Halloween Hijinks: Kaiju Horror

I was racking my brain trying to think of what to do for this year’s Halloween Hijinks, since we’ve already discussed Japanese media depictions of most of the staples: vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches, yokai, and Lovecraft creations, plus horror anime. Before I resigned myself to watching half a dozen Japanese invisible man flicks, Nick Driscoll made a wise suggestion, that so long as I have kaiju on the brain 99% of the time anyway, this might be a fine time to run through some of the spookiest daikaiju horror material on the market, so here we are.

Now, this is hardly new ground to cover, since there’s a sizable overlap in monster fans and horror fans. Most horror outlets cover kaiju on occasion, and there’s been a panel or two at G-Fest covering the subject of horror (I recall a particularly great one with Jörg Buttgereit), so I don’t think I need to cover the real basics… everyone already knows about the grotesque transformations in Shin Godzilla, the human bodies dissolving away to skeletons in Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the implacable undead Godzilla of Giant Monsters All-out Attack, the found-footage survival horror of Cloverfield, or the colossal, man-eating creatures of War of the Gargantuas, Attack on Titan, and the 90s Gamera trilogy.

Instead, let’s talk about a few examples a little more off the beaten path. These shouldn’t be huge revelations for long-time kaiju nuts, but for casual fans looking for something to scare up their Halloween season or horror junkies who’re looking to diversify their kaiju portfolios beyond the basics, there might be a title or two worth checking out.

Redman

This first example is cheating…kind of. See, Redman started off as a children’s show in 1972, basically as an extremely low-rent superhero program in the vein of Ultraman. It was super cheap, so instead of filming on sets with miniature cities, the show was filmed out in the wilderness. This is key to how Redman became a bit of a meme and saw a resurgence in recent years: because the monsters aren’t threatening anyone, and there’s no dialogue in the show, it appears to be a series just about a man in a mask showing up an slaughtering creatures that aren’t hurting anyone. Some of the shots are even framed like something out of Friday the 13th.

It probably doesn’t help that the “hero” also has a tendency to chase after the monsters that are running away from him, keep hitting monsters when they’re down, or that he essentially fights with a machete, either. Basically every shot in the show feels like you’re witnessing a murder.

Also by nature of being a cheap show, the monster suits are often in rough shape, adding to the sense that something is fundamentally wrong with what you’re watching. Seriously, what happened to Kanegon?!

Fandom latched onto the idea that Redman was basically a sociopathic slasher, and Tsuburaya is never one to let a merchandising opportunity pass. The character has since shown up in stage shows where Ultramen have to stop him from attacking peaceful monsters, on t-shirts with blood-stained logos, and most recently, in Matt Frank’s excellent ongoing comic series Redman: The Kaiju Hunter, which delves deeper into the unsettling world that the series never elaborates on.

Redman episode 1 on YouTube

Redman: The Kaiju Hunter volume 1 on Amazon

 

Creature! (AKA Hakaiju) by Shingo Honda

Shingo Honda’s brutal survivalist monster manga takes place in a town completely overrun by a wide variety of abominations, from the smaller human-sized threats, all the way up to well…bigger.

The creature designs alone are certainly nightmare-fuel, but the horror covered in the series is diverse, ranging from the graphically violent monster-eating-people action, to body horror as humans are infected with monster elements, to good old-fashion human-on-human inhumanity. The manga gets crazier as it goes along, with elements of government conspiracy and apocalyptic sequences reminiscent of Evangelion and Devilman.

The series ran for 21 volumes from 2010 to 2017 (only 19 volumes have been released to Kindle as of this writing, though you can read the first 13 as a self-contained story), and it also inspired a short live-action promotional prequel, which makes up the first two minutes of this video:

Creature! volume 1 at Amazon

 

Henge (2011, dir Hajime Ohata)

Since the promo for Creature! had an ad at the end for Henge, I figure that’s a good segue. I’ve written about this movie before, both in Kaiju for Hipsters and an error-filled blog post from when I first saw it, but this The Fly/Tetsuo-inspired body-horror piece is described by the director as a “love story between husband and wife”, since it’s about a wife who helps her husband eat people as he’s increasingly taken over by possibly-demonic (?) forces. He gets pretty gnarly towards the end:

It’s worth bringing up in the kaiju context due to the final sequence, where he grows enormous and goes through a rampage through Tokyo. The effects scenes were clearly done on a budget, but Kiyotaka Taguchi’s creative framing (and some nice blood splatter) make it fun enough to watch.

