The Monster Heart of the Best American Kaiju Film in Years
Director Nacho Vigalondo's monster movie has some unlikely influences.
It might seem, judging solely by the log line, that director Nacho Vigalondo’s new movie Colossal is a bit of an ironic twist on the old kaiju-eiga tradition. Anne Hathaway, playing an alcoholic whose inner beast is embodied by a giant monster that wreaks havoc on Seoul? It has to be a joke, right? But fans of the genre, which features skyscraper-sized creatures and robots that most often destroy east Asian cities, need not worry: Vigalondo is one of them.
“I’d love if kaiju fans, which I am, enjoy the movie as a kaiju-eiga film,” Vigalondo told Inverse last week. “I didn’t want to play a joke on those films. I didn’t want to make a comment on those films. I understand people get that impression before they see the film, but I don’t want the movie to feel like we’re mocking kaiju-eiga films.”
Fans of the genre have some reason to be picky: After decades of being relegated to poorly dubbed import videos and clueless remakes, kaiju movies are finally being taken seriously in America. A tradition perfected in countries like Japan and Korea, the genre is half blockbuster, half human story, topped with a bit of political commentary. Hollywood has pumped big money into movies that emphasize the first half of that equation; Guillermo del Toro put his twist on the genre with 2013’s Pacific Rim while Legendary Pictures has set the rebooted Godzilla and King Kong on a collision course in a new monster multiverse.
Vigalondo’s movie, however, is focused more on the more human side of the equation, which puts it a cut above the big studio blockbusters. Hathaway plays Gloria, a flailing drunk who has to move back to her small hometown after being kicked out of the New York City apartment she shares with her now-ex, Tim (Dan Stevens). Her return to the suburbs leads to the sudden re-appearance, after several decades, of a gigantic monster that terrorizes South Korea. This is sci-fi, so the two are directly connected, and Gloria’s need to clean up her own act has consequences far beyond the health of her liver and bank account. Her reconnection with an old friend named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) only adds an extra twist in both her fate and that of the 25 million people that live in the Seoul metro area.
Inverse spoke with Vigalondo about his lifelong love for the kaiju genre, his monster inspirations, and more.
I was talking with a coworker who saw the movie, and he said the robot in your movie reminded him of Mazinger-Z.
Oh Mazinger-Z, of course. He was really popular in Spain. He was the most popular giant creature coming from Asia when I was a child. That was a big one. So more than big Godzilla-like creatures, we were used to giant robots. I remember when I was a child that the quintessential big monster was still King Kong. The first remake came in 1986 maybe —
It came out in 1976. There was a sequel to that in ‘86 that was really bad.
That’s the one I was thinking about, the sequel, because that was the first one I saw. I wanted those two creatures to feel part of the same theme of where the other movies come from. I wanted to make an orthodox kaiju and an orthodox giant robot. I didn’t want to make something that felt too contemporary or far from the tradition. They had to be really different from each other, had to feel like antagonists. These were the two big principals we followed.
Mazinger was your favorite?
Oh Mazinger-Z, all the time. I was really impacted when Voltron came to Spain, but it was just a toy. I don’t remember a narrative feature with Voltron. Five tigers that become part of a big giant robot, I’m OK with that.
Humans controlling the kaiju was Ultraman-esque, too.
Ultraman was something that in Spain, if you wanted to know about Ultraman, you had to be a teenager or older and be into fanzines. If you know Ultraman in Spain, it was because you were already a counter-culture warrior. So you were aware of what was happening in other countries.
Was it hard to get a hold of that stuff as a kid?
Kaiju-eiga fans in Spain are people my age, people who bought stuff at import stores. Also, I have to say something: Power Rangers were a really big thing in the ‘90s in Spain, also. I was already too old for Power Rangers when they came. I enjoyed them, but I have to say that it was with some kind of irony for me. It was so weird to see these clearly American characters becoming part of this clearly Japanese footage, with the accidental change of sex of one of the characters.
The Asian girl has a crotch when she becomes the Power Ranger, because he’s clearly an actor and not an actress. In the original casting there was only one girl, and in the American casting there’s two girls, so you can tell one is becoming a man. So I was enjoying it, but not from a true point of view. Which is a shame, I don’t like the idea of being ironic.
Colossal was a bit like that, in that it’s two cultures being mashed together.
