Greetings, monster maniacs! Among my many areas of scientific expertise is the arcane study of kaijuology. This is the discipline devoted to the examination of giant city-wrecking monsters, particularly those centered on the isle of Japan. These towering abominations, known as “kaiju” in Japan, have been a subject of endless fascination for not just the Good Doctor, but the humanoid population at large. The last few years have seen a sharp uptick in interest in kaiju, a phenomenon that warms my heart.
Now you don’t have to have a degree in kaijuology to know who the undisputed king of these beasts is. I speak of Gojira, better known in the English speaking world as Godzilla. He dominates all discussion of the subject. And the question has often arisen: What are the best films featuring the mighty mutation? This is the question that I, Dr. Abner Mality shall attempt to answer here.
I’m going to comb Godzilla’s sizable filmic body of work to select my personal favorites. Of course, personal taste plays a part in the picks and your choices may vary considerably from mine. That’s as may be, but to be honest, I’ve been studying the kaiju phenomenon since I first toddled out of the laboratory…a VERY long time ago. Right away, I will limit my selections to films of the Toho Studio. That means the recent American version directed by Gareth Edwards in 2014 and the abysmal Roland Emmerich travesty of 1998 will not be considered. I actually like Edwards’s film, but it doesn’t seem like a “true” Godzilla film to me.
Let’s get this show on the road! Atomic destruction awaits!
- GOJIRA (1954)
I start with the template for the Godzilla series. Note that I used the original Japanese name Gojira instead of the American name Godzilla. This is intentional because they are actually two very different movies and the Japanese Gojira is the superior film. Most of us here in the States are familiar with the Americanized version featuring Raymond Burr in an extra scene filmed just for domestic consumption. I love that movie because for years that was the only version I could see. But in the early 2000s, the uncut and un-Americanized version was finally released here on DVD. And this is the movie you should go out of your way to see.
In both versions, Godzilla was the unequivocal bad guy. More than that, he was a TRUE monster, without any human qualities. He wasn’t sticking up for the people of Japan or planet Earth. He was a walking atomic bomb combined with the ferocity of a T-rex. PERIOD. But Gojira is much starker and even more ominous than Godzilla. The Burr scenes are excised and the focus is on the devastation caused by Godzilla and the terrible choice made by wounded scientist Dr. Serizawa to end the menace. This movie was made less than 10 years after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that post-war feeling makes this different than any Godzilla film that followed.
One scene sticks in my head. This was cut from the American version. A sobbing mother tries to shield her children as Godzilla is rampaging through the city. “Don’t worry, children…we will be meeting Daddy again soon!” she tells the kids. Then a wall collapses on them. This was not the cuddly Godzilla of Son of Godzilla or Godzilla vs. Megalon in the least!
I also loved the stark black and white photography of the film. This is a monster movie done as film noir. Also, Gojira spends more time with the human characters. Dr. Yamane, played by the great Japanese actor Takashi Shimura, is given more to do. The most compelling character is Dr. Serizawa who, despite his scarred face and eyepatch, is a noble soul struggling with moral issues. His invention—the Oxygen Destroyer—has the capability to be more destructive than Godzilla himself. Japan could conceivably become a world power and even has vengeance on the West if the wrong forces get a hold of it. In the end, Serizawa gives up his own life to preserve the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer. That scene is even more powerful in Gojira than the American version.
Gojira was basically just a Japanese version of the American monster movie Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. But it transcends being a knockoff with a different, more devastating version of the monster as well as a movie with a much different visual approach. And in many ways, the moral questions it brings up help make this the most thoughtful Godzilla film. For that reason, it remains a personal favorite.
- King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Eight years after the debut of Gojira, we have this earth-shattering monster battle. It was the first Godzilla movie in color and the ambitious decision to pit him against the most iconic of America’s giant monsters resulted in a huge success. This was the film that really propelled the Japanese kaiju experience to a different level.
Many would say the film was a far cry from the dead serious and even political debut movie and I won’t dispute that. As an entertaining monster mash that masterfully builds up the confrontation between the two great behemoths, it can hardly be beaten. Kong fans were outraged when they saw the giant ape portrayed by an actor in a cartoonish, scruffy gorilla costume instead of the stop motion creature created by Willis O’Brien in the 1933 original. Can’t blame them for that, but if you put aside stuffy elitism, Kong doesn’t come across too badly. He was blown up greatly in size so he could realistically tussle with the 400 ft. tall Godzilla and also given the strange ability to draw strength from electricity. Let’s face it, Godzilla would have squashed the 50 ft. tall Kong of the original movie like a bug. This way, the two can really mix it up on an equal footing.
Godzilla is still the bad guy in this one, blowing up an American submarine and ruthlessly crushing more Japanese real estate. In a couple years, he would be transformed into a hero for children and a champion for the Earth. While not the total monster of Gojira, he’s still pretty bad ass. When the two giants finally meet for an all-out brawl in the shadow of Mount Fuji, the result is one of the best battles in kaiju history. It’s like a pro wrestling match created for monsters, with Kong trying to stuff a tree down Godzilla’s throat and Godzilla literally trying to dance on Kong’s grave. Rumor had it that two separate endings were filmed, with Kong winning in the American version and Godzilla triumphant in the Japanese show. Actually, Kong was always the winner in both…the separate winners were a creation of the publicity department, one that succeeded brilliantly.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is no great highbrow movie, but damn is it entertaining all the way through. The addition of some slapstick humor among the likable human characters brings a few chuckles, too, and there’s a great sequence where Kong battles a creepy giant octopus in a native village. The pace is quick and the big battle does not disappoint. What’s not to like?
- Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1972)
We jump ahead 10 years for this iconic piece of kaiju craziness. By this time, Godzilla was firmly established as the “good guy” who fights evil monsters for the fate of the world. In the Good Doctor’s humble opinion, none of Godzilla’s opponents was as unique or disgusting as Hedorah, the Smog Monster of the title.
In fact, it’s Hedorah who really dominates this movie. Much of the early running time is dedicated to setting up just how repulsive and bizarre this monster is. Godzilla shows up at the end to brawl with this living embodiment of pollution and kick its ass to the curb. In every way, Hedorah is a unique creature. Able to change size and shape, it’s an animated pile of filthy sludge with evilly glaring eyes that literally feeds on smog and toxic waste. In the 70s, pollution was a “hip” subject in film and nothing brought it to life like Hedorah.
The resulting film is a delirious combination of psychedelic early 70s elements, outright camp, typical kaiju brawling and downright nasty horror. Any contact with Hedorah is toxic. I remember being repulsed to see a tiny kitten stuck in steaming sludge, mewing pitifully. That scene has stuck with me my whole life. Also shocking is the effect of the Smog Monster’s waste on innocent civilians…a crowd of people is reduced to gooey skeletons. These were pretty strong scenes for a movie that appealed to children. But they got the point across: pollution is awful stuff!
This is also the Godzilla movie where hippies dance in liquid light patterns while singing “Save The Earth.” This campy tune has also joined the pantheon of psychotronic memorabilia. In another off the wall scene, children’s primitive drawings of Hedorah come alive through animation. These touches give Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster a different, memorable look.
As for Godzilla, never has he been portrayed more like a brawling reptilian wrestler than here. Whenever he appears on screen, the soundtrack blares with a drunken motif that makes it sound like Godzilla just walked out of a bar. I’m reminded of none other than the famous Milwaukee wrestler The Crusher by the way of the Big G.
During the first confrontation with Hedorah, Godzilla is pretty soundly defeated by the towering sludge heap. The very breath of Hedorah is noxious! But during the final confrontation, Godzilla unleashes a new trick: he curls up his tail, lets loose with his fiery breath and flies through the air! It looks pretty goofy, to tell the truth, but also memorable. And during his second battle with Hedorah, Godzilla has never been more vicious, literally plunging his claws deep into Hedorah’s body and pulling out what looks like eggs! Godzilla really goes crazy and vents his wrath on the Smog Monster, giving physical form to the moviemakers’ hatred of pollution.
I couldn’t say that Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster is the best of the Godzilla series, but it is certainly the most memorably weird!
- The Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
In the 70s, Godzilla movies had gotten pretty juvenile, with Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla being prime examples. With The Terror of Mechagodzilla, an attempt was made at a more serious tone and while there are still some “camp” moments to elicit a chuckle, the movie is surprisingly straightforward and even grim in spots. More importantly, it provides some of the most rock ‘em sock ‘em monster brawls to be found in the entire series.
Like Hedorah and the three-headed space dragon Ghidrah, Mechagodzilla is one of the Big G’s most formidable opponents. He was the one outstanding feature of the juvenile Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and even in that film, he was just a pure ass-kicking machine. In Terror of Mechagodzilla, he was even more devastating and gave Godzilla one of the worst beatings he ever received.
The movie begins with a sub searching for the wrecked remains of Mechagodzilla on the ocean floor…remains which are not found. What is found, however, is a gigantic dinosaur called Titanosaurus, which promptly sinks the sub with the loss of all hands. A team of investigators is called on to look into the matter and they discover the monster is under the control of the bitter old scientist Dr. Mafune. What’s more, Mafune is being aided by alien beings bent on conquest of Earth. These aliens have reassembled and improved Mechagodzilla, who is now even more of a war machine. The killer robot is under the control of Mafune’s cyborg daughter Katsura.
In most Godzilla movies, the non-kaiju plot and action tends to be dull, but here, the story is surprisingly interesting and suspenseful. As for Godzilla, his first encounter with Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus is a disaster, as his scaly tail is thoroughly kicked and he is left for dead.
Eventually, a weakness is found for both Titanosaurus and Mechagodzilla and our monstrous hero goes after them with a vengeance. And I mean, a vengeance. He rips his robot counterpart’s head off completely and thumps Titanosaurus so badly that I felt sorry for the poor dude. After all, he was just a pawn in this game. Ultimately, the alien plot is thwarted and Godzilla is once again triumphant, though not without a cost.
The film is enjoyable and well-directed, with some very cool “shot from below” camera angles during the fight between Godzilla and Titanosaurus. No kaiju fan could be disappointed in the climactic battle and the supporting story is strong. OK, The Terror of Mechagodzilla is not going to challenge Gandhi as a great film, but it’s always been a favorite of mine.
- Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
A lot of radioactive water flowed under the bridge since our previous movie. There was a period of inactivity in the early 80s before Godzilla came roaring back as a bad guy in the 1985 Toho reboot. These “New Age” Godzilla films of the late 80s and early 90s were a pretty strange lot and none were stranger than this film, a whacked out time travel odyssey that pitted Big G against his most famous adversary, the three-headed space dragon Ghidorah.
It’s almost impossible to describe the twists and turns this one takes. Godzilla is clearly the bad guy here, although with strange nuances. We get a completely new origin for him that caused a lot of controversy, too. And the monstrous Ghidorah, a perennial bad-ass, is portrayed as a savior…at least, at first. The plot had a lot to say about Japanese nationalism and was interpreted by some as a call for a stronger Japan.
A group of time travelers from the future arrive in modern Japan with a grim warning: Godzilla will eventually cause a nuclear holocaust that will prevent Japan from becoming the dominant world superpower. These time travelers need to learn the secret of Godzilla’s creation during World War II so they can go back to that point in time and prevent his birth. It seems that a crack troop of Japanese soldiers were pursued to an unknown island by American forces during World War II. Just as the Americans were closing in, a gigantic dinosaur attacks the Yanks and drives them off, although not before suffering a grievous wound. This leads to a strangely touching scene as the leader of the Japanese forces addresses the wounded monster: “We deeply regret that we cannot save the one who saved us, but know that your sacrifice is appreciated.”
Years later, the island is the scene of an atomic blast and the radiation turns that dinosaur, who managed to survive, into Godzilla. I remember some outrage in the American press about how the Japanese soldiers were portrayed heroically while the Americans seemed to be the bad guys. I think it was much ado about nothing, myself.
Now the time travelers go back to this pivotal point in history supposedly to prevent Godzilla’s creation. Actually, their motive is the creation of King Ghidorah, the giant monster they will use to control the world.
The rest of the movie throws in more bizarre time travel twists as well as some memorable brawls between the two kaiju enemies. At one point, Ghidorah gets an upgrade to a new cyborg form that’s pretty cool. At no point is Godzilla shown to be a hero, just the lesser of two evils. The time travelers also make use of humanoid robots as part of their plot.
The movie is goofy and delirious fun and shows the first inklings of improved FX. There’s surprising emotion in some of it. Another memorable scene comes when Godzilla rages through Tokyo in modern times. On the roof of a building is the soldier who led the troops the monster had saved years ago. He is now a major industrialist. The two lock eyes and recognize each other despite all the changes they’ve endured. How it turns out…well, that’s for you to find out.
So those are my picks for the Godzilla films I found to be most memorable and consistently entertaining. It wasn’t an easy choice. I wanted to give honorable mention to 1968’s Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, another sentimental favorite. And who could forget Godzilla’s death scene in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Desstoroyah? That puts a lump in my throat every time I see it.
But these are the selections of Yours Truly, an experienced kaijuologist. Your mileage may vary. One thing is for certain, though….we haven’t seen the last of the mighty Gojira. His adventures will likely continue long past our lifetime!