I Binge-Watched All 33 ‘Godzilla’ Movies — and Saw Seven Decades’ Worth of Changing Cultural Tides
For well over half a century, Godzilla has defined the genre of kaiju eiga. Japan’s favorite atomic beast has morphed to fit changing social concerns, cultural fads, commercial pressures, and advances in special effects. Because of this willingness to evolve, Toho’s venerable icon has proven as industructable in real life as he is on-screen.
Kaiju movies resist easy categorization. They’re usually broad, fun popcorn movies billed as entertainment, yet they’re pathologically fixated on the ills of society. They’re about monsters, but they rarely act as horror movies. They employ the language of science fiction, yet most of the time it’s of a kind so absurd that they’re not to be taken as sincere speculation. The best term to describe them might be “modern urban fairy tales”: stories rooted in allegorical, emotive narrative that on the surface seems naïve, but which uses that simple sense of wonder or horror to dig at something deeper.
In anticipation of Godzilla’s 35th* big screen appearance headlining Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019, I watched every installment of the Toho series — and its Hollywood spin-offs — to date. Here are my rankings, and what I learned along the way:
1. Godzilla (1954)
Directed by Ishiro Honda and written by Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata
(Full review) It’s been a few decades since this movie escaped the ghetto of critical disdain and became rightly held up as a classic of Japanese cinema and a technical feat for its time. While I’ve long known the place Honda’s masterpiece held in the canon of Japanese cinema, it wasn’t until listening to film historian David Kalat’s commentary on the Criterion release that I truly felt and appreciated, beyond the abstract, the visceral power that this movie held for domestic audiences of its day.
Occupation-era Japanese cinema was banned for nearly fifteen years from depicting national military action, for fear of stoking lingering nationalist sentiment. Godzilla was the first movie after the lifting of that ban to show the Self-Defense Force mobilizing — not that it proves to be anything other than a relentlessly pessimistic depiction. Spoiler alert for a 64-year-old movie: the military is useless, and the only way Godzilla is ultimately killed is by deploying the Oxygen Destroyer, an accidental invention by a pacifist scientist who commits suicide to take its secret to his grave, rather than risk it ending up in the hands of any military. Godzilla, far from an escapist monster rampage, is the result of a decade-long repressed national reckoning with the atomic shock and awe of Hiroshima. Godzilla made its way to Western theaters in 1956 in a sanitized version that removed the politics, “de-Orientalized” it, and inserted Raymond Burr as an American reporter. Today, that version is mostly a regarded as a footnote, and the original Ishiro Honda film is widely available in a restored cut.
2. Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko and written by Keiichi Hasegawa, Shusuke Kaneko, and Masahiro Yokotani
(Full review) GMK is usually noted for its grim tone (implausibly double-billed with a Hamtaro cartoon!), but what doesn’t get mentioned as often is how genuinely funny it is. It’s full of bone-dry gallows humor that doubles as social critique, a bit like Verhoeven’s RoboCop or Starship Troopers. The people in this film are often depicted as grotesqueries; while most Godzilla films show the nameless citizens of Japan evacuating cities in an orderly, if hurried fashion, GMK goes out of its way to show its masses only mildly curious about the terror going on around them, until Godzilla is on their own doorstep. Then their faces inevitably contort with ugly, out-of-their-mind clownish terror as they absolutely lose their shit, realizing what’s about to happen to them. The masses get trampled because they’re terminally incurious about the world around them, and Godzilla has arrived after fifty years to give them a history lesson.
3. The Return of Godzilla (1984)
Directed by Koji Hashimoto and written by Shuichi Nagahara and Tomoyuki Tanaka
(Full review) “Japan is rich and people buy whatever they want. But what is behind that wealth? Nothing very spiritual. Everyone’s so concerned with the material, and then Godzilla rips it all apart. I suspect that is good for us to see.” — Godzilla series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, 1985
More than any film in the series before it, this one makes a sincere attempt to explore the complex political and logistical realities of responding to a kaiju attack. Cold War-era Japan is materially prosperous, but it’s stuck between two belligerent, itchy-trigger-finger superpowers — its economic and political ally, America, and its next-door neighbor, the USSR. What happens next is a conflagration of near-disastrous proportions set off by the discovery of a new Godzilla. It’s an ingenious, grounded storyline, the best example of its kind until 2016’s Shin Godzilla.
4. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
Written and directed by Kazuki Omori
(Full Review) Godzilla vs. Biollante anticipates moral anxieties about genetics, water wars, and post-Cold War power dynamics, while delivering a cracking good time as a midnight movie for a hot summer night. We get a knotty plot involving international terrorism, bioengineering, experimental high-tech anti-Godzilla weapons, ESP schools for psychic children, and a mystical melodrama involving a scientist’s dead daughter inhabiting a plant. The film not only cuts between all of these effectively, but gradually integrates these different strands into a third act that illustrates how they’ve all been a part of the same story all along.
5. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Directed by Ishiro Honda and written by Shinichi Sekizawa
(Full review) King Kong vs. Godzilla is deft, funny, and classically staged. It’s exciting to get to watch Toho’s cut, before Universal dulled the humor and inserted unnecessary B-movie filler, to see how the familiar trappings of the franchise came together in a single film like this. This is the first in the series to have all the things in it that we expect a Godzilla movie to have, including a marquee monster-on-monster climax. The fact that this very old-school movie seems to be totally self-aware about what it is, but also so confident and unapologetic about it, demonstrates how Toho was beating Marvel at its game a full half century before Tony Stark quipped his first wisecrack. Sadly, the only version available in the U.S. — legally, at least — remains Universal’s botched dub.
6. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Directed by Ishiro Honda and written by Shinichi Sekizawa
(Full review) Mothra vs. Godzilla feels unexpectedly relevant to American eyes in 2018. The three journalist heroes spend a fair amount of time agonizing over the role of the press as impartial reporters of fact vs. advocates for the public good, and whether they even have a meaningful role to play in the face of widespread public indifference. The environmental and anti-capitalist messaging of the previous King Kong vs. Godzilla are played up even more here. We visit a devastated Infant Island, where nuclear tests have turned Mothra’s human worshippers against the outside world. The film’s unendingly greedy villain, a publicity-hungry land developer who’s somewhere between P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump, ends up (spoiler alert) dead of a gunshot wound in a pile of blood money, killed by his former parter.
7. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1993)
Directed by Takao Okawara and written by Wataru Mimura
(Full review) The original cycle of Godzilla films, known as the Showa series, ended in 1975 with Terror of MechaGodzilla. The second cycle, known as the Heisei series, kicked off in 1984, ignoring all previous films but the 1954 original. This movie gave the Heisei series its own contemporary MechaGodzilla, and of the second set of films, best captures that “modern urban fairy tale” sensibility. What other franchise could have a genuinely moving depiction of a radioactive pterodactyl laying down its life so that another, even more destructive dinosaur might be resuscitated in order to defeat a military robot built in that dinosaur’s image? We’re in utter crazy town, but sometimes a storyteller has to take you to crazy town in order to liberate your imagination enough that you might fully feel the moral sentiment their story is trying to impart upon you. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla arrived at a time where the series was obsessed with high tech military hardware, but subverts its own fascination with mecha by casting doubt on the motivations of its guns-blazing heroes.
8. Shin Godzilla (2016)
Written and directed by Hideaki Anno
(Full review) Neon Genesis: Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno’s addition to the Godzilla series is a thoughtful response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Japanese government’s inadequate handling of its aftermath in 2011. More so than any entry since The Return of Godzilla in 1984, Shin Godzilla illustrates the no-win scenario that any major world leader must grapple with in handling a large-scale crisis at home that has international implications. It goes back and forth between criticizing government bureaucrats for being too timid to make important decisions, and sympathizing with the impossible situations they’re put in. It offers a critique of the paralyzing Japanese tendency to insist on consensus and decorum before making a judgement call, while also celebrating a distinctly Japanese sense of collective action and hard work as virtues that ultimately save the day when the Americans would just as soon drop a hydrogen bomb and make peace with the collateral damage. In other words, what rings truest about this picture is how it has no interest in easy answers, and accepts that there’s more than one truth.
