Or: Recommended Godzilla Films For Fans Of Different Sub Genres Who Don’t Know Where To Start
I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since Gareth Edwards Godzilla with Warner Bros, can you? Time flies and Godzilla marches onward.
In anticipation of Michael Dougherty’s sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, many American audiences will be introduced to these classic Toho monsters for the first time, and many old fans will come to meet them again in a completely new way.
With 35 films in the 65 year franchise, there are too many to choose from, with over 20 monsters and counting in its history. It’s about as daunting as jumping into Silver and Golden Age Marvel Comics to see where the MCU may be headed.
This list is one set to help guide potential new fans into their first foray with the Toho Monsters’ mythology, and link the best places and ways to watch them.
Warning: this is a hard egg to crack because, while folks like myself have enjoyed Godzilla since before they could even remember their early childhood, I have to objectively admit that these films are very hard to watch. At best, they’re embarrassingly goofy, at their worst they’re dull and slow. Even as a fan it’s hard to suggest watching most of these films in their entirety.
For those of us with early memories of Uncle Goji, those days include burnt microwave popcorn, hard plastic VHS tape cases at the rental store and being actively bored during sequences of human plot and fast forwarding a VCR to the sequences of blowing up models and fighting monsters (the Tokusatsu genre in a nutshell). For folks even earlier than the advent of home video, it was turning the dial into the Creature Double Feature block on network television in the ’70s and ’80s, and sitting through the whole thing. And for all of us, the struggle was worth it for drinking in those fantastical giant monster fights, even if the stunts were lame and the costumes made of rubber. The monsters were well designed, and boy did they have personality. This list is intended to help newcomers capture that in a few different ways.
On this list, instead of simply ranking the films from 10 to 1, select films have been assorted into a category for the kind of film fan they may appeal to, which is why, instead of a number, you’ll see something that looks like a title for a Friends episode.
If there is one thing the Godzilla franchise can be credited for, it is spanning a wide variety of sub-genres to frame the giant monster presentation around. While some don’t work, there are gems to be found throughout this series. Personally, I find a lot of these are goofy, casual weekend afternoon movies, not the kind where you turn the lights down in your home theater and crank the sound. Luckily, Mike Dougherty’s adaptation is set to change that on an epic scale…
I hope this list is of use to you, and I’ll see you next week with a review of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and in the theaters with IMAX and DolbyVision and everything else on Friday May 31, 2019.
The Godzilla for Anime Fans:
Directed by Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi
This movie is for the kind of folks who like witty, face paced dialogue. If you’re used to films with snarky characters talking politics like Aaron Sorkin’s (The Newsroom, The West Wing) and an aptitude for reading subtitles from years of munching on anime, this is the pick for you.
The production value and effects are the most recent you’ll find apart from the Legendary/Warner Bros features. Shin-Godzilla was a pivotal rejuvenation for the series as the first by Japan since 2004, and a lot has changed in the world since then, most notably the disastrous event at a nuclear plant in Fukushima in 2011. Shin-Godzilla was set to tell a Godzilla story to commentate on nuclear and environmental catastrophe in a same spirit of the original, and contextualize Japan’s geopolitical place on the modern world stage.
The weighty metaphoric material at hand is aptly handled with just enough comedic cynicism by co-director Hideaki Anno, who anime fans know as the creator of the iconic Neon Genesis Evangelion, to whom the film plays as much fan service to as fans of Godzilla.
It’s arguably among the most watchable Godzillas by the standards of contemporary filmgoers, evidenced by taking home seven Japanese Academy Awards in 2017.
The Godzilla for Finding a Half-Decent Blockbuster:
Godzilla Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All-Out Attack (2001)
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko
A one-off film that requires no context other than the original (soft-sequel-reboots are quite common in this series.) Fans call it GMK because the amount of oxygen it takes to say the full title is exhausting. GMK is remembered for a spike in production value as we turned into the 21st century, and most notably for Godzilla being featured as the antagonist against the other monsters. Following a crew of stock documentary journalists is at least slightly more amusing than other human based narratives in the series, but the high watermark of this film is the score by Kow Otani, who is also known for scoring cult favorite anime and games such as Mobile Suit Gundam Wing and Shadow of The Colossus. The score is so great on its own that it carries the film forward more than any plot or characters can. The score is so good I almost wish it was a silent film. The story is about as complex as the fantasy drivel in a Transformers film, but at least the only thing that’s mean spirited about it is Godzilla himself, literally. Like he’s possessed by the souls of the dead. That’s the plot.
