By Chuck Francisco
Japanese Kaiju films are many in number and quite diverse in their naming. Entire volumes are dedicated to cataloging the various eras spanning their entire chronology. Yet among all the crazy monster throw downs there are a number of films that introduced critical elements which we then took for granted. While I can't claim to be an absolute expert on all Kaiju films, I do have a road map clearly marking the major intersections key to their development (true story- I found it on the back of a menu at The Dragon House in Wildwood, NJ). Obviously, these are the five staggeringly important films as glimpsed through the reflection of my Kaiju experiences as a kid, having grown up in the 80's watching all of these classics on my knob equipped television. Your mileage may vary based on age and exposure.
5. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991)
GASP! A 90's Godzilla film?! I may just be out of my zombie pickled brain. Or am I? Godzilla vs King Ghidorah features copious time travel shenanigans, the mythical World War II origins of the big G, submarine hijinx, and two versions of Ghidorah! After Godzilla blasts off his nemesis' center head, the lead human character travels to the future and returns with the reconstructed cyborg version of Ghidorah: Mecha-King Ghidorah. There are so many reasons why you should seek out this more modern Kaiju experience, but the reason it earned the number five spot on this list has to do with its hand in revitalizing interest in the series, leading into the modern era of giant monster flicks. Yearly sequels would stomp all over the box office for the next half-decade. They finally make their way to American video stores as the millennium came to a close, planting the seeds of the current burst of Kaiju blossoming now.
4. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Can you believe that this was supposed to be the final Godzilla film? In 1968! Somethings are simply too deliciously indulged upon to be put away in a junk drawer, never to be enjoyed again. Nevertheless, Toho's plans to end the series there means they lavished an absurdly large budget (for a Kaiju film) on Destroy All Monsters, and they cleared the benches for one of the all-time epic showdowns of monsterdom. Eleven Kaiju in all make an appearance in the film, including: Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Mothra, Rodan, Gorosaurus, Minilla, Baragon, Varan, Kumonga, Anguirus, and Manda. The film sees a number of cities around the world succumb to attack in a way we'd really only seen inflicted upon Japan, with Moscow, London, Paris, and New York City suffering nearly as much property damage as the man of steel carelessly doled out in his latest screen incarnation. More importantly, Destroy All Monsters introduced Monster Island as the locale where all the cool Kaiju hung out until it was time to wreck whole cities and each other.
3. Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)
Godzilla was certainly a runaway success upon its 1954 release in Japan, but it would take another two years before American audiences caught Kaiju fever. Their mania would be served by a dubbed version, retitled and with newly filmed scenes inserting Raymond Burr into the plot, Godzilla, King of the Monsters was nevertheless a critical step in Japanese-American relations, depicting positive heroes from a country we'd recently been at war with. And that it was a-ok for us to work together. More importantly, it established that Americans had an insatiable love of giant monsters who stomp on buildings and engage in epic battle. It's a love affair which I hope is about to be rekindled.
2. Mothra vs Godzilla
Believe it or not, without the gains made this film all of the epic Kaiju on Kaiju action which we enjoy so much may never have come to pass. Mothra vs Godzilla represents the first time Toho brought one monster into the film of another. Truly! And remember that at this point Godzilla is still the bad guy and Mothra is controlled by singing. 'Zilla vanquishes Mothra, killing her, but her egg hatches and the two Mothra which emerge manage to trap the king in a cocoon and drop him into the sea. It isn't the most spectacular of Kaiju battles, but it blazed a trail which would become well-trod in its aftermath.
1. Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster (1964)
Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster is the most important film in the Godzilla mythos, and potentially the most important Kaiju film of all time. Beyond a doubt, the world of giant monsters would be critically different if not for the concepts introduced in this film. This is the first incarnation of Godzilla as a protector of Earth. It highlights a marked change in big G's behavior, allowing him to switch teams and become the savior of Japan. Then in the same stroke, in introducing Godzilla's greatest foe, King Ghidorah (who would become a neigh unstoppable beast), Toho also introduced the idea of their Kaiju teaming up to take down a greater threat then they posed to each other. These themes were so popular that they became part and parcel to nearly all of the films to follow. If that's not the height of influence then maybe I'm a Chinese jet pilot (hint: I'm not).
There you have it Junkies, the most influential and important Kaiju films. Have you seen them all?
Chuck Francisco has written for Mania, Exploitation Retrospect, Cinadelphia, Pop Kernal, and The Midnight Cheese. He is a performer and committee member for Blobfest, the annual celebration of 1958's The Blob. He's also a swing dancer, cocktail enthusiast, and right dapper gent. Follow him on Instagram because why not?