Monday, May 31, 2010

Obscure Pop Culture Obsessions: The Strange Beast That is "Kaiju"

By Scott Tre

I have a thing for obscure pop culture artifacts, especially when it comes to genre films. I'm a sucker for anything that contains some combination of action, visual FX, graphic violence and outlandish storytelling. The less people that know about it, the better. I'm afflicted with the typical fanboy disdain for anything too mainstream.  It's fun to be ahead of the pop culture curve, or to be privy to info that is valued by a select few.

My hunger for all things rare and obscure has recently manifested itself in a weird obsession: Japanese "Kaiju" films.  For the uninitiated, the term Kaiju refers to a very specific type of effects driven film that features giant monsters fighting each other and laying waste to entire cities.  The word itself translates to "Strange Beast".   I've never been interested in the genre outside of a casual infatuation with Godzilla movies as a boy (I remember being profoundly disturbed after watching Godzilla vs. Hedorah when I was seven).

That infatuation resurfaced when the American Godzilla film was released in 1998. The genre always required too much of a suspension of disbelief for me. That may sound funny coming from a casual Chopsocky connoisseur such as myself, but no one ever accused me of being consistent. Kaiju films focus on large scale destruction and as a result are dependent on visual FX in a way that martial arts films are not. After a while, the charm of guys in rubber suits laying waste to scale models kind of wears off.

Still, I feel an odd sort of  kinship to those who are enamored with things that the general population would balk at. That kinship prevents me from looking down my nose at other nerds. It takes a certain level of courage to indulge an enthusiasm that seems strange to outsiders. We are all part of a special fraternity that can see depth and worth in the most seemingly ridiculous and unlikely specimens. That should be celebrated.

Since my sudden and inexplicable curiosity about Kaiju had to be satiated, I began to seek out the cream of the crop. Due to my ignorance of the genre, I was tempted to go back to the dependable Godzilla films of my youth. Feeling that to be too predictable and easy, I figured there had to be something that those in "the know" considered to be superior. What is considered to be the Citizen Kane of Kaiju? My search for a better made alternative to Godzilla lead me to a certain flying turtle.

I had heard of Gamera sometime in the 1990's.  Roger Ebert's  3.5 star review of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe stands out in my mind. I've had an affinity for turtles that goes back to my teenage years. I Never had one as a pet, but something about their slow and steady nature appealed to my sympathies. I once saw the remains of turtle trying to cross the road in my subdivision in Lithonia, Georgia. His shell had been split down the middle by the tire of a car. I spent all day at school feeling sorry for the poor guy. Even if he saw the car coming, what could he do?

Aside from appealing to my sappy nature, I always liked the novelty of being born with your own body armor. Has a more convenient defense mechanism ever been devised? A peaceful creature with the innate ability to protect itself from damage.  What could be more worthy of my fascination? Since Gamera is a giant city trashing bad ass instead of  a passive reptile, that only added to his appeal. As my shallow pool of choices revolved around him, Godzilla and Ultraman, I decided on the flying turtle.

I knew next to nothing about him, so I decided to go with Roger Ebert's recommendation and check out Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.  The 1995 film was a reboot of the by then 30 year old franchise as well as the first film in a trilogy.  My first viewing of the film was sort of a superficial once over.  I just wanted to get the general feel for these types of films, especially the modern ones.  My knowledge of them is mostly limited to the grainy, badly dubbed pan and scan versions that aired on WWOR channel 9 in New York during the 80's.

What I saw was uniquely 90's in it's own way.  It features opening passages that are reminiscent of Spielberg's Jurassic Park, as well as flying Pterodactyl creatures who are the villains of the piece.  The are called Gyao.  They were created ten thousand years ago for the purposes of combating pollution.  When they began feeding on human flesh, the Gameras were created to contain them.  Once the Gyao were forced into hibernation, the last Gamera remained dormant until they were needed.  10,000 years pass, and the Gyao launch an attack on modern day Tokyo.  Gamera appears to deal with the threat.  The story contains lots of sci-fi and fantasy elements, as well as the expected giant monster battles.  Much of this feels very random and bizarre, yet I feel compelled to finish out the trilogy and seek out more Kaiju films.

Like classic Chopsockies, Kaiju exists in it's own unique universe.  The laws of that universe are governed more by cultural differences and questionable production values than by reality.  I'd like to think that the special effects come out of a stubborn adherence to tradition as opposed to budgetary constraints.  Maybe the makers and fans of these films don't want the best CGI money can buy, or even the best practical effects.  Perhaps their appeal doesn't lie in the tech on display, as the appeal of old school martial arts films does not lie in the acting or writing.

Either way I am enthused.  It gives me another weird cinematic world to explore, one that I am sure is abundant in hidden gems and the occasional good or even great movie.  I'd like to raise my glass to all of the Kaiju fans of the world, as well as the makers of the films themselves.  Continue feeding the imaginations of kids young and old.  Giant mutated dinosaurs and jet propelled turtles are what make childhood worth enduring.

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