Hello fellow agents. Today we once again present you with another report from one of our field agents. This time he’s been looking into the great and mighty giant lizard that will soon be attacking the movie screens this weekend. Yes, our field agent Matt Benson has brought us a report on the king of the monsters himself….GODZILLA!!
I would like to start with a disclaimer. I am by no means a Godzilla expert. A few months ago, I had never seen a single Godzilla movie. I’m just a guy who saw the trailer for the new film and said to myself, “That looks great. I’m going to watch every entry in this series before I watch this one.” In part one of this article, I’m going to discuss the first fifteen films in the franchise, known as the Shōwa series, for the era in Japanese history during which they were produced.
This is not comprehensive. This does not come from a lifetime of love for the character. Think of this as a guide to Godzilla for beginners, by a beginner.
The first thing that struck me about these movies is the sense of variety. Maybe it’s because Japan is a small island nation where companies can play more easily to niche markets, but they have as many types of Godzilla movies as they do flavors of Kit Kat.
Sometimes you get a drama, sometimes a comedy, sometimes a horror movie. Sometimes Godzilla’s the hero, sometimes it’s the villain, sometimes it’s just a supporting character. The only thing you can definitely depend on seeing in a Godzilla movie is at least one guy in a rubber monster suit.
This does a really good job of keeping the series interesting fifteen movies in, but can make it kind of intimidating. I hope to make the latter less true with my pics for the best, worst, and weirdest entries in the Shōwa series.
The Best: King Kong vs. Godzilla aka The Return of King Kong aka Godzilla Goes Bananas: This was the third Godzilla film, the first in color, and Godzilla’s first proper battle with another kaiju. It had fought Anguirus in the previous film, but defeated near the beginning and spent the rest of the time terrorizing Tokyo on its own.
This is also the first example of something the series does very well. Instead of asking, “What does Godzilla do now?”, King Kong vs. Godzilla takes an unrelated story and asks, “What if this happened in a world where Godzilla existed?”
It starts out as a relatively straight forward remake of the King Kong story. An advertising company kidnaps King Kong to use as their corporate mascot (a totally normal thing to do), Kong gets loose, starts destroying buildings, and everyone thinks he’s a monster. And then Godzilla shows up.
Between the profoundly fun fight scenes and pleasantly hamfisted moral, this is the perfect example of how great a Godzilla flick can be when it plays to its strengths.
Honorable mention: Godzilla vs. Hedorah aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster aka Godzilla, the Sixth Planeteer: Based on the limited amount of research I did beyond watching the movies, this is apparently one of the more poorly received features. I honestly can’t imagine why. Hedorah’s evolutionary nature gives you three cool kaiju for the price of one and Godzilla gains the upper hand by discovering a secret move it previously never (and never again) used, which makes a lot more sense than the series’ old go to of Godzilla suddenly and inexplicably being stronger than it was in the last scene. Definitely worth checking out.
The Worst: Godzilla vs. Megalon aka Godzilla’s Pal Jet Jaguar: Nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean disturb both the residents of Monster Island (where the kaiju all live together) and the ancient, underwater society of Seatopia. The Seatopians make the actually quite reasonable decision to fight back against the civilization that just launched nuclear weapons at them. The movie ends with the Seatopians defeated, a lazy admission by the humans that maybe they had a point, and zero lessons learned.
This one was almost my pick for weirdest. Godzilla takes a back seat to Jet Jaguar, a robot character created by an elementary school student who won a contest held by Toho. Jet Jaguar is basically Ultra Man with a slightly different paint job because children are dumb and should not be left to make decisions for major movie studios.
Filming was almost completed before Godzilla was added, so the suit had to be constructed in one week. It shows. Godzilla vs. Megalon is boring, cobbled together mess, mainly notable for inclusion in the opening credits of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a few seasons. This one is for completists only.
Honorable mention: Godzilla Raids Again aka Gigantis, the Fire Monster aka Godzilla Too: The second flick in the series, but a much better learning experience than an actual movie. Godzilla beats Anguirus in about twenty minutes poorly rehashing the first film. Godzilla Raids Again is notable for making a lot of the easy mistakes that were (mostly) avoided after that and introducing the Godzilla character that’s actually in the rest of the movies (SPOILER: Godzilla dies in the first one. The one here is said to be “another of Godzilla’s species”, but is still the actual character that carries through to the rest of the Shōwa series).
The Weirdest: Son of Godzilla aka Monster Island’s Decisive Battle: Godzilla’s Son aka I Can’t Think of a Better Joke Title than that Actual Alternate Title: Godzilla finds an egg and decides to adopt whatever comes out of it (some speculate that it’s actually Godzilla’s egg, but it’s never addressed in the film itself). The plot of this movie, as best as I can figure, is that Godzilla really wants to take a nap, but has to keep waking up to save its dumb kid, called Minilla in later films (or Minya in American releases) from getting killed by giant praying mantises.
Son of Godzilla started a trend of comedic Godzilla movies and your enjoyment of it will really depend on how charmed you are by Minilla’s antics. The character’s design tries for so ugly it’s cute and falls somewhere between E.T. and M.A.C. from M.A.C. and Me.
Honorable mention: All Monsters Attack aka Godzilla’s Revenge aka Ichiro Dreams of Kaiju: Interestingly, Godzilla only shows up in dream sequences in this film. It centers on Ichiro, a small boy bullied by his classmates and suffering from a lack of confidences. He dreams of befriending Minilla and seeing him (or her or it. Gender gets real tricky in translation for Minilla) overcome similar problems. Ichiro wakes with a newfound belief in himself that helps him foil the theft of 50,000,000 yen. Why it was called “Godzilla’s Revenge” in North America is anyone’s guess.
And just in case your favorite Godzilla movie was left out, I present brief summaries of the rest:
Godzilla: Worth seeing it where it all began, but I can’t think of anything it does that King Kong vs. Godzilla doesn’t do better. If you think it’s any more poignant or less hamfisted, you’re kidding yourself.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters: The American “remake” of Godzilla is just recycled footage with a few additional scenes filmed with Raymond Burr as a character named “Steve Martin”.
Mothra vs. Godzilla: Probably should have been the honorable mention for best, but I wanted to redeem Hedorah’s reputation. Great action, a great song, and one of the few times we actually see Mothra with wings.
Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster: Introduces Godzilla’s biggest foe, but otherwise forgettable.
Invasion of the Astro-Monster: Aliens from within our solar system try to take over Earth. This was the point of no return, crazy plot-wise.
Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster: Features a great scene with a giant octopus. Not the best, but a solid film throughout.
Destroy All Monsters: To celebrate Toho’s 20th kaiju film, they crammed actors into every and any rubber suit they had lying around. Kind of a mess.
Godzilla vs. Gigan: A supremely successful experiment in skippable cinema.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla: Super fun, great creation with Mechagodzilla, and one of the better scores. This would have been a great way to end the Shōwa series.
Terror of Mechagodzilla: The film so nice they made it twice.
Check back next week for thoughts on the Heisei, Millennium, and American films in Part II.
Matt Benson is someone who likes to scream about pop culture. For a small fee, he will come to your party/place of business/current location and do so at you. To hear him scream quietly (some people call this talking) into a microphone, you can listen to the variety of podcasts he hosts at benviewnetwork.com. To see him do this in 140 characters, you can find him @drmattbenson on twitter.