Stomping Through 'Godzilla' History: Where to Begin & What to Watch
by Aaron Neuwirth
May 29, 2019
With Legendary Pictures' Godzilla: King of the Monsters set to stomp its way into theaters on May 31st, I took it upon myself to put together a fun introductory guide for anyone looking to learn more about the long-running kaiju movie franchise. While I have enjoyed seeing superhero epics and other genre property hit the mainstream, I grew up a big fan of Godzilla, and have spent this past year going from enthusiast to pro on the famed monster and all that comes with it (follow me @AaronsPS4). Plenty of others may have a handle on some of the Godzilla basics: his main adversaries, and even some favorite entries from the 32-film Toho-produced series. Others may, unfortunately, only know Godzilla from his disastrous 1998 American feature (directed by Roland Emmerich), or purely the camp value associated with the series. So, I'm here to provide a crash course on the atomic beast, some of the more notable Godzilla films, and other related fun.
You want to know which movies to start with? I have you covered. Looking to see what separates the more serious entries from the wackier ones? There's a section focused on just that. Are you hoping to figure out which Godzilla films have the best fights? Some space has been set aside for that as well. Whether or not you have time to dig into 30+ movies, enjoy this guide to the series and many of the things that make it unique.
Godzilla first appeared in the 1954 film Godzilla, also known as Gojira (a term created from combining the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale"), directed by Ishiro Honda (who would go on to direct seven more Godzilla films). The massive success of this first film would kick start the "Japanese Monster Boom", allowing Tokusatsu and Kaiju films to quickly gain mass appeal around the world. Originally conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons, Godzilla is depicted as an enormous and very destructive sea lizard / mutant monster, with a distinctive roar created by famed composer Akira Ifukube. While able to wreak plenty of havoc on Japan just by walking through its cities, Godzilla's signature weapon is his atomic heat beam that he can unleash from its mouth (generally signified by charging up the spikes on its back first).
While the later films would take on a lighter tone, occasionally positioning Godzilla as an antihero of sorts, who fights to defend humanity, the original feature had serious intentions in mind. Over time, particularly with Hondo's follow-up entries and after the Cold War, audiences would see Godzilla movies shift between being acceptable as kid-friendly entertainment and having some interesting themes in mind concerning various natural and man-made disasters, as well as climate change and the role of humanity on this planet.
While it may be daunting to take a closer look at a series with over 30 films in it, Godzilla's film series can actually be broken into several different periods, relating to the different times Toho rebooted the franchise.
The Showa Era (named for Japanese Emperor Showa) began with Godzilla (the original Gojira) in 1954 and ended in 1975, with Terror of Mechagodzilla. While starting in earnest, this era became campier as it went along, as the budgets dropped each time and Toho put more focus towards a younger target audience. This era also introduced many of Godzilla's most famous foes, including King Ghidorah and Mechagodzilla (Mothra already had her own standalone film during this time).
The Heisei Era (named for Emperor Heisei) began with The Return of Godzilla (also called Godzilla 1984) in 1984 and ended with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah in 1995. While not exactly dark and gritty, this era does take more time focusing on the science of Godzilla and the morality of genetics, in addition to providing plenty of fun monster battles. Most notably, the Heisei films are set within the same continuity. There are reoccurring characters and storylines present throughout this set of 7 films.
The Millennium Era began with Godzilla 2000: Millennium in 1999 and ended in 2004 with Godzilla: Final Wars. Unlike the Heisei era, the Millennium films form something of an anthology series. Each entry is a follow-up to the original 1954 film, set within its own timeline, except for Godzilla: Tokyo SOS, a direct sequel to the well-received Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. This era is also notable for a more substantial reliance on CG visual effects to go along with the miniatures and Suitmation the series had been known for.
The Reiwa Era (named for the recently appointed Emperor Reiwa) began in 2016 with Shin Godzilla (or Godzilla: Resurgence as it's known in the US) and is currently active. While this era only features one live-action Godzilla film thus far, Toho has produced a trilogy of anime Godzilla films (titled: Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle, and Godzilla: The Planet Eater), which are currently streaming on Netflix if anyone is interested in watching them.
Where To Begin
Godzilla (1954) – The original film that started it all is essential viewing just to understand the seriousness this series began with, along with the political and cultural undertones. While it may not cause too much of a fright today, the film was designed to be a scary monster film fitting the time following what the Japanese had experienced in World War II. Note: Don't confuse this with Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1955), the American re-edit that cuts the politics and adds scenes with Raymond Burr as American journalist Steve Martin providing his take on the events (the Criterion Collection Blu-ray features both versions).
