I don’t know if you know this, but 2021 is the year of Godzilla. Oh, it’s not an official anniversary year for the franchise and there are no special events since we are still three years away from Godzilla’s 70th Anniversary in 2024, so maybe a better way to say it would be that 2021 is MY year of Godzilla.
At the time of writing this article I have watched 24 Godzilla films this year, which is a somewhat staggering number if I stop to think about it. I started the year with the American films Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Godzilla vs Kong (as well as Kong: Skull Island). They were absolutely delightful and drove my desire to see what the original franchise of Japanese films was all about. I didn’t expect that I would watch nearly this many, but in July I wrote about the first 15 Godzilla movies comprising the “Showa Era” for the franchise. Now I’m writing about the next 7 films, which comprise the Heisei Era.
The different “eras” of the Godzilla franchise are generally named for and cover the films made during the reigns of the Japanese Emperors. The Heisei Era is named for the reign of Emperor Akihito and it reworks the continuity of the Godzilla franchise.
By production year, The Return of Godzilla would technically be part of the Showa Era of Godzilla films, but tonally it fits much more as Heisei - plus it kicked off this new era of films and the chronology works far more as The Return of Godzilla being a new thing rather than the lat Showa film. New director, new producer, new focus.
What separates the Heisei Era from the Showa Era is that Return of Godzilla is a direct sequel to the 1954 Godzilla. Everything that came after, from Godzilla Raids Again to Terror of MechaGodzilla, were discarded and didn’t count when it came to story and chronology. It has now been decades since Godzilla attacked Toyko and had been beaten back.
As with my Showa ranking, this is not definitive. I’m just having fun here, though I’m quite serious with what the best of the franchise is and what the best of the era is. Now, three of the movies were real disappointments given how good the first Heisei movies were and how strong of an ending Godzilla vs Destoroyah was, but with this many movies in the franchise I suppose we can’t expect them all to be winners - but let’s find out which one of them are!
7. Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II (1993)
Oh, it’s fucking baby Godzilla in this movie. Can’t Ghidorah come back from the dead and just kill that little shit?
I am quite happy to see the baby rainbow mothra projection and the twins again even thought they said in the earlier set Godzilla vs Mothra that they'd be back to help when needed and clearly Mothra was needed and they only sent a warning to some humans which I'm not sure really helped all that much.
Space Godzilla kind of looks like one of the Gremlins once they’ve gone bad. Now I want to watch Gremlins again. This doesn’t make Godzilla a Mogwai, though someone with artistic skills should totally try to reverse engineer that. I'd like to see that picture.
There's a low angle shot of Godzilla stomping through the jungle that was just awesome and not something that we’ve seen before.
I can’t quite decide if this is a serious or campy Godzilla movie. It's not helped by the existence of Baby Godzilla, which feels like it is in a completely different movie (and not a good one, but Baby Godzilla is the WORST).
I do appreciate the bullshit theory of how Space Godzilla was formed from Godzilla cells shot into space from Biollante, entered into a black hole, exited through a white hole (which is apparently a real thing), and merged with crystals? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even relative to the existence of this franchise, but sure, why the hell not?
As always - the final bottle is an awesome spectacle. That’s one thing this franchise has done well even in movies that are otherwise whack. I well know that Godzilla movies are never wall-to-wall monster fighting, but sometimes the human elements are crappy enough that the rest of the movie doesn’t hold up and can’t be lifted by the hot kaiju action. This is one of them.
6. Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (1994)
Oh, it’s fucking baby Godzilla. Can’t Ghidorah come back from the dead and just kill that little shit?
I am quite happy to see baby rainbow mothra projection and the twins again even thought they said that they'd be back to help when needed and clearly Mothra was needed and they only sent a warning to some humans which I'm not sure really helped all that much.
Space Godzilla kind of looks like one of the Gremlins once they’ve gone bad. Now I want to watch Gremlins again. This doesn’t make Godzilla a Mogwai, though someone with artistic skills should totally try to reverse engineer that.
The low angle shot of Godzilla stomping through the jungle was awesome and not something that we’ve seen before.
I can’t quite decide if this is a serious or campy Godzilla movie. Not helped by the existence of Baby Godzilla, which feels like it is in a completely different movie (and not a good one, but Baby Godzilla is the WORST).
I do appreciate the bullshit theory of how Space Godzilla was formed from Godzilla cells shot into space from Biollante (see my thoughts on the much better Biollante movie in just a bit), entered into a black hole, exited through a white hole (which is apparently a real thing), and merged with crystals? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even relative to the existence of this franchise, but sure, why the hell not?
As always - the final battle is an awesome spectacle. That’s one thing this franchise has done well even in movies that are otherwise whack. I well know that Godzilla movies are never wall-to-wall monster fighting, but sometimes the human elements are crappy enough that the rest of the movie doesn’t hold up and can’t be lifted by the hot kaiju action or really absurd explanations. This is one of them.
5. Godzilla vs Mothra (1992)
Godzilla vs Mothra opens with an Indiana Jones esque sequence and I think I want to watch *that* movie. Just a couple of folks who keep searching for random kaiju eggs.
Speaking of random kaiju eggs, Mothra is back! That's probably not a big surprise since the movie's title is Godzilla vs MOTHRA and all, but Mothra has taken a back seat from the franchise for a while and this is a lovely reintroduction complete with the singing twins (I love the singing twins). I also love the humans waving goodbye to Mothra at the end of the movie. So cute!
Added bonus - Dark Mothra! There's Battra, which is in a larval stage for far too long before it turns into a bat-thing kaiju. I don't know what the hell, but as an antagonist for Godzilla it's pretty great. Not buzzsaw in the chest great, but as a nastier version of Mothra great.
