With the imminent release of the newest version of Godzilla, the cultural phenomenon of the king of the monsters is back in the public eye. It all started back in 1954 when Toho Studios in Japan unleashed the original runaway son of the nuclear A-Bomb in the form of Ishiro Honda’s devastating metaphor for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Gojira. It’s hard to believe that a long lasting film series and the phantasmagorical genres of kaiju eiga (monster films) and tokusatsu (live action masked hero/giant robot television series) sprang from such a depressing, gritty, serious film. The film was imported to the US in an altered version and titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters gaining Raymond Burr as an American journalist narrating the events of the film but losing some of the tragedy and political critique of the United States’ unrestricted testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific. From this bleak, overwhelmingly dismal masterpiece, the Godzilla sensation would catch the public’s attention around the world and as Toho capitalized on the unexpected popularity of their character they watered down the social commentary and gave audiences what they wanted to see: giant monsters destroying cities. From the 1950’s through the 70’s, Toho would reign supreme, releasing 15 Godzilla films (the so-called Showa series) as well as many other sci-fi, special effects extravaganzas that would often cross-over with their Godzilla films like Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961) and those that were self-contained such as Dogora (1964), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), War of the Gargantuas (1966), and King Kong Escapes (1967). It’s hard to believe that Toho’s two biggest exports in the 1950’s and 60’s were giant monster films and the works of Akira Kurosawa. After a short break, Toho would bring back Godzilla in 1984 kicking off the Heisei series that would culminate with Godzilla’s “death” in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. The turn of the century saw Toho resurrect Godzilla for the controversial Millennium series of films which ended with the fiftieth anniversary giant monster battle, 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, which is the last Toho produced Godzilla film to date. Ignoring the 1998 Roland Emmerich directed abortion, there are high hopes for Gareth Edwards’ American take on the beloved icon. In honor of the newest incarnation of the emperor of the kaijus, here are ten of the best Godzilla films to get you in the mood for his return.
10. Godzilla: Final Wars
Toho’s “final” Godzilla film (yeah, right) was picked apart by the Godzilla community but it must have been an example of anticipation being so high that no movie could have met the fan’s fevered expectations. Godzilla: Final Wars is a loose remake of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965) as evil aliens the Xiliens use the Earth’s kaiju to devastate and conquer the planet, resulting in a glorious concoction of monsters, mayhem , martial arts, and action film clichés. Directed by the flashy but always interesting Ryuhei Kitamura, the film is a cut and paste of all the Toho kaiju and tokusatsu films of the past 50 years (including such rarities as Atragon and The War in Space) with some unnecessary nods to The Matrix. Even with all these faults, the film has some of the greatest kaiju ever with some crazy redesigns of Gigan and King Ghidorah. And you get to see Godzilla dispatch his American pretender to the throne.
9. Terror of Mechagodzilla
The 70’s were a strange time for the Godzilla film. Trying to retain their young audience but also attempting to lure in those who wanted to see more violence and sex in films, the final two films in the Showa series saw Toho experimenting with more mature aspects of genre moviemaking, including arterial spray blood effects in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) and nudity in Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). The last film of the Showa series Terror of Mechagodzilla brought back both Ishiro Honda to direct and one of the most impressive creations of in all of kaiju eiga and tokusatsu genres: Mechagodzilla. Mechagodzilla was built by aliens in ape masks from the Third Planet from the Black Hole to conquer Earth and defeat Earth’s defender Godzilla. Its shiny metal sheen and bolted together armor look like what Rube Goldberg would have created if he had been a mad Japanese scientist. Terror of Mechagodzilla tries to return to the more serious tone of the early Godzilla films but can never decide which audience it wants to please, but it’s still massively entertaining.
8. Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth
Technically, Mothra should be the easiest kaiju for Godzilla to defeat. Outside of its wings and its ability to spew out silk when in larvae form, Mothra doesn’t have much to offer and yet the oversized bug is one of the most popular and most frequently appearing kaiju in the genre, even spawning its own series in the 90’s. Maybe it’s those haunting songs that the Little Fairies sing as avatars of Mothra. Mothra’s return in the Hensei series resulted in a box office smash for Toho and cemented the popularity of kaiju in the 80’s. Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth returns to some of the ecological concerns of Godzilla vs. Hedorah but does it in a more New Age/mystical context as Mothra acts as a symbol for the balance of nature. That’s not to say there aren’t some spectacularly destructive action sequences but this film is a more meditative, character driven film than others in the Godzilla series.
