Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures big flash 21st Century do-over of Godzilla is now in theaters. I wasn’t exactly in love with the overall result, but there’s some pretty impressive stuff in there so go make up your own mind. Meanwhile, here’s a quick look back through the King of The Monsters’ amazing legacy at the movies.
This Week: The Showa Series (Godzilla “eras” are generally named for the emperor of Japan at the time of their production), i.e. the original run of Godzilla installments that ran from 1954 to 1975.
Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and director Ishiro Honda stretched the skin of your basic post-Beast From 20,000 Fathoms giant monster rampage film over a skeleton of distinctly Japanese post-war national angst (and outrage) over everything from Hiroshima to occupation to the Lucky Dragon 5 Incident to create the original Gojira. Cinema hasn’t been the same since. It’s a bizarre hybrid, a “monster movie” presented as something like an art-film, and its dirge-like march-to-armageddon pacing makes a lot of it more interesting to watch than to analyze, but there’s no denying it’s power and importance.
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
The first Godzilla sequel set the template for nearly all others to follow (Godzilla battling another kaiju over whatever it is kaiju have to fight about with Japan as their unwitting wrestling ring); but it’s a good thing most subsequent installments did it a lot better. Apart from the first appearance of franchise mainstay Anguiras (a gigantic ankylosaurus), there’s not a lot to recommend here.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
It’s a preposterously silly entry, but it’s also one of the all-time greats. Toho pulled out all the stops when they scored the rights to produce the ultimate international monster battle, and the result is a crowd-pleaser to this day. The model sets and scale-pyrotechnics seldom looked better before or since, and it’s here that the series picked up its penchant for physical humor and extended moments of kaiju “gesture-talking” at one another during fights.
Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964)
I don’t know that it’s my personal favorite, but this is probably the best Godzilla movie, period. Spinning-off from Mothra’s (also excellent) solo feature, this is where fantasy and supernatural elements enter the series – further transforming it into a unique subgenre all its own. The central feature of Godzilla, a giant radioactive dinosaur, battling what is effectively a building-sized butterfly (U.S. distributor’s concealed Mothra’s identity and sold it as Godzilla vs. The Thing) are still a one of a kind spectacle, even today.
Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
This installment establishes the good/evil hierarchy of the Toho Kaiju Universe, marks Godzilla official team-switch to hero and introduces the franchise’s greatest villain in King Ghidorah, a three-headed golden-skinned dragon from outer space that will destroy Earth unless Mothra can convince Godzilla and Rodan to put aside their differences and team up with her to beat the menace back. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)
“In the Universe, everything is numbered. The Monster is zero.” Actually, the monster is King Ghidorah again, this time ravaging a “Planet X” whose inhabitants offer to take Godzilla and Rodan off Earth’s hands to use as weapons against him. Unfortunately, it’s a ruse: Planet X already has Ghidorah under mind-control, and now they’ve got two more monsters to use against Earth. As there are 21 more movies on this list, you can imagine how that works out for them. This is a fun one, though a bit of a retread of the last one.
Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966)
A lot of people put this one on the low-end of the series, but I have fun with it. Some folks get trapped on an island where a terrorist organization is using Ebirah, a giant lobster, as a guard. Eventually Godzilla turns up, displaying a different power-set and personality than usual (the script was written as a King Kong vehicle) along with Mothra. One of only two Godzilla features to appear on MST3K.
Son of Godzilla (1967)
Godzilla rescues Minilla, a hatchling of his own species (exactly how this works goes largely unexplained,) adopts him and teaches him how to fight so they can team up against giant mantises and a tarantula. A lot of fans detest Minilla (it’s pronounced “Min-Yah”) but I always liked him. The monster action is average, but the extended sequences of Godzilla and Minilla “bonding” are legendary.
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
This is the big one. It’s another “aliens mind-controlling monsters” story, but this time the lineup includes basically every monster whose costume was still in decent shape in the Toho warehouse and miniature versions of New York and Paris get destroyed instead of just Tokyo. At the climax, everyone teams up to beat down King Ghidorah. This is effectively the end of the “golden age” of Godzilla movies (there wouldn’t be a truly great installment again until the 90s) but it’s a hell of a note to go out on.
Godzilla’s Revenge (1969)
This is the infamous “quickie” Godzilla, comprised almost entirely of stock footage from previous films. But if you can get past that, it’s kind of charmingly bad. Think of it as a Godzilla-starring anti-bullying PSA: A bullied kid in Tokyo has recurring dreams (even when he’s kidnapped by thieves, which you think would draw his focus a little…) where he visits Monster Island and hangs out with a (talking) Minilla, who is having bully problems of his own with one-off monster Gabara. Even as a kid, this is the one I’d skip.
Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971)
The 70s were a time of experimentation, and Toho’s contribution was to let director Yoshimitsu Banno direct an eccentric, occasionally surreal environmental horror movie (complete with avant-garde editing tricks and animated children’s-drawing scene-transitions) in which Godzilla battles Hedorah: A personification of all pollution. It’s the darkest yet also among the silliest original Godzilla epics, and while I can’t call it good, I also can’t call it forgettable.
Godzilla on Monster Island (1972)
This one (also known as Godzilla Vs. Gigan) takes awhile to get going, but as payoff you get Godzilla and Anguiras fighting new enemy Gigan (think a giant biomechanical chicken with hook-hands and buzzsaw in its stomach) and Ghidorah on one of the series’ most unique battlefields: a Godzilla-themed amusement park.
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
Another installment famous for its appearance on MST3K, this time Toho tried aligning Godzilla with an Ultraman-esque robot hero named Jet Jaguar against a largely unmemorable foe in Megalon. This is the point where the films start living in “so bad it’s good” land, but at least it’s funny.
Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974)
It’s too bad it took Toho this long to land on “robot version of Godzilla” for an opponent, because MechaGodzilla is cool enough to deserve a better movie. If nothing else, the gradual reveal that “fake Godzilla” is actually a machine is a fun bit of business; but the new hero monster King Seesar (however interestingly designed – he’s supposed to be a giant Okinawan Shisa, but he looks more like a Lhasa Apso puppy) is basically a poor excuse for Mothra plot-wise.
Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975)
And the Showa era goes out with a whimper. This was the lowest-grossing of the original series, and while the fight scenes featuring MechaGodzilla and new enemy Titanosaurus are amusing there’s just not much else going on.
Next Week: The Heisei and Millenium series.