- Oct 25, 2017
What is a "kaiju"?
The term “kaiju” roughly translates to “strange beast”. Kaiju are giant monsters that can be either protagonists, antagonists, or more neutral forces of nature in film. Generally these creatures are portrayed as being near invulnerable to modern human weaponry, or at the very least quite resilient to human offensives. From there these monsters can either fight against humanity, or fight against each other.
Origins of the Genre
The 1954 film Gojira (Godzilla) is considered the first Kaiju film. The origins of the genre can be traced back to Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer for Toho Studios who had become an admirer of American monster movies dating back to the 1933 King Kong. Tanaka was inspired by the recent monster movie hit The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident, in which a Japanese fishing boat and it’s crew members were exposed to hydrogen bomb testing. Tanaka, alongside drama director Ishirō Honda, and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, worked to make the very first Godzilla movie and started an entire genre.
Widely considered the most famous kaiju in film. Godzilla first appeared in 1954 and the monster’s film franchise continues on to this day spanning 60+ years and 31 films (29 Japanese productions and 2 American productions, with 3 anime films and 2 American films in production). Godzilla is a giant bipedal dinosaur with giant dorsal fins and has the ability to shoot atomic breath from his mouth. Over the course of the franchise, Godzilla has been portrayed as an villain, a hero who protects the Earth, and a neutral force of nature. Godzilla is a walking metaphor for nuclear weapons and nearly every origin story given to the creature originates with him being created from the radioactive fallout of nuclear testing.
Not originally considered a kaiju, King Kong was brought into the proper kaiju genre when he first crossed paths with Godzilla in the 1962 film King Kong vs. Godzilla. Since then King Kong has made numerous film appearances both in Japanese kaiju genre productions as well as American film productions. The latest version of King Kong seen in Kong: Skull Island exists in a shared cinematic universe with Godzilla.
Made by the competing Daiei Studios, this creature is one of the most famous kaiju that was not produced by Toho Studios in Japan and is a franchise rival to Godzilla. Gamera is a giant turtle who is capable of walking on two legs and has the ability to fly. While there are a few iterations of Gamera he’s generally portrayed as a protector of Earth and, like Godzilla, frequently combats other kaiju in his films. Gamera made his debut in 1965 and has 12 movies to his name, the most recent being released in 2006.
Mothra is a colossal caterpillar or moth, depending on the creature’s life cycle stage. The creature is traditionally female and is a protector of Earth. Mothra made her debut in 1961 as the title character. Following this movie, she fought against Godzilla in the 1964 movie Mothra vs. Godzilla and became a recurring character in the Godzilla franchise. She would later return to having solo films in the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy from 1996 through 1998.
Where Should I Begin?
Gojira / Godzilla
Release Year: 1954
Director: Ishirō Honda
Reason to Watch: It’s the movie that started the genre. Godzilla is widely renowned to be one of the best Japanese films of all time. Director Ishirō Honda was staunchly against the spread and usage of nuclear weapons. References to the atomic bombings and other real life situations are all over the film, and Godzilla himself represents the destruction of war. The main cast of characters face a dilemma due to Godzilla’s appearance and are forced to deal with him. Although the effects are primitive by today’s standards, the results still came out to be engaging through sheer hard work and great photography. With it’s fantastic direction, harrowing score, and memorable effects scenes, Godzilla is perhaps the best starting point there is.
Mothra vs. Godzilla / Godzilla vs. The Thing
Release Year: 1964
Director: Ishirō Honda
Reason to Watch: Mothra vs. Godzilla is considered by many to be the best Godzilla film after the original. The plot goes through at a great pace and contains some memorable performances. Godzilla has a fittingly villainous design, and the colorful Mothra prop absolutely dwarfs him. The drama sections are intertwined effortlessly with the set pieces, making it one of the best films in the entire genre and a great movie for newcomers to enjoy.
Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla
Release Year: 1974
Director: Jun Fukuda
Reason to Watch: Want to see a heroic Godzilla fight a robotic duplicate of himself sent from outer space? This movie is one of the better examples of the “Godzilla versus” movies and contains a lot of the (delicious) cheese that came from the early era Godzilla movies.
The Return of Godzilla / Godzilla 1985
Release Year: 1984
Director: Koji Hashimoto
Reason to Watch: It’s the first proper reboot of the Godzilla franchise so no previous knowledge of the monster is needed aside from the original 1954 movie. Godzilla in this movie is not portrayed as a hero and is reverted back into his terrifying “force of nature” self.
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe
Release Year: 1995
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
Reasons to Watch: It’s a reboot of Gamera franchise, making it a solid jumping in point. The 90’s Gamera movies are also highly regarded by fans of the genre elevating it into the realm of the “must see” if you’re interested in the genre.
Shusuke Kaneko makes his debut into the genre with the first entry of the 90’s Gamera trilogy. Kaneko delivers a solid action film that both fans and newcomers can enjoy. Despite the low budget, effects director Shinji Higuchi still managed to deliver some great effects scenes with imaginative camerawork. Definitely a great starting point in the genre that encapsulates everything people love about it.
Release Year: 2013
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Reasons to Watch: The movie is a fun love letter to the kaiju genre and captures the fun of watching giant robots fight giant monsters. Pacific Rim is one of the more solid American contributions to the kaiju genre.
del Toro’s film is one of the easiest to get into, and a treat to anyone who appreciates raw, colorful spectacle. Taking elements from both anime and the kaiju genre, Pacific Rim is one of the best action movies of the decade.
Release Year: 2016
Directors: Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Reasons to Watch: This movie is one of the better handled reboots in a long time. It updates Godzilla’s origin to be a metaphor to the Fukushima disaster rather than the fears of World War 2 atomic weapons, and returns Godzilla to his terrifying roots.
Directed by Evangelion veterans Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, Shin Godzilla is easily among the best Godzilla films after the first. With snappy dialogue and editing, chief director Anno makes some of the best non-monster scenes in the genre. Filled with allusions to the 2011 Japanese earthquake and ensuing disasters, Shin Godzilla criticizes the Japanese government response to it. Shin Godzilla is one of the best monster films of all time and must watch for anyone even remotely interested in Japanese cinema.
Kong: Skull Island
Release Year: 2017
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Reason to Watch: It’s a fun modern film take on King Kong that doesn’t retread the same plot points previous Kong remakes.
Information / Resources
r/Godzilla on Reddit
G-Fest - A yearly Godzilla convention held in Chicago, Illionois, USA in the month of July
Hulu.com (has the Godzilla films released between 1991 and 2004 on demand with Hulu plus)
Amazon.com (has plenty of Godzilla films available to purchase)
Sephzilla - Wrote a huge portion of this and provided a great set up. Wrote some of the reasons to watch for some movies.
Retro - Provided helpful feedback and support.