For those of us constantly rummaging around the subgenres looking for inspiration and just plain fun Horror, there is a “new” discovery to be made. It is called Kaiju and it comes at us – like all good monsters – from several directions at once: graphic novels, comic books, classic science fiction, classic Horror, and black and white cinema… most obviously from scarier minds in Japan.
The really great thing is: you probably already know it and love it… because especially for Horror fans in the West, the newest thing about Kaiju is its name.
Love Me, Love My Monster
We’re talking big monsters... Really big. This is Kaiju…
And while if you are a Lovecraft fan, such monsters are already part of your Horror bestiary as part of Weird Fiction, many of us have left them snugly contained within the Lovecraft mythos, and the dusty black and white and colorized Cinema Scope corners of early science fiction cinema.
Therefore, even as we of the Horror genre love them, we’ve also been conditioned to consider giant monsters “done” – as in someone already thought of that… But like all great concepts, what we need to rebel against is the editorial mindset that says exactly that…
Because while the wielding of giant, towering monsters may have been done, it hasn’t all been done… There is plenty of room in our Horror landscape for many more great monsters, for other mythos catalogs… and for ever more apocalyptic destruction of the human ego.
It has been graphic novelists and comic book folk who have led the way in this giant monster revelation. And it is them we should thank heartily; because big monsters are back. And they are awesome.
Says Robert Hood in his introduction to The Mammoth Book of Kaiju, there is just “something cathartic about watching giant monsters trash cities.” And he could not be more correct… especially now in our world with so much human arrogance on display. At a time when so many of us are being victimized by the very things that were supposed to liberate us from poverty, ignorance, and isolation, we find ourselves feeling as helpless as teeny tiny people fleeing nuclear-mutated monsters on the beach – with about as bleak-appearing future.
Under those circumstances, it is hard to not root for the monster… who is always both us and our fears.
Never mind the Literary insinuations here, the associations with certain world leaders and their bull-dozing opinions, the metaphor of technology versus the little guy, the absolute sense of loss of control that haunts and torments our daily lives whether we live in a war zone or suburbia.
With giant monsters, our familiar problems are minimized, and our humanity is a thing to be found in common. Here we can give ourselves permission to cheer on a Russian pilot or an American capitalist, to fear for a Japanese boy or a boatload of immigrants caught between the monster-filled deep oceans (with a nod to Freud) and New York harbor or downtown Tokyo.
Yet we can also subversively love the monster… a thing we ultimately discover we created… and which has come for justice.
And it has been coming for us in cinema since at least 1925, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and in modern Literature since at least 1870 with Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and yet again in ancient storytelling since The Epic of Gilgamesh emerged from Mesopotamia in 2100 BCE…(Hood 6-9)
Clearly humanity has had justice – if not deep psychological issues – for a long, long time. And we have learned to savor the moments when it all comes messily together.
For example, most of us have wonderfully fond memories of the first time we saw Godzilla trample Tokyo. But other than adjectives like “fabulous,” “terrifying,” and the “unstoppable titan of terror”… for a long time we didn’t have any terminology for it.
Part of this has to do with our own isolationism in the West, and part of it has to do with our level of interest. We had already half-way consigned big monsters and their outdated atomic connections to yesteryear, when suddenly everything “retro” was in – and the more vintage, the better: all of the old B-movies laced with drama and an older idea of terror was suddenly back in style.
With technology and the Nerd Boom came the resuscitation of old kitschy pleasures made more “cool” by computer imaging and more impressive by the achievements of those working with a lot less available, while simultaneously harder to finesse and more creatively achieved special effects. Suddenly we gained a more generic interest in film history and trivia. We took note of the use of lighting and hard-won effects, of actors and locations, of directors and producers.
We have to admit we love them – the monsters, their makers, the actors and the effects – so we fell in love anew.
As Science Fiction and Fantasy received the bulk of the breath of new life and new interest, we started developing a passion in becoming nerdishly authoritative in certain histories. How genres have evolved and who contributed what to the evolution has become a niche hobby.
Bit by bit, even in Horror we have all started wanting to know the histories of genre writing, and we now actually read those boring forwards, introductions, and afterward essays that we used to rip past in our rush to scare ourselves. We are no longer satisfied to hear someone just say something about a canon work or a writer: we want more – we want to be experts ourselves.
