Pacific Rim is out, and is being popularly hailed as Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to the giant monster (“kaiju”) movies of his youth—for that reason alone everybody everywhere should salute Mr. del Toro.
Let’s talk about the subjects of del Toro’s love letter. But let’s establish some ground rules too, because otherwise we’ll be here all day and I have some movies to watch. I’ll limit myself to kaiju that 1) have appeared in a live action motion picture (kaiju on TV are cool, but the big screen is where they are, well, the biggest), 2) are not just large but insanely larger than normal human scale (a great white shark is not a kaiju, a mega shark maybe is), and 3) that pose an existential threat on at least a citywide scale (King Kong might mess up 5th Avenue a little, but he’s not going to destroy New York City). Yes, this disqualifies from consideration Ultraman and his kaiju of the week, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Kroll, the housecat and spider from The Incredible Shrinking Man, and almost any bad guy from either Voltron series, but all are worthy entries.
Giant lizard, breathes fire, atomic-age anxiety, etc., etc. You got this. Depending on your criteria, Godzilla isn’t the first kaiju, but Big G is arguably the progenitor of a unique meme that allows every other monster on this list to exist. His place in history is more than “giant monster vs. humanity”; that had been done before. Watching the Japanese army pull out all the stops to halt the creature’s devastation in the 1954 Godzilla is great—if you like your monster movies really somber and sad—but it’s not until the year after, with Godzilla Raids Again, that the film studio hit upon a winning idea:
What if, instead of the army, the giant monster fought... another giant monster?
From that point on, we, as a moviegoing civilization, were off to the races.
Yeah, Spacegodzilla. If you think that’s a bit unoriginal, or too silly, you might want to take a second to brace yourself for the rest of this post. Spacegodzilla is a Jolly-Rancher-colored Godzilla with a yellow mohawk and huge lava lamps growing out of his shoulders for reasons that no doubt made perfect sense to the screenwriter of Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla. In the storied tradition of evil Kirk, evil Spock, evil Abed, and evil David Hasslehoff, Spacegodzilla is Godzilla’s weird evil doppelganger. The only thing he’s missing is the evil goatee.
Supposedly a mutated ankylosaurus, Anguirus is a spiky, shelled quadruped with a long spiny tail. It looks less like a dinosaur and more like a hedgehog who spends too much time at the gym. But also a lot like a guy in a rubber suit on all fours. Anguirus has the distinction of being the first monster to fight Godzilla in a movie, though not the first monster to get equal billing with Godzilla. That didn’t happen until 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, which leads me to think Anguirus needed a better agent.
He’s also the first in a long tradition of formerly evil kaiju who show up in subsequent movies as good guys, which suggests Pacific Rim 2 will be all about giant mecha and the kaiju from the first film teaming up to facepunch some much, much bigger kaiju. Possibly a space lobster.
Zigra is a huge, armored, occasionally bipedal... goblin shark maybe? With razor fins and a squid beak. Probably the most horrifying thing about Zigra is that, unlike most kaiju, which are basically big animals, Zigra is as intelligent as any sentient humanoid, and is capable of speech. To be fair, he sounds like he’s doing a bad impression of the Christian Bale Batman, and he speaks mostly in long, exposition-laden monologues, but it’s still frightening.
Gyaos isn’t one kaiju but a race of asexually reproducing, blood-drinking bat-pterodactyls created by Atlantean scientists to “control pollution.” I don’t know how these things were supposed to address the environmental issues facing Atlantis, but I’m sure the Atlanteans had their reasons. Unfortunately, the gyaos rampaged out of control and destroyed Atlantis and everyone in it, which, yeah, they probably should have seen that one coming. It really shows that you need to work up to big changes in your civil infrastructure slowly and carefully. Start with an aggressive recycling campaign, maybe mandatory composting, and see how that pans out before jumping straight to the “giant evil monster” plan.
See also: Super Gyaos, Space Gyaos, Hyper Gyaos, Clean Burning Coal Gyaos.
6. KING GHIDORAH
King Ghidorah, an armless, three-headed dragon with two tails, is maybe the most iconic of kaiju villains, and the only one to routinely beat the stuffing out of Godzilla. Ghidorah shows up on Earth as the vanguard of an alien race in their plan to unilaterally claim ownership of Earth’s water. No one wants him to take the water, of course, but remember that he is King Ghidorah, and not Democratically Elected Ghidorah. Which, I suppose, makes Godzilla George Washington?
As far as kaiju plots go, “water war with giant monsters” seems to be the most eerily plausible of the bunch, and I’d be a little shocked if this wasn’t already on the drawing board in someone’s office at Halliburton.
Stop for a minute and imagine this creature-design meeting. First designer: “Hmm, let’s start with a crap ton of gold leaf, some monster knee-pads and bright red wraparound sunglasses, then hooks everywhere—hooks on his head, hooks for hands, hook feet, just go nuts—and to pull the whole thing together: a retiree’s spare tire with a buzz saw sticking out of it.” Second designer: “Instant classic.”
Gigan doesn’t really have a backstory other than being “from space”; in Godzilla vs. Megalon when Megalon’s alien masters want another monster for backup, they call different aliens, on the telephone, and say, “Hey, can we borrow Gigan?” Which, sure, what’s a giant monster between friends. Aside from that, Gigan is a hilarious kaiju scumbag. He’s kind of mean and petty and a bully, and in two movies when he teams up with Ghidorah and Megalon against Godzilla, as soon as things start going badly for him, Gigan straight up bails on his partner, just Irish exits up into the sky.