Henge streaming on Amazon

 

Kagewani

A moody paranormal investigation anime in the mold of The X-Files, each eight-minute episode is relatively crudely animated (basically one step up from Yamishibai), but has a great art style that lends itself to amping up the tension. The format is at first glance monster-of-the-week, with a professor who specializes in kaiju traveling the world while learning about a variety of creepy cryptids (ranging from dinosaurs to man-assimilating jellyfish to Tremors-ish land worms), but there is an underlying plot running throughout involving his backstory with the titular “shadow crocodile” and an organization that intends to weaponize the monsters. Since the episodes are short, each of the 13-episode seasons will go by briskly, and the stories never overstay their premise.

Watch Kagewani on Crunchyroll

 

7 Billion Needles by Nobuaki Tadano

Nominally based on Hal Clement’s 1950 science fiction novel Needle, this 2008 manga series has a lot in common with Ultraman the Next, in that a bad alien comes to earth and starts absorbing various lifeforms into a fleshy collective, while a good alien pursues it and fuses with our protagonist. Much like the amorphous blob that Tetsuo becomes in Akira, the amalgamated meat monster in this is probably not something you’ll be seeing in action figure form any time soon.

7 Billion Needles volume 1 on Amazon

 

Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island

While the manga Higanjima by Koji Matsumoto is about people trying to survive an island full of vampires, there’s no shortage of other grotesque monstrosities that show up along the way, as the vampires tend to mutate into other nasty things.

The manga inspired a 2009 live-action movie, which is currently available in the US from Funimation, and not a bad watch.

For the most part, the movie sticks to mundane vampires, but the kaiju connection in this film is a big beast that shows up at the end for a climactic battle. It doesn’t go quite as wild as the manga, but it was still early in the story when the movie was made.

There’s also a 2013 Higanjima TV series, which led into a second theatrical movie, Higanjima Deluxe (Nirvana Island: The Last 47 Days). This one has a lot more monster action and some really grotesque looking creatures (think giant Street Sharks covered in eyeballs), but sadly neither that TV series or this film have been made available in English.

Buy Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island at Amazon

 

Devilman Lady

Much like how the original 1972 Devilman anime only sort of took rough concepts from the concurrent manga, the 1998 gender-flipped Devilman Lady is only a loose translation of its own, from Go Nagai’s 1997 Devilman Lady manga. The anime is from excellent director (and noted kaiju fan) Toshiki Hirano (Iczer 1, Dangaioh, Godzilla 1990, Rayearth), so the first difference that’ll leap out at folks who did read the Devilman Lady manga (aside from the fact that there’s a fair deal less rape in the anime) is that our heroine has a tendency to turn Ultraman-sized to fight a lot of the monsters of the week.

It’s rather the same setup as the original Devilman at the end of the day: Rather than following schoolboy Akira Fudoh, who gets possessed by a demon and goes out hunting other demons with the help of his crazy quasi-boyfriend Ryo Asuka, this series follows model Jun Fudoh, who gets possessed by a demon and goes out hunting other demons with the help of her crazy quasi-girlfriend Lan Asuka. Lots of gore, tragedy, and crazy plot twists ensue (spoilers for an almost half-century-old comic?), so if you’re a fan of the original manga, or the Devilman Crybaby series on Netflix, I’d certainly suggest giving this anime a spin.

Watch Devilman Lady on Amazon Prime

 

Gyō by Kazuo Umezu

Gyō is a manga about a giant fish monster by Kazuo Umezz (Drifting Classroom, Cat Eyed Boy), not to be confused with Gyo, which is a giant fish monster manga by Junji Ito (we could talk about that one, but it’s gross). Umezz is a legend in the horror manga community, having inspired the likes of Ito and trained the likes of Rumiko Takahashi, and in the kaiju space he’s be known for his characteristically disturbing take on Ultraman. However, he also has a somewhat well-known short 1971 kaiju-centric manga, and that’s what we’ll talk about here. There are rumors that the manga may have been inspired by an unused concept from Ultra Q, as one of the unmade episodes was “Pagos vs. Gyo”, and a monster named Kaigyo (“strange fish”) did show up in one Ultra Q monster list in Shonen Magazine.

Anyway, the story itself is pretty simple, that of a bullied child who befriends a weird fish when he can’t make other pals. The kid gets sick, the parents blame the fish and throw it away. Decades later, it’s huge and comes back looking for his friend.

It also destroys the then-new Fukushima reactor, which might be awkward to view in a modern context, or might just play into the long-lasting relationship between that site and the kaiju genre.

