I am an unapologetic lover of kaiju films.
These massive monsters threatening our manmade landscape give me a thrill. The creativity and skill shown from the suit design to the miniature sets, the pyrotechnical display to the working models all deserve more attention than they get as a Saturday afternoon creature feature.
And it’s not just the special effects. I believe that kaiju is a fundamentally misunderstood genre. The monster is not just a giant animal doling out catharsis in the form of crumbling cities. The monster is a flexible referent that represents human technology gone wrong, human greed or arrogance, human achievement, our fears, our regrets, our ambitions. Usually the monster means all of these things at the same time. This flexible meaning makes an otherwise simple story very complex and throws some viewers seeking campy fun.
For those looking to dive into kaiju more deeply, I give you my Top 10 Kaiju Films. I have defined kaiju pretty narrowly. All movies must have a person in a rubber suit or must come later when computer generated images took away the need for the practical suit. Though King Kong made city crushing cool in 1933, I did not included it because the feel of the stop motion animation is radically different than the feel of suitmation.
I also tried to take the list seriously. For this reason campy Godzilla classics such as Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. Gigan, two hilarious cinematic train wrecks from director Jun Fukuda, do not make the list.
It was impossible to be exhaustive so there wasn’t room for Gorgo, the UK’s attempt at kaiju, or Pulgasari, North Korea’s offering. Just know that there is a lot more out there, and almost all of it is worth watching for one reason or another.
Here are a few tips for your kaiju enjoyment.
First, watch it with the original language soundtrack and subtitles to see the films in a different light. Often the dubbed English language voice actors wreck the Japanese performances and the translations are less accurate.
Second, in kaiju films the world has monsters. So don’t be surprised if you see people jumping to that conclusion. If our world had monsters and the ground shook, we might suggest it was Gamera, or Godzilla or Varan too. Let your reality go and roll with the tenets of kaiju.
If you have thoughts on my list or a different Top 10 Kaiju films, please leave comments below. It’s rare that I get to talk openly about my love of kaiju, so let’s not waste the opportunity.
10. Cloverfield (2008)
This may seem like a weird title to include on the list. Even though Cloverfield may not be the definitive kaiju film, it was an exciting take on the genre and the only U.S. kaiju worth mentioning. The film is straight catharsis since the monster is an alien from another planet and not the result of human choices. The found footage approach to the visuals puts the viewer right in the middle of city stomping action, and seeing the Big Apple get wrecked from a street level vantage point is pretty great. Cloverfield makes for a nice entrance into the larger world of kaiju.
Best moment – The Statue of Liberty getting decapitated
9. Rebirth of Mothra (1996) and Rebirth of Mothra II (1997)
These films are great examples of 90s era kaiju, and showcase one of Toho’s most famous monsters, Mothra. Mothra is different than most kaiju since she is only provoked by an attack on her followers or an assault on the Earth. Because of this Mothra films often focus on the exploitation of indigenous cultures or environmental abuses caused by humans. In Rebirth of Mothra, the seal to Desghidorah’s prison is broken open by a logging company releasing the monster and calling Mothra into action.
All of the films in the Rebirth series are targeted more to kids, but the special effects are fun and the storyline, though completely overt, is pretty solid.
Best Moments – The transformation to Rainbow Mothra and Aqua Mothra
8. Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
If you just want to see a whole bunch of suitmation monsters throwing haymakers and wrecking stuff, then both of these films will satisfy your every need. Final Wars is essentially a retelling of Destroy All Monsters, but instead of the Kilaaks, an all female alien race that uses the Earth’s monsters against the humans, you get the Xilians, a mixed gender alien race that uses the Earth’s monsters against the humans.
In both Destroy All Monsters and Final Wars, the humans must turn to Godzilla as a tenuous ally to fend off the alien instigated attack. The story lines are pretty weak in both, but each serves as a knockdown drag out who’s who of the Godzilla universe.
Best Moment – Godzilla destroying Zilla, the American Godzilla, in Final Wars
7. Mothra (1961)
In 1961 Mothra got her big screen debut. She wouldn’t fight Godzilla until 1964, but she was already wreaking havoc on humans. Nothing we didn’t deserve of course.
In the original Mothra a science expedition stumbles across an unknown indigenous culture on Infant Island, as well as two of the smallest women you have ever seen. A diplomat from Rolisca, which is a mythic country that is part United States and Part Soviet Union, steals the tiny twins and puts them in a travelling show. Little does the diplomat know that the twins are attendants to Mothra, and she gets pissed off when you mess with her attendants. An allegory for greed and difficult international relations, Mothra also features some awesome destruction too.