Like the 1964 Mothra vs Godzilla, this is much more of a Mothra movie where Godzilla shows up occasionally as an antagonist than it is a "Godzilla" movie, though that distinction is fairly fine. Also, granted that Godzilla is an antagonist for pretty much the entire Heisei era. No hero Godzilla here.
The effects in Godzilla vs Mothra are really quite bad and are a major reversion to the earlier Showa era effects budget and techniques. The only exception to that is the underwater fight scene - but that gets to the idea of using darkness for greater impact and covering up the flaws / things they can't do well yet.
It's fine for what it is, but the movie is the first real disappointment of the Heisei era. The film was so close to being more interesting than it turned out to be, but just missed. Mostly due to the effects.
4. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991)
Time Travelers from the future come back to inform Japanese officials that their country will be in ruins if they don’t go back further back in time to eliminate Godzilla before it can become the monster we all know and fear.
This is Godzilla origin story that I didn’t know I wanted - it was just a dinosaur that somehow survived until the 1940’s (the species, I’m sure Godzilla itself isn’t seventy million years old, probably) and then was nuked into awesomeness. But - in the midst of eliminating Godzilla, this altered timeline inadvertently created King Ghidorah and now there’s a timeline where Ghidorah wrecks Tokyo with no Godzilla to stop him. Of course, this being a Godzilla movie Godzilla does return from non-existence to fuck some stuff up.
There is a point here where Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is pivoting from some of the storytelling decisions (and tone) of Godzilla vs Biollante. I read a review elsewhere that suggested that Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is as much of a Showa Era movie in its absurdity than it is a Heisei Era film. I somewhat disagree, because while the time travel aspect is relatively absurd, everything here is taken so much more seriously than the excesses of the Showa Era. It may be nuts to go back in time to destroy Godzilla and create King Ghidorah and then go back to to nuke Godzilla back into existence, but it’s played straight and it works right up until the climactic fight, which - I’ll admit - does feel like a more classic / Showa era battle. Oh, and the Time Travelers have become a comic version of the T-2000 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and it’s a bit of a jarring note to the rest of the movie that is, as noted, played fairly straight.
With that said, I did like that sort of slap fight right before Godzilla gets serious and takes King Ghidorah down - so I don’t mean any of that as a negative. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is a movie partly out of time - somewhat unsure of what it wanted to be. It’s also pretty great. Bonus points for the post-Ghidorah destruction within the city and the lead in to making Ghidorah mecha. At every turn someone needs to upgrade one monster because the other monster is too bad ass - but then that monster needs to be defeated, so let's revive the defeated monster. It's great. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is just extra.
3. Godzilla vs Biollante (1989)
Godzilla has never looked
better, now 17 movies into the franchise and the second entry in the
Heisei era, and the costume department has finally fixed my biggest
problem - the eyes. Now Godzilla looks like a terrifying monster rather
than a what the fuck are wrong with his eyes monster.
vs Biollante features genetic engineering, where a sample of Godzilla's
flesh after the final battle in The Return of Godzilla has allowed
scientists to combine Godzilla's DNA with that of a rose mixed with
human cells (don't ask). The results are amazing and naturally go very
The first fight with the giant rose was good, but then
Biollante levels up late in the movie for reasons and THAT FIGHT IS
AMAZING. Biollante is freaky as hell, shoots green goo, and reminds me
of the Marlboro from the Final Fantasy video games (perhaps the one
enemy you least want to fight). The second fight could have been a bit
longer, to be honest, but what was there was great.
idea of the giant plant monster reminds me of the smog monster in
Hedorah, and that was one of my favorites of the Showa Era.
that said, I appreciate the change in the Heisei Era of Godzilla to a
more serious (giant plant monster notwithstanding) tone. It's working
really well so far. Godzilla vs Biollante also has one of the better
human stories thus far in the franchise.
2. The Return of Godzilla (1984)
Released 9 years after Terror of MechaGodzilla, The Return of Godzilla serves as a direct sequel to the 1954 original as well as a reboot of the franchise, ignoring the loose continuity of everything that has happened since in the franchise.
The Return of Godzilla is darker in tone and starts out more as a horror movie (and maintains some of that tone throughout)
Thinking about the original Godzilla, I love the use of darkness to reintroduce Godzilla. There's just so much menace when you can't see the monster clearly and it is a looming terror in the night. That was always one of the most effective uses of Godzilla and the other monsters in the Showa Era of the franchise. With that said, they do need to stop with the closeups of the face that do occur because that rubber suit still does not look great and the eyes are lost somewhere in the uncanny valley.
The plan to cause a volcanic eruption in the hopes of burying Godzilla is fantastic in its absurdity, but one of the touches I appreciated most was the conference at the UN with the United States and the USSR advocating heavily for the use of nuclear weapons. The Japanese ministers have serious discussion about what that would mean for the country for the citizens relative to the threat of Godzilla and demure, but the conversation about nuclear weapons is more pointed than it might have been coming from other countries. Of course, the two ambassadors were over the top aggressive clowns - which somehow makes a lot of sense.
The point, though, is that The Return of Godzilla - more than any other movie in the franchise (at least the first twenty two of them - gets to the core of what Godzilla is.
1. Godzilla vs Destoroyah (1995)
This Godzilla is going to fuck somebody up. As the movie opens, Godzilla looks pissed, looks like it is in pain, looks raw, and is laying waste to Hong Kong.
Godzilla vs Destoroyah is a bad ass movie. After the opening Godzilla attack it takes another 30-40 minutes before it shows up again and it doesn't matter. There is a traditional slow build to the action, but the mini destroyers cause enough havoc that Godzilla vs Destoroyah is tense the whole way through.
The movie has Japan grappling with nuclear threats again (see the previous entry) - from Godzilla potentially going supernova to Godzilla attacking a