Tuesday, July 6, 2021

WE RANK 'EM: The Films of Godzilla's Showa Era

I’m not so mad as to attempt to rank *every* Godzilla film in one list (at least not today) because there are 37 of them (including the four American movies) and that is far more than I’m prepared to take on for a single article. Watching the most recent American versions got me interested in seeing where all of this started because it turns out that I was familiar with Godzilla as a concept but had never actually seen a Godzilla movie - excluding the 1998 Roland Emmerich directed and Matthew Broderick starring that I kind of want to rewatch again because I’m quite obviously damaged inside somehow.

I want to look at the 15 films made during the Showa era, which runs from Godzilla (1954) through Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975). The Showa Era gets its name from the reign of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito during which these movies were made, which I only note because otherwise you’ll probably be wondering why the Godzilla movies are divided into different eras and frankly it’s because there are gaps in between the eras and the chronology also tends to get reset. For example, with the exception of the fever dream of All Monsters Attack the other fourteen movies of the Showa Era are all set in the same chronology, not that it matters at all for your relative enjoyment of a particular movie.

Also worth noting, these are the movies currently available on HBO Max and the next 7 movies of Heisei are going to take just a little bit more work to watch. I think I have sources for most of the Heisei era flicks, but I’m going to run into the problem of finding the Japanese language versions rather than more easily accessible English dubs. It’s all well and good, but after the dubbed experience of Invasion of the Astro-Monster and Megalon I’d rather not touch a dubbed Godzilla movie ever again.

This isn’t a definitive ranking. I could have done just as well by grouping them into categories of appreciation because I really don’t want to choose between Mothra and Gigan or decide which of the bad movies is really worse than the other (though Son of Godzilla is the worst, that’s not up for as much of a debate as I’d give the other movies). This was just a fun project and a chance to dig into Godzilla’s history. I hope you enjoy the ride!

15. Son of Godzilla (1967)

This was really fucking stupid, let's just get that out of the way. This was their children's movie, or depending on what article you read - the "date movie" because young women like cute monsters or something. So, they gave Godzilla a son. Not sure where baby Godzilla came from because there's been no lady-zilla anywhere in the franchise thus far (or in the Showa era as a whole) so I'm assuming Godzilla asexually reproduced.

You know, there's a really bad move to be made about that story and I'm glad it hasn't been made. I can only assume Godzilla evolved with frog DNA and something something Jurassic Park something *magical hand waving.* It doesn't matter, but because I need to think about it, so did you. 

I'm avoiding talking about Son of Godzilla because it's just so bad. It's slapstick Godzilla with the worst rubber suit monster in the franchise (and possibly in all franchises anywhere) and I'd rather figure out out what to say about Ebirah than to think about the horror that is BabyZilla.

14. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)
This is the movie where Godzilla kicks rocks at a giant lobster and plays what is the world's worst game of catch. Now, this isn't a complaint about Ebirah being a giant lobster because Mothra is, well, a moth and most moths aren't actually frightening. Lobsters at least have pincers and giant lobsters have giant pincers.

Ebirah doesn't inspire quite the hatred that Son of Godzilla does for me. It's more that Ebirah was a dull, boring, and uninspired movie. Completely forgettable. Though, I hope some people enjoyed the movie because you're going to see some of this footage recycled again. That's right - as a cost savings measure throughout the years Toho would reuse some stock footage and some of it comes from the battles between Godzilla and Ebirah. That's too bad. There are far better movies to reuse footage from. This ain't it.

13. All Monsters Attack (1969)

I’m not going to go so far as to suggest All Monsters Attack was good, just like I’m not going to say that Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan was at all good (I have thoughts) - but it was weirdly more effective than expected given that has the fucking Son of Godzilla in the movie, and recycles footage from Ebirah, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, and apparently King Kong Escapes.

All Monsters Attack isn't the fever dream Godzilla movie, that's Godzilla vs Hedorah. It is, however. a dream movie where nothing really counts as part of the series because All Monsters Attack is the dream of a child who tries to escape bullies and eventually gangsters and each time he does, he dreams of going to Monster Island and watching Son of Godzilla and really terrible monster shenanigans.

12. Invasion of Astro Monster (1968)

This isn't the only time I'll complain about dubbing, but the version I had available through HBO was the Japanese version dubbed in English and it's incredibly off putting. It was as if the actors were mocking the movie with their line readings because it's just a "dumb monster movie" and they didn't care or respect what they were making. Or maybe that was just how dubbing was in 1968, but that doesn't make it better. Invasion of Astro Monster wasn't high art by any means, but the dub really took away from the whole thing.

The final battle was great, though

11. Godzilla Raids Again (1956)
I don't want to be too bitchy at 65 year old special effects regarding the fight between Godzilla and Anguirus, but they did what they could. This is the second ever Godzilla movie and at least Godzilla was somewhat more mobile this time around.

Godzilla Raids Again is the second and last of the black and white Godzilla films, and it was interesting to see how they transitioned to color moving forward with King Kong vs Godzilla and beyond - the biggest difference was how the franchise's use of daylight in the monster fights. At their worst, that exposed the effects (to a modern viewer, anyway). Where Godzilla Raids Again is notable is that it establishes Godzilla as a franchise (even though it will be another seven years until the next movie) and it introduces other monsters for Godzilla to fight  (though Anguirus will later be a friend and Godzilla no longer a villain). It sets part of the template for the future. On its own, though, it pales in comparison to the first Godzilla and doesn't stand up well to the later movies.

I also read somewhere if the first Godzilla was a response to Hiroshima then this is a response to Nagasaki. I'm not sure if a) that's true or b) that idea comes across as clearly as Godzilla being a truly post-Hiroshima film does.

10. King Kong vs Godzilla (1962)

Never crash your submarine into Godzilla's iceberg. That's a life lesson and it's one that everyone should heed.

King Kong vs Godzilla is an action / adventure comedy and it's completely dumb. It's also kind of delightful and fun (though - the depiction of the islanders is pretty fucked up and that should not be overlooked).

This isn't a movie with anything to say, except "have fun with these giant monsters getting into a giant fight" and really, isn't that all we really want from a movie sometimes?

Also - props to that giant octopus. That thing was absolutely gross and I'm glad it was in the movie. It...oozes.

9. Godzilla vs Megalon (1973)

It’s not that I get unreasonably upset at having to watch a dubbed movie, but the dubbing in the English language Godzilla movies are just absolutely terrible. Maybe the actual acting is bad, too, I’m not sure because it’s being done in another language and I could be missing nuance - but it just feels false and it takes something away. The dubbing was better here than in Invasion of the Astro Monster but that’s an incredibly low bar to clear. Introduces Jet Jaguar, a humanoid robot hero thing and I think that was supposed to set up a franchise that never was.

For some of these older movies, though, I have to take what I can find - and in the case of HBO - that was a dubbed version. Please don't dub.

Anyway - Megalon is a giant beetle set to attack Earth because of the Seatopians (an underwater race of people sick of underwater nuclear testing) and it's a big delightful monster fight and Jet Jaguar is completely stupid but kind of great and that's really the thing with this movie and a number of other Godzilla - it's dumb and it's fun.

8. Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974)

The human part of the plot is a extra dumb (though still not as drugged out as Godzilla vs Hedorah), but I have to say that I kind of love the rainbow color blasts that Mechagodzilla shoots out of its eyes at Godzilla. Also, Godzilla turns himself into a super powered magnet and I don’t understand even a little bit but it looks like he’s using magic and yeah, I’m here for that. There’s also a new monster, King Ceasar, that gets summoned by song and ever since the introduction of Mothra (not included here), that’s always been something I like.

Oh! And the costume department at Toho has to have borrowed / stole from the 20th Century Fox team that worked on Planet of the Apes because the alien race disguised as humans turns into creatures that look nothing more than a green version of the apes and I can’t imagine that was a coincidence.

7. Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

There’s a lot of story here before we ever get to Godzilla.

I really like the climactic fight between Godzilla, Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus. It was some of the best use of music and atmosphere since, frankly, the very first movie - which is all the more impressive because it’s a daytime fight and nighttime fights are just so much more effective in this franchise. Also, at one point Godzilla basically boxes at Titanosaurus and that’s pretty great. They just have to stop doing closeup shots because the rubber suit of it all does not do close ups very well.

Terror of Mechagodzilla is the final movie of the Showa Era of Godzilla, I don't think it was really intended to be the final movie of anything, it's just that the movie bombed at the box office and Toho needed to take a serious Godzilla break - but I don't because I still have six more movies to talk about!

6. Destroy All Monsters (1968)

First off, Godzilla Jr can go fuck off into the sun, that creature needs to go. It has absolutely no business being in this movie. That said, the rest of it is pretty great. All the monsters are taken over and controlled by human looking aliens and made to attack and destroy the rest of the world - but that leads into other ridiculousness when the Earth humans take back control and the alien humans get mad and bring in King Ghidorah to fight all the monsters and that turns into quite a brawl.

Anyway, I really dig the slap fight with everyone ganging up on Ghidorah at the end. That's a cool fight.

Also - Godzilla's eyes legit freak me out. I can't believe I haven't mentioned how wrong Godzilla's eyes are.

5. Mothra vs Godzilla (1964)

I really appreciate that the kaiju fights in these early Godzilla movies resemble how my six year old plays with toys and specifically the battles he and I have with his LEGO Ninjago sets with diving back and forth and waggling the toys at each other.

I don't *really* mean that as a criticism given the movie is almost sixty years old and we're talking about a giant moth fighting a giant dinosaur.

Early Godzilla has never looked better. Still a bit clumsy and awkward, but setting a standard for what Godzilla should look like in the daylight.

Mothra vs Godzilla takes the clash a quite bit more seriously than with the previous movie, King Kong vs Godzilla - but more than anything else this movie has heart. Kong was a monster the humans threw at Godzilla, but Mothra was asked to help and the people on her island are more like caretakers. Mothra is a beloved kaiju, rather than one to be truly feared.

4. Godzilla vs Gigan (1972)

Holy shit, y’all - Godzilla and Anguirius straight up have conversations with comic book speech bubbles. Frankly, that’s a feature that should have been used more. Shine spotlights on a kaiju, I want to see what the creature is saying when the light is in his eyes “Shit, that’s bright!” or “I’m Godzilla, bitches”. If you’re going to use the speech bubbles, go all the way with them.

One of the best things Godzilla vs Gigan did is make most of the monster action happen at night. The use of shadow and darkness really enhances the action and tension. The use of rubber suits is incredibly exposed in daylight scenes, which is fine when you want to highlight the camp.

Also, Gigan has a friggin circular saw on its chest and can really throw down when it gets up close. The rest of the Gigan design is pretty unimpressive, but that saw can do some damage.

Godzilla vs Gigan has a really great four way fight with Godzilla, Anguirius, Ghidorah, and Gigan - tag team action. That extended invasion and Godzilla’s response is pretty fantastic.

3. Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)

Godzilla vs Hedorah opens with a catchy pop song about how the Earth was overpolluted and destroyed and honestly, what the fuck? It doesn’t help that there are scenes set in a dance club are a complete acid trip and other Austin Powers-esque musical dance-break interludes. Outside of that, this is the movie Ebirah Horror of the Deep wanted to be (or that I wanted it to be) - better Godzilla action and less hucking of rocks at a Water Monster.

I do appreciate that the ultimate theme here is Godzilla vs Pollution (really, it’s that people should stop fucking up this planet otherwise we’re going to have smog monsters from outer space and I think that’s a message we can all get behind). Despite the idea of a smog monster and the psychedelic dance breaks, this is a more serious Godzilla movie than the franchise has seen in a while. Also, Godzilla fucking flies while the score is playing a march, which is just about as wild as the series can possible can get.

2. Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster (1964)

I don't watch these movies for the planetary science, but I really like the idea that Venus was once advanced technologically beyond Earth but became what it is because of Ghidorah's attack. I don't even know what we knew of Venus in 1964 - but it's a cool idea.

There's a LOT going on in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster - missing princesses, assassins, gangsters, monster alliances, Godzilla making a surprise face-turn. Also, a musical interlude singing to baby Mothra.

I also dig the effects that are clearly miniatures being destroyed. It's not that we expect Tokyo to get wrecked every time someone wants to make a Godzilla movie - but it still looks like my kid playing with his toys. It's still a delight in those fight sequences, to be fair. You just have to go with it. Godzilla throws and kicks rocks as part of his new fighting strategy.

This is the first time I've seen Rodan, the giant pterodactyl. And then baby Mothra just hoses them down with moth-silk to get Godzilla and Rodan to cool off. And then baby Mothra asks Godzill and Rodan to apologize to each other! Baby Mothra rides on Rodan's back! These movies are just wild.

But can someone explain where everyone is evacuating to? The Venus Princess Person has been saying Ghidorah is going to leave the planet a wasteland. Not many places to go, if that's the case. On the other hand, I do get the idea of running *somewhere* because it feels like you're doing something.

This movie is a treat.

1. Godzilla (1954)

Yo! This is straight up a good movie, which I'm not sure I completely expected as I began this journey into the Godzilla franchise with no real idea of what I was getting myself into. It's a post World War II movie for Japan and everything that entails after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the country, especially if you don't watch the version that has Americans added in for "relatability" or whatever bullshit reason they used at the time.

The effects are reasonably good for the time, but the story is just outstanding. On the one hand, it's about a giant dinosaur ravaging Tokyo. On the other, it features Japanese scientists building a super weapon to stop Godzilla but fearing that it's use will mean a world where these super weapons are common. Godzilla the film is about the terror of a horrific attack.

Hat tip to the music during a particular Godzilla attack sequence 2/3 through the movie. The use of darkness during the later attacks makes everything far scarier than if it was a daylight scene. Good stuff. This is the most effective and frightening use of Godzilla during the entire Showa era. I can't speak for the later movies, but something about the simplicity and using darkness to cover for limited effects makes the whole movie so great.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 5x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him