Sunday, October 27, 2013

PACIFIC RIM & the potential rise of the new "Kaiju" film (by Evan Brehany)

When writing about the kaiju genre, the line between "what is" and "what isn't" is controversially quantified. The line that this article will abide by is that a "kaiju" is a monster that is at least 25 meters tall(82 feet), looks like something that could be played by someone in a suit, looks more surreal than realistic and is based on animals or something randomly out of left field. Kaiju, when literally translated means "mysterious beast" rather than monster. It follows an aesthetic created by the Japanese but doesn't necessarily have to take place in Japan or have Japanese characters.

In 2004-2005 we saw the death of the kaiju film in its home country(Japan). In recent and previous years (particularly the late 90's) the decline of the "kaiju" film had already begun.  On one hand, Shusuke Kaneko predated Christopher Nolan by resurrecting a pop culture icon with films whose quality juxtapose greatly with what came before. At the same time, the long "in progress" American Godzilla film premiered(in May,1998) - an event which greatly disappointed fans, Godzilla was made into a generic giant monster ripped of its kaiju being and the qualities unique to the Godzilla character. All charm was lost. Meanwhile, Toho tried to resurrect Godzilla with more of their own films featuring the iconic monster, these movies theatrically released from 1999-2004. Tomoyuki Tanaka had passed away, leaving Shogo Tomiyama to become the producer of Toho's Godzilla films.

Shogo Tomiyama is a producer who seems sketchy. In the documentary BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE, Tomiyama claims that he tries to emphasize a "sense of wonder" with Godzilla films. Sadly and elsewhere, Tomiyama exhibits that this sense of wonder is something Tomiyama associates only in the image and not the screenplay. An article from the magazine Oriental Cinema mentions in their review for GODZILLA 2000(1999): "According to a Japanese talk show, Tomiyama agrees that the human subplots shouldn't propel the main story of any Godzilla films." Tomiyama's misunderstanding continued on when commenting on 2001's GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL 
OUT ATTACK's success being more so than 2002's GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA.

Shogo Tomiyama said:

"Not as well as GODZILLA-MOTHRA-KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK but better than GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS. I think, as in the case of GMK, last year's box office success was partly owed to the animated co-feature HAMTARO (Tottoko Hamutaro). But as a producer, I seriously tried to find any specific reason why GMK had been more profitable than GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA."

GMK was almost the last Godzilla film of the Millenninum series. Toho brought Shusuke Kaneko in to direct a Godzilla film many say is the best since the 80's and arguably since the "Showa" series(1954-1975). Shogo Tomiyama is a producer who lacks an artistic viewpoint that balances out the business side of his thinking.

For the rest of the Godzilla series, Shogo Tomiyama brought back a director who had failed with GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS, Masaaki Tezuka, who fortunately made two good Godzilla films but followed up by hiring Ryuhei Kitamura in a career-killing move to make GODZILLA: FINAL WARS(2004) - in the 2004 film there was far more emphasis on human fighting instead of the kaiju combat. While Kitamura's film was an aesthetic failure (on an anniversary year no less), Tezuka's attempts were out-shined by Hollywood productions. With GODZILLA, MOTHRA, MECHAGODZILLA: TOKYO SOS(2003), box office attendance was scant considering that at the same time Japan had American import films THE LAST SAMURAI and FINDING NEMO for the choosing.

It's a near paradox. Godzilla films have become entertainment without much of a social message while maintaining the heritage of suit use(suit-mation), this despite heavy use of CGI(computer generated imagery) beginning with GAMERA 3 - THE INCOMPLETE STRUGGLE(1999). Problem is miniature effects alienate a lot of people, the very same folks who lack suspension of disbelief. It;s a reason Chinese films don't compare to American films at the box office. Shogo Tomiyama once said in a HenshinOnline interview that Godzilla films are meant to be "entertainment, not political movies", something which has always been a backbone to give kaiju films substance to counterbalance the aesthetic-specific special effects.

After GODZILLA:FINAL WARS, the kaiju genre quickly took a turn for the satirical.  ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT is a kaiju movie that has been able to survive because it managed to attract an audience through television when not on the big screen. Ultraman was the only real winner here with the
perpetual popularity of the various "Ultraman" television shows being a main reason. If the kaiju genre was going to make a comeback, it was going to have to be through something gargantuan.

That comeback did indeed come and some might say from "left field". Many people had their doubts but despite the overall disappointment with the '98 American Godzilla film, the kaiju movie genre is on the rise again! The beginning of this genre revival began with CLOVERFIELD, released to theaters in January, 2008.  This movie, which utilizes a "shaky-cam"(point of view) aesthetic for realism, is a film that knows its heritage with the back story of the the Tagurato oil rig, an Ifukube-esque end theme, and a manga pseudo-sequel. Five years later, and it's been a long five years... PACIFIC RIM(2013) and Legendary Picture's GODZILLA(2014) is here! This is where, when speaking about terms of heritage, PACIFIC RIM fits into the scheme of things.

The beginning of PACIFIC RIM is not unlike what you might see in CLOVERFIELD aesthetically speaking. Ultimately we get a kaiju film which reveals to us the kaiju head on and brings us into the inner world of the film not by movies like Kiyotaka Taguchi's GEHARA and GUILALA'S COUNTERATTACK, seemingly taking note from the slasher genre from a decade ago, and went metaphysical - self aware - with its substance. It was outweighed by films like GAMERA: LITTLE BRAVES(2006), a movie which failed at the box office. THE HOST(2006), from Korea, not so much.

