The religious tradition called Shinto, which extends back more than a millennium, has acquired only a limited following outside Japan. Nevertheless it has left and continues to leave its imprint on many of that country’s cultural exports, even those that aren’t explicitly religious or spiritual. Monster movies are no exception.
Shinto grounds the human experience of divinity in feelings of awe and reverence. According to Shinto belief, practically any creature or thing can be a deity, or what Japanese call a kami. But natural objects that are large in size or unusual in shape make especially good candidates for kami status. As an eighteenth-century Japanese scholar, MOTOORI Norinaga, put it, the category of kami designates those things that “have exceptional powers and ought to be revered,” including out-of-the-ordinary animals, plants, bodies of water, and mountains, as well as certain special humans, such as the occupants of the imperial throne. Motoori noted that kami comprise “not only mysterious beings that are noble and good but also malignant spirits that are extraordinary and deserve veneration.” Clearly, a sense of wonder and not moral evaluation informs Shinto attitudes toward the phenomena of the universe.
Kaijū movies display similar traits. In the fictional world they bring to life, awfulness lies only a step away from awefulness, and it’s normal, indeed expected, for people to react to monsters with a mixture of fear and reverence. Godzilla offers a prime example, having gotten his legendary start as an object of Shinto worship, as much venerated as dreaded by the inhabitants of Ōdo Island.
The “kami as kaijū” conceit isn’t unique to Gojira; instead, it imprinted the larger kaijū eiga genre with varying degrees of subtlety. Among the films that most conspicuously recycle the “monster-deity” motif is 1958’s Daikaijū Baran (Giant monster Varan), Tōhō’s fourth venture in kaijū moviemaking. The black-and-white feature introduces audiences to Varan, a giant flying lizard that supposedly makes its home in an isolated mountain lake in the northeastern part of the Japanese archipelago. According to the screenplay, villagers who live in the area revere the creature—subsequently revealed to be a surviving dinosaur—as a “mountain deity” (yama no kami or sanjin) by the name of Baradagi. As an Argentinean poster (Fig. 2-01-001) expresses it, taking a jab at modern science, Baradagi/Varan “rose up from an underwater world to destroy a civilization that wanted to know too much.”
Echoing one of Gojira‘s more mystic moments, an early scene (Fig. 2-01-002) in Daikaijū Baran features a masked kagura ritual similar to the one that took place in Gojira on Ōdo Island. On a side note, it might be mentioned that in the case of both Godzilla (Gojira) and Varan (Baradagi), local inhabitants supposedly write the name of the monster-deity in archaic characters that mimic those of eighth-century Shinto mythology. For the average reader of Japanese, this subtle graphic touch conjures an aura of ancient mystery and quasi-religious awe. The characters for “Gojira” (呉爾羅), incidentally, appear only in the written screenplay and not in the actual movie, and have no particular significance apart from their phonetic value.
Although Tōhō had originally planned Daikaijū Baran as a four-part TV miniseries on order from, and destined for broadcast in, the United States, the television deal was ultimately cancelled and the teleplay became a theatrical release. The movie would indeed cross the Pacific, but in a form that differed markedly from what Japanese audiences had seen in their own theaters upon its domestic debut in 1958. Stateside producer-director Jerry Baerwitz (1925–2008) and scriptwriter Sid Harris, no doubt hoping to duplicate the 1956 success of King of the Monsters, reedited Daikaijū Baran extensively, adding new characters, new actors, and new scenes, while at the same time eliminating others. Crown International Pictures released the resulting feature to U.S. exhibitors in 1962. Despite these efforts, Varan the Unbelievable attracted far fewer viewers than King of the Monsters, nor would it, like its predecessor, play theatrically outside the Americas, with the exception of the U.K. (see Fig. 2-01-003). Paramount distributed the film in Argentina and Mexico.
One feature that distinguished Varan the Unbelievable from the Japanese original, Daikaijū Baran, was its new male lead, played by Hollywood veteran Myron Healey (1923–2005). A U.S. lobby card (Fig. 2-01-004) shows Healey’s character, an American naval commander, in one of the Hollywood-filmed sequences, getting hit in the noggin by a bit actor wearing an unusual mask. In a related publicity still (Fig. 2-01-005), a similar object rests in the hands of Tsuruko Kobayashi, the Japanese-American actress whom Crown International hired to play Healey’s love interest. Both props are bizarre in style, in part a reflection of the fact that their Hollywood designers seem to have fused together Shinto-related visual elements from two separate sources in the original Japanese footage. Whereas the “masked worshipper” motif clearly draws inspiration from the kagura scene at Baradagi’s shrine, the actual features of the mask look nothing like those of the shaggy-haired worshippers at the ceremony. Instead, the face resembles—if you stretch your imagination just a bit—the sculpted image of Baradagi that stares out from beneath a sacred cordon (shimenawa) inside the shrine’s dark recesses during the same scene of the movie, like a fierce, if in this case entirely fictional, Shinto deity. The makeshift bust held by Kobayashi is a pale imitation of the more imposing religious icon of the original, Japanese-filmed sequence.
