Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

The (Allegorical) Kaiju are Coming: Some Thoughts on Pacific Rim

A story I once heard in a Japanese film seminar goes that there was a period, during the J-horror boom of the early 2000s, when Japanese movies were actually being re-made before they got made. Japanese producers, seeing how keen American movie studios were to sweep up the rights to movies like Ringu, Kairo, and Juon, decided to minimize their risks. Before projects were greenlighted at home, producers first put out feelers in  the U.S. to see if Hollywood studios would be interested in re-making their proposed movies. The ones that generated interest in a remake were a lot more likely to get made in the first place.

Japanese horror films are no longer as novel as they once were in the U.S., and domestically, Japanese movie theaters seem to have been taken over by Korean melodramas and movies based on long-running Japanese TV shows and comic books. These days Hollywood is more interested in guaranteed-profit sequels and prequels than remakes of Japanese films. But giant monsters doing battle with giant robots, it seems, will always have an audience. Which brings me to Pacific Rim.

This is basically a $200 million kaiju eiga, those seemingly interchangeable Japanese monster movies from the 50s and 60s that pitted actors in rubber robot suits against actors in rubber monster suits, usually with very Plan 9-esque scale model sets in the background. Watching the over-the-top acting, sudden close-ups, and incredibly cheap visual effects in most kaiju eiga (frequently lampooned on shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000), it’s hard to believe that the first Gojira (Godzilla) film was genuinely terrifying to its first audiences. Godzilla himself was seen as an allegory for the monstrosities wrought by war. Even today, though the visual effects are dated and the monster lumbers awkwardly, the original Gojira comes across as much more of a haunted, sobering piece of work than its technicolor, over-the-top monster movie descendants.

Diehard fans of kaiju eiga may turn their noses up at Pacific Rim for committing that all-too-common 21st century crime of taking something simple (and innocently bad) and giving it a $200 million makeover. Watching the movie, though, I couldn’t help thinking that, had they had access to this kind of money, more than a few kaiju eiga producers probably would have made a movie just like Pacific Rim.

The centerpiece of any kaiju eiga is its epic battle scenes, and those are a lot of fun to watch in Pacific Rim.* The monsters and the robots have real weight, and they alternate smoothly between an agonizing slowness (most of the fight scenes take place with monsters and robots knee-deep in the ocean) that changes to fierce speed at a moment’s notice. As others have noted, you can actually tell what’s going on in most of the fights, unlike similar scenes in the Transformers films, where everything is cut so quickly that it plays as little more than a big blur on the screen. Pacific Rim‘s monster-robot battles also have delightful details, like a robot smacking a monster repeatedly upside the head with a tanker ship, and of course one of those giant robot swords that comes in handy when, I guess, they get tired of using the much more effective plasma cannons.

It’s also refreshing to see a movie that borrows so much from Japan but doesn’t feel the need to present Japan itself in only broad, stereotypical strokes. For once there’s a Japanese female character (played by Kikuchi Rinko) who isn’t presented as a one-dimensional sexpot / woman-child / Orientalist fetish. Sure, she’s attractive, but at least she looks like she could hold her own in a fight. And her story doesn’t revolve around the question of whether she’ll end up with the lead actor.

There was another (unintentionally?) geeky moment in Pacific Rim when the opening narration described the beginning of the “kaiju wars,” when the robot-hunters became so effective that people got complacent and the kaiju themselves became toys and jokes. You can trace a similar trajectory from the first Godzilla movie–made soon after the end of the war, when emotions were still very raw–and the later Godzilla movies of the 60s, when Godzilla had become more of a cuddly protector. These days, despite the occasional attempt to resurrect Godzilla as a bona fide monster in both Japan and the U.S., he’s still known mostly as a toy and a lumbering rubber suit.

And this is the thing I both love and hate about being a post-ac or an alt-ac or whatever you want to call me–I am never able to just watch movies, especially Japanese movies (or movies that borrow heavily from Japan). I am always thinking about those robots and monsters as allegories. I laugh at weird things, not because they’re funny, but because someone will say something that makes me think, “Whoa, that dude has read my thesis!” I am always composing a research question or article abstract in my head, even though I don’t really write articles anymore. I break movies down according to who’s doing the gazing, or the hierarchies of the holy trinity (race / class / gender) that play out in the narrative.

But most of the time it doesn’t bother me. It just makes giant robots hitting giant monsters with tanker ships even more entertaining.


*For God’s sake, though, what is up with 3D and everything looking so murky and dark? Do the majority of people really not notice this? I’ve heard Pacific Rim looks much better in 2D or Imax 3D. Until they figure this out, I just wish more of these scenes could take place in daylight so we could see the aliens / monsters / mythical beasts more clearly.