Of course, the real sign that Gyō has a lasting kaiju legacy, several vinyl figures have been produced:

Unfortunately, Gyō is not available in English at the time of this writing.

 

Series Kaiju Ward: Gyaras

There was a lot of buzz for this exciting original series for Toei’s Tokusatsu Fan Club streaming platform, however, it’s not currently clear whether it’ll be a series at all: the first episode debuted back in February and there’s been no further news about it (there’s even a Twitter account tracking the days since it dropped). What it appears to be about (based on the episode that did air) is smug jerks getting their karmic comeuppance in monster form, as the pilot has a playboy jerk get stalked by a giant crow, all the doing of a mysterious traveling saleswoman. So far so good, but I wish they would make more of it.

There’s no North American release for Gyaras (or “Gallas”, as it’s better known), but MegaBeast Empire is fansubbing it.

 

Gantz by Hiroya Oku

Hiroya Oku’s brutal survival horror/sci-fi action series Gantz is an institution, with 37 volumes, a three volume spin-off, live action films, video games, an anime TV series, and more. The premise is that after death, certain individuals don’t go to the afterlife, but have a chance to win their lives back by battling various dangerous alien creatures using high-tech weaponry. The aesthetics are cool, the enemies are memorable, and the constantly rotating cast keeps the stakes high and will really lead you to cheer in the heroic moments and wallow in the crushing defeats.

I think that the best way to experience the series is to read the manga start to finish, but not everyone has time for that. As a compromise, there is a nicely done CGI movie that will give a flavor of the premise while also loosely adapting the popular Osaka arc from the manga: Gantz: O. It’s got both evil yokai and Pacific Rim-style giant robot battles (and a giant monster made of naked ladies)!

Oku’s latest manga Gigant also has some tense scenes of giant humanoids attacking Tokyo, but it’s more of an Ultraman pastiche-meets-romance (giant porn star!) than an action horror series.

Buy Gantz omnibus 1 on Amazon

Watch Gantz: O on Netflix

 

King of Thorn by Yuji Iwahara

Surprise, another manga about a group of people cut off from civilization struggling to survive and being hunted by monsters! Yeah, this seems to be a recurring motif in kaiju-related horror. King of Thorn sees survivors of a rare disease coming out of cryogenic freeze unexpectedly, only to find that the lab they were in is overgrown with vines and there are dinosaurs and other strange beasts roaming the area. I was already on board with that post-apocalyptic premise, but the plot keeps clever twists coming in a way such that you can never quite predict where it’s heading. The manga version does feature giant monsters arising all over the globe towards the end, but the movie adaptation concentrates that down into only the titular King of Thorn, a dragon made of vines:

The 2010 movie adaptation does condense a lot from the six volumes of source material, and loses a fair deal in the process (including many monsters), but it’s still a gorgeous picture (CGI aside) that restructures the plot in a way that will keep even fans of the manga guessing. Also, the soundtrack is fantastic.

Buy King of Thorn (manga) volume 1 on Amazon

Buy King of Thorn (movie) on Amazon

 

Honorable mentions:

  • Godzilla in Hell – does what it says in the title
  • Legend of Dinosaurs & Monster Birds – Toei’s Jaws-inspired killer cryptid pic
  • Neo Ultra Q – probably the most off-putting of Ultra Q titles
  • Ki-gai – a four-episode monster show culminating in a kaiju climax
  • Giant Monster – a comic from 30 Days of Night‘s Steve Niles
  • Shibuya Goldfish – even more killer fish in this manga, this time attacking the heart of Tokyo
  • Island 731 – the Island of Doctor Moreau-inspired lead-in to the Project Nemesis “Kaiju Thriller” novel series
  • Koujin – the titular creature in this samurai flick is Shin Godzilla-level creepy looking
  • Hellstar Remina – I felt like I needed to mention something by Junji Ito, so can a killer planet count?

Caveat: Island of Giant Insects

Crunchyroll licensed Island of Giant Insects months ago, but still isn’t streaming it, and I can probably guess why: much like High School of the Dead, it pretty much pornographically fetishizes its gruesome kill sequences. Even hardened gorehounds cringe at this blend of violence and sex, so be prepared for that if you decide to check it out.

 

On that note, that’ll be a wrap. Hopefully this has been helpful in expanding your creepy kaiju horizons. Until next time, Happy Halloween!

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1 Response to Halloween Hijinks: Kaiju Horror

  1. Pingback: Halloween Hijinks: Japanese “Slasher Monster” Movies | Maser Patrol

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