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In the Shadow of the Beast: The Kaiju Genre & Kaiju No. 8

by Grant Jones,


Kaiju No. 8 is a series that wears its influences on its sleeves. As the first word in its title suggests, it comes from a long line of works in the kaiju genre, using giant monsters and burning skylines as a backdrop to tell stories. While many likely know kaiju in a passing sense, it may help to have a brief primer on some key events that inform the genre and its tropes. There are countless exhaustive writings and video essays on this topic, but hopefully, this can bring you up to speed relatively quickly.

First, a discussion of terminology. The terms floating around in this space become jumbled when you consider the literal linguistic meanings and their common use in fandom spaces. "Kaiju" is a term that means "strange beast" but has come to be used to refer to an entire sub-genre of science fiction media. When English-speaking fans use the term "kaiju," it is often in reference specifically to giant monsters such as Godzilla, even though the term itself is not so constrained (and depending on the monster's size, terms like "daikaiju," "kaiju," or "kaijin" may apply). This bias towards kaiju, including size in its meaning, can often be seen in discussions online that reference the implied size of the term with theoretical questions about whether certain monsters “count” as kaiju (e.g., “Is Clifford the Big Red Dog a kaiju?”). So, the terminology is similar, but do the connections go beyond this shared lexicon?


The very structure of Kaiju No. 8 is based on much of what came before. It takes the Ultraman premise and iterates on it in unique ways. The nature of the relationship between the human host and the alien entity takes on a different vein here. Kafka retains his intelligence/identity (which is not always the case in the Ultra-series) yet does not communicate with the entity (thus far, anyway). Similarly, his empowered form is more monstrous than heroic. Also, the Anti-Kaiju Defense Force is nominally very similar to the more military-minded allied team of the Ultra-series (such as, say, GUYS in Ultraman Mebius or the Terrestrial Defense Force of Ultra Seven) the addition of the enhanced combat suits is an interesting touch. Typically, the defense force analogs in most Ultra-series shows have special weaponry, but it takes the form of slightly sci-fi-juiced weaponry or advanced vehicles – the personal suits granting superhuman abilities add more allies in the fight alongside Kafka, and therefore a new set of variables to the conflict scenes.

This influence can also be seen in the various daikaiju designs in the series. There are subtle nods to a variety of famous monsters from across these franchises. For example, the use of the crescent-shaped head crest that bears a striking resemblance to the Ultrakaiju Gomora. Gomora is a well-established beast in The Ultraman pantheon, starting all the way back in the original 1966 series. Quite infamously. Gomora was the first foe to defeat Ultraman (if only for the first part of a two-parter) and this has marked him a strong enemy (and occasional ally) ever since. Similarly, the enlarged tentacles whipping about bear a non-trivial resemblance to Godzilla foe Biollante. Biollante appeared in the aptly titles 1989 film Godzilla vs. Biollante, where she is a plant experiment spliced with the genes of a scientist's deceased daughter. She's not only a fearsome and strange foe in a wonderfully odd film but one of the great examples of tokusatsu special effects work ever put to celluloid.

As we've established the many connections the series has with the genre, let's delve into a bit of the history behind it all. The kaiju sub-genre is clearly within the science fiction and fantasy oeuvre and also falls under the umbrella of "tokusatsu," which refers to any live-action work that makes heavy use of special effects. Of course, even tokusatsu has taken on a new meaning in most English-speaking spaces, as its use conjures associations with Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, and Ultraman. There is this sense that the superheroic and live-action elements delineate tokusatsu.

So, while it might be more technically correct to call works like the Godzilla films daikaiju and tokusatsu, you might get funny looks for referring to them that way. For now, kaiju has taken on the broad meaning of giant monster works in the understanding of many parts of fandom worldwide.

Speaking of Godzilla, we're getting there but first a preamble. The history of kaiju starts in what might seem an unlikely place: the 1933 Merian C. Cooper film King Kong. This early film was not only a hit in its own right, with a long-lasting cultural impact that echoes to the present day, but it also popularized the idea of a giant monster in the popular imagination. King Kong certainly fits the kaiju mold as we understand it: a larger-than-average beast (24 feet tall or so in the film) who quite famously attacks a major urban center after a great deal of human meddling. King Kong was also quite the filmmaking marvel, using (among other important special effects) stop-motion animation to bring this creature to life.

King Kong would go on to impact two highly influential creators: Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya. They collaborated at TOHO Studios in the creation of the seminal 1954 film Gojira or Godzilla, as many readers know him, with Ishirō Honda directing and co-writing and Eiji Tsuburaya directing the special effects. This landmark work pulled together many of the concepts underpinning King Kong (giant monster, urban chaos, special effects) with ruminations on atomic power in post-war Japan as well as humankind's propensity to be the architects of their own undoing. Though originally wanting to use stop motion animation similar to King Kong, it quickly became clear that it would take too much time and investment to build up the filmmaking infrastructure needed to use that technology. Instead, Eiji Tsuburaya pivoted to using an actor in a suit – suitmation – surrounded by model sets of cities, vehicles, and the like, similar to work he had done for government films in prior years.

The 1954 Gojira was also a huge success. Godzilla became a household name, and dozens of films would follow in the decades to come. Alongside Godzilla came a host of similar giant monster creatures, such as Mothra, Gamera, and Rodan, spawning a giant monster craze that ranged in tone from somber to silly (at times even within the same film) that has lasted into the modern day. Many of these creatures battled governments, militaries, scientists, aliens, super spy groups, and specialized monster-fighting organizations.

But once again, Eiji Tsuburaya iterated on the formula he had helped establish in creating Ultraman. Having parted ways to start his own studio, Tsuburaya Productions, he helped lay out the next critical component of the kaiju mythos: the kyodai hero. While the 1966 series Ultraman was not the first tokusatsu television series (that honor probably belongs to the precursor Ultra Q), Ultraman solidified the monster fighting trope in the format that most would recognize it today.

The 1966 series laid the groundwork and formed many key beats that most series would follow throughout the years. Ultraman was an alien who came to Earth and ended up inhabiting a human form that was not his own. This becomes his secret identity as he tries to learn the ways of humans while fighting alongside the Science Patrol to fight back against various monsters, alien visitors, and strange phenomena that appear. It managed to occupy a wide variety of tones from week to week – I've often described it as Twilight Zone featuring Godzilla and Adam West Batman – which was part of its enduring charm. More importantly, Ultraman learned much through his guise as Shin Hayata: teamwork and cooperation, what it meant to be human, how callously we dismiss that which we deem monstrous, and ultimately, how to better understand the universe around him.

He also did a lot of cool wrestling moves and shot lasers from his hands.

Though this only really brings us to the late 60s in terms of timeline, I think this provides a solid foundation to see what wells Kaiju No. 8 is taking water from. This is particularly evident in the Ultraman comparison: a human host for an alien entity trying to keep this possession a secret while battling giant monsters and working alongside a government organization full of mild-mannered humans using technology and pure old-fashioned guts. There are other major streams of tokusatsu one could bring in – particularly those works created by the exceptionally talented Shōtarō Ishinomori, such as Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, and Kikaider when those works dovetail into what it means to be a human weapon – but I think Kaiju No. 8 is largely playing in the Ultraman space.

But that does not make it a pure copy paste of course! Of course, there could be even more connections revealed as we go along, but as it stands, it's clear that Kaiju No. 8 is taking part in the grand conversation of kaiju works that have gone on in some form or fashion for nearly ninety years now. The greatest debt of all is owed to visionaries like Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, but perhaps by the end of its run, Kaiju No. 8 may also count itself among the luminary works in the genre.

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