Daikaijū Baran and Varan the Unbelievable both give significant screen time to the chief priest of Baradagi’s shrine, played by SERA Akira (Fig. 2-01-006‘s white-robed man). He’s one in a long line of unnamed, but nonetheless memorable, Shinto and Shintoesque clerics who appear in kaijū eiga—although Sera’s character is probably the only one to be crushed onscreen by a monster, all the while brandishing a propitiatory wand of Shinto’s sacred sakaki tree. Strictly speaking, the priestly lineage starts with 1954’s Gojira, whose audience briefly glimpses, although it ultimately doesn’t learn much about, the seemingly elderly and male ritualist who presides over the kagura ceremony on Ōdo Island. Shaman-priests, stereotypically depicted with white hair and beard, flowing robes, neck beads, and rustic wooden staff, play a more conspicuous role in 1955’s Jūjin yukiotoko (reedited in Hollywood as Half Human ) and 1958’s Daikaijū Baran, both set in isolated mountain villages in northeastern Honshu (the Tōhoku region).
Much like Shinto over the centuries, the kaijū eiga genre grants considerable power to shamanesses and other female spiritual figures. Prominent examples include the female spirit-medium (itako) of 1966’s Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (U.S. title: Ebirah, Horror of the Deep) and the Okinawan high priestess—shown together with her high-priest grandfather on these Italian posters (Fig. 2-01-007, Fig. 2-01-008)—of 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (U.S. title: Godzilla vs. the Cosmic [or Bionic] Monster). During the Sixties, as the makers of kaijū eiga recycled images of a “primitive” South Seas that were historically rooted in prewar colonialism, both Japanese and Western, exotically staged religious rituals by “native islanders” (as seen, for example, in this U.K. front-of-house still [Fig. 2-01-009] for 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla) became a staple feature of the genre, even as they left unchallenged Shinto’s fundamentally animistic worldview. Judging from the familiar garb he wears in this publicity still (Fig. 2-01-010), the tribal elder played by Japanese-Canadian actor Tetsu Nakamura in Tōhō’s 1970 feature film Space Amoeba (U.S. title: Yog: Monster from Space) might just as easily have been performing rites at a Shinto shrine in rural Japan as praying on the shores of “Sergio Island,” his fictional home in the South Pacific.
Although overseas moviegoers may not always have recognized them, Shinto symbols and artifacts literally littered the kaijū eiga‘s landscape. Even when dwarfed by Godzilla, the distinctively arched gate on top of the mountain in this U.S. promotional still (Fig. 2-01-011) from King Kong vs. Godzilla would have been difficult to overlook for any viewer raised in Japan. The same kind of gate, called a torii, appears in its customary location, the entrance of a Shinto shrine, on this publicity still (Fig. 2-01-012) for 1964’s Ghidorah [AKA Ghidrah], the Three-Headed Monster. The familiar architectural detail infuses the miniature landscape with a sense of everyday peace and calm, as well as of “Japaneseness,” that contrasts effectively with the violent, extraterrestrial nature of Ghidorah, the monster framed inside. A Shinto shrine similarly occupies the foreground in a West German lobby card (Fig. 2-01-013) for Destroy All Monsters (1968), or as the movie was called in German, “Frankenstein and the Monsters from Space.” The auspicious landmark bodes good fortune for Godzilla and Minilla, the father-and-son kaijū in the background, who march toward Mt. Fuji—which is not only a globally familiar emblem of Japanese tradition but also a Shinto holy site (the mountaintop torii of King Kong vs. Godzilla sits, in fact, on Fuji’s summit)—to protect Japan and the world from the alien Ghidorah’s ravages. As was not infrequently the case with publicity images that circulated overseas, the orientation of the photo somehow got reversed in the course of its international travels (compare with the Japanese lobby card in Fig. 2-01-014).
Here’s one final example of Shinto sensibilities and symbolism. In an early scene of 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla (U.S. title: Godzilla vs. the Thing), a group of rural Japanese spot a “monster egg” (tamago no bake) floating off the shore of their coastal community. Before they venture to approach the strange object, they make sure that a Shinto priest has performed a sort of ritual blessing known as oharai, complete with much waving of his sacred sakaki wand. A U.S. lobby card (Fig. 2-01-015) shows the giant egg ringed by inquisitive locals; later in the movie, a larval Mothra will break out from inside the shell. The circle formed by the onlookers, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the sacred perimeter that normally surrounds Shinto holy sites and objects, often cordoned off by a special kind of rope known as a shimenawa. It also makes for an amusing echo of the egg’s own form.