9. Godzilla (2014)
Directed by Gareth Edwards and written by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham
(Full review) Those who are vigilant to Hollywood attempts to whitewash this uniquely Japanese property’s anti-nuclear message can find things to take issue with here, if they’re looking for them. Godzilla, we are told, was not created in the fire of an atomic blast. In fact, the same nuclear tests in the South Pacific which inspired the original Honda/Tanaka premise have been retconned as the U.S. military’s fruitless attempts to destroy the ancient, eldritch international secret known as Gojira. However, the thematic concerns of the Toho franchise have not been ejected in favor of empty-headed spectacle. Rather, they’ve been modified; married to concerns which are, frankly, more germane to a 21st century global audience. The effects of this Godzilla look a lot like the familiar fallout of climate change and ecological disaster.
10. Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995)
Directed by Takao Okawara and written by Kazuki Omori
(Full review) “Godzilla dies.” That’s not a spoiler, that’s the tagline to this, perhaps the most operatic of all the Godzilla pictures. There’s a sequence early on that illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of this picture. In it, human-scaled Destroyer monsters battle JSDF special forces who are equipped with flame throwers and assault rifles. It’s mostly an exciting sequence, well edited and with good practical effects. But then it dips into director Kazuki Omori’s tendency of going overboard on cut-rate Hollywood references, momentarily becoming a knock-off of Aliens, complete with a gun-mounted, beeping monster radar and Destroyer grunts that have double-jaws…and you have to wonder if you’re taking this silliness a bit too seriously. But then that moment passes, and you’re soon transported back to the imaginative fantasia of a lonely, misunderstood, and righteously vengeful god-beast, his good-natured heir, and the living demon that torments the skies and the soil in equal measure while thundering taiko drums and lightning bolts cast an apocalyptic pall over everything.
11. Godzilla x Mothra x MechaGodzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)
Directed by Masaaki Tezuka and written by Masaaki Tezuka and Masahiro Yokotani
(Full review) By 2003, global popular culture was already eating its own tail in terms of the regurgitation of familiar 20th century media properties. Maasaki Tezuka’s “Kiryu saga” — this film, and its predecessor, Godzilla x MechaGodzilla — is guilty of being a textbook example of this. But if you’re not going to commit a revolution, you can still commit to evolution. Here we have an optimistic version of Toho’s canon which consciously curates ideas and tonal elements from the Showa era, the Heisei era, and the Millennium era (1999–2004), and blends them together into a taught, detailed bit of world building that generates an exciting and memorable outcome.
12. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno and written by Takeshi Kimura and Yoshimitsu Banno
(Full review) With the rise of television, the Japanese film industry and distribution pipeline collapsed by 1970, meaning that Godzilla films would be made under extremely austere circumstances for the foreseeable future. Newbie director Yoshimitsu Banno’s answer was a compressed single-unit shooting schedule in which he oversaw both the human-scale drama and the tokusatsu effects sequences. The result was Godzilla vs. Hedorah (That’s “Sludgezilla” to Japanese ears), the most art house Godzilla film ever made.
It feels like Michelangelo Antonioni made a kaiju movie. Banno goes for broke, with imaginative and abstract sequences of environmental horror, a psychedelic nightclub where people appear to turn into fish, and human-scale destruction — not since the 1954 original have we seen the bodies of victims of the monsters’ urban rampages. Since the series picked up steam with King Kong vs. Godzilla, the movies have all been fantastical, escapist stories far removed from the first film’s sense of horror. But Hedorah, despite the franchise’s immature demographic at this stage, is a cautionary tale like that first one, only filtered through the latter Showa series’ bizarre lens of kaiju anthropomorphism and dream logic.