The Godzilla for Sci-Fi Fans:
Godzilla vs Destroyah (1995)
Directed by Takao Okawara
If the trailers for King of the Monsters (2019) have given anything away, those curious about Burning Godzilla absolutely have to check this one out. Godzilla going nuclear and melting into a white hot irradiated mess is not to be missed. Plus, not only is Destroyah one of the craziest and spookiest aliens designed in this series, he’s also made out of man size ugly Xenomorph-style crabs, which are featured in a poorly paced Aliens homage in the second act. Godzilla’s Burning form is an iconic design for the character, and creates some interesting external stakes as he lumbers through cities, and results in one of the most memorable “deaths” of Godzilla you can find. It illustrates an interesting turn toward contemporary sci-fi for Godzilla films, and hits the folly of man bullet point when it delves into Godzilla going nuclear, and Destroyah being a result of the classic anti-Godzilla failsafe, the Oxygen Destroyer. Let me be clear: if you watch Godzilla vs Destroyah, you’re watching it for its potential, but certainly not for fun. The pacing is so atrociously slow and padded out that it’s concepts are crushed for hyper aware film viewers.
The Godzilla for The British Invasion / Being Groovy:
Godzilla vs The Smog Monster AKA vs Hedorah (1971)
Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno
You wanna talk about the weirdest moments in this series? This psychedelic take has the most blatant environmental message, but also one of the relatably scariest antagonists in the series. An alien mass of oil and sludge, Hedorah threatens the world with pollution, and the people of Japan, all of whom are still stuck in the mid 60’s, dance, drink and get high while protagonists deliver the good word of protecting our environment. Godzilla goes full Captain Planet in this feature, with theme songs and flying backwards and everything. Godzilla is peak tokusatsu superhero in his battle with Hedorah, and it may not be new, it may not be amazing, and hell it’s probably not worth going through so much effort to find a watchable copy with a dub or subtitles… but I still recommend it. It’s definitely my favorite for having the determination to be so true to itself and so stylish along the way. It’s the best kind of product of its time.
The Godzilla for Film Historians:
Gojira (1954) AKA Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Before the genre bending, before the campy Saturday morning cartoon battles, before the merchandising, there was a message. Ishiro Honda, a former veteran turned documentarian and war filmmaker, wrote and directed this feature that would become iconic across the world. This is the film that birthed the tokusatsu (special effects filming) style, as well as a genre of Kaiju (giant monster) films. Watching it today is to observe it as a drama of its time, a pioneering of effects driven filmmaking, and creature character design. While it was met with criticism when it first released, Honda’s film proved to be almost therapeutic in a way for Japanese audiences as they recovered and rebuilt following World War II. Given that context, the version we recommend watching is the original release, Gojira, from 1954. The localized American version, King of the Monsters, really just inserts Raymond Burr as a surrogate character for English-language audiences and stripped out a lot of the political themes to make for an 80 minute runtime. This was the only version available outside of Japan until 2004, for Godzilla’s 50th anniversary, where Toho would release the original masters of many films on DVD.
The Godzilla for Film Fanatics:
Mothra vs Godzilla AKA Godzilla vs the Thing (1964)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
So you watched the original film and you have an idea on tokusatsu and the core themes. “But there weren’t any monster battles,” you say! And you’ve got an itch to see how the genre and franchised changed over a decade or so. 1964’s Mothra vs Godzilla (not to be confused with Godzilla vs Mothra, yes it is different, I’m so sorry) pits Godzilla against another established kaiji by Toho, the giant god queen Mothra, who would go on to star in many of her own films as well as being a key player in many future entries, including Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). While Godzilla sleeps, Mothra has a larva egg that washes ashore, so the people of Japan fight the very nature of capitalistic housing development (so fun) to save her highness’ offspring from the clutches of money grubbing men. Meanwhile, Godzilla settles in for his first loss in a monster match when he finally wakes up from his nap. It’s weird. There’s tiny twin girls in a box who sing a song, that’s pretty iconic too.
The Godzilla for Mecha / Robot Fans:
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)
Directed by Masaaki Tezuka
Meet Kiyiu – the third Mechagodzilla in history, and is one of the most powerful Mecha in Japanese films, and also just happens to be built with the bones of the original Godzilla as a framework. Not sure if it accomplishes much, but it sure sounds cool. This film successfully hits all the same aesthetic beats of a Mecha anime for the first time in a Godzilla series. If you’re a fan of Gundam you probably have already seen this movie or know of it, but if you’re just getting into the Mecha genre and enjoyed Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Pacific Rim films, this might be a fun, inoffensive afternoon movie. Even though it’s technically Mechagodzilla III, you don’t really need much introduction, as Japan’s Self Defense Force does a lot of the same routine by this point in the franchise, and this film like to get right down to the action.
The Godzilla for The MCU Fans:
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
It’s not great (If I still had to preface that at this point), but as the third entry for Godzilla, and to fight such an iconic monster from the other side of the hemisphere, Ishiro Honda had a lot of work cut out for him here.
