Like any number of loan words, “kaiju” (怪獣 , or “kaijū” if you want to be more accurate, literally “strange beast”) has permeated the English lexicon, to the point where many official subtitles don’t bother to use “monster” anymore when it arises in Japanese movies or TV. Western fictional works including Firebreather, Pacific Rim, Kaijudo, Kaiju Big Battel, Giant Killer, Kaijumax, Project Nemesis, and even Marvel comics are using the term, to name a few (with literally hundreds more examples).
But are these giant monsters from outside Japan really still “kaijū”? Debates have been firing on the subject recently, and while a clear verdict is elusive, it may be helpful to review and hopefully clear up some misconceptions about how the word is used in its native land. Granted, there are plenty of loan words and location-specific terms that take on different definitions abroad (e.g. sombrero, kimono, tycoon, gelato, anime, Champagne, spaghetti western), so just because Japanese uses “kaijū” one way does not mean that English must as well. However, since it’s rising to prominence it might be prudent to straighten out just how English will use it.
The first trend that appears obvious when looking at English usage of the word, is that it’s used to describe giant monsters. It’s usually used in that context in Japanese as well, though on occasion you’ll have something human-sized like Kanegon, Pigmon, Guzura, Terraincognita, Star Trek’s Gorn, or the yeti referred to as such. The most famous of that batch is the “kaijū” Booska, though he uses different kanji (快獣, “pleasant beast”) because Japan loves puns. To make it clear you’re talking about a giant monster, one can append the 大 character and get “daikaijū”, which is frequently, but not always, used in descriptions. The same applies in English: If the movies were titled “Destroy All Giant Monsters” or “All Giant Monsters Attack”, they’d lose a little of that succinct punch, wouldn’t they?
It is fair to say that “kaijū” and “monster” do not have a 1:1 translation between languages. Just as English has “creature”, “freak”, “beast”, “fiend”, “apparition”, “mutant”, “spook”, “cryptid”, etc, all with differing nuance and appropriateness for any given example, there are various terminologies in Japanese: kaijū, kaibutsu, kaijin, bakemono, yōkai, akuma, and indeed the loan word “monster”, that shouldn’t be necessarily be used interchangeably, but sometimes multiple terms apply to the same entity. “Strange beast” gets across the literal meaning of the word, but any subtitler who has the panicked masses pointing towards the sky and shrieking “Look out! There’s the strange beast!” is not doing their job.
The term itself, if Wikipedia is correct, originates with the 4th-century BC Chinese tome Classic of Mountains and Seas, but did not appear in the Japanese language until 1844 (Chinese literary appropriation was all the rage in Japan at the time), when it was used in an obscure guidebook to describe a monkey with wings. Needless to say, that didn’t exactly propagate “kaijū” across the Japanese lexicon, and experts in fact agree that it was popularized by the Japanese release of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (原子怪獣現わる, Genshi Kaijū Arawaru, translating to “An atomic kaiju appears”)… a strange notion considering that Godzilla actually beat that film to theaters there by over a month, and that film certainly used it. I suspect it may actually bit of a word play, considering that the term “kaijū” (海獣), or “sea beast”, was already being used for generic descriptions of marine mammals, as well as general oceanic monsters. This usage appears periodically in pop culture past and present, including the likes of a few of Giant Robo’s antagonists, Kitaro’s Zeuglodon, Shinpei Hayashiya’s whole franchise of indy monster flicks featuring Reigo and Raiga, and, most notably, Tomoyuki Tanaka’s original treatment for Godzilla, whose title 海底二万哩から来た大海獣 translates to “The Giant Sea Beast from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”.
The “strange”-denoting “kai” in the more popular “kaijū” is the same as that in “kaidan”, “kaibutsu”,”kaijin”, and “yōkai” – certainly not an alien prefix when classifying the monstrous. The original King Kong’s translations used the word “kaibutsu” (though it has been subsequently described as kaijū eiga), supporting some claims that Japanese monsters are “kaijū” and western monsters are all “kaibutsu” (怪物, “strange creature”)– not entirely unfounded when looking at the gamut of western giant monster output from the 50s. The Japanese titles for It Came from Beneath the Sea, Tarantula, and The Monolith Monsters use the word (along with other, not-so-giant monster movies like The Brain Eaters, The Navy vs the Night Monsters, and The Hideous Sun Demon), as does the Japanese title for the much-later Korean flick The Host.