13. Godzilla x MechaGodzilla (2002)
Directed by Masaaki Tezuka and written by Wataru Mimura
(Full review) The first half of Tokyo S.O.S.’s Kiryu saga is a good-natured, light tale that’s pointedly an homage to Showa-era sensibilities and anime aesthetics. And, like the Showa films before it, it’s mercifully short — 88 minutes, which is remarkable for a movie made in the 21st century. This has the benefit of resulting in a movie without an ounce of fat on its bones. Godzilla x MechaGodzilla knows it’s a light-footed story about characters improving themselves through the cypher of Godzilla — here, not so much a metaphor for atomic misuse as a personification of every individual’s biggest hurdles.
14. Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994)
Directed by Kensho Yamashita and written by Kanji Kashiwa and Hiroshi Kashiwabara
(Full review) For as much as the first hour is an uneven experience, the second is a tightly-wound, exciting spectacle that puts our ensemble in the middle of the action and gives them things to do, rather than having them watch it all on a big screen in G-Force HQ. With numerous perplexing shortcomings, SpaceGodzilla isn’t to the taste of every fan. But if you try to please everyone, you’ll probably end up pleasing no one. SpaceGodzilla is a little kick of energy that keeps the Heisei series from just repeating itself until the schtick runs thin. It’s unlikely they would’ve been able to best creative victory of the previous year’s Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla by repeating themselves, anyway.
15. Godzilla x Megaguirus: The G-Extermination Strategy (2000)
Directed by Masaaki Tezuka and written by Hiroshi Kashiwabara and Wataru Mimura
(Full review) Explaining what Godzilla x Megaguirus: The G-Extermination Strategy is, is no mean feat. It’s an unapologetic (at times almost deliriously so) pastiche of: anime aesthetic and histrionics, Saturday morning Tsubaraya-style tokusatsu TV, and late Showa wackiness and formal experimentation. It’s also, in large part, a soap opera, with broadly-sketched, over-the-top characters who are constantly EXPERIENCING EMOTION in all capital letters. And all of this is amplified, and held together by, one of the best soundtracks any Godzilla movie has had.
16. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974)
Directed by Jun Fukuda and written by Jun Fukuda, Masami Fukushima, Shinichi Sekizawa, and Hiroyasu Yamamura
(Full review) During the 1960s Golden Age, when Toho was turning out effects-heavy space epics like Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters, if a script called for a science lab, you could bet that would mean an elaborate studio set with bespoke prop designs and all sorts of bells and whistles. By the mid-’70s, however, scientists in Godzilla films all seemed to be hobbyists working out of their homes. But this austerity gives the late Showa films a nicely disreputable edge. These look and feel like Seventies movies, with location shooting, rough lighting, and lots of pre-Steadycam handheld photography. To be honest, I prefer that mode to the relatively antiseptic qualities of some of the ’60s entries.
17. Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975)
Directed by Ishiro Honda and written by Yukiko Takayama
(Full Review) Terror of MechaGodzilla, Ishiro Honda’s final Godzilla film, is in some ways a throwback, or perhaps an atonement. Honda seems at times to be trying to wrestle the franchise back to an earlier mode of storytelling, but the alien invasion premise is still pure late Showa. Most interestingly, the characters this time are wracked with the same sorts of no-win moral propositions that befell the doomed love triangle of the first film, lending Terror the best human drama in the era since that first film. There’s something effecively tragic about the young woman at the heart of the story, who’d had to sacrifice more and more of her physical body as she’s been caught between the ego of a mad scientist father and the schemes of the invading aliens, until she’s eventually rendered a human proxy for MechaGodzilla. It’s heady stuff — but then I wonder whether the goofy trappings of this time are doing the story any favors, or whether the straightforward charm of Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla made better use of them.
18. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
Written and directed by Kazuki Omori
(Full review) This movie is plainly the product of bubble economy-era Japan. It’s fixated on the country’s economic supremacy at the turn of the 1990s, and how it got there. The character of Shindo in particular, while only a secondary figure in the broad ensemble, is intriguing: He owes his life to the pre-mutation “Godzillasaurus,” but kept what happened on Lagos Island a secret out of shame for having been one of the few Japanese soldiers to survive their particular bout of violence. Then he became one of Japan’a foremost industrialists, credited in the Heisei timeline with helping to rebuild the nation. He therefore feels a strange debt of gratitude to the beast, even as it ravages his country in the modern day and ultimately kills him.
