This entry comes as a fill-in while I’m working on a number of interview articles for Undead Backbrain. It is potentially controversial — at least for those who find being controversial in regards to giant monster films a reasonable way to pass the time.
A while ago I was contacted by a PhD student who was working on his thesis project — “the development of a digital game about a kaiju of [his] own design”. He was trying to familiarise himself with the genre, to understand how it was shaped, its meaning and its underlying narrative. He wrote: “I’m looking to develop a sort of critical argument for the value of kaiju, what makes good kaiju, and hopefully extrapolating that into where we might look to next in various media.”
After I directed him to some of my own writings on the subject — especially an article on the history of daikaiju eiga and its metaphorical underpinnings that appeared a few years ago — he asked me my opinion as to which of the enormous number of films on the giant monster movie list attached to the Backbrain I would consider it most essential for him to see. Specifically he was curious as to my thoughts on the most important/significant titles in lieu of his interest in daikaiju design and narrative development.
The following was how I answered. He had a lesser interest in dinosaurs, giant snakes and dragons and the like — the things that appear in the “Relatively Giant” section of the list — so that governed my response somewhat, though not by much.
Feel free to argue.
The Most Important/Significant Daikaiju Films
Though a list of essential giant monster movies (leaving out the ones I’ve listed under “Cameo” and “Relatively Giant”) would probably change every time I did it, here it is for now. The absolutely major ones, the status of which would never change, are marked with an *:
The Lost World (1925)* – yes, it’s a dinosaur movie, but it started the genre and set many of the tropes. That Brontosaurus rampaging through London is the Father of them all.
King Kong (1933)* — he may be just a giant ape, but he influenced everything to come and was the first, and one of the few, to achieve “classic” status beyond the genre.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)* — still a dinosaur, but a fictional one. The Rhedosaur led to the next in line, the Real King.
Gojira (Godzilla)* (1954) — I’m talking about the Japanese version here, which is now available in the US. The US-adapted one (“Godzilla, King of the Monsters”, 1956) is a much lesser movie, though it is largely thanks to its popularity that the daikaiju eiga genre took off in Japan. The money, you know.
Mothra (1961) — with this film, and the next one below, the daikaiju eiga genre started to take shape as its own thing, rather than simply replicating the Hollywood giant monster film.
Godzilla vs Mothra (1964, aka “Godzilla vs the Thing” in the US)*
King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) — this apparently remains the biggest box-office success among Godzilla films in Japan. But you need to see the Japanese version to appreciate it. As that is a rather difficult thing to do, try not to judge it on the truly awful US re-edit! Remember, the original was meant to be a comedy.
Now it gets hard. Part of me says you should try and see ALL the other Godzilla films, but I’ll list what I see as the best/most influential. The caveat that you should see them in original versions, subtitled, applies throughout. As most of them have now been released in this form in the US, it shouldn’t be impossible:
Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Serpent
Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (aka Invasion of the Astro Monster)
Son of Godzilla
Destroy All Monsters*
Godzilla vs Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs the Smog Monster)*
Godzilla vs Gigan — mainly for the weird monster opponent; it’s not a great film
Terror of Mechagodzilla
Godzilla 1984 — a sort of remake that re-started the series. But watch only the original version, not the one with Raymond Burr.
Godzilla vs Biollante — a brilliant opponent monster!
Godzilla vs King Ghidorah* — this one simply has everything and is wonderfully, unashamedly absurd.
Godzilla vs Mothra (1992)
Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1993)
Godzilla vs Space Godzilla — much denigrated but it has its value
Godzilla vs Destroyer*
[I have included all the Heisei or 1990s films because of the way the monster designs have become so influential. But they're pretty good films, too.]
Godzilla Millennium 2000 — the Japanese version is better and one of my favourites, but you’ll probably have to watch the US version. It’s OK, though more comically exaggerated
Godzilla vs Megaguiras
Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack* — controversial re-working but I love it for its SFX and its pretensions
Godzilla Against Mechgodzilla
Godzilla, Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS
Godzilla Final Wars* — they’re all there. It’s one big celebration!
[OK, I've ended up listing most of the G films, but for your purposes, that's not a bad thing. And it is inevitable.]
Gamera the Invincible (1965)*
Gamera vs. Gaos
[The old Gamera films were for kids, but the monsters are very weird, so you might want to hunt all of them up.]
Gamera, Guardian of the Universe*
Gamera 2: Advent of Legion*
Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris**
[This modern series is essential viewing because it was such a stunning re-think of the monster and they are such good films. The last is, I think, the best daikaiju eiga apart from the original Godzilla, hence the two "stars".]
Gamera: The Brave — lovely film, if less full-on than the above Gamera films.
Dogora, the Space Monster
Frankenstein Conquers the World — weird weird stuff
War of the Gargantuas* — according to Stuart Galbraith in “Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo: The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films”, this is the most influential daikaiju eiga in Japan, apart from “Gojira”
Daimajin — there were three of these giant living statue films. They’re all good, but very similar. Any one would do.
The X from Outer Space — bad film, awful dubbing, but I love the monster! And now there’s a sequel.
King Kong Escapes
Space Amoeba* [aka Yog, Monster from Space] — the original is essential because of the monsters
Rebirth of Mothra – there are three films in this series. I like them; they are for kids largely and very colourful.
[Try and find some Ultraman. The original series is not, in my opinion, the best, but it is available in the US, subtitled, and it is Ultraman that took the design of the monsters to an extreme. The recent Ultraman Max would be the one to see, but it isn't available in the US. Ultraman Nexus is brilliant -- again, not available, and also not as many monsters. This one went for realism. Not so useful for you perhaps.
There are a few Ultraman films available in the US. Try to find Ultraman Tiga and Ultrman Gaia: The Battle in Hyperspace. It's one of my favourites in terms of its colourful extravagance of idea, if slightly juvenile.]
Ultraman The Next* — it’s available in the US and an excellent film with a great monster.
US films (not strictly speaking “daikaiju”, but they do form a “giant monster” genre of their own):
It Came From Beneath the Sea*
The Black Scorpion
The Deadly Mantis
The Giant Behemoth
The Giant Claw
Twenty Million Miles to Earth
The Blob — the older one is the most famous, but the 1980s remake is a much better film
Valley of Gwangi — a dinosaur, but such a good one! And there’s cowboys! And a running battle in a cathedral.
The Mighty Peking Man
Q- the Winged Serpent*
Pulgasari (1985) — hard to get, but if you can, its back story is way too interesting to neglect
Anaconda — if one must include giant snakes
Godzilla (US) — a bad Godzilla film but an okay remake of “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”!
Eight Legged Freaks
As for recent ones, you’re guess is as good as mine, but I would venture to include:
Oh, and I want to add:
Jason and the Argonauts
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
(and Ray Harryhausen’s other Sinbad movies) — for the mythological slant (and they’re good films, with great stop-motion monsters).