And even more significantly, for perhaps the first time in its history, Pulp fiction is no longer disposable fiction…It has a place in our momentum and our hearts. We are digging through old boxes and collections, looking for the stuff most of us threw away and a few had the love and foresight to horde in dark, forgotten places. A whole cadre of private collectors has arisen to catalog the works no one thought held any significance.
And we are finding that all work – even genre work – has significance.
The current gap in Literary Criticism and modern works has opened another unexpected door: through our passion and our own connecting of Pulp works with the evolution of genre Literature, we are legitimizing ALL of the work that has gone before.
While Critics are collecting their theories and thoughts, writers and lovers of writing are gathering their stockpiles of early works, creating more…building a legacy.
So much of this starts with giant monsters – with Kaiju. Because it was film and comics that opened that so-important door.
This almost-academic interest is a sea change in fandom. And it means that it’s not just editors who know stuff, or share stuff, or defend stuff.
Led by the example of rabid film buffs and hardcore comic and kaiju fans, more and more of us who roam the fiction genre landscape are wanting details too often referred to and seldom explained. There is a demand for genre history, an actual interest in the history of fiction writing, in the biographies of writers and the publications they appeared in.
It’s been a great time for genre fiction and genre film.
Because it is precisely this passion that is also laying the fabulous groundwork for genre folk to become part of Literary-type discussions. It is subjects like Kaiju that are teaching us that there is a lot more to genre than the Ivory Towers have both believed and inferred. And maybe – just maybe – this lays even more groundwork for the legitimizing of genre as Literature…
While Science Fiction and Fantasy have enjoyed greater academic respect than Horror fiction, in our genre we are well aware of the constant cross-pollination of SF&F into our works, and the constant muddying of the genre waters. Books and films like Alien, Jurassic Park, Jaws, and even Harry Potter are the most easily seen as being both or either genres.
So it is easier to see where Kaiju shares Horror elements, and could have been originated as Horror…large crowds screaming in terror, monsters snacking on slower humans, the insinuation that we ourselves – like Frankenstein’s monster – created the problem, all contribute to the embrace of big monsters by Horror fans.
The flames are further fanned by the reality that with less Horror finding publication, our fanbase is looking around for something else to read, to embrace. The current boom in comics and graphic novels means we – and our money O New York Publishing Machine – are drifting to these artistic offshoots. And we are liking what we are seeing.
This means that we are becoming closet Science Fiction and Fantasy fans, looking for the Horror. And we may well bring some of what we find back into the Horror genre – for good or ill.
But it also means that both traditional publishing and academics are going to have to start nailing down not only specifically what makes Horror “Horror” as a genre, but why it is important that we look individually at works to allow them into our canon, and not classify authors.
And somebody out there is going to have to admit that Horror is NOT dead, many of its fans do NOT age-out of the genre, and writers are STILL writing it despite the lack of markets and a certain amount of commercial judging.
While for writers it often feels more like American Idol than simple submission of our work, it only proves that the genre is changing faster than its editors and publications can keep up.
And that is another reason we who write Horror need to take a page from our brethren and sistren in the comics and graphic novel independent publishing industry… Just sayin’…
So let’s take a closer look at what has caught our genre fancy. And just as in the best of Horror, we are going to Mammoth Books to learn about it… specifically to the introduction once again by Robert Hood:
“Kaiju is “a Japanese term that has been little known in the West except among aficionados of a particular tradition of monster cinema” until rather recently…” The word means ‘monster” or ‘giant monster’(although more accurately it translates as ‘strange creature’) and the cinematic tradition such monsters spawned is called kaiju eiga (monster film)…”
Now whether you liked or despised films like Monster, Pacific Rim, Cloverfield, or The Happening… You have been witnessing a Second Migration of Kaiju from graphic novels and comics to the Big Screen. And as a Horror fan used to the disappointment of Hollywood’s “scariest ever” promises, you probably saw them.
But you may also have fallen under their spell. As Horror fans, we have also become conditioned to love concept… accepting without question that Horror often loses its scary both in plot and in acting. Horror fans have learned to be somewhat satisfied with the very idea as opposed to craft in the telling.
It’s why we as a genre have split into two camps – the Literary, often too-dull ones, and the Pulp ones, who are all about concept and attempted delivery of same.
