Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Atomic Kaiju Films (Big Lizard / Big Bug Flicks)

After WWII, there was a slew of 1950s B-movies that included Big Lizards and/or Big Bugs, almost all of which were the result of atomic radiation and/or being subjected to immoral research conducted by Mad Scientists without a care as to what their experiments cost humanity (or the clueless doctor, so wrapped-up in helping humanity that he falls blind to the more destructive of his efforts). Most usually, the American or Russian military had set off atomic bombs in the areas in which the kaiju slept, reawakening them. These monsters could be either a threat to all mankind or friend to humanity, depending on the movie.

While Big Bug movies captivated American audiences in the 1950s, Big Lizard - or kaiju, which means "strange creature" - films would captivate Japanese audiences a decade later. Kaiju's popularity was rejuvenated in the 1970s when the movies were employed as afternoon and late-night TV fare, often hosted by local favorites such as Sir Cecil Creape and Elvira. A resurgence in popularity ensued in the 1990s with the advent of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Still, the Big Bug / Big Lizard kaiju flicks of the 1950s and '60s grew directly from the Atomic Age. As Stephen King posited in his Danse Macabre, horror - especially in the mainstream - tends to be cyclical and focused on whatever is going on at the time, and this was true for the Atomic Age kaiju, many of which later found homes in comic books. Many creators in the horror and B-movie fields tend to agree with him, as well.

Mad Scientists and Science, in general, were often blamed for these strange creatures and, directly or indirectly, all the trouble they caused. In this sense, some of these films could be considered propaganda for anti-Science causes but they were actually just going by the news tropes of the day. This was prior to 24-hour news stations and the technology we enjoy. Still, some of these B-movies were backed by religious institutions that may have had an interest in diminishing scientific progress. With movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space, they fared poorly.

The Cold War and the aftershock of WWII were the greatest proponents in the kaiju filmmaking trend, not to mention the advent of the drive-in theater in America. In fact, most of the Big Bug / Big Lizard films would find their largest audiences at the drive-in prior to reruns on 1970s UHF TV. Many artists, creators, and filmmakers would later credit their ideas and success to these movies, claiming to have found inspiration in the cheesy special effects and simple plot devices. These filmmakers would later bring us such special effects extravaganzas as Aliens, The Terminator, and more.

The recent fascination with kaiju is due to their inclusion in many manga and anime franchises and the origins of the strange creatures tend to be tied to even more recent scientific developments, such as distant planets and solar systems, unknown dimensions, and the like. Kaiju pictures are still being made and lean heavily on Science Fiction tropes. But, at their most primal, these kaiju are still Big Bug / Big Lizard antagonists that hearken back to their cinematic ancestors.

© The Weirding, 2014-2015

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