When I first heard about Killer Kaiju Monsters: Strange Beasts of Japanese Film (originally titled Godzilla and Friends: Art of Japanese Monsters before Toho's lawyers presumably swooped in to attack), I was excited. It promised to go in-depth on the monsters, listing their powers, strengths and weaknesses in a way that hadn't really been attempted in an American book since The Official Godzilla Compendium way back in 1997. Except this time, it wouldn't only be on Toho monsters! It declared that "a kaiju research section that assembles data, charts, and figures - valuable scientific findings that will aid in the battle to save humankind," as well as "graphic, full-color illustrations of the most notable kaiju" would be included. Suffice it to say, I HAD to own this book, so I ordered it not too long after its release. And I must say, Killer Kaiju Monsters is a strange little thing. At its core, there's a really fun and interesting book here. But the finished product is... Strange. And not altogether satisfying.
First off, the book is deceptively short. Upon first glance, it looks like it'll take quite some time to read the whole thing, but before I knew it, I had read the entire book not too long after taking it out of its box. It starts off well, with an introduction chronicling the genre's origins, what the kaiju are metaphors for, and the difference between kaiju, yokai and American monsters. Immediately following the introduction is a tear-out page so you can make your own folded paper dinosaur plaything.
Wait, what? Did I accidentally order Killer Kaiju Monsters: Strange Beasts of Japanese Film - Preschool Edition?
After that little oddity is a section called Kaiju Abilities, which lists some of the more noteworthy powers giant monsters often possess, such as flight, shapeshifting, burrowing underground and giving off radiation. Bizarrely, energy projectiles (fire breath, eye beams, heat rays, lightning bolts) are nowhere to be seen. Humorously, the fact that some kaiju don't die when they're defeated, as well as that former enemy kaiju can sometimes become allies, are listed as abilities.
Then, finally, came the main reason I (and I would imagine most other people) was interested in the book - and also, unfortunately, the beginning of the book's problems: The kaiju bios, or as the book calls the section, the Kaiju Dossier. The main problem with the bios is that there are too few of them. I was led to believe that they made up a large portion of the book (that they were the main point of the book, in fact), when in actuality there are only ten: Godzilla, Anguirus, Mothra, Hedorah, King Ghidorah, Rodan, Megalon, Gigan, Minilla and Gamera.
That's it. No King Kong. No Mechagodzilla. No Heisei or Millennium kaiju, or any non-Godzilla Toho kaiju. None of Gamera's foes, no Ultraman monsters and no random kaiju like Gappa, Guilala or Yongary. Now, obviously, I wasn't expecting Vartanian to cover every single kaiju ever. Such a feat would be impossible for any sane individual to attempt on their own. But I was expecting a little more quantity and variety than just nine Godzilla monsters and Gamera.
Aside from this, the bios have strange errors, omissions and inconsistencies throughout. In Hedorah's bio, it says "Origin: Irradiated Godzillasaurus from Sogell Island," a line one can only assume was meant for Minilla's bio. Gigan's origin reads "Prehistoric turtle created by Atlantians," obviously intended for Gamera. It says Anguirus hails from Seatopia and that both Megalon and Gamera are extraterrestrials. King Ghidorah's powers are listed as "Atomic ray / Nuclear pulse / Super regeneration / Magnetic electricity force." Sound familiar? The power lists for Gigan and Megalon mention their respective abilities of teleportation and magnetic vortexes from the Pipeworks video games, which would be fine, except that this isn't done for any of the other monsters.
Each kaiju has a filmography included, and these aren't exempt from errors, either. In Godzilla's, it even includes which kaiju appeared in which movies, but it fails to mention that Rodan, Zilla, Monster X and Keizer Ghidorah were in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). It omits Shockirus from The Return of Godzilla (1984), which normally would be reasonable, except that the section for King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) mentions the giant lizard. It also fails to inform you that Ebirah, Kumonga and the Giant Condor were in All Monsters Attack (1969) or that Mecha-King Ghidorah was in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). In Megalon's filmography, his appearance in the Godzilla Island (1997) TV series is included. I was shocked to see such an obscure part of Godzilla's history acknowledged, but it's cool that Vartanian is being so thorough, right? Except that Godzilla Island isn't mentioned in the filmographies of any of the other kaiju that appeared in the series... oddly enough, not even Godzilla's. Nor are Godzilla, Gigan and Ghidorah's appearances on Zone Fighter (1973) mentioned. And for some reason, Gamera doesn't even have a filmography.
On the plus side, though, the actual bios for the kaiju are accurate (no "he's green and won in the Japanese version" here) and each bio is accompanied by several nice pictures, both images from the movies and poster artwork (Godzilla's even includes a great close-up of the statue in front of Toho Studios). Included are a few that, amazingly, I'd never seen before.
Next up are the Kaiju Cross Sections, and while nothing is technically wrong with these, it again comes off as just plain weird. Included are fantastic cutaways by artist Shoji Ohtomo of Telesdon, Gamera, Gappa, Gyaos, Bullton, Dodongo... and that's it. That's... random. Surely these weren't the "graphic, full-color illustrations of the most notable kaiju" that were advertised, were they? I'd hardly call Dodongo one of the most notable of kaiju, and furthermore, these cutaways are in black and white! But okay, fine, I guess these are the aforementioned illustrations. But why only five, and why such a random selection? I've seen cutaways by Ohtomo of Godzilla, Rodan and various other Toho beasts, where were they?
Following immediately after this is a similar yet much more detailed (multi-page/layer) cutaway of the monster Eyezon, apparently a fan creation of artist Mark Nagata, who also drew Eyezon's cutaways. There's one neat, full-page color piece of artwork featuring Eyezon zapping a tank with an eye beam, but really, this whole Eyezon thing just reeks of needing to pad the book out.
[Having done a quick Google image search after completing this review, it seems that there are toys of Eyezon, so he's apparently a little higher than "fan monster." But still, why the hell would we want a cutaway of someone like Eyezon instead of, oh, say, Godzilla?]
Next is a brief section on kaiju vinyl figures, which starts off revolving around Ultraman figures, but quickly starts featuring toys of completely random monsters, such as Booska, an H.R. Pufnstuf-like creation of Eiji Tsuburaya from the 1960s.
The last 40-ish pages of the book revolve around various art styles that feature all sorts of kaiju, except they're not actually any famous ones. It is this section that is most responsible for my thinking the book would be long when I first saw it - It takes up a criminally large portion of the book. The artwork is admittedly nice, but unless you feel the need to inspect each page very closely and slowly, the section is quite quickly gone through and ultimately feels like a waste.
For me, the book ends with the Kaiju Cross Sections, uh, section, before the Eyezon cutaways begin. The entire last third of the book feels like random, meaningless stuff that was thrown in because someone thought the book was too short or something. And then there are the various errors throughout the Kaiju Dossier section. What's sad is that none of them seem to be mistakes made out of ignorance or lack of caring, but more like Vartanian got a little too trigger happy with the copy-and-pasting. As I said at the start of this review, there's actually a great book in here somewhere. But it feels like Vartanian wrote a really good first draft and meant to go back and finish it, but then forgot to do it in time for publication. Even with what we got, a little more fine-tuning and proofreading would've gone a long way.
Is this the worst book ever? No. It's got its heart in the right place, but it unfortunately fails as the "kaiju encyclopedia" it was touted as. As such, I would only really recommend Killer Kaiju Monsters to fans who just had to have a new Godzilla-related book and no better ones were available.