This means we excuse the epic fails, and still love the monsters. Like the ones IN Monsters… an otherwise odd, schizophrenic war film with really awesome, totally wasted monsters…
It’s because we see the potential. We take the monster and let him (or her) run loose in the dark of our imaginations. It’s kind of the adult version of kid’s picture books like My Monster Mama Loves Me So, The Monster Under the Bed and Creepy Monsters, Sleepy Monsters… something graphic novel and comic book fans learned long ago. Monsters are all about concept… which Godzilla already taught most of us.
It just doesn’t matter that there is little Kaiju fiction out there…
As Jeremy Robinson says in the foreward of Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters, “Between 1999 and 2012, there wasn’t a single noteworthy Kaiju novel published…Kaiju as a genre, has been largely ignored by the publishing world. But thanks to technological advances in publishing, small presses and self-publishers now have the ability to tackle subgenres considered too risky by large publishers. Unfortunately the genre (as of writing this foreward), is still largely represented in popular fiction by [the Godzilla novels published in the 1990’s and] Project Nemesis and its sequel Project Maigo [by Robinson himself]…” (xii)
Yet the rise in independent presses and self-publishing and small presses has been exactly what has led to the “boom” in pop culture items such as graphic novels and comics. And while they may not be the Big Houses of New York, they are prospering. And bringing Kaiju right along with them.
The success of Kaiju is propelled by magnificent art, universal concepts, and the extreme flexibility in the universe of monsters. Quite simply, there are no creative limits.
Continues Hood, “Kaiju origins are as diverse as imagination allows, from traditional nuclear mutation, through outer space and interdimensional invasion” (7)… (sound familiar? ) “to the incarnation of emotional and metaphysical states via the imagination of unsuspecting humans, often children” (7)… (both major conventions utilized quite successfully by both Lovecraft and Stephen King, thank you)….
In Kaiju, imagination is valued for its extremes. And that just equates to fun, and creative challenge. Kaiju easily represents the finger-painting of Horror subgenres. It is a fabulous and seductive starting point for any number of horrors…night terrors…bumps in the night. And it opens the door to Science Fiction elements that can enhance Horror and broaden our audience.
Here we see exactly why Horror fans are often Science Fiction fans. And we see how the which-is-the-real-subgenre argument got started.
Yet Kaiju also does something else: it provides a certain intimacy with the monster that we in Horror haven’t seen much of since Mary Shelleys’ Frankenstein, or Anne Rice’s hopelessly flawed and erotic vampires. Points out Hood, “They all have names” and histories, and a collectively human nemesis which “whatever the imagination can come up with is likely to be utilized at some point, whether or not it makes scientific, physical or economic sense.” (7)
As Horror fans, we are used to the inconsistencies. And we commonly excuse them to get to the Horror…It’s a kind of sacrifice we have come to accept that Hollywood expects us to make, and it may be why novice Horror writers are pre-programmed into bad habits in writing craft… then baffled as to why craft errors matter.
As Horror fans, we don’t care…as long as the monster itself is awesome, which is how we get back to the Japanese, Godzilla, and the uniquely imaginative beasts coming out of that country’s creative think tank. When our efforts fall short, when our story lines vacate the monster’s power, we return to Kaiju.
So while “Strictly speaking then, the term Kaiju refers to monsters [in a particular] Japanese tradition,” and one that is “characterized by a high level of absurdity…[wherein] monsters are much bigger than is physically viable [and] taken literally, the creatures are indeed impossible fantasies, despite the frequent science fiction trappings given them” (6), we easily translate them to contemporary world crises, to Western cities, to our own fears…
We have commandeered them for our own uses…Even as we continue to grow our appreciation and affection for the Japanese originals. So we keep going back to the oh-so-deep Japanese well; Kaiju is the DNA imprint for all monsters than came after Godzilla… it must be part of defining the future of all strange monsters.
“They come in all shapes and sizes” (6)… they traverse all manner of mental-emotional landscapes the way that Lovecraft’s monsters still do. The plot is only a vehicle for the monster… and we swoon as the Horror begins.