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) – Thanks to the standalone 1961 film, Mothra already had plenty of fans of her own, and this crossover was a great way to keep the excitement going for both monsters. Many fans see this as one of the best of the Showa Era sequels, which is no surprise given the big fights and effort put in by director Ishiro Honda and his team.
Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964) – This one is Ishiro Honda's other classic film that originally introduced Godzilla's greatest nemesis – Ghidorah, a massive flying beast that arrives on a meteorite and fires bolts of lightning from its three heads. It's also another fun crossover that has Mothra convincing Godzilla and Rodan to join forces and fight King Ghidorah together.
Destroy All Monsters (1968) – If you thought Avengers: Infinity War was the biggest crossover event of all-time, take note of this film, which features over 10 giant monsters causing all sorts of destruction around the globe due to alien mind control, before they team up to take on King Ghidorah in an epic final battle on Monsterland – an island in the Ogasawara Island chain that serves as home to most of the world's monsters.
Want To Get Wacky?
Invasion of Astro-Monster (1966) – Also known as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, while this film features aliens (the Xiliens) transporting Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X to fight Ghidorah, it's best known as the film where Godzilla performed his victory dance (seen above), much to the chagrin of director Ishiro Hondo.
Son of Godzilla (1967) – In this, Godzilla adopts a child named Minilla (don't ask about the paperwork), and tries to teach him important monster skills. There's a lot of silliness, plus battles with a giant spider.
Bambi vs. Godzilla (1969) – Animator Marv Newland's classic short film you've probably heard about before or watched already, featuring an epic battle that has to be seen to be believed.
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) – One of the more meme and gif-friendly Godzilla films that has the atomic monster teaming up with the robotic Jet Jaguar to face off against Megalon and Gigan in a crazy fight that resembles a wrestling match. From tail slides (one seen above) to its wildly misleading poster, this film has all the goofiness fit for the Showa Era.
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) – Incorporating elements of Back to the Future and Terminator 2, this entry features aliens convincing humans to use time travel to stop Godzillasaurus, the lost dinosaur that would eventually be radioactively transformed into Godzilla. If that's not enough, this movie also features King Ghidorah and his eventual transformation into Mecha-King Ghidorah!
How To Continue
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) – While the previous Mechagodzilla films before this one are not Godzilla's finest hours, the Heisei Era's take on this major Godzilla adversary allows for a great re-design, some terrific action and production design, along with a killer score from Ifukube. It also features a really pissed-off Rodan fighting both Godzillas, as well as the introduction of Godzilla's other son, Baby Godzilla.
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) – Known as "GMK" for short, this film is looked at as a highpoint in the Millennium Era for many thanks to its visuals, and the re-positioning of Godzilla as a pure villain powered by the souls of those who died in World War II. Godzilla engages in violent monster battles against Mothra, Baragon, and King Ghidorah (in the beast's only non-villain appearance), leading to plenty of brutal action scenes.
Shin Godzilla (2016) – The latest Japanese live-action reboot of Toho's Godzilla series, and the winner of seven Japan Academy Prize Awards; this film is a blast in the way it combines classic Godzilla-style fun and destruction with sly political humor connected to the infamous Fukushima nuclear disaster and the 3/11 Tohoku earthquake. Think Godzilla with the sensibilities of Dr. Strangelove or even "Veep".
Want To Get Weird?
Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) – Also known as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, many offbeat choices led to the production of a feature film that had Godzilla fighting a monster made out of pollution. With a much lower budget, but bold ideas, the film has become one of the more divisive entries in the series for Godzilla fans (and apparently it was Roger Ebert's favorite).
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) – One of my personal favorites of the franchise, Godzilla faces a monster created from its own DNA fused with the DNA of a human, and of a rose. This leads to a massive and very creatively-designed new monster not too far off from Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. And if that's not enough, there's a lot of James Bond influence in the human-based spy subplot.
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) – A great title for a film about how the cells of Biollante and Mothra were blasted with black hole radiation to create the title monster, who wants to suck the life out of the earth. It's the most childish entry from the Heisei Era, but it has some neat design choices and a Godzilla villain looking like a weird toy filled with rage.
Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003) – The sequel to Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, which had the Japanese Self-Defense Forces taking the bones of the 1954 Godzilla and building a robotic monster of their own. This entry also brings Mothra and the Shobijin (the twin fairies) to the battle, allowing for some big fights in the film. Additionally, the soul of the original Godzilla lives within the bones, which is precisely what's making this Godzilla so mad in the first place.
Just Want Fights?
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1964) – Many don't realize that this was only the third Godzilla film at the time it was released, but Toho knew what would get attention. Still holding the record for the most tickets sold for any Godzilla film ever, it may be silly, but King Kong vs. Godzilla has an epic fight for the ages. All sorts of destruction takes place in the movie with one of the best monster vs. monster battles ever filmed.
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) – This film features a literal fight to the death, as Godzilla's demise was heavily advertised leading up to the release of this entry. Still, you have some nasty fights to watch here.
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) – If you're looking to see some elaborate fights, Mechagodzilla tends to be a formidable opponent. While some of the other takes on this character have some fun with their battles, the Millennium Era Mechagodzilla has a lot of time to deliver the pain and some fancy visual effects-based moves, with Godzilla landing plenty of hits as well for some epic battles.
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) – Plenty of Showa Era spirit can be found in this kaiju-fest that packs in relentless Godzilla action, as the King of the Monsters faces off against a bunch of his old foes. There's also a lot of Matrix-influenced human action to go along with the monster fights. Final Wars ends up being a lot of ridiculous fun, and even finds time to throw shade at the terrible 1998 Godzilla movie by having Toho's Godzilla easily squash the first American take on the monster.
Godzilla (2014) – Many folks (typically those who haven't seen many older Godzilla films) like to get loud in regards to their thoughts on the lack of a lot of Godzilla in this American reboot, but I'd argue when we do see the famed monster in this Spielberg-ian take on the film, he gets into a couple of his best battles. Plus, it all leads to one of the most badass Godzilla finishing moves of all time.
Don't Worry About These
Godzilla Raids Again (1955) – While this official follow-up to the original film features the first monster Godzilla ever faced off against (Anguirus), it was still a sequel rushed into production, losing a lot of what made the first special. While not descending fully into camp, the change in the filmmaking team (to director Motoyoshi Oda) shows why this entry feels like one of the more non-essential entries in the franchise.
All Monsters Attack (1969) – Also known as Godzilla's Revenge, after the high that came from Destroy All Monsters, this follow-up is truly one of the worst films in the whole series. With a very low budget, weak script (a schoolboy daydreams of Godzilla to cope with bullying), and an over-reliance on stock footage from previous Godzilla films, the movie is a real catastrophe. Stay away.
Godzilla (1998) – This Roland Emmerich-directed Godzilla is a disaster in almost every way. All the charm that made Emmerich's Independence Day movie a joy is lost in this poor attempt to create an Americanized version of the King of the Monsters. The blockbuster was so poorly received that Toho distanced itself from the movie by renaming the American monster "Zilla" to avoid confusion.
More Monsters Coming!
Thanks to Toho allowing Legendary Pictures (in partnership with Warner Bros) to develop new American Godzilla movies, the "MonsterVerse" restarted with the 2014 reboot under the guidance of director Gareth Edwards (of Monsters, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and we're eagerly anticipating the sequel Godzilla: King of the Monsters (watch the final trailer) from director Michael Dougherty (of Trick 'r Treat, Krampus), which looks like a loose remake of Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster. In addition, Godzilla vs. Kong, made by director Adam Wingard (of You're Next, The Guest) has already been filmed and is set to arrive in theaters on March 13th, 2020 next spring, which will be a crossover battle between Godzilla and the new Kong seen in 2017's Kong: Skull Island movie (directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts of The Kings of Summer).
Meanwhile, Toho isn't sitting back and letting Hollywood do all the work either. While an official sequel to Shin Godzilla will not be happening, the Tokyo-based studio has been taking notes on the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and plans to develop a "World of Godzilla" series, which will allow Godzilla and other updated takes on classic Toho monsters to exist in a shared cinematic universe, with potential crossovers. These films are said to be coming on a year-by-year basis, with development on the first one set to start in 2021 due to contracts with Legendary. We'll see what happens and I'll be happy to let them fight. Until then, sample this song on the Godzilla: King of the Monsters soundtrack composed by Bear McCreary.
Follow Aaron Neuwirth on Twitter / Ask him anything about Godzilla movies - @AaronsPS4