Even the Japanese translation of The Foghorn, the Ray Bradbury story on which Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was based, uses “kaibutsu” rather than “kaijū”. The terms are certainly not mutually exclusive, and “kaijū” is usually explained as a subset of the broader “kaibutsu” taxonomy, which can be used to describe anything from giant bugs to the humanoid revenants popularized by Universal Monsters. What sets apart “kaijū” then is, perhaps, an inextricable aesthetic link to the works of Eiji Tsuburaya and his imitators, in much the same way that every “super hero” owes a debt to DC Comics, though neither Toho nor Tsuburaya have attempted to trademark the term “kaijū” or restrict its use to their own brand (Wizards of the Coast, on the other hand, has, for reasons nobody can justify). Not every Japanese work post-Godzilla uses it (e.g. Dai Kyojū Gappa), but they tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule.
This has historically led to the conclusion that the converse must also apply: if post-kaijū-boom Japanese giant monsters are universally kaijū, then monsters from foreign works must not be. A quick look over some Japanese releases of said works, however, demonstrates this as false, at least as far as the Japanese distributors are concerned. The kaiju in Pacific Rim’s dub are still “kaijū”, and the creatures in numerous Japanese-inspired works wield the word right in their title, including Gorgo, Yongary, Konga, The Crater Lake Monster, Q the Winged Serpent, Pulgasari, Zarkorr the Invader, and Kraa the Sea Monster (who, by the way, is named “Goodzilla” in the Japanese version).
It makes sense to not exclude these Japanese-inspired works from the status of “kaijū”, at least from the Japanese perspective… especially if they’re already using the word in the dialog of the work’s native language. But what about the earlier examples, from a time before Japanese tokusatsu was inspiring international imitators? Surely those don’t count as kaijū in the Japanese mind, right?
Oh. I guess stuff like Attack of the Crab Monsters and X the Unknown was kaiju eiga all along, at least by Japanese definitions. In fairness, there’s certainly a variety of terms thrown around in these early creature-feature imports.
- The Giant Claw goes by “kaichō” ( the same word used for the titular “monster birds” of Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds)
- War of the Colossal Beast uses “kyojinjū” (“giant man beast”, though, if some tenacious fansubbers have their way, everyone will insist on using the word “eoten”)
- Reptilicus has two: “genshijū” (primitive beast) and “kyojū” (“villain beast” like Ultraman Max’s Luganoger, though a homophone for the more common “giant beast” term used in say, Juspion),
- The Lost Continent says “majū” (“demon beast”, the same word used to describe Gamera’s foe Jiger)
- Mysterious Island contains the relatively scientific “kyodai seibutsu” (“giant organism”), which should be familiar to recent memory from its constant repetition in Shin Godzilla (because the government can’t call Godzilla a monster, right?)
- The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is called a “yōjū” (a term familiar to fans of Wicked City)
- Attack of the 50-Foot Woman actually uses the word “yōkai” (which is usually reserved for traditional spirits)
It’s worth noting that they’re all referred to as kaiju in Hiroshi Yamamoto’s novel MM9, so I wouldn’t worry about remembering all of those for anything other than weird niche trivia purposes. It’s like how most of Godzilla’s enemies have some sort of epithet including the word “kaijū”, except for Anguirus, who’s a “bōryū” for some nebulous reason, or remembering that Zetton is a “space dinosaur” – things essentially not worth overthinking. (Aside: the Ultraman franchise also has a whole distinction between kaiju and “chōjū” superbeasts, and also others like “maōjū”, and even most of the characters within the show can’t keep them all straight. However, at least in that case there appear to be discrete criteria, whereas most of the nomenclature above was likely somewhat arbitrary.)
For western usage, it’s reasonable to hold a position that if it ain’t Japanese, it ain’t a kaiju, just as we typically hardline on the definition of anime. But, as always, there are edge cases.
- If 1954’s Godzilla is a kaiju, is the 2014 Godzilla one? What about Godzooky, a likewise derivative work, but a separate entity? Conversely, is Cloverfield Kishin a kaiju manga, since it stars an American monster? Or King Kong Escapes, being based on a Rankin Bass cartoon?
- If a kaiju need be made by a Japanese national, does Pulgasari, the beast from a North Korean movie, yet portrayed by Kenpachiro Satsuma with the Toho SFX team, count? (And in that case, what about when Pulgasari was remade in America, without them?) On the same note, the Daiei effects staff worked onYongary, Tsuburaya’s crew on Ultraman and Jumborg Ace movies in Thailand, and miscellaneous Japanese staffers went to Hong Kong for Inframan; does that make them kaiju movies?
- Then there’s the cases where a movie is made in Japan with American input, ranging from Invasion of Astro Monster to Death Kappa. Does a giant octopus become not a kaiju if an American producer conceived the idea and asked for it?
Personally, what I’ve done in the past, and will likely continue with, is describing most sufficiently large city-destroying beasts, regardless of creed, as “kaiju”, those Japanese monsters with intelligence or general anthropic features as “kaijin”, and use “kaibutsu” for Japanese monsters that don’t fall neatly into the other monster categories. I fully acknowledge that it may be hypocritical to call Gorgo a kaiju, but not call the Daleks from Doctor Who “kaijin”, but in this case, with the genre and roster of entries so dominated by Japanese content and insufficient English equivalents (those that come to mind, such as “colossus”, “behemoth”, “polypheme”, and “leviathan” are mouthfuls), it simply seems most apt. Western media appears to agree, considering the explosion of English-language prominence of the term within the last decade, even in absence of Japanese media to inspire it. If we really want to distinguish that we’re talking about non-Japanese monsters, though, I suggest utilizing the kanji that already exists for foreigness (外), and shortening those “gaikoku kaiju” down to just “gai-jū”, like the slang term “gaijin” for foreign people. It so happens that this “gaijū” is a homophone for the word for “vermin”, which is appropriate considering the condescending attitude some parts of the fandom take when discussing non-Japanese works (though it could get confusing discussing Nezulla or Food of the Gods).
As Shakespeare said, a rose, by any other name, would still get mutated by Godzilla cells, fuse with a schoolgirl, then fly into space (I think that’s the way the quote goes), and as Josh has said, he doesn’t know if Thunderbolt Fantasy is “anime”, but we’re sure going to watch it. Perhaps that’s foolish, perhaps it’s wise, but it’s not a unique debate to come up in taxonomy of all things that rub up against a fringe. Language is mutable, especially when it comes to monsters, which are deeply ingrained in mythic traditions (Pop quiz: is the kraken a living island, a giant octopus, or a sea serpent? Answer: it depends on where you’re asking and when!), so to some extent there may never be one consensus, only a plurality of shared usages that’s handy enough to convey information.
In the meantime, I had a hoot looking up titles for various non-Japanese giant monster properties, so here’s some more!
- Them! has always been a vague and confusing title for the seminal classic about giant radioactive ants. Rather than translating that title literally, the Japanese title translated to “Radioactivity X”, which is a little more memorable, if highly a product of the 1950s.
- The Godzilla ’98 knock-off Gargantua has the moniker Gajura (Godzoolla?), which is a little more explicitly invocative.
- Cloverfield keeps its American title, but appends the word “hakaisha”, meaning “destroyer”, I guess to make it a little less cryptic (or differentiate it from the Japan-only spin-off manga). Similarly, Monsters is retitled “Monsters – Chikyūgaiseimeitai”, or “Monsters – Extraterrestrials”.
- Mighty Peking Man is labeled Peking Genjin no Gyakushu, which is great because that means yet another English title for the “no gyakushu” phrase that doesn’t match the others (e.g. Godzilla Raids Again, Wrath of Daimajin, King Kong Escapes, The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, Terror of Mechagodzilla, Monster X Strikes Back, Attack on Zebra City)… is there any consistency there?
- The fourth Mega Shark movie, Mega Shark vs Kolossus, rebranded its antagonist to “Great Titan” for the Japanese release, likely to exploit the popularity of a certain landmark anime/manga. The creature certainly bears a striking resemblance to the Colossal Titan, but keep in mind, the titans are “kyojin” in that show’s native language; maybe that would also be the US title if The Asylum could get away with it!
- Atomic Shark was renamed “Shin Jaws”, upping the mockbuster factor by cashing in on two major franchises at once. Since the Japanese flick Jaws in Japan was renamed “Psycho Shark” for its US release, it seems like the Jaws brand is better protected stateside.
- Creepies II goes by King Spider vs Mecha Destructor in Japan, which is by all metrics a vastly superior title.
- The Herculoids is titled Kaijū-oh Tahgan (“Tahgan” is Zandor’s dub name. Guess he’s the real King of the Monsters in the Hanna Barbera library.)