In retrospect, there’s something a little tragic about this movie’s hubris: in its imagined 23rd century, Japan rules the world like a cyberpunk dystopia. Of course, this misses the fact that in 1991, Japan’s economic miracle was about to go off a cliff. The country has been in a prolonged economic stagnation ever since, with a demographic crisis that continues to inhibit its recovery.
19. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Directed by Ishiro Honda and written by Ishiro Honda and Takeshi Kimura
(Full review) Destroy All Monsters is held up by many as a high watermark of the Toho’s Golden Age. The plotting is smoother and sharper than in any of the prior entries. Like the other Godzilla movies where most characters are some sort of professional with a title, there’s basically no interiority to make you care about any of them. But, this is a big, pulp ensemble film, so it gets by in spite of the character deficiencies with a story that exists to serve up the finest tokusatsu effects in the series yet. Honda’s direction, too, seems to be much more energized than in his past films. Some of the camera direction prefigures similar moments from Spielberg and Abrams decades later. The storyline, like the other “aliens hatch a plot involving the monsters” episodes, is too insubstantial to place it in the very top tier. Nevertheless, it’s fun.
But I have to point out, it kinda sucks that in too many of the Showa movies, the only roles for women besides “main hero’s sister” are conniving space aliens.
20. Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966)
Directed by Jun Fukuda and written by Shinichi Sekizawa
(Full review) While Adam West and Burt Ward were bringing an Andy Warhol sensibility to Batman on American television, something similar was going on with Godzilla across the Pacific. Delirious pop camp, plenty of Dutch angles, and big, Bondian sets that go all explodey make up Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (Or, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, or, if we’re translating the Japanese domestic title, Godzilla — Ebirah — Mothra: Big Battle in the South Seas, which, let’s be honest, is the best of this movie’s myriad names).
21. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017) and 22. Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018)
Directed by Hiroyuki Seshita and Kobun Shizuno and written by Gen Urobuchi
(Full review) By 2015, when Toho announced the creation of a Godzilla think tank (“Goji-Con”) with the intention of charting a future for the franchise beyond simply licensing the rights out to Legendary Pictures, they finally put two and two together and created a Godzilla anime, something far more readily exportable than a live-action film that would have to compete with Hollywood. The result is a trilogy that’s a big departure from the series’ usual conceits. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is not an animated Godzilla film. It is an anime which happens to feature Godzilla as a component of its mythology, built to the sensibilities of a generation used to playing dense, outlandish JRPGs on their PlayStation 4s. For the first time in the series’ history, a storyline involving aliens doesn’t trot out incredibly shopworn “We come in peace” tropes from sixty years ago. Instead, we get a fairly interesting backstory in which humankind, on the brink of extinction due to a wave of kaiju attacks, finds itself on a survival ark along with two other species of humanoid. It’s nowhere near the levels of a genre-busting kaiju anime like Evangelion, but it’s not nothing, either.
23. Godzilla 2000: Millennium(1999)
Directed by Takao Okawara and written by Hiroshi Kashiwabara
(Full review) Godzilla 2000 was the first film of the third cycle, the Millennium era. It’s a response to the poorly-received 1998 Roland Emmerich adaptation, a response to Shusuke Kaneko’s critically-acclaimed Gamera trilogy, and a corrective to the militaristic excesses of the Heisei era. But however well-intentioned it is, it’s wildly uneven, with some early digital effects that end up being among the worst in the series. For all its faults, though, there’s some really interesting stuff going on here. Godzilla’s foe, Orga, is basically a shapeless consciousness that lives inside a UFO that’s been buried in the ocean for millions of years. When it awakens, Orga uses invisible energy tendrils to hack into the computers of Japan and begins to absorb the world’s knowledge through the internet, even spreading hacker-style surreal fright messages (in a subplot sadly deleted from the Sony release for being too ambiguous, which is, in fact, its greatest strength). Orga — a kaiju whose superpower is hacking the planet to cripple our global civilization and bring about a reign of terror. Truly a monster for the 21st century!
