While another Fantasia film (Art Kabuki (2020)) deals with the impact of COVID-19 on kabuki theatre, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 concerns itself with another beloved sphere of Japanese culture. This film is an answer to the question: how do you make a kaiju film during Covid? As you know, we here at The Twin Geeks love kaijus. We even rank them. To us, the question of kaiju filmmaking survival is of paramount importance: how can we keep ranking them if they cannot continue to make them? Fortunately, Shunji Iwai’s new film has us covered.
On the Ranking the Monsters podcast we frequently deal with taxonomy, specifically, what is a kaiju movie and what isn’t one? If we are going to be a purist about things (and what’s the point in having niche interests if you are not going to be a pedant about them?), this film is not a traditional kaiju film, it is a post-modern spin on the kaiju genre and a re-imagining of the premise of the giant monster movie during a state of emergency. This is a film that is concerned with limitation more than possibility. The kaiju genre is one of excess and spectacle; this, therefore, uses that idea – ironically – in order to point out the impossibility of excess and spectacle in filmmaking under Covid. It takes a format already familiar during this – hopefully short – period of lockdown cinema: the Zoom movie. Though it is not entirely limited to these screens, like Host (2020), most of the film is told through two person zoom chats.
The narrative here is enjoyably simple: Shinji Higuchi (co-director of Shin Godzilla, 2016) plays a fictionalised version of himself relegated to his apartment due to COVID-19. Filmmaking is not happening and he has decided to pursue other interests, the obvious conclusion being buying some grow-your-own kaijus online. It is a ludicrous premise treated with utter sincerity. Shinji receives some pills and over the course of the film we see them morph into small objects. The objects are obviously little clay constructions, things that fit easily within the palm of your hand, but each is treated as if it was a developing kaiju. We even cut to conversations with a kaiju expert who looks at each one during development and tells us what famous kaiju he thinks it is turning into. This makes the film a brief introduction to notable kaijus and the overt disjunct between what we can see and how it is talked about is delightful.
The film, visually, doesn’t push beyond its limits. It is aware of the constraints of filmmaking when you only have an apartment but does not let this limit the narrative. An ongoing joke is the obvious fakery on screen and how this juxtaposes with how sincerely everything is being treated. Our kaiju expert does not just fill us in on pop culture history, they talk about kaiju as real things and cite their invasions as historical events. All is told with complete sincerity. This is a playful conceit, and makes the basic visuals dryly funny rather than feeling like a filmic limitation; yet, this also hints at the actual impact of the kaiju genre on Japan’s culture. For kaiju fans, these monsters have a reality and this film is very much about the kaiju obsession, and what it means to us oddballs in that subculture.
As a whole, the film is witty and charming. There is a deadpan style to everything; the film takes itself seriously but is obviously incredibly silly. This just works; the dry sincerity of the conversation evokes humour but also reflects something very real about life under COVID-19. I have frequently reflected on how the strangest thing about living in unprecedented times – in a world so different from two years ago in ways I could not have foreseen – is how the unimaginable becomes so normal. The way that kaijus and aliens are referenced as prosaic details, never surprising anybody – and feeling actually banal – is funny but it also gets at something. The bizarre becomes normal very quickly and sometimes we need to reflect on that.
This all being said, the film does lose some steam as it goes along. It is a lovely idea that is handled nicely but, ultimately, would perhaps work better as a short. The film gets repetitive, in a way that could be a comment on repetition under Covid but more feels like a film that has outgrown its premise. The slightness of the film is a huge appeal to start but eventually works against it. We do diverge from Zoom calls at points: footage of Tokyo streets, surreal dance sequences (reminiscent of Jonathan Glazer’s Covid short Strasbourg 1518 ,2020) and YouTube videos. However, the film could benefit from wider experimentation. Breaking from the pure Zoom setup means the overall work does not feel stifled but it could make more out of these lifted restraints. In the end, though, as a clever, post-modern twist on the kaiju genre, and a wider commentary about finding purpose in seemingly purposeless times, this is a delight. It is an imperfect execution but an incredibly charming experiment that will keep the kaijuholics satisfied.