Jul 15 2013 5:00pm

A Spotter’s Guide to Kaiju: Seven Predecessors of the Creatures in Pacific Rim


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.


Kaiju Godzilla

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.


Kaiju Spacegodzilla

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.


Kaiju Anguirus

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.


Kaiju Zigra

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.


Kaiju Gyaos

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.


Kaiju 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.


Kaiju Gigan

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.

David Moran is waiting patiently for Pacific Rim 2: Gipsy Danger vs. Gigan. Don’t let him down, del Toro. Sometimes he tweets things.

Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
As much as I hate everything about Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, I feel obligated to clarify for the readers' benefit that the above photo of SpaceGodzilla represents him after his giant pointy crystal shoulderpads have both been broken off by Godzilla. In his intact form, SpaceG looks like nothing so much as the love child of Godzilla and the Fortress of Solitude (Richard Donner-style).

It's interesting to compare the designs of Gamera-franchise monsters like Zigra and Gyaos to those of the Toho monsters. Gamera kaiju are more angular and stylized. Toho daikaiju generally aspire to a more naturalistic/animal look insofar as budget and technology allow, though Gigan is a clear exception. As is the guy on the far right in the top photo -- that's Megalon, right? (And the Ultraman wannabe on the far left is Jet Jaguar.)
Tim Callahan
2. TimCallahan
Yeah! This is the kind of post I've been waiting for after walking out into the sunlight following some Pacific Rim action!

The apocalypse? Cancelled.
David Moran
3. DavidMoran
1. ChristopherLBennett

Yeah, Daiei's creature designs are really weirdly stylized! As a child they always seemed much odder and weirder to me.

2. TimCallahan

Me too. My biggest complaint about the movie is I wanted some of the kaiju to have a little more screen time. They all got dispatched pretty quickly.
Alan Brown
4. AlanBrown
What about that giant turtle, Gamara, who could retract into his shell, light off jet engines, and spin into the air? I had a motorized model of him that would lurch across the floor on his two hind legs. The motor did a pretty good impression of a monster growl, too.
Bridget McGovern
5. BMcGovern
Alan Brown @4: I've had the ridiculous Mystery Science Theater Gamera song in my head ever since I read this post yesterday :)
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
Wait - how could you skip Mothra? Or Rhodan? Skipping Batra I can understand....
Sean Dowell
8. qbe_64
Gamara was my nickname for my daughter when she was a baby. Because she distinctly resembled a turtle and was a complete monster for the first year of her life.
9. Igorlex
Where are the Angels?????
10. Igorlex
And I know this is a post dedicated to the studio, but ... this could have been a much more comprehensive post about 'kaiju'...
Caleb Huitt
11. cjhuitt
Hey! Nobody better steal my idea for nuclear-powered gyaos -- the idiot-proof version, of course.
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
Gamera was my first introduction to kaiju.
David Moran
14. DavidMoran
4. AlanBrown

I feel like talking about Gamera, the weirdest, creepiest thing about him isn't even about him really, it's about how there's always that one kid with him in short pants, so I kind of wanted to elide the subject altogether. Same reason I didn't include Minya, though he's more horrifying than anything on this list.

6. RobMRobM

I kind of wanted to skip the bigger name kaiju, because the really really weird monsters are the ones that flipped my switches as a kid. Godzilla's there because ... you kind of can't talk kaiju without him.
David Moran
15. DavidMoran
5. BMcGovern

Same here, only I was grooving on the song they made up about Jet Jaguar.

10. Igorlex

Wait, what are the angels?
David Moran
16. DavidMoran
11. cjhuitt

Two words: Chernobyl Gyaos

13. mordicai

Oh man, it never really occurred to me, but yeah! He's totally a hook horror!
Mordicai Knode
17. mordicai
14. fordmadoxfraud

I thought for sure Minya would be on here, & was bracing myself for it.
David Moran
18. DavidMoran
17. mordicai

I started to write up a minya section, but then realized I didn't want to go there.
Matthew Abel
21. MatthewAbel
Godzilla vs. Megalon was a terrible, terrible movie. The only picture that comes to mind as worse is vs. The Sea Monster (Ebirah). Bless you for not including Minya. His first outing was okay, but that one where it's him and the bullied kid left me cold. Give me vs. Mechagodzilla or Destroy All Monsters any day!

I was a huge Godzilla fanboy and had every movie on VHS through Godzilla 2000 (even Raids Again - a curious case of the box calling it Raids Again, but the actual video with the 'original-to-the-US' title Gigantis). At that point, the VCR stopped working and it was very depressing.

I really enjoyed the last Toho Godzilla picture - was that Giant All Out Monsters Attack? or something like that? The one with the big caucasian mustachioed badass. That movie was perfect in every way.
Christopher Bennett
22. ChristopherLBennett
^No, Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (or GMK) was three films prior. The final Toho film to date was Godzilla: Final Wars.
23. Clay C
Super7 in SF used to sell (maybe still does) tees & hoodies with dozens of the kaiju, in silhouette only -- I always knew I'd found another fanboy whenever someone would walk up, point, and ask: "Is that King Ghidorah?" If you're a kaiju fan, this is me urging you to buy from and support Super 7 -- It's one of the very few US-based brick & mortar 'homes' for kaiju fandom. They're on line too, of course. (No connection, just a fan.)
Some of my personal faves were Matango (mushroom critter), Biollante (flower) and Kanegon (because I loved the pure random absurdity of a giant monster arising from a coin purse, and that zipper mouth). I'll admit it ... I never loved the movies or Ultraman series, though -- What floated my boat were the vinyl toys (which are still being made and sprayed in endless variety. See for that ... ummmm ... unique community.). New kaiju are still being created, a personal fave among those is Blobpus' Dokugan (Matango-esque head, one large eye, Hedorah-ish body).

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