949 version of Mighty Joe Young is better but still not really all that noteworthy except that Joe was animated by the legendary Ray Harryhausen in his first major work.
What We’re Reading:
by James K. Morrow
From the Amazon page:
It is the early summer of 1945, and war reigns in the Pacific Rim with no end in sight. Back in the States, Hollywood B-movie star Syms Thorley lives in a very different world, starring as the Frankenstein-like Corpuscula and Kha-Ton-Ra, the living mummy. But the U.S. Navy has a new role waiting for Thorley, the role of a lifetime that he could never have imagined.
The top secret Knickerbocker Project is putting the finishing touches on the ultimate biological weapon: a breed of gigantic, fire-breathing, mutant iguanas engineered to stomp and burn cities on the Japanese mainland. The Navy calls upon Thorley to don a rubber suit and become the merciless Gorgantis and to star in a live drama that simulates the destruction of a miniature Japanese metropolis. If the demonstration succeeds, the Japanese will surrender, and many thousands of lives will be spared; if it fails, the horrible mutant lizards will be unleashed. One thing is certain: Syms Thorley must now give the most terrifyingly convincing performance of his life.
And from my (brief) review on Goodreads:
What an odd little book. Written as the bizarre, end of the road, musings of a Hollywood has been, at that stage of life where there are more lifetime achievement awards and retrospectives than there are new challenges, Shambling Towards Hiroshima is an all-too-plausible [story] about World War II and how they tried to end it.
It’s fast, funny, clever, deeply, deeply weird, and a lot of fun, especially if you’re into alternate history, kaiju, tales from Hollywood, and / or sex inside rubber suits.
Kind of says it all, really.
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Down the Rabbit Hole:
Godzilla is a monster originating from a series of Japanese films of the same name. The character first appeared in Ishirō Honda's 1954 film Godzilla and became a worldwide pop culture icon, appearing in various media, including 32 films produced by Toho, three Hollywood films and numerous video games, novels, comic books and television shows. It is dubbed the King of the Monsters, a phrase first used in Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the Americanized version of the original film.
Looks like we’ll see three classic kaiju in addition to Gojira himself:
Mothra (モスラ Mosura) is a kaiju that first appeared in Toho's 1961 film Mothra. She is typically portrayed as a colossal sentient larva (caterpillar) or imago (moth), accompanied by two miniature female humanoids speaking on her behalf. Mothra is a largely heroic character, having been variously portrayed as a protector.
Rodan (ラドン ) is a daikaiju monster which first appeared as the title character in Toho's 1956 film Rodan. Though the character started off in its own stand-alone film, Rodan was later featured in the Godzilla franchise.
Although King Ghidorah's design has remained largely consistent throughout its appearances (an armless, bipedal, golden-scaled, bat-winged dragon with three heads and two tails), its origin story has varied from being an extraterrestrial planet-killing dragon, a genetically engineered monster from the future, or a guardian monster of ancient Japan.
That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something. (And maybe watch a giant monster movie or three!)