4 comments on “The (Allegorical) Kaiju are Coming: Some Thoughts on Pacific Rim

  1. A Modern Girl
    August 15, 2013

    This makes me more inclined to see the movie. I’ve been pretty out of the loop as far as US movies go, so I have to admit that when I saw the trailer, I was like, “OMG, did someone finally film Evangelion while I wasn’t paying attention?!” 🙂

    And I totally agree about the 3D. The worst example that I’ve seen was Priest–I could barely tell what was happening for a lot of the movie. If I can, I always try to see the films in IMAX3D–that usually looks great.

  2. Mike
    August 16, 2013

    Apt note on Transformers–my favorite moment in TF1 is when Ironside spins with all guns blazing, and all I could think was, “Which way is up?”

    If you know Evangelion, this movie is like an homage, with the only danger being that this movie obviates the need for a live Eva movie. You have: ocean-borne escape pods, fluid in the helmets, pilots chosen for their ability to synchronize (in this case with a partner), robots airlifted by simpler technologies, and a reliance on physical attacks when more advanced weapons more-often-than-not fail. Then there were the manual nuclear engine shut-down (or activation in this case) and the synchro malfunction, plus a battleship used as a han weapon and an underwater giant monster battle. Watching this film, I realized just how much the Angels in Eva were like advanced kaiju, and that they’d probably look like Pacific Rim kaiju in live action.

    The physics didn’t make the slightest sense (eight helicopters to lift something the weight of a skyscraper, and radio waves that transcend interfensional portals were my favorites), but I didn’t care. They treated the robots with the appropriate reverence to make them feel awesome, and that was all that was needed. They even figured out a way to have lots of kaiju fights without having to linearly wait for one after another to show up.

    I think I most enjoyed that Gillermo del Toro “got” the kaiju and robot ethic without trivializing either or doing lip service to the concepts. He stole from
    the genre as anime directors steal from one another, not as Hollywood tries to erect an image of Japan without getting the core.

  3. gradland
    August 16, 2013

    Kristi, yeah, I’ll definitely see my next 3D film in either IMAX or 2D–strangely I didn’t have any problems with Life of Pi or Hugo, but maybe that’s because they didn’t involve fast movement of large creatures in darkness.

    Mike & Kristi, didn’t even think about the Evangelion angle, was too busy reminiscing about people in rubber monster suits!

  4. Chiefe Mo
    December 8, 2013

    I do not know whether you care to read all of this, but I just watched the movie – Pacific Rim. The movie is an allegory of the twentieth-century Cold War.

    The movie starts off with a translation of “Kaiju” which means Great Monster and “Jaeger” which means Hunter, in Japanese and German, respectively. This proposes the presence of Japanese and German ideas (World War II) before the movie (Cold War) starts. Notice how the action set in to place of the movie took place in the Pacific, right between two major powers, United States and the Soviet Union, during the Cold War.

    Let’s get REALLY allegorical into this: The “inter-dimensional beings” have social ranks that are given to them at birth, hence the monster’s CATEGORY of 1,2,3,4, and 5. This shows the idea of communism, that your life and purpose are determined at birth. The monster “masters” would command these soldiers what to do, maybe even against their will, just like in communism.

    Now, this is where it gets interesting: The two doctors in the movie explained to the general that these Kaiju have attempted a “take-over” Earth before, a.k.a. the dinosaurs, but because a massive Carbon Dioxide covered the air, they couldn’t attempt another take-over until the air was stable. Then, after millions of years, in the early twenty-first century, the Kaiju rose again, but this time with human Jaeger opposition. This whole “take-over” tactic is just an allegory of the Cold War. Communism was attempted at first, but was not very successful, and was put to a small force. However, after decades, communism went on a HIGH-RISE in the 60s. Communism spread EVERYWHERE. In the movie, the humans were building a “Wall of Life” to suppress the Kaiju forces, which symbolizes America trying to suppress Communism before it can grow any larger. The Kaiju, or “communism”, smashed right through the wall “As if it was nothin[g]…”

    At the ending climax of the movie, you learn that you have to take a Kaiju carcass with you if you want to stop the Kaiju forces, and that you have to connect with these Kaiju brains to “understand” their attack plans. In other words, you have to adopt and study communism before you can stop it.


    The heart of the Gypsy Danger represents the main protagonist’s emotion and will. He mentioned it to Mako Mori that the last time he saw it was 5 years ago, when his brother was still alive and they shared a bond. It can obviously be seen that now he sees it again, he has a new co-pilot, Mako Mori, to share his “heart” with.

    The Newton’s Cradle symbolizes the balance of power and motion in every conflict. I believe that when they showed it, the movie was exactly half-way finished, but I need to confirm this belief.

    The movie uses inter-dimensional beings to show that these Kaiju exists in the same universe, but in a different version of it. In other words, Communism and Democracy are existing in the same world, but each has their own view on how the world should be like…

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This entry was posted on August 14, 2013 by in Film, Japan and tagged , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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