The movie is really stuck to Anne Hathaway’s point of view and didn’t have a chance to explore what happened in both places in an equal way. I needed Anne Hathaway to talk to a Korean woman as some kind of thematic closure of the whole thing. But through the whole thing, I’m just sticking to her and watching everything through the media. And so instead of [perspectives] being equal, I’m making a commentary on media about terrible things happening to people far away from us.
What was the inspiration for Anne Hathaway’s kaiju?
There’s a Korean kaiju called Pulgasari; it looks a bit like that. If the monster was kind of small, a tiny creature, you could say it looks like a gremlin somehow. … I’m coming up with this idea right now.
When you were first selling the idea, Toho, the production company that originally created Godzilla, was a little upset with you, and sued over the film.
As you can see, the movie has nothing to do with Godzilla. The suit came from the way the project was being sold in Cannes. It was something related to the company that sold the movie there. Everything is happily settled, and it’s not affecting our lives anymore. And I have to say the movie was done following the original plan. The movie is the same. Nothing from that suit altered the movie, and I feel now the relationship is kind of great.
Do you anticipate releasing this in Asia and seeing people how people respond there? Are you going to go there and promote it?
I’d love to, of course. I’m really happy to have this chance to represent this movie. I’m an average filmmaker, and I’m going to give the average answer: I’d love to be there.
It’s just a different audience; there’s a small group of Americans who like kaiju films, but the movie is much more in line with Asian cinema. And it’s about a drunk American crushing Seoul.
I’m a big consumer of Asian fiction. I love Korean films. Coming from Japan, I’m a reader of manga. That’s what I read the most, actually. I fully respect Asian fiction, but I respect it so much that the only way I can make something that feels Asian is through this window, watching things from a distance. I really respect that culture.
Did any manga influence the movie at all?
The first manga that I read is the same manga that so many people read for the first time. I was like 16-years-old when I read Akira, and Akira has a really peculiar treatment of the antagonist. The antagonist in Akira is not evil from the beginning and not a surprise in the end. It’s a guy who you see turn. Many people in Akira have big power; some people use it in the right way, some use it in the wrong way. I’m not saying that I had Tetsuo in mind when I wrote Colossal, but you can find something there.
I wish I was influenced by all the great stuff I’ve read. Some people, when they ask about your influences, I think they express it wrong. You know what you like, but you don’t know what influences you. Of course I love Scorsese, of course I love Fritz Lang, of course I love Chantal Ackerman, Roman Polanski. But do those guys influence me? I wish!
You once said you like kaiju because they’re just confused creatures, not malicious. But many kaiju movies do have missions, whether it’s Godzilla destroying power plants, or Mothra protecting the homeland.
That’s one of the big challenges that the writers meet when they make a movie about these creatures. I’m not talking just about the old Godzilla writers, but in the recent films, you can tell that the big challenge is how can we relate to these giant creatures with those tiny insects of humans? How can we make a story where they’re related in a realistic way? In old kaiju-eiga films, you get the big battle and you can see the scientist in the distance watching everything with binoculars, and his daughter is in love with a journalist. And the journalist has a problem with the Yakuza.
So we have that plot in the background, and you can tell the effort into making all the stuff make sense together. If you’re a kid — or even an adult — if you are watching one of these movies, you are there for the monster. The movie is a sandwich and the monsters are the meat — but you need the bread, which is the human element, in order to keep things going for 100 minutes.
That was one of the things that triggered me to make this film. I thought, OK through this formula, I can make a kaiju-eiga film in which the human element is completely tied in.
I felt like that was the problem with the 2014 Godzilla movie: Those two elements weren’t tied together at all.
I loved the film, but I loved it for all the decisions made by the filmmaker in terms of the camera angles. How the camera was watching the whole thing. I loved the way it was shot. All the problems came from the script itself. Who cares about this guy around all those gigantic creatures fighting? They probably should have killed the guy within the first ten minutes of the film, but I have to say that it was shot in such a beautiful way. It was really something that was really enjoyable.
The Americans in the bar watching the action in your film didn’t feel a connection to the people who were trampled and killed.
It’s not about the distance, it’s about the differences. The visual differences. If that happened in London, the reaction would be different. We freak out about a terrorist attacking London, but if it happens in Libya, it’s not the same. It’s as simple as that. We were horrified of September 11 the same way most of the world was horrified, but if a big giant bombing happens in a different culture, we’d probably accept things in a different way and use a different language to talk about it. Some things are called terrorist attacks, other things are “incidents,” depending on the guy doing the attack. Terrorist, or lone wolf going crazy.
Colossal is in theaters in New York and LA on Friday April 7th, and nationwide a week later.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity