Tuesday, May 20, 2014


With the new Godzilla movie now in theaters (check out my review here), I thought this would be the perfect time to give Grumblings readers a rundown of the previous films in the franchise that I consider to be the cream of the crop. They range widely in terms of tone and overall approach, but in my opinion, out of the 30 Godzilla movies that have been produced since 1954, these “magnificent seven” provide the best, most satisfying, or most downright fun viewing experiences.  
  1. Godzilla aka Gojira (1954)

    Without a doubt, the original is the very best. There is no other film like it in the entire series. Filmed almost like a documentary, especially during the scenes depicting Godzilla’s relentless attacks on Japan, it is a stark, grim, dead-serious allegory about the horrors of nuclear warfare, produced by people who lived through those horrors and saw them up close. It is a tale of nature striking back at us for daring to tamper with forces beyond our control and full understanding.

    Takashi Shimura, a noted actor who frequently worked with director Akira Kurosawa, brings gravitas and dignity to the role of Dr. Yamane, a scientist who wants to study Godzilla instead of simply destroy him. Akihiko Hirata conveys anguish, regret, and, ultimately, brave determination as Dr. Serizawa, whose tortured genius provides the key to ending the threat of the monster. Momoki Kochi as Yamane’s daughter Emiko, and Akira Takarada as her secret lover Ogata (she’s actually engaged to the aloof workaholic Serizawa), are not as compelling, but the forbidden nature of their romance and the sacrifices they are willing to endure for the greater good make them worthwhile characters.    

    The big question, in terms of watching this movie: The Japanese version or the 1956 Americanized version with footage of Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin edited into the narrative?   

    Both versions have their strengths. I like how Burr treats the material with respect, and the way in which he is inserted into scenes to interact with the Japanese characters is quite clever and, for the most part, well executed. But the Japanese version is a bit more substantial, with the connections to World War II and Hiroshima and Nagasaki made much more explicit, and the sheer tragedy of Godzilla’s rampage shown in full (particularly when a mother and her young children are caught in the monster’s path and they await their fate).

    The last couple of home releases of the original Japanese version, through Classic Media and most recently the Criterion Collection, included the U.S. version, so you can watch both and decide which one you prefer. 

  2. Godzilla Vs. The Thing, aka Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964)

    This is the third sequel to the first Godzilla movie, and it also a sequel to 1961’s Mothra, which makes it the first “crossover” film featuring the Toho monsters. The Godzilla suit in this movie is arguably the best one ever made. He’s never looked meaner, with cold, angry eyes and a flapping upper lip that makes him seem even more bestial. Godzilla is portrayed as a malevolent, unstoppable engine of destruction here, which is just how I like it. I particularly love how, in his battles with both Mothra and her offspring, he reacts and fights like a wild animal instead of an oversized professional wrestler. Unfortunately, the wrestling antics became more and more of a staple of the series as time went on.

    Despite the elements of fantasy (including Mothra’s miniature twin emissaries, played by Japanese singing duo the Peanuts, Emi and Yumi Ito), the movie mostly plays it straight and delivers a compelling and fun story about the need for human compassion and cooperation. The human characters are well developed and you don’t mind following their storylines when the monsters aren’t on screen. The special effects are very effective, clever, and innovative, especially for the time. Even the English dubbing, produced by Titra Studios, is top-notch. And composer Akira Ifukube’s score captures the mood of the whole thing perfectly. All in all, this is a great Godzilla film.  

  3. Monster Zero, aka Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)

    This is a follow-up to the previous year’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, which introduced the space creature that has become Godzilla’s most popular foe. It was in Ghidorah that Godzilla began to shift away from being a malevolent force to become Earth’s protector, to exhibit signs of humanlike intelligence, and to provide moments of humor. That trend continues in Monster Zero. I am not, nor have I ever been, in favor of anthropomorphizing the monsters, or playing them for laughs, which this movie does in spades when Godzilla, triumphing over Ghidorah in a preliminary bout, does an infamous “victory dance.”

    And yet, I enjoy Monster Zero, primarily because I found the human characters so likable. First and foremost, there’s the character of Glenn, a United States astronaut played by American actor Nick Adams.

    Adams is absolutely wonderful here, bursting with energy and chewing up every single bit of the scenery in a thoroughly entertaining manner. He really gives it his all, at times doing a quasi-James Cagney impression as he delivers his lines (“You rats! You stinkin’ rats!”). His enthusiasm reportedly endeared him to the Japanese cast and crew, and he exhibited strong onscreen chemistry with romantic interest Miss Namikawa, played by the lovely and sexy Kumi Mizuno (whom Adams was rumored to have pursued off-screen, supposedly to no avail) and best friend Astronaut Fuji, played by Akira Takarada. I also liked Akira Kubo as the bespectacled nerdy scientist who is forced to become a man of action. While Monster Zero continued the distancing of Godzilla from his roots and moved the series more towards kiddie-oriented fare, I still find it to be a fun movie.

  4. Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

    Without a doubt, this is the loopiest, most nonsensically plotted Godzilla movie ever made. Time travelers from the future convince the people of 1991 to allow them to go back in time and make sure that Godzilla never mutates into the radioactive creature that has menaced the world over and over again—but after they succeed in doing so, everyone on Earth still remembers Godzilla and all of the destruction that he caused, even though, as a result of the time travelers’ actions, none of it ever happened. Plus there’s a silly new earthbound origin for Ghidorah (thanks to the secret master plan of the time travelers, he basically takes Godzilla’s place in history), some extremely dicey, downright laughable special effects, and some of the worst attempts at humor I’ve ever seen (the “Major Spielberg” bit has to be seen to be believed). So you may be wondering why I have this movie on my list.

    For starters: It features one of the best-looking Godzilla suits ever made, without a doubt. The fight scenes between Godzilla and Ghidorah are very well staged. And as dopey as the storyline is, I love the fact that Godzilla is first presented as a major threat to humanity, and then becomes our only hope when Ghidorah replaces him and turns out to be even worse. And then, after a restored Godzilla defeats Ghidorah, he turns around and attacks Japan in what I consider to be one of the best “rampage” sequences ever done in a giant-monster movie. The final battle, between Godzilla and a Ghidorah resurrected with 23rd-century technology, is a hoot.
  5. Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)

    Mechagodzilla, first introduced in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (released in the U.S. in 1977 as Godzilla vs. Cosmic Monster), gets a complete reboot and makeover in this well-done adventure. (I’m not sure why there’s a “II” in the title, since this has no connection to the previous Mechagodzilla, which was set in a different continuity.) The film also brings back Rodan, the giant flying creature that debuted in 1957’s Rodan and disappeared from movie screens after 1968’s Destroy All Monsters. And it reintroduces the concept of a baby Godzilla, but thankfully, it’s done much better here than in 1967’s Son of Godzilla, which was aimed solely at children and depicted the baby (then called Minya) as a cross between a tadpole, Uncle Fester, and Beetlejuice from The Howard Stern Show:

    "Who, me?"

    The human characters are likable. The Godzilla suit isn’t quite as fantastic as the one in King Ghidorah, but it’s good and it gets the job done. The film begins with Godzilla and Rodan at each other throats, but eventually both creatures come to see Mechagodzilla, built and controlled by Earth’s anti-Godzilla task force, as the greater threat to their survival. This movie was originally supposed to end with Godzilla’s death, and the final version stops just short of that, which gives the climax an intensity and a dramatic air that most of the other films don’t have.    

  6. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

    Godzilla is the bad guy in this one-off movie that doesn’t tie in to any of the franchise’s previous continuities. It’s far more spiritual than any of its predecessors or the films that follow it. The events of the original 1954 film are more or less part of the history, but instead of being the living embodiment of mankind’s nuclear ambitions gone wild, Godzilla now represents the souls of all the Japanese soldiers who died during World War II—and the creature is intent on destroying Japan because their great sacrifice during that global conflict has been forgotten. But, as described in an ancient legend, other monsters emerge to defend Japan against Godzilla: Mothra and, surprisingly enough, King Ghidorah, who, up until this film, had always been portrayed as more of a menace than Godzilla ever was. (Also of note: In this film, Ghidorah is smaller than Godzilla—in all of his previous appearances, he was noticeably larger.)

    The Godzilla suit gets a refurbishing in this film, and it looks fantastic—his eyes are completely white, making him look like he’s possessed by an evil demon.

    And Godzilla has rarely been as malevolent and destructive as he is here. There’s a scene involving him and a hospital that is one of my all-time favorite Godzilla moments. The human characters didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I really joined the monster stuff—even though the changes made to Mothra and Ghidorah struck me as a bit odd. All in all, this is a very interesting and atypical Godzilla movie.

  7. King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1963)

    This is included for sentimental reasons. When I was a kid, it was my absolute favorite movie. It worked for me on every level. Not so much anymore. I’ve since seen the Japanese version, which is significantly different from the U.S. edition, and I can report that it is a better film than what we Americans got. For one thing, there are no cuts to totally bland, boring, and smug middle-aged white guys in a newsroom describing the events of the movie instead of just letting us watch them. And Akira Ifukube’s masterful musical score is presented in its entirety. But it doesn’t change the fact that the King Kong suit is horrendous and the characters—the humans and the monsters—are often played for laughs. This is the movie where the pro wrestling maneuvers started to creep in during the monster battles. I can excuse the fact that Kong is about 10 times bigger than he should be—how else could he stand up to Godzilla? But the idea that electricity makes him stronger comes out of nowhere and just seems arbitrary. He’s a big ape! Why would lightning give him added strength, not to mention the ability to send shocks through Godzilla’s body?

    And yet . . . the Godzilla suit is absolutely iconic, one of the most popular ever created.

    Godzilla himself is still portrayed as an unstoppable force of destruction. The special effects and miniatures are well done. It’s the first Godzilla movie in color. And I have to admit, the character of Mr. Tako, played by Ichiro Arishima, is genuinely funny and fun to watch. It’s not a great movie or a great Godzilla movie, but my 8-year-old self still has enough of a hold on me that I can’t help but feel affection for it.

    By the way—having seen the Japanese version, let me take this opportunity to dispel a myth that has persisted since the 1960s. The U.S. version and the Japanese version of King Kong Vs. Godzilla have the same ending: Kong and Godzilla fall into the ocean, Kong pops up and starts swimming home, and Godzilla is not seen again. Godzilla does not win in the Japanese version. Tell your friends, okay?

    © All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.


  1. I'm with you on all of these except for #7. I never liked that film, not even during my Toho-mad childhood, and a recent viewing in an attempt to see if my opinion had mellowed over the years resulted in me continuing to despise it. I too have seen both versions and I just don't dig it.

  2. I just watched #6 last night and enjoyed it a lot. Had the vibe of the older films, which most of the more recent films seems to lack. Thanks for the heads-up.

    As far as KK v Godzilla, I can watch it over and over. Its just one of those childhood things. I cant expect others to enjoy and I wont make excuses for it, but its always just been a fun film to watch. I actually prefer the American hybrid version, but I own both. Call me a sentimental fool, you wont be the first! ;)