10 Best Japanese Monster Movies
Japan’s “kaiju eiga,” or monster movies, have fans around the world, and each fan will give you a different list of the 10 best Japanese monster movies. The movies on this list were selected according to historical significance, sort of a must-see compilation. But preference was given to those films that contained the most good old-fashioned Tokyo-stomping, rubber-suit-wrestling action and mayhem.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters.” The 1954 classic that started it all was a response to the horrors of nuclear war, which Japan knew all too well. A prehistoric reptile revived by nuclear tests wreaks havoc in Tokyo. To American audiences, watching the 1956 English-language version with Raymond Burr, Godzilla was a fun addition to the giant-monster parade marching across 1950's movie screens.
"Rodan.” Director Ishiro Honda, once an assistant to the great Akira Kurosawa, followed up his “Godzilla” with this 1956 tale of two pteradons laying waste to the landscape. Without realizing it, Honda was also creating Toho Studios’ immortal pantheon of monsters. In the next fifty years, Rodan would be joined by an array of rubber-suited colossi, endlessly battling each other for the right to save/destroy Japan.
“Mothra.” In 1961, Honda introduced Toho’s third heavy-hitter, a sort of Earth-spirit who improbably took the form of a giant moth. Aware of the children in their audience, Toho made their monster mash-ups increasingly simple and cutesy. Bizarre story elements included two twelve-inch-tall twin fairies who charmed Mothra with their music, played by a Japanese pop duo called the Peanuts.
“Gamera.” In 1965, rival studio Daiei launched its own entry in the giant monster series, featuring radioactive flying turtle Gamera. Yes, the concept was ridiculous, but undeniably popular with children, spawning seven sequels over the next 15 years. American kids who grew up watching Gamera on video were delighted to see the films spoofed by “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in the 1990's.
“King Kong vs. Godzilla.” Monster fans the world over were delighted to learn the most famous American movie monster would meet his Japanese counterpart. The monster-fight was appropriately epic, but the title of greatest monster remained undetermined. This led to the urban legend that Toho created two different endings, to assure viewers on both sides on the Pacific “their” monster had won.
“Destroy All Monsters!” Honda topped himself with 1968’s “Destroy!” by throwing everything into the mix: invading aliens, spies, mind control, and a heroic space captain. He topped it all off with a grand monster mega-fight involving a dozen rubber-suited denizens of Monster Island. It was the creative peak of the series until its resurgence 25 years later.
“Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.” By the 1990s, the generation of Japanese kids who had grown up with Godzilla movies was producing filmmakers of its own. When fan Shusuke Kaneko took over the Gamera franchise in 1995, the results were like what happened when fans got hold of “Dr. Who” and “Spider-Man”: action-packed fun with high production values and a real reverence for the original. Kaneko directed two equally impressive sequels.
“GMK.” In 2001,Toho did the smart thing and hired Kaneko to direct their latest Godzilla reboot. Kaneko gleefully discarded 50 years of family-friendly sequels and revived the original Godzilla, a ruthless killing machine. He added Mothra and other monsters to give humanity fighting chance, then peppered the results with clever references to previous films.
“Godzilla: Final Wars.“ Fifty years after the first Godzilla film, Toho produced an anniversary film reuniting all of its kaiju for a semi-remake of “Destroy All Monsters.” It contained Easter-egg references to most of the previous films in five decades of monster-making. Its release coincided with Toho Studios’ renovation of its historic monster sets and Godzilla himself receiving a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
“Gojira.” Also in 2004, Toho re-released 1954’s “Godzilla” under its original title to arthouses across America; critics were quick to praise it. Gone were Raymond Burr and the poorly-synched English soundtrack; in their place were horrific scenes of radiation poisoning on a fishing boat. These referenced the real-life “Lucky Dragon” incident that inspired the film, when a Japanese fishing boat sailed too close to an American atom-bomb test.