In 1953, blocky kanji lettering announced “An Atomic Kaiju Appears” on a Japanese film poster, this bold red tagline taking dominance over the American monster movie’s title, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Between the success of this release and the following year’s Gojira (transliterated as Godzilla), production studios began scrambling to capitalize on this craze for kaijū, the Japanese word for “strange monsters.” And, twelve years later, this popularity was embraced by Japanese vinyl toy makers when Marusan Shōten released their 9-inch tall Godzilla rendition in 1966, whose well-received issuing would spawn a tidal wave of similar pieces over the following decades. But with a limited number of kaiju being introduced in films and television every year, it wouldn’t be long before vinyl toy producers began creating “new kaiju,” strange monsters that never appeared on the silver or small screens.

The Birth of New Kaiju

An already established doll manufacturer, Japanese company I.K.B entered the kaiju arena in 1971 with three renditions of the titular smog monster from Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Each representing one of the three different stages of the creature shown in the movie — standing, walking, and flying — these were properly titled ヘドラ1号 (Hedorah No. 1), ヘドラ2号 (Hedorah No. 2), and ヘドラ3号 (Hedorah No. 3), though these crude vinyl versions are commonly referred to collectively as Hedorans or Hedorons. Popularly believed to not be officially licensed, making them arguably the first examples of mass-produced bootleg kaiju, perhaps of greater historical importance was the followup release under I.K.B’s Kōgai Kaijū (公害怪獣, or “Pollution Monster”) series branding: Smogon (スモゴン), a garbage-based kaiju that was completely original.

Alternately known as Mosugon, スモゴン1号 (Smogon No. 1) also debuted in 1971, this walking trash heap stood upon cars for feet, its legs and torso comprised of oversized tires while its pickup truck for a head sported headlight eyes. Having been issued in two differing painted colorations, as opposed to the Hedorans’ three variations apiece, this new kaiju design was reportedly a “hit” that was inexplicably abandoned, the packaging art’s depiction of スモゴン2号 (Smogon No. 2) never being released by I.K.B and seemingly destined to be forgotten. That is until the mid-2000s brought reinterpretations of I.K.B’s Hedorah and Smogon creations by “indie” brand Gargamel and proper reproductions by the companies Hukkokudo and Target Earth, the latter of which resurrected Smogon No. 2 in 2008. But this wasn’t the design’s first factory-produced vinyl form…. It had surfaced in 2005 as part of what Super7 Magazine co-founder Brian Flynn had coined “neo kaiju.”

The Advent of Neo Kaiju

Reportedly conceived in 2002, Flynn’s “neo kaiju” terminology may literally mean “new kaiju” but the vintage vinyl historian meant it to indicate any thoroughly contemporary works that had been strongly influenced by classic strange monsters. Though not explicitly linked to the art toy movement, the two became entwined with 2004’s The Neo Kaiju Project collection from Super7 and STRANGEco, a series that tasked five fine artists with each radically reimagining a traditional kaiju as well as conceiving one of their own. In the aftermath of this prominent usage, the term neo kaiju was retroactively applied to several works as well as those introduced in the proceeding years, including 2005’s debut sculptural form from the anonymous Japanese artist known as Bemon: his rendition of the Smogon No. 2, its heritage celebrated on his silk-screened packaging whose front illustration is reminiscent of that from I.K.B’s Smogon.

Avoiding the name Smogon No. 2, Bemon titled his creation Kogai Kaiju, an obvious reference to the I.K.B series branding for their Hedorah and Smogon releases. With the Kogai Kaiju garbage monster’s smoke-stacked head having sewer vents oozing pollution on the backside, its raw body formation felt tonally aligned with the I.K.B aesthetic. But what pushed Bemon’s concept past its vintage roots was his refusal to have his factory-produced vinyl form be factory-painted, the artist being one of the first — if not the first — to insist that every piece be issued either unpainted or hand-painted by himself. Having since become a staple attitude for many neo kaiju and even new kaiju creators, this next level direction has become a keystone principle for making the potentially traditional transcend into works of art, including the likes of Paul “Paulkaiju” Copeland, Joe “Splurrt” Merrill, and Rich “Mutant Vinyl Hardcore” Montanari Jr, who debuted his own Kougai Kaiju rendition in 2018 (learn more here).
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