The dark eyes. The jagged dorsal fins. The dark green scales and gigantic tail. The building-shaking roar. All of these features define the world-famous Godzilla.
The Japanese term kaiju—meaning “strange beast,” or monster—has become synonymous with the famed fictional monstrosity, as his five decades in the spotlight have drawn legions of fans around the world and demonstrated his supernatural staying power.
Godzilla, though, is certainly not the only kaiju in existence. His world is populated with friends and foes, such as the butterfly-shaped Mothra and three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, both of whom he alternately battles and befriends in the near thirty Godzilla movies.
Godzilla is also not simply a kaiju, but a warning. The original 1954 picture explored the impact of nuclear radiation on the world, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fresh in the world’s collective unconscious.
At its worst, the series is nothing more than two men in costumes fighting on a set, but at its best it’s an exploration of the dangers of toxic pollution, atomic arms proliferation and the dangers of political corruption. Godzilla is also a symbol for all that could go wrong with society, a strong point of morality, drawing attention to the potential dangers of unknown and unchecked technology.
This complex tapestry of intentions and symbols is discussed in Killer Kaiju Monsters: Strange Beasts of Japanese Films, a collection of pictorial essays and profiles on the monsters, as well as the culture surrounding them, curated by Ivan Vartanian, who explains in his introduction that Godzilla and his brethren are much more than just actors play-fighting for the cameras. They stand for a lot more, and have many co-existing facets of reality and fantasy.
Vartanian’s love letter to these Japanese beasts starts off on an interesting note: the first few pages are an exercise in crafts, as the book’s thick paper folds out and implores the reader to “cut along the edges” in order to bend and fold the remaining pieces to make our own kaiju. An interesting touch, but to someone who is not accustomed to destroying property, it came as a welcome surprise, an act akin to Godzilla using his mighty tail to knock over a series of skyscrapers.
The rest of the first half of the book is a summary of all of the major monsters throughout the Godzilla franchise’s three major eras. There are several pages dedicated to the monster’s abilities, as well as some stills from some of the series’ entries, demonstrating their prowess at combating each other and blowing Tokyo up.
The strongest point of the book is its strong visual sense, especially in its second half. Several artists have conceived various new kaiju, with several pages dedicated to creations by some of Japan’s greatest pop artists of the latter half of the 20th century, laid out in an interesting and sensible style.
Vartanian also explores the fact that kaiju have become so popular that toy spin-off/knock-offs permeate the entire culture, showing several pages of toys based around the concept of these giant creatures, as well as the concept of cut drawing, an art style integral to the kaiju culture since its inception.
Although the first portion of the book discusses the mundane features of each kaiju—weight and flight speed are some of the highlights—the second half feels rushed and incomplete, as though it were simply a sampling of some of the soft vinyl toys one can purchase. True specifics on, say, production lines are not discussed, though a few pages on the different intersecting artistic motifs present in the genre are included.
A primer in a fascinating culture moreso than a tome of record, Killer Kaiju Monsters is ideal for those interested in getting familiar with the giant Asian monsters, though not for those who have more than a passing knowledge of the different physical incarnations of the Godzilla costume.
Killer Kaiju Monsters: Strange Beasts of Japanese Films
Ed. Ivan Vartanian
144 pp $27.99
This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 05, published September 14, 2010.