Godzilla (1954, Ishiro Honda)
Friday, May 16 & Saturday, May 17; Midnite | Buy Tickets
After lurking beneath the waves for a decade, Godzilla finally returns this week with the debut of Gareth Edwards’ big budget American reboot on Friday. We’re not getting that movie — but we here at Nitehawk are certainly stoked about it. What we are doing, though, is screening Rialto’s fancy new digitally restored DCP of the original 1954 Godzilla (Buy Tickets). Consider it a kind of fancy-pants alternative.
With all of this Godzilla in the air, we’ve taken the chance to look back at our favorite entries in Toho’s original Godzilla series. Twenty-seven films long, the quality is all over the place, and with a lot of different continuities and re-used titles, it can be a bit hard to keep track of.
Below we’ve put together a list of our five favorite Godzilla films, from his first foray on the big screen all the way through his robust 60-year history. Godzilla’s back, baby. Celebrate!
The one that started it all isn’t much like the 27 that followed in its wake. The unedited Japanese version of Godzilla is, famously, a rather dire affair. Director Ishiro Honda draws direct, pointed parallels between Godzilla’s reign of terror and the nuclear horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well from the Allied army’s horrific firebombing of Tokyo. It’s important to remember that Toho put out Godzilla less than ten years after the end of the second World War, when the cultural wounds from the attacks were still a fact of recent history. Godzilla is nature’s furious answer to mankind’s tragic self-destruction, and Honda pours every bit of Japan’s lingering cultural despair into the mighty beast.
Its human characters mourn their dead, and tremble before a seemingly unstoppable force of destruction. After Godzilla makes his way through Tokyo, rows of civilians line the grounds of the city’s hospitals, slowly dying of radiation poisoning. This isn’t spectacle, this is horror. (The U.S. version catches a lot of flack for cutting through the OG’s somber tone, but, to be totally fair, it’s waaaay more fun.)
Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965, Ishiro Honda)
Plot: Invaders from Planet X take control of three of Earth’s mightiest monsters and use them to bend the people of Earth to their will.
Bonus Monsters: King Ghidorah, Rodan
Godzilla Says No To: Nuclear Intimidation
Well that didn’t take long. The serious tone of the original Godzilla only lasted a few features, as Godzilla quickly shifted from walking parable to full-on superhero. Invasion of the Astro-Monster is pure 60’s silliness, a movie that echoes classic Cold War-era sci-fi and improves upon it by adding a heaping helping of Kaiju wrastling.
There’s a classic battle smack in the middle of Astro-Monster, where Godzilla and Rodan team up to fight their greatest foe, the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah. After getting kicked around Japan in the previous movie (Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster; also a good one), Ghidorah apparently took a holiday into space, where he spends his time blowing up the alien landscape of Planet X. The stand-off is pretty cool. “A historical battle,” as the lead alien baddie puts it. The trio’s throwdown on Planet X is the only time that Godzilla fights away from Earth, and not in that goddamn nameless field in Japan where he usually fights. It makes for a nice change of pace to see monsters do their thing with a big ‘ol matte paining of Jupiter hanging in the background.
And then there’s this little bit of magic:
Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971, Yoshimitsu Banno)
Plot: Our global pollution problem takes the form of a massive slime-monster, and Godzilla is not having it.
Bonus Monsters: Hedorah
Godzilla Says No To: Pollution
If Godzilla is a product of military destruction, The Smog Monster, Hedorah, is like his gross industrial cousin. Like Godzilla, Hedorah is also a product of mankind’s disregard for natural order. More a shapeless mass than anything easily recognizable, Hedorah spends most of the movie sucking up smoke from bellowing factories and slinging killer sludge every which way. His wounds leak toxic goop that melts men down to their bones, which is surprisingly gnarly for one of these movies.
Made in the middle of Godzilla’s more kid-friendly phase, the genuinely weird Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster sticks out like a sore thumb. Prone to surrealist flights of fancy, the movie is stitched together with bizarre animated segments that look more Sesame Street than anime of the day, and the movie also frequently treats viewers to lessons about far-off galaxies for… some reason. At one point, a man at a psychedelic night club trips on LSD and hallucinates that everyone around him is wearing fish masks. Then Hedorah lurches in and sludges up the joint. Suffice to say, there’s no Godzilla movie quite as half-baked as Smog Monster.
Oh, and Godzilla flies in this one. He uses his atomic breath like a jet pack:
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991, Kazuki Omori)
Plot: Western political extremists from the future travel back to 1944 to prevent the creation of Godzilla, and to plant their own monster in the past so they can use it to destroy Japan in the 1990’s.
Bonus Monsters: Dorat (Adorable little baby Ghidorahs), Godzillasaurus, King Ghidorah, Mecha King Ghidorah
Godzilla Says No To: American Imperialism
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is the best of the Heisei* series of Godzilla films, once again setting Godzilla against King Ghidorah. The movie’s time travel plot is mostly a lot of nonsense, but it does open the door for all kinds of crazy situations: a pre-nuclear mutation Godzilla kills a bunch of American troops during WWII; a defeated King Ghidorah gets retrofitted with a insanely rad mechanical body; and a T2-influenced android rockets around like he’s on roller blades. Toho pumped a lot more money into the Heisei series than they did for the earlier films, and it shows — the special effects and monster designs here are some of the series’ all-time best.
The thing I like most about this movie are the foolish ways in which humanity tries to harness the power of these massive monsters. To fight King Ghidorah, the Japanese revive Godzilla using modern nuclear weapons, making him bigger and stronger than ever. After G makes short work Ghidorah, everyone seems sort of surprised when Godzilla celebrates by going about his normal business of blasting apart Tokyo. It’s like they hadn’t been paying attention forty years. When it comes to Godzilla, there’s always one important lesson to remember: He doesn’t like you.
*Godzilla movies are broken into three groups: the initial Showa series that ran from 1954-1975; the rebooted Heisei series, which ran from 1984-1995; and the final (for now, at least) Millennium series, which ran from 1999-2004.
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001, Shusuke Kaneko)
Plot: Possessed by the spirits of dead Japanese soldiers, Godzilla returns 50 years after he first destroyed Tokyo, and only the three ancient guardian monsters can stop him.
Bonus Monsters: Mothra, King Ghidorah, Baragon
Godzilla Says No To: War? I guess? This one isn’t much of a message movie. It’s more of a smashin’ movie.
Godzilla can be surprisingly morally ambiguous for a giant, rampaging hell-monster. Sometimes he’s nice and saves kids from crab monsters and stuff; sometimes he kind of a neutral force of nature; and then sometimes he’s just an evil spirit of vengeance that’s hellbent on blowing up absolutely everything. This last mode tends to be how I like my flavor of Godzilla, and that’s how we find him in the ridiculously titled Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (GMK for short).
With his eyes clouded white and his mouth locked in a hateful snarl, Godzilla blows through GMK like a typhoon, blasting through the army and three of his most famous opponents with atomic breath that hits like a damn H-bomb. Thin on just about everything but amazing displays of destruction, GMK is all-out monster mayhem front to back. Because it mostly stands on its own, GMK is a good place to start for audiences keen on destruction but not on convoluted continuity.