PACIFIC RIM has focused the kaiju "reality" very nicely. It's the film's ace card. The question of kaiju remains has been answered, with architecture centered around kaiju bones which echo the modernist building structures around trees. It also has an answer in a kaiju black market, which parallel's China's very real black market for endangered animal parts which have scientifically questionable effects on one's physiology. The question of kaiju motivation is also answered, though in a simplistic: I', referring to the film GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO(1965) which features potentially world conquering aliens (though with PACIFIC RIM the issue of timing is answered by global warming a la GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH(1971) and completely different than 2001's YONGGARY).

The "Jaeger" program's rise and fall play's into the question of kaiju evolution, a first. Somewhat detailed kaiju physiology and anatomy is also here (with a brain explanation showing that, like Godzilla or Rodan, the main source of inspiration for these kaiju are the dinosaurs). The brief mention of kaiju cults is much like an indirect reference to readings of kaiju by people like Norio Akasaka who saw Godzilla as "a representation of the spirit of soldiers who died in the South Pacific", though Pacific Rim has it simpler.

The Jaeger program has it all. Though reminiscent of Gundam G in how the mecha work, the process is a constant source of drama for the movie's characters that, while relatable, is fiction enough to make it fantastic. The use of the mecha, and the appearance of a Mecha toy is indicative of a cultural context. In the very quick prologue of the film, we already see the national pride that the Jaegers are cloaked in with images of a child waving a flag in front of a Jaeger and a parade of soldiers in a Jaeger exhibition. At the final scene of the film, in Anchorage, Del Toro makes a visual allusion: a tin toy robot. Tin toy robots, some of the oldest Japanese pop culture toys, were tin icons. Japan took over the industry, taking what was originally a Nazi-era German product (nice, considering the Jaegers have a German name) that Japan ended up making their own to the point that they became the toy making capitol of the world, a title they still own. The mecha-pride doesn't stop there.

The fact that there is a good Japanese connection to the film means that the following shouldn't be taken with a grain of salt. Consider that "Mako Mori", the most important female character of the film, was very young when she lost her parents to a kaiju attack and was almost killed specifically by a Ganimes-like kaiju. Consider that she was very young at the time she lost her parents(and the majority of the film takes place in 2025) and it is easy to see that Japan was one of the first countries attacked by Kaiju. In a country whose atomic tragedies have made it a post-apocalyptic country, a kaiju attack is almost a repeat of such. Where as Mako's character makes an interesting comparison for "Ayana" in GAMERA 3, Japan's history (as shown in the film) is not unlike an almost re=staging of Godzilla. Very much a metaphor which could be applied to Mechagodzilla, the Jaegers(kaiju sized robots) are not just the only thing which can handle the kaiju physically but it almost beckons of WW2 and post-WW2 sentiments. As mentioned by Crispin Freeman in ANIME: DRAWING A REVOLUTION, robots in Japanese culture have taken on an almost divine status, the physical embodiment of science getting humans closer to the celestial, almost embodying a kami sentient being for Japan. Mecha like Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor) evolved out of this notion. This is the role that a Jaeger might take for a character like Mako. The physical aesthetics of the Jaeger, particularly "Gypsy Danger", could be seen as a point against this, but Mako riding Gypsy Danger goes more to the sense of teamwork that the countries that share the Pacific Rim have undertaken.

The physicality of the kaiju is what makes the film the most legitimate as kaiju film. As director Guillermo Del Toro has said in interviews, the kaiju were designed with one (of many) factors in place: the kaiju had to look as if they could have been alternatively played by a man in a suit. Not only that, but a good bunch of the Pacific Rim kaiju resemble kaiju we know and love. "Knifehead" looks like Guiron, "Otachi" looks like Gyaos, "Leatherback" looks like King Kong, and "Scunner" looks like Destoroyah (in the head). Alas, unlike the Godzilla from 1998 or even the "Cloverfield" monster, these kaiju take attacks head on and are more aggressive than any animal you have seen. There are energy attacks utilized as well as chemical(beam) attacks which I think all kaiju should possess.

The heart of the kaiju though is the question of what kind of place the kaiju hold in nature. In a move which kaiju fans (particularly ones who grew up with the kaiju eiga of the 80's-90's) would undoubtedly like, Jaeger pilot "Raleigh Becket" describes the kaiju in this narration, "There are things you can't fight - acts of God. You see a hurricane coming, you get out of the way. But when you're in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win."

The kaiju are a force of nature, reinforced with the use of the anti-kaiju wall. Are the kaiju a force of nature? If the answer is yes, then wouldn't they have to be naturally occurring? Indeed, foreign life forms (in this case, extraterrestrial life forms) taking over an ecosystem for their own use is natural. It's gargantuan in magnitude as an example of competition but considering that the kaiju are actually genetically engineered by an intelligent cause (other than man no less), are they really a part of nature? Is it the new phase of resource competition or something else? Looking back on the "Heisei" Godzilla films(1984-1995) where Godzilla was a force of nature, the fact that instead of being awakened he was resurrected makes us again question such a dichotomy, a need to define or redefine "force of nature" considering the kaiju coming from a non-natural occurrence. This is what the "Jaegers" are actually fighting against and these two backgrounds are what make PACIFIC RIM a good piece of dialectic film making, a movie that interacts with film heritage.


Evan Brehany is a resident of Warner Robins, GA and is an active member of two internet message boards: KAIJU GALAXY and MONSTERLAND FORUMS. Evan is a regular contributor for "Packmule's Pen" and his reviews and other written submissions will appear in this blog from time to time.