24. Son of Godzilla (1967)
Directed by Jun Fukuda and written by Shinichi Sekizawa and Kazue Shiba
(Full review) By 1967, giant monster movies had long been passé in the West. The genre continued to have success in Japan, but much of that success was happening on the small screen with Saturday morning shows like Ultraman and kid-friendly, low-budget competitors like Daiei’s Gamera series. Godzilla would have to pivot and cut corners in order to survive, and the island-based films of the late Sixties were the result. Enter Minya, the unsettling adoptive offspring of Godzilla. Son of Godzilla is an exceedingly strange mode for the franchise to inhabit, but the ending, where Godzilla and Minya huddle for warmth as they freeze into an involuntary and indefinite hibernation, is surprisingly moving for such lighthearted fare. It harkens back to the delicate balance of camp and pathos that Mothra vs. Godzilla pulled off so well. The only thing missing from this sub-cycle of Godzilla films is the underpinning of social commentary that the earlier entries managed to ground their fantasy stories with.
25. Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992)
Directed by Takao Okawara and written by Kazuki Omori
(Full review) Godzilla vs. Mothra represents the creative low point for the Heisei series. It’s still a fun watch for fans of the genre, checking off all the boxes on a now well-established list of elements the rebooted Toho series had established. Ifukube’s classic Godzilla themes dominate the soundtrack; Kawakita gets to show off his refined tokusatsu effects and composites, including more rotoscoped energy beams than you can shake a stick at; and Omori delivers another action-packed script with questionable Hollywood “homages” which rides the line between pulp fun and serious sci-fi portent. Ultimately, though, it feels like it was made just because Toho had Godzilla 4 written down on their December 1992 release slate and the creation of another entry was a given.
26. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Directed by Ishiro Honda and written by Shinichi Sekizawa
(Full review) The effective humanist messages of the first few Godzilla movies pivots — if we’re willing to stretch — towards, I suppose, a call for internationalism? I hesitate to make that the hill I die on, as it’s a metaphor you can only extrapolate from the plot given that Mothra convinces Godzilla and Rodan to put aside their animalistic territorialism to team up and defeat the extraterrestrial menace of King Ghidorah. Yes, the monsters have their own “Big Three at Yalta” moment. But without the overtly satirical elements of King Kong vs. Godzilla, the absurdity of all that falls flat.
27. All Monsters Attack (1969)
Directed by Ishiro Honda and written by Shinichi Sekizawa
(Full Review) Some call All Monsters Attack the worst Godzilla film. But if you’re willing to accept that a Godzilla movie can step outside the monsters-on-the-loose sandbox, it’s got a few unexpected pleasures. It’s a kitchen-sink comedy-drama for children which obliquely critiques Japanese domestic norms at the end of the 1960s, a period of unbelievable economic growth that came with a cost to the working class. Unfortunately, due to the dwindling fortunes of the series at this point, It’s also a movie where a plucky 10-year-old talks to Minya in his dreams — which are mostly just stock footage from movies the audience potentially already paid once to see.
28. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1964)
Directed by Ishiro Honda and written by Shinichi Sekizawa
(Full review) Putting Monster Zero towards the bottom of this list will get me in trouble with some of the Big G’s faithful. By its reputation, it’s a formative entry of the Sixties’ Golden Age. But by this point in the Showa cycle, more and more of the characters are becoming humorless scientists, politicians, or in this case, astronauts. They’re hard to relate to and their professional creds justify just having the characters expound exposition. There’s about two times too much plot and none of it makes sense. These are trappings of midcentury sci-fi that the earlier films were too special to indulge in. I’ll happily concede that the production design is pretty fabulous, with the full future-forward optimism of the Space Age on display.
29. Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
Written and directed by Jun Fukuda
(Full review) Jet Jaguar is bodaciously silly, but basically the epitome of Big Dick Energy. He and Godzilla shake hands, and Godzilla does a flying high kick tag-team move on Megalon. What more can be said?
30. Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)
Directed by Jun Fukuda and written by Takashi Kimura and Shinichi Sekizawa
(Full review) Creatively, Gigan is the Godzilla series at rock bottom, but as a cultural artifact, there’s something compelling about it. If you’d never heard of the giant monster genre before this, and this was your first exposure to it, your head might well spin around a few times trying to grasp what you were watching.
31. Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Directed by Motoyoshi Oda and written by Takeo Murata and Shigeaki Hidaka
(Full review) Godzilla Raids Again is like Jurassic World in how it fails to understand what made its source of inspiration so appealing, swapping subtext and characterization for a monster mash with a janky plot. But whereas JW was a big-budget, state-of-the-art reboot, GRA clearly shows what a rush job it was. With a breakneck turnaround of six months, the script here is a sketched-out storyline with dead-end relationships and clunky exposition. The original Godzilla avoids the trappings of 1950s B-movies, but GRA just is a 1950s B-movie. I doubt anyone making it would have thought people would still have access to it in 2018 so I can’t totally fault them for cashing in on the name recognition while the iron was hot.
32. Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura and written by Isao Kiriyama, Ryuhei Kitamura, Wataru Mimura, and Shogo Tomiyama
(Full review) This is another one I ought to caveat as being a love-it-or-hate-it affair. I remember having fun watching it with a crowd at the Egyptian Theater not long after its release, but upon a recent rewatch with the sobriety of solitude, I could not escape my feelings that Final Wars is an exercise in protracted embarrassment. It projects a Resident Evil-era Paul W.S. Anderson aesthetic onto a broad pastiche of Toho’s silliest monster mashups. That formula could work if it captured a suitably infectous sense of innocent joy; it’s too bad Kitamura chose to instead deliver a basket of half-baked cliches culled not from Godzilla films, but from the gutter of early-2000s straight-to-DVD gunkata and SyFy originals. Frankly, I think the series deserved better for its fiftieth anniversary.
33. Godzilla (1998)
Directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Dean Devlin, and Roland Emmerich
(Full review) The late 1990s were a weird time for Hollywood. We were already well into the effects-driven blockbuster era, but it wasn’t like it is today. In 2018, media corporations understand that the value of big intellectual property doesn’t lie merely in extracting an impressive box office return, it’s in laying the foundation for downstream returns that can last a generation. A big-budget, highly-visible bomb is not only an embarrassment and a waste of resources, it can mean casting a pall over the entire “cinematic universe” you’re seeking to create. But in 1998, a first-in-a-series franchise film didn’t mean all that. Your project was meant to be a vessel for toys, video games, and other merchandise; lucrative product placement and cross-promotion deals; and an pop album available at Tower Records, tied to the mothership only by whatever flavor-of-the-month song was playing over the end credits. Emmerich, by his own admission, never understood the source material. His banal Godzilla lacks any substance beyond being the requisite payoff to an admittedly clever marketing campaign, but it’s certainly a snapshot in time of an industry at a turning point.
With 35 feature films by the time it hits 65 years of age, the Godzilla franchise will have enjoyed an unparalleled longevity for a character created expressly for the screen. Before anime, before Nintendo, Godzilla was one of the earliest pop culture ambassadors of post-imperial Japan. And there’s no end in sight, with two film series being produced simultaneously — the Legendary MonsterVerse series coming out of Hollywood, and Toho’s fourth cycle, which began with Shin Godzilla and now continues with the Godzilla Planet anime trilogy. Undoutably, Godzilla will continue to reflect the tastes and concerns of 21st century audiences as one of the most unique film icons in history. So go out and explore the series’ varied trove of imaginative fantasy —and Ganbatte!
* The headline says there’s 33, but “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” will be the 35th installment. #34 will be the third and final act of the Godzilla Planet anime trilogy, arriving on Netflix internationally later this year.