5 Essential Godzilla Films

The five original Japanese films you should watch before seeing Godzilla: King of the Monsters

If you follow me on Twitter, or really know me at all, it will come to no great shock to you that I am straight up jazzed about the new upcoming American Godzilla film being released by Warner Brothers and Legendary pictures next week on May 30th. Godzilla: King of the Monsters appears to be the most faithful American adaptation of the long running Japanese franchise ever.

The movie is a dream come true for lifelong fans like myself, I cannot remember a time where my anticipation for a films release was higher. I am also thrilled by the prospect that this film has the potential to introduce thousands of people to the long, rich and fantastical history of the Godzilla series.

As the longest running movie franchise in history, clocking in at 30 live action Japanese films and 3 animated, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of knowing where to start.

To help out, I am offering up five films that I consider to be both some of the best of the series and most closely related to characters and events of the new American film. These films will introduce you to the major players: Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. They will also give you an appreciation for the variety found across the some 65+ years of Toho films starring Godzilla.

With such a long history the films are often broken down into three distinct “eras”, which are the periods of time that Toho was actively producing Godzilla films. These eras are: Showa (1954–75), Heisei (1984–95), and Millennium (1999–2004). I’ve selected three Showa era films, one from the Heisei era, and one from Millennium.

One important thing that should be kept in mind with these films is that, with the exception of the 1954 original, these films are not meant to be watched with great seriousness. Having a good time is the underlying purpose of the majority of Godzilla films and if you allow yourself you will discover just how much fun these films are.

Gojira (1954)

Ask any Godzilla fan worth their salt where you should start and their answer will almost always be the 1954 original film. This is where it all started, the grandfather of all Japanese monster movies that were to follow. People are often caught off-guard by how dark, brooding, and somber the overall tone of this film is. This is a serious film that served as a reflection on the horrors of nuclear war and the fragility of mankind, two things that the Japanese knew firsthand after suffering the atomic bombings. Godzilla is not presented as a campy joke but as a horrific beast, a walking symbol of both the folly of man and the unrelenting judgement of nature.

The talents of director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube, and special effects pioneer Eji Tsuburaya coalesced to create an all-time classic film that rose above the general kitschy affair of other monster movies in the 1950s. Here the stakes are real, the suffering of a nation on full display, Honda deals honestly with the existential dread that hung over Japan in the wake of WWII.

Everyone, especially Americans, should watch this original cut of the film.

Stream it on: Criterion | Amazon

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

The fourth Godzilla film to be released Mothra vs. Godzilla is often considered by both fans and critics to be a highlight of the entire franchise. With the success of the previous film, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Toho decided to keep the momentum by bringing in another kaiju to do battle with Godzilla. After the success of her own debut film that was released in 1961, Mothra was an easy choice.

Honda, Ifukube, and Tsuburaya are at their professional best here. The plot centers around a greedy businessman who holds Mothra’s egg hostage as a tourist attraction when it washes up on Japan’s shores. Things are further complicated when Godzilla wakes up from a long nap and decides to start wrecking havoc.

It is a fun and engaging film that includes some great performances by series stalwarts Akira Takarada, Hiroshi Koizumi, and Kenji Sahara. Most notable of all the performances however are the twins Emi and Yumi Ito, a Japanese pop duo, as the fairy guardians of Infant Island called Shobijin.

After this film Godzilla and Mothra would go on to be almost inseparably linked. Making it a must for anyone interested in these films.

Stream it on: Criterion | Amazon

Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)

If you came to this list looking for campy fun tied together by an off-the-wall science fiction plot then have no fear, the next two films have you covered my friend.

Invasion of Astro-Monster (released as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero in the US) is a fun film that features Godzilla’s longtime arch-rival King Ghidorah and establishes the common Showa era theme of alien invaders using giant monsters to attack earth.

A race of aliens called Xiliens from the mysterious “Planet X” ask the humans of earth for help by lending them Godzilla and Rodan to fight the fearsome “Monster Zero” on their home world. The monster is soon revealed to be King Ghidorah and it also quickly becomes apparent that the Xiliens haven’t exactly been totally truthful about their intentions. Shocking.

There are some great performances in this film by American Nick Adams who plays an astronaut along with Akira Takarada. You can tell that Adams is enjoying himself and he has good, though brief, chemistry with his love interest the lovely Kumi Mizuno.

This entry in the series marks Ghidorah’s second appearance with his first being in the previous film Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster released in 1964. It was honestly a tough choice to know which one to recommend here. I’d say if you enjoyed Mothra vs. Godzilla and you don’t care for science fiction then go with that one.

Otherwise, Invasion of Astro-Monster is the way to go. It is the first and only film where Godzilla dances in space, that alone makes it worth the price of admission.

Stream it on: Criterion | Amazon

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

There are only a few movies in the Godzilla franchise that are more bonkers than this film *cough* Godzilla vs. Hedorah *cough*.

This film is that moment on a roller-coaster where you finally reach the top and throw your hands in the air as you helplessly start plummeting down towards earth’s surface while you yell “AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!” at the top of your lungs. It is the distilled essence of every movie script James Cameron has ever thrown in the trash like a coward because it was just “too over the top”. 
It is a dang good time.

King Ghidorah is back along with Godzilla in what is a highlight of the Heisei era. In the film, white dudes from the future show up in a time machine that is basically a UFO to warn the Japanese government that in the future Godzilla completely destroys Japan. Fortunately they have a plan to save Japan by going back in time to insure that Godzilla is never created by nuclear testing.

Let’s just say that plan does exactly, well, go as planned and once it is carried out the floodgates of insanity are opened. This film puts its foot on the gas and does not let up until the end.

While it contains some dated and at times borderline hysterical special effects there is plenty more here to love. Godzilla and Ghidorah have never looked better and the final battle that takes place between the two longtime rivals is spectacular.

The film also brings more depth to Godzilla’s backstory, further tying his identity and origin with the events of WWII. This side-story helps ground the film and sets up some it’s most poignant moments.

If you want to have an amazing time watching a Godzilla movie with a group of friends, this is the one for you.

Stream it on: Amazon

Godzilla, Mothra & Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

Yes that really is the title of this movie. Yes it is long. 
Yes it is as incredible as it sounds.

Widely regarded as one of the best films in the entire franchise this is one of the first films I always reach for when giving out recommendations to anyone interested in Godzilla. It stands out as the best that the Millennium era has to offer.

The film is a direct sequel to the original 1954 film which is a common theme among all the Millennium era films. It also stands the rivalry between Godzilla and King Ghidorah on it’s head by reversing the roles that they both traditionally filled. Ghidorah is now a force of good that stands against Godzilla along with Mothra and the lesser known kaiju Baragon to protect Japan.

This incarnation of Godzilla is one of his most ruthless and visceral. He is a brutal powerhouse in this film who violently attacks anything that stands in his way. It also twists his origin in an intriguing way by implying that he is the embodiment of Japanese soldiers who lost their life fighting in WWII. The souls of these soldiers are angry with Japan for attempting to forget the atrocities that the country committed during the war. It gives his character a complexity that hearkens back to the original 1954 classic.

The monster action in this film is top-notch as are the special effects and writing. The human side of this film is probably one of the most well written of this era making you care about the characters motivations and decisions.

It is absolutely a highlight of the franchise and one not to be missed.

Stream it on: Amazon