7. Godzilla vs. Gigan
Though one would love to praise kaiju films for their drama, their innovative stories, their acting performances, and their subtext, the truth is that one outrageous looking monster can make up for deficiencies in any of these categories. Case in point: Godzilla vs. Gigan. The plot makes very little sense, the story has been told a thousand times, and the acting is monotonous but the introduction of the alien kaiju Gigan is just stunning. Built by cockroach aliens, wearing a cool visor, armed with hooks for hands, and a buzz saw for a belly, Gigan makes no anatomical sense but looks absolutely killer. The film is a mess but it never drags and the hero calls his girlfriend “a hard bitch,” which you wouldn’t expect to hear in such a kid orientated Godzilla film.
6. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
Director Shusuke Kaneko reinvented the kaiju film with his Gamera series in the 90’s by juxtaposing anime style and down to earth realism in his giant monster movies. Kaneko brought his unique vision to the Godzilla series by making Godzilla a villain again and displaying the human consequences of living amongst god-like creatures as well as the shocking after-effects of their clashes for the all too vulnerable inhabitants of Japan. Perhaps the most Lovecraftian of the Godzilla series, Kaneko should have been allowed to make more Godzilla films but the poor box office showing of the film prevented him from returning. The inclusion of the under-utilized kaiju Baragon is another plus.
5. Godzilla vs. Megalon
A film that was once considered the nadir of the Godzilla films has actually aged quite well and now has had a critical turnaround. Yes, there are some really cloyingly lame scenes with the annoying little boy (what is that contraption he is riding at the beginning of the film?) but the characters of Megalon and Jet Jaguar are some of the best kaiju and tokusatsu characters ever (Jet Jaguar was one of Toho’s answers to Ultraman, the other was Zone Fighter) and the tag team battle between Godzilla/Jet Jaguar and Megalon/Gigan is so much fun that you can forgive the pandering to children and just enjoy the great suit work. Plus there’s some nudie pictures plastered all over a truck’s cab, displaying the difference between Japanese and American sensibilities when it comes to movies directed at children. Goofy score by Riichiro Manabe too.
4. Destroy All Monsters
Originally intended to be a celebration and end of the Godzilla series, director Ishir? Honda, genius soundtrack composer Akira Ifukube, and special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya pulled out all the stops for a kaiju battle royale featuring Anguirus, Baragon, Gorosaurus, King Ghidorah, Kumonga, Manda, Minilla, Mothra, Rodan, and Varan. There are some slow parts and meaningless exposition but when the monsters rampage it is a thing of rare beauty. The only thing that bothers me about the film is that Gorosaurus is misidentified as Baragon and shown to be burrowing out of the ground which is not in his nature. OK, it’s a geeky criticism but those who love kaiju will understand. The movie does have the best title of all the Godzilla films though.
3. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah
The best of the Hensei series, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah brings back one of Godzilla’s most fearsome foes in not only its organic form but in a supped up, ultra-cool mecha version too. Utilizing a new twist on the Terminator changing the future by intervening in the past, the film jumps from World War II to the present to the future. Like most time travel films, the implications aren’t quite worked out but it’s still fun nonetheless. Fusing innovative technology, incredible battle scenes, and an alternative origin story for Godzilla, the film has been criticized as a paranoid, xenophobic allegory for the rest of the world’s desire to stop Japan’s prosperity, but Mecha King Ghidorah is so rad one can look past the obvious over done nationalism.
2. King Kong vs. Godzilla
The epic battle between East and West, a WWII rematch, as the King of the Apes faces off against the King of the Monsters with only one creature left standing. The crown jewel of Toho’s 30th anniversary celebration of the founding of their studio, this is the film that made Godzilla a world-wide phenomenon and effectively transformed him from political symbol to action hero. King Kong vs. Godzilla is the culmination of the 1950’s giant monster genre and laid the ground work for a new type of sci-fi film which would revolutionize special effects artistry and movie marketing. And contrary to the urban myth, there was only one ending filmed with King Kong emerging victorious.
1. Godzilla vs. Hedorah
Hated by Godzilla traditionalists but loved by those who are enamored by insane Japanese films, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a mash up of different film styles, tones, and plots all connected by a hysterically grim yet psychedelic ecological warning personified by the pollution-spawned Smog Monster who pretty much owns Godzilla in the film. Director Yoshimitsu Banno brought a maverick, counter culture aesthetic and a radical political agenda to the Godzilla series, suggesting that there are threats that even Godzilla can’t defeat. Featuring acid trips, go-go dancers, hippies playing a free concert, Godzilla’s skin dissolving, kooky animation, lectures about the effects of contamination, and the strangest kaiju ever, this film brought Godzilla into the postmodern era.