We cannot help ourselves. We come to adore our monsters the way we adore Tyrannosaurus Rex – completely checking out of the empathetic box for those who would be eaten. We see instead a reflection of ourselves… of justice come for those who have wronged us all…
That is the infrastructure that is the entire Horror genre: the contentious balance between good and evil, justice and revenge, morality and immorality. Perhaps as humans we long for that battle, for the resolution of judgment… for that parent to come home and administer the promised punishment to just get it over with. So we cheer on the monster. The monster is both us and our judge. Watching him stride across the wrecked landscape, stomping on skyscrapers is watching Dad pull into the driveway, Mom’s word’s echoing in our heads: “Just wait til your father comes home…”
It’s not like we in the Horror genre are unfamiliar…
But there is just something about Kaiju that continues to bring us back, to reel us in, to invade our subconscious like an interdimensional being asleep under the ocean, subtly manipulating our thoughts like Cthulhu…
Maybe it is Cthulhu…
After all, Kaiju has remained on the fringes of pop culture… Not quite fully let into genre fiction… Lost in its own kind of subconsciousness.
But I think this is changing. It has to. Genre fiction has hit a wall… Editors seeking to improve Literary standing have turned a blind eye to pulp, where the best in genre is incubated. New ideas are not as welcome as publishers claim, if only because everyone is perched too precariously on the edge of print extinction…
But that has left a lot of us out in the cold… And that in turn has weeded out our ranks into those who will “do or write anything to get published” and those who have decided that prostitution of the soul is not worth a few moments of fame.
It is the second group that is bathing in Kaiju, marinating imagination, exploring the importance of good concept and toying with more Literary execution…NOT because some editor somewhere wants to see it, but because WE as writers want the challenge of DOING it…
Monsters are pure drugs that shoot through us intravenously… lodging in that primal place where the best Horror comes from.
Embrace Kaiju as a Horror subgenre? How could we not?
It’s already living there, stomping on the skyscrapers of all things standing between hope and humanity. What is not to love?
What is not to learn? Welcome to the Horror genre, Kaiju masters…
For all that is yet to come!
Hood, Robert. Introduction. The Mammoth Books of Kaiju. Sean Wallace, ed. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2016.
Robinson, Jeremy. Foreward. Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters. Tim Marquitz and N.X. Sharps, Eds. Crestview Hills, KY: Ragnarok Publications, c2014.
3 thoughts on “Monster Love: Embracing Kaiju as a Horror Subgenre — Because How Can We Not?”
Reblogged this on The Cerebral Hedonist and commented:
A rumination on Kaiju that was much needed and much appreciated!!!
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Every time I settle in to read something on your blog, I get so jealous of how informed, well thought out, and well-researched everything is and it makes me want to read your fictional work that much more.
In regards to Kaiju, monsters of all scales have been my bread and butter. The fact that one can exist in the imagination that is so large that it defies human comprehension and perception makes me happiest and then there’s my babies Kaiju stomping the playground into mulch. God, I love monsters!
It makes me happy to see the popularity and resurgence of them in mainstream American culture. I’m one of the few probably who genuinely enjoyed Cloverfield and then Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim just for the monster designs. I was hoping the new Godzilla would offer more in the way of monster rather than human drama since that was not what it was about in Japan, at least not initially. The image of Godzilla tearing apart everything that Japan built was the human drama. But I think they missed that in the movie.
Anyway, kudos for this article. I love it when you write and I’ll be playing catch up on your blog for a bit! Keep it up! You’re my favorite writer!
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I find that having been tooling around the Horror genre for nigh on fifty years means there is a LOT of trivia in my head and a lot of curiosity as to why mainstream adult Horror seems to have high-centered. I do not believe that good Horror is not being written. I DO believe it may well not have a market willing to tolerate its avante garde risk taking authors…
I think our future lies in the path Manga is carving out. We have to stop thinking that traditional publishing is the only “respectable” publishing because at the end of the day, IF new Critics find it, they will study it and its place in the genre canon. So take THAT traditional publishing… The Horror Writer on the Street is going to continue to write… and we might just kick a few mainstream butts in the process…. But I also find that NO ONE in the genre seems to want to collect, examine, explain and explore all of the trends happening in Horror…just like no one ever explains much of anything all in one place. That’s how this blog came to be…I just couldn’t believe no one seemed to care about genre history happening now, so I started to dig…And that’s how I found YOUR amazing blog… So there!