One of the most striking visual elements of Gene Kim's animated short One Last Monster, currently touring festivals, is the giant turtle tanks.
The kingdom of Adin is led into war by enormous, stocky chelonians with cannons mounted on their backs. They are a formidable defense, extremely cute—and rooted in one of the favorite tales of Korean history.
Kim told me that the turtles were inspired in part by Korean vessels called turtle ships that famously repelled Japanese invaders during the Imjin War between 1592 and 1598. The ships remain a great source of national pride, because they were among the first armored vessels in the world.
But the turtle tanks also lumbered into being when Kim saw someone walking three turtles in New York's Central Park. "I saw them and thought, what if we scaled these guys up to kaiju size?" he said, referring to the giant monsters of Japanese cinema.
The turtle tanks, then, are large enough to have roots in Korea, Japan, and the US—which is a good description of One Last Monster itself.
The short mixes Korean history and Korean American immigrant experiences with Asian and Western animation traditions. The result is a story that insists that you show your love for your land most when you invite other people in, not when you keep them out.
Kim was born in South Korea and moved to the US when he was 2 years old. His father is a certified public accountant, and his mother was a jewelry designer; he credits her with his artistic inclinations.
Kim worked as an intern at Pixar during college and at Disney after he graduated, but he was fascinated by the idea of creating his own project rooted in Korean culture. With a loan from his parents, he began writing what became One Last Monster in 2016, just around the time that Donald Trump's xenophobic, anti-immigrant US presidential campaign ramped up.
The short film has been showing at festivals for the past couple of years and won the 2020 First Prize for Best Animated Short from the Flickers' Vortex Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror Film Festival.
The movie is about the mythical kingdom of Adin, ruled by Empress Eura (voiced by Martha Harms). Adin borrows many elements from Korean culture; Eura is often shown snacking on Korean fried chicken.
"She knows her food!" Kim said. Adin also shares Korea's history of invasion—though the conquerors are Japanese-movie-monster-influenced kaiju from outer space rather than Japanese or Chinese forces from overland or overseas.
In order to stave off the invaders, Eura builds a massive fortress. In addition, her martyred husband, Emperor Taejo, leaves her a mysterious flame of great destructive power.
When she starts to use it, though, a giant toothy blue kaiju named Didas appears. He claims that flame is too dangerous and offers to magically repair the damage done in previous invasions if Eura will let him destroy it.
Didas is voiced with a rumbly, comforting bass by Mike Meth. Even so, though, prejudice and fear make it hard for Eura and her people to trust the giant. "Your husband wanted to make Adin a paradise, not a den of monsters!" one irate advisor tells her.
The destructive flame and the imagery of what it did on Didas's world are in the tradition of apocalyptic Japanese anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, which reflect on Japan's experiences as the one nation that has been targeted by nuclear weapons.
Kim said, though, that he was also thinking about North Korean isolationism and atomic threats. "Adin's rhetoric is very much, 'Let's destroy everybody else, or ensure that we can destroy everybody else, so that we can be safe,'" he told me.
The film nods to North Korea's paranoid xenophobia, but it's also a nod to the paranoid xenophobia that can prevail in the US as well. Particularly with the current increase in anti-Asian violence in the US, it's easy to read One Last Monster as a parable about conditions in North America now, rather than the standoff in the Korean Peninsula.
Didas does the work of rebuilding Adin. But no matter how much infrastructure he constructs or how much food he creates for the sleepy turtle tank, he's still considered an outsider.
"Your majesty, must I prove myself more?!" he asks in exasperation. The answer, unfortunately, is yes; immigrants never get to stop proving themselves. Even when (or especially when) it's possible those immigrants may be the object of a certain amount of romantic interest.
One Last Monster doesn't really develop its hints about Eura and Didas becoming more than friends. The short is only 23 minutes long, and in places it feels rushed and underdeveloped.
We never really learn what the flame is or why Eura is the one person able to control it. Her dead husband's motivations and her future marriage obligations are also opaque.
It's hard to gauge her decisions, because we don't have a strong sense of how much of an ongoing threat Adin actually faces or who wants to invade it.
Ancient Korea really was under constant threat of military takeover; the present-day US, not so much. Adin is sort of both at once. That creates interesting parallels but also some incoherence.
It's true that not everything in One Last Monster fits together. But, as with the turtle tanks, the awkwardness has its own charm. It's a hodgepodge of anime traditions, Western animation, and Korean history and ideas.
For the creators, that presented many challenges—finding visual references to design clothing, architecture, and other aspects of the world was surprisingly difficult, Kim said. But the animation was also an opportunity to create something that looks and feels different from any of its sources.
In an inversion of Beauty and the Beast, the story ends with Eura somewhat unexpectedly turning into a big blue kaiju herself. Didas changed Adin, and/or vice versa.
The One Last Monster of the title isn't necessarily the last invader but the thing that grows when different monsters meet. Kim, like Eura, is a constructive kaiju.
Who knows what worlds you can make when you knock down a few walls?
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement