The word "kaiju" (怪獣; kaijū) has existed long before Pacific Rim adopted it for its vocabulary. The term translates to "strange beast." The prefix "dai-" is sometimes added, changing the meaning to "giant strange beast." For the sake of simplicity, kaiju is often interpreted as "monster."
Monsters such as Godzilla and Rodan are occasionally labeled "daikaiju," while the monsters-of-the-week in tokusatsu (special effects) series like Ultraman are regarded as "kaiju" or "kaijin" (strange person).
The big monster movie didn't necessarily originate in Japan. King Kong anyone? Nevertheless, Japan did make it its own, and is known for perfecting the genre with advanced cinematic techniques. Most of which were adapted in sentai (or Power Rangers) shows.
The grandest of all kaiju is hands down Godzilla, or Gojira in its homeland. Toho Studio's radioactive creation came to prominence in 1954, and continued to reign until 2004. TriStar released its own Godzilla remake in 1998, and it was met with mixed reception. Sixteen years later, Warner Bros. Pictures and Toho have teamed up to reboot the series once again. For your reading pleasure, here are some of the best and worst kaiju films to have ever graced the big screen.
For reference, the terms Showa (1926-1989) and Heisei (1989-current) reflect the eras in Japan. For kaiju, the word "Millennium" refers to the films made in and after 2000.
10 of the Best Kaiju Movies
If you only see one Godzilla movie in your life, this should be it. The first movie that started it all is also the most depressing. The radiated behemoth was a forthright metaphor for nuclear weapons. The destruction scenes even mirror some of the real life events after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is not a happy movie, especially in its original format. The American release was edited, though, and Raymond Burr was added as a reporter character.
|Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999)|
Gamera was Daiei's attempt at emulating the success of Toho's Godzilla franchise. It was more or a less a shoddy series that has been ridiculed by many. Shusuke Kaneko helmed a revival trilogy in the late nineties that finally gave the turtle monster some edge and respect. Unlike the flying reptile's retro ancestor, the new Gamera was an ancient, bio-engineered creature created to eradicate another race of dangerous monsters called Gyaos. Although the new Gamera was basically on the side of humans, its main goal was to destroy the Gyaos. This made the titular kaiju an anti-hero. In the third and final entry in Kaneko's series, this fact was made evident as Gamera had no qualms about casualties in its war against the flying demons it hunted. A victim of Gamera's myopic vision, an orphaned teenager, found solace in a mysterious beast called Iris. The young woman's grudge fueled Iris' development, sending it to destroy the very monster that caused her pain. Kaneko proved that a serious approach to a kaiju film was possible, and his results are outstanding.
|Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)|
After decades of more or less the same old plot rehashed and recycled, Toho gave audiences a refreshing movie that fans either love or hate. Godzilla just made its reasonably successful comeback in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla (or simply Godzilla in Japan). This direct sequel involved Biollante, a bizarre Lovecraftian plant monster with traces of both Godzilla and human DNA. Biollante was not the typical kaiju antagonist - she was not inherently "evil," but a sort of sibling to Godzilla, and the last remnants of a grieving scientist's dead daughter. The film's pacing is at times tedious, and it's notably absent of knockout battle scenes. However, the practical and handmade special effects for Biollante alone are still top notch, and the movie manages to spark some emotion and sense of wonder.
|Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)|
Toho took three of its popular monsters (Rodan and Mothra already starred in their own solo films), and pitted them against a brand new foe in this kaiju classic. The design alone for King Ghidorah, a golden space hydra with sprawling wings, is iconic. This 1967 hit would help shape the formula for future Showa Godzilla vehicles - invading aliens, strange monster enemies, and Hollywood actors sharing screen time with the Japanese cast.
|Godzilla vs. Mechaodzilla (1974)|
Creatively, the Godzilla franchise had hit a wall as the sixties came to an end. Toho introduced a son for Godzilla, Godzilla fought a giant lobster, and the Big G performed a victory dance on the moon's surface. What was next? A metallic rival, of course. Mechagodzilla was actually inspired by Mechani-Kong from 1967's King Kong Escapes. Along with King Ghidorah, this alien-made opponent went on to become one of Godzilla's most popular adversaries. The film also incorporated Japanese folklore by bringing in King Caesar, a monster inspired by the shisa of Okinawan mythology. The name "Caesar" is even a stylized spelling of "shisa." The climatic battle between all three kaiju is commendable for its bright display, often using common tokusatsu effects like rainbow-colored lasers and squibs. Godzilla was reduced to a superhero for the majority of the Showa era, but the theme is not as sappy here as it was in earlier entries.
|Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)|
There are occasions where a reboot works, even excelling over the original. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is one shining example. Shusuke Kaneko took a cheesy(-er) rip-off of Godzilla, and turned it into an incredible trilogy. Starting in 1995, Gamera made its comeback. As discussed above, the turtle kaiju's origins had greatly changed, giving it an almost mythical standing rather it being another product of the science gone wrong cliché. Gamera's old foe Gyaos was updated, too, making it a withstanding force of evil instead of a throwaway villain. While the basic elements of a daikaiju movie are still there, the improved visual effects, and better story and pacing really carry this. Gamera was pegged as a friend to kids in the Showa age, but here his main human ally is a teenager named Asagi (played by Steven Seagal's daughter, Ayako Fujitani). Their bond is more founded in spiritualism than hero worship, and lends more credence to the "leap of faith" design. If Godzilla's franchise has somehow never appealed to you, give the Heisei Gamera a try. The first and third movies are certainly the best of the bunch.
|Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)|
The millennium era of the franchise was off to a rocky start. Gamera director Shusuke Kaneko was enlisted to bring his magic to the series. And he did just that. GMK (less of a mouthful than the full title) takes place nearly fifty years after the original film. Godzilla returns, possessed by the spirits of the fallen Japanese soldiers from WWII. An old prophecy foretells the arrival of three guardian beasts that will stop the threat. Kaneko's original script had Anguirus, Varan and Baragon as the monster trio that would defeat Godzilla. Toho eventually replaced the first two with Mothra and King Ghidorah, two of the company's more popular characters. Kaneko wanted Godzilla to be the most powerful monster here so the latter two kaiju were deliberately made weaker. GMK gives fans a far more complex story than they're used to, and there is some surprising development from the monsters. Aside from the kaiju drama, there is a rather well done human-sized story involving a reporter and her military father, whose parents died in Godzilla's 1954 attack.
|Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)|
Toho finished the nineties era with a somewhat fitting end for Godzilla - they killed him/her (Japan does not usually refer to Godzilla as male or female). The Oxygen Destroyer, the very device that saved Japan from the original Godzilla, radically mutated a race of prehistoric crustaceans. Collectively, these creatures are Destoroyah, Godzilla's executor. As a result of its parent's constant discharge of radiation, Little Godzilla from Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla had matured into a young adult. As the fledgling dealt with Destoroyah, the paternal 'zilla had become a walking time bomb. All of that atomic energy within Godzilla was going to be its ultimate undoing - it would detonate, causing a wake of destruction around the monster. At this point, Godzilla was not portrayed as a hero like it was in the Showa age. Yet the last Heisei entry showed a more sympathetic side to Godzilla. Only the most heartless viewer could be left untouched by the ending of Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.
|Godzilla x Mechagodzilla (2002)|
Mechagodzilla was once a device used by aliens in the Showa age, but it was turned into a weapon of good for mankind in the contemporary movies. Mind you the two robots have no connection other than name. The millennium's manifestation was more of a cyborg as it contained replicated genetic materials from the remains of the first Godzilla. To differentiate it from Mechagodzilla's evil past, the new model was dubbed "Kiryu," which translates to "silver dragon." The director also helmed the disappointing Godzilla x Megaguirus, but this project is superior in every way. The balance between CGI and practical effects is better handled, and the human interaction is more organic. This is a Godzilla film made for both young and adult fans.
|Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)|
This list's dark horse is 1971's Godzilla vs. Hedorah. The theme of the film is anti-pollution, and that message is not remotely subtle. An alien creature combines with the trash and smog of Japan, forming a walking sludge monster that can change its form like a frog or butterfly. The name "Hedorah" is a play on the Japanese word for "vomit" - hedoro. The movie is full of psychedelic imagery and hippie wisdom, which assuredly makes it seem dated. On the other hand, there are darker moments that are startling. Such as the rather graphic on screen deaths of humans, fatalities of Hedorah's poisonous wrath. To offset these grim scenes, director Yoshimitsu Banno added a peculiar part where Godzilla flies by atomic breath propulsion. The odium for Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a bit inflated. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was so upset with the movie, even saying Banno "ruined Godzilla," that he banned Banno from directing another Toho movie. Putting that aside, viewers should still see this as it is one of the most unique kaiju films. Digimon fans will notice that one particular episode of the first series pays homage to Godzilla vs. Hedorah.
10 of the Worst Kaiju Movies
Pulgasari has a sordid history that is far more interesting than the movie itself. In 1978, Kim Jong-Il, son of then-ruler Kim Il-Sung, had South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok as well as his ex-wife abducted, and then taken to North Korea. Jong-Il was apparently a big Godzilla fan, and he wanted to make his own kaiju movie. With the younger Kim's financial backing, Shin was forced to make propaganda films, including Pulgasari. To make things even more odd, members of Toho Studios actually helped with the special effects in Pulgasari. Godzilla's suit actor from years 1984 to 1995, Kenpachiro Satsuma, played the titular kaiju. Pulgasari was based on an folk tale featuring a bull-like creature of the same name. The story, set in feudal Korea, included peasants trying to overthrow a corrupt monarchy. In spite of all the hype, Pulgasari is too much of a chore, and quite honestly the most boring kaiju film. Not to mention viewers may have a tough time getting through it knowing what happened behind the scenes.
|All Monsters Attack (1969)|
One of the worst things a television show can do is to make a clips episode. Looking at you, Golden Girls. They might as well just air a rerun. All Monsters Attack, or Godzilla's Revenge stateside, is sixty-nine minutes of some new scenes spliced with old ones from previous Godzilla movies. If you're not a fan of Minya, Godzilla's son, you should avoid this one altogether. The movie's saving grace is Gabara, a dream monster that looks like the offspring of a Japanese ogre and a cat. It wailed on Minya like only a high school bully can.
For those who complain about the first Godzilla remake, try to watch the re-imagining of South Korea's 1967 Yonggary. TriStar's Zilla flick was fun and entertaining even if a loose adaptation of the source material. The 1999 Yonggary is a mess from start to finish. The story is straightforward: the remains of a huge dinosaur are uncovered and eventually resurrected as an alien monster. Once Yonggary is free of the aliens' control, another space creature called Cycor is sent down to finish it off. Despite being produced by a South Korean company, the cast is predominantly non-Asian and the dialogue is in English. This was probably done so the film would have more "international appeal." The acting is stilted, and watching the actors recite dull lines from the weak script has to be some kind of karmic punishment. As for Yonggary and Cycor, they are so poorly rendered that one has to wonder if they're watching an unfinished movie. The CGI effects look worse than some computer generated news reenactments. To cash in on the 1998 Godzilla remake, Yonggary was renamed "Reptilian" and released straight-to-video in the west.
|Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)|
This movie makes little sense, which is probably a moot point when it comes to kaiju culture. The 1965 Frankenstein Conquers the World (originally titled Frankenstein vs. Subterranean Monster Baragon) was slated to be a sequel to King Kong vs. Godzilla, and it was supposed to entail Frankenstein's monster fighting Godzilla. Things changed, and a new opponent, Baragon, replaced Godzilla. This could explain why Baragon had a heat ray that was never seen again in its future reappearances. The plot concerned a young man being born from the lost heart of Frankenstein's monster. Radiation increased his height, having him reach twenty meters. When reports of humans being eaten in the countryside hit the news, the Frankenstein clone is blamed. Labeling this film as outlandish is an understatement. On the plus side, it's competently made bearing in mind what time it was released, and Baragon became very popular in Japan. This being a co-production between Toho and American company UPA, the Japanese studio catered to UPA's request for including the Giant Octopus from King Kong vs. Godzilla. A brief spar between Frankie and the oversized sea mollusk was intended to follow the climax. Everyone recognized that its insertion was inexplicable so it was cut altogether. Luckily for fans, it can be found as supplemental material on the North American DVD release. A direct sequel, The War of the Gargantuas, came out in 1966.
|Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)|
An undersea nation sends cockroach god Megalon to destroy the human race. The only things in its way are robot Jet Jaguar and Godzilla. To even the odds, the enemy summons Gigan from space to aid Megalon. That is the movie in a nutshell. It's cheaply made, and relies on stock footage from the director's previous work, Godzilla vs. Gigan. The story borrows from tokusatsu series Ultraman: a humanoid enlarges itself to do battle with a kaiju. How this simple robot managed to alter its mass to that degree is not explainable. While Godzilla vs. Megalon is tame and uninspiring, the director redeemed himself with the following year's Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.
|Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994)|
The idea of Space Godzilla, formed by combining stray Godzilla DNA with an alien organism, was both ambitious and inane. Regrettably, the execution of the movie was far from exciting, and the galactic adversary was vaguely threatening. There was just something off with this film, and the dawdling pacing is a major hindrance. At least Little Godzilla is adorable to look at, and the redesign for Moguera from The Mysterians is reasonably good.
|Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)|
Through a child's eyes, this seemed like one of the greatest Godzilla movies ever. As an adult, you really see just how terrible it is. Gigan is a welcome addition to the villain line-up in Godzilla's universe, but the alien invader's debut is a stinker. Godzilla and its buddy Anguirus team up to thrwart cockroach aliens' monster henchmen, Gigan and King Ghidorah. Some scenes from Destroy All Monsters are utilized here, particularly the scene where Anguirus fights Ghidorah solo. The most ludicrous occurrence has to be where Godzilla and Anguirus have a coherent exchange of words in the English dub. Godzilla vs. Gigan was what came of several Toho projects that never happened: Godzilla vs. the Space Monsters: Earth Defense Directive and The Return of King Ghidorah.
|Gamera vs. Zigra (1971)|
It seems almost pointless to put any of the Showa Gamera movies on a list of bad kaiju films. All of them were dreadful, and they make even the worst Godzilla pictures look better just by comparison. Gamera vs. Zigra was the last original movie in the franchise before entering cinematic dormancy. In 1980, Daiei put out Gamera: Super Monster, which heavily relied on stock footage. In its last outing, Gamera faced an alien race known as Zigra looking to seize Earth's waters. Gamera ultimately challenged the aliens' goblin shark monster, also called Zigra. Gamera won and played a little tune on the fish's fins. Daiei was really scraping the bottom of the barrel.
|Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)|
For Godzilla's fiftieth anniversary, Toho essentially remade Destroy All Monsters. Action and horror director Ryuhei Kitamura (Azumi, The Midnight Meat Train, No One Lives, Versus) was made director of this elaborate project. Aliens use Earth's kaiju in their global domination plans, and Godzilla travels all over the world to stop them. Final Wars pays homage in several ways (i.e., Out of respect, Godzilla neutralizes old allies as opposed to killing them) to the earlier films. Then it dissolves into a mindless action flick devoid of the long-standing spirit of Godzilla. What made the experience more exhausting was the appalling acting from so many of the human actors. Final Wars may have been slightly better if they had minimized any plot involving humans altogether. There is some fun here, but the finished product is just overcrowded and wastes potential.
|Mothra 3: King Ghidorah Attacks (1998)|
Since Mothra is without a doubt one of the most popular kaiju in Japan, Toho naturally gave it its own solo series of films. Starting in 1996, the first of three films was released. Sadly, longtime Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka died several months after. Two more movies followed in 1997 and 1998. The most noticeable difference between Mothra's and Godzilla's franchises is the staggering element of fantasy. Mothra's adventures are preposterous and downright naive. Godzilla often dealt with darker issues, or more grim situations. As established with the first Mothra entry in the Heisei trilogy, the big bug is a guardian of Earth and its inhabitants. Whenever a monstrous threat approaches, Mothra is ready to pounce. Along the way, it receives power upgrades like some kind of RPG hero. The concluding piece in the series has Mothra facing off with Grand King Ghidorah, the ultimate form of the golden dragon. Remember that none of the actions in these movies are canon with Godzilla's universe (which often contradicts itself anyway). When things go bad, Mothra goes back to the Cretaceous period to defeat Ghidorah's young form, thus ensuring the death of present day Ghidorah. Or so that's the theory. You have to give it to the writers - they really didn't care to follow any rule books. They went with it without looking back. Apart from that kudos, Mothra 3 is beyond asinine. The scientific logic, if there is any, doesn't seem to compute either. Another detractor is the shoddiness of the dinosaur models. Even the nineties Land of the Lost reboot had better-looking dinos. The highlight of this disaster is Grand King Ghidorah: the kaiju looked amazing.
What's your favorite/least favorite monster movie?
See the new Godzilla in theaters on May 16th.