Best Moment – The destruction and mummification of Tokyo tower
6. Gidorah, the Three Headed Monster (1964)
Now these things are coming from outer space!? You bet! All other monsters may quarrel with Godzilla, but if you had to choose his archenemy it would without a doubt be King Gidorah.
Aliens send King Gidorah to wreck Earth and Mothra has to recruit Godzilla and Rodan to help defend it. Mix in the psychic possession and attempted assassination of the Princess of Selgina, and you get big monsters and international and interplanetary intrigue.
Best Moments – Any time all four monsters are on screen together
5. The Host (2006)
The Host is not only a great kaiju film, but just an awesome movie in general. It also comes from South Korea, not Japan, so we get a different take on the genre. When a corrupt scientist pours a ton of formaldehyde into the Han River it creates a mutant amphibian that looks like a mix between a frog, a bear and a barracuda.
When the monster takes a young girl, her slow-witted father and the rest of her family must band together to rescue her. The Host has amazing action, intense thrills and plenty of character development to keep you caring. If you have never loved kaiju, but always wanted to, then The Host might be your way in.
Best Moments – There are a lot, but look for the scene with the woman with headphones in the park
4. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993) and Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995)
Both of these 1990s era Godzilla films are directed by Takao Okawara who was a driving force for Toho kaiju in the 90s. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II and Godzilla vs. Destroyah ask questions about the cost of fighting these giant monsters. In Mechagodzilla II we are confronted with what humans must become to fight monsters and in Destroyah we are faced with the unforeseen consequences of the oxygen destroyer, the very first weapon used against Godzilla in 1954.
In the 90s, kaiju became much more thoughtful and character driven and these two films are great examples of that.
Best Moments – The final fight in Godzilla vs. Destroyah is over 9 minutes long
3. Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris (1999) but also Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996) and Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
I put all three of these films at number three because this is one of the most coherent and expertly crafted kaiju series ever made, and Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris asks a handful of lingering questions that all of us have always had about kaiju films. What happens to all of those people in those building that collapse? What of the orphaned children and collateral damage from these monster fights? Do they appreciate that Gamera was trying to protect them?
I have never seen a kaiju that has been as willing to ask tough questions and rely on characters as much since Gojira. But it is worth going through the first two films to get to the third.
Best Moments – The final fight in Revenge of Iris has Gamera sacrificing himself to save Ayana, the child host of Iris
2. Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975)
The story is convoluted and involves aliens, a mad scientist and an ancient amphibious flying dinosaur named Titanosaurus, but I have my reasons for putting Terror of Mechagodzilla at number two. This is the first film where the man inside the suit is not hidden, but embraced.
As Godzilla fights both Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus, he seems to be down for the count. Just when his two foes have Godzilla buried, he bursts out of the ground and gets to his feet. That by itself is nothing knew. Before he rushes his opponents, Godzilla literally brushes the dust off and takes a fighting stance. This is not a monster anymore. This is Bruce Lee, or better yet this is a guy in a big rubber suit and he is going to kick some ass.
From this moment on directors had to make a choice between the anthropomorphic kaijin Godzilla or the more monstrous kaiju Godzilla. Nothing was ever the same after this. Luckily Terror of Mechagodzilla is a dark and awesome moment for the series in the 1970s, which was plagued with goofy Godzilla films.
Best Moment – Godzilla brushing the dust off of his shoulder to prepare for his fight
1. Gojira (1954)
Toho wanted their King Kong, but Ishirô Honda gave them more than they could have ever imagined. Honda did not just want to make a big monster movie. Having witnessed the fire bombings of Tokyo, Honda wanted to explore the consequences of the pain that humans inflict upon one another.
Since the war was still fresh in everyone’s mind, Godzilla offered a perfect allegory for the ills and mistakes of mankind. If you were to edit out the monster, Gojira is a frightening and human tale that focuses on those injured and irradiated by this destructive force.
It is also fascinating to see that Godzilla was not viewed as the bad guy, but just as much a victim of human folly as the people he was incinerating with his radioactive breath. The final elegy is not only given to Serizawa but to the creature as well. This is a solemn victory, and one that comes with a warning.
It spawned an entire genre and is an incredible character driven film. For that reason Gojira is and always will be number one.