The reason to watch this in 2019 is to be hyped for the new crossover Warner Bros / Legendary “Monsterverse” film due out in 2020, Godzilla vs King Kong. The plot is… not good, but if you want to see the two monsters clash for the first time, you’ll have context for the sight gags when the new King and Big G duke it out like tail whipping boulders, shoving trees in each others mouths and… lightning fists. I’m not confident that King Kong will get an assist on his way to battle with giant balloons, but one can dream. If they do all that and you’ve sat through this little number you get to be Captain America, jumping in his seat, when he understand a reference to Flying Monkeys.
The Godzilla for Aspiring Comedians:
Godzilla vs Megalon (1973)
Directed by Jun Fukuda
This film is not as painfully boring as the ’90s films, but it’s fun to watch and true a product of its time complete with jazz flutes and turtle necks. This is the one known for having a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes attached to its name. (You can choose to watch that version, but it’s quite hard to find an official print on DVD anymore.) However, despite its overlong earthquake sequences, despite the Mothra-lite D-list version of a subplot with burrowing bug titan Megalon and his biker gang worshipers, despite the strange espionage plot that doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the movie, it has a lot of giant monsters faffing about. Not only does it feature fan-favorite kaiji-alien, Gigan, as a supporting villain, but it also features a first in the series with a fan submitted creation starring alongside Godzilla: and his name is Jet Jaguar. Jet Jaguar is a 20th century boy’s dream tokusatsu hero. This entry is the Power Rangers of the Godzilla franchise, and everything you expect from that sentence, save for a Megazord, is true here. This is the film which originated Godzilla’s bonkers flying kick that would find itself in Meme status on the internet. It’s not good, but you cannot miss it if you can stand it. If anything, get some friends together, put it on, make some of your own snarky jokes, and have a good time.
The Godzilla for People Who Don’t Like Foreign Films (so… why are you here exactly?):
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Nobody liked this movie when it came out, and nobody really likes it now. But it’s accessible, at least. It’s watchable. You can buy it and it’s in english. If you liked Independence Day and Jurassic Park: The Lost World, you’re exactly the person this movie was trying to market itself towards when it came out. Historically, this film is known to Godzilla fans as GINO, not only because it sounds Italian, but because it stands for Godzilla In Name Only. Fans did not like this version, and neither did Toho.
Matthew “Ferris-Bueller-Simba” Broderick plays a scientist obsessed with Chernobyl Earthworms who gets dragged to New York by the military to hunt and kill Godzilla. This different version of the iconic monster is a pregnant, giant iguana looking to lay eggs somewhere on the eastern seaboard, and settles down in Madison Square Garden and swims around the MTA tracks and the Hudson River. The humans are insufferable, and spends an uncomfortable amount of screen time making fun of each other, and the late-Roger Ebert, iconic film critic. The origins of Godzilla for this first American adaptation distastefully pins the nuclear origins on France in the story’s little world building. Jean Renau, the most charming performer in this ensemble, plays a French Secret Service agent looking to write his nations wrongs, and mostly appears for generic Hollywood Frenchman jokes until his crew become key players of the plot in act three. In this cast of punk New Yorkers is also Hank Azaria as a cable news cameraman, which is the most late 90’s sentence ever. The movie is tonally messy, especially in regards to how the audience should feel about Godzilla, and it especially shows in sequences when there’s explosive tension, comedy, and animal sympathy found within seconds of screen time.
BONUS ENTRY: The Godzilla for a different kind of Sci-Fi Fan:
Invasion of the Astro Monster AKA Godzilla vs Monster Zero (1965)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Maybe you you have some love for Planet of the Apes, but the TV series. Maybe you like The Land of the Lost and old Ray Harryhausen films, and not everything needs to make sense but the creature designs are cool and you think to yourself “I’m having fun”. Maybe, just maybe, I know it’s not popular anymore, but maybe campy genre films and old school sci-fi are your thing. Not only is Invasion of the Astro Monster very likely your kind of movie, but it’s also the kind of Creature Feature filmmaking that is emblematic of the first half of the Godzilla franchise. In all honesty, it is also probably one of the best single primers of a film to watch before Godzilla King of the Monsters (2019) this summer. Alien kaiju icon, King Ghidorah is the antagonist in this film, controlled by alien spies, and the only way for our planet to be saved is to send Godzilla and Friends to the moon to do battle.
As Ice Cube Jr. says in the sizzle reels for the new film, to a Godzilla fan, seeing King Ghidorah fight Godzilla is like the Super Bowl of monster action, and Invasion of the Astro Monster, and in their second match up, boy does Godzilla take him to school, and he has a good time while he does it.
Truly though, with a new film barely around the corner, and Godzilla and King Ghidorah fighting it out for the title of King of the Monsters for the 10th time in series history, Godzilla has already achieved his super bowl rings more than the New England Patriots, and he’s set to make history once again, and stomp on Boston while he does it.
Thank you O’shea Jackson Jr, you’ve talked me into making a sports metaphor for the first time ever in a film article. Well played.
If you like this list, please check out my Top 10 Toho Monsters from the first Warner Bros. film back in 2014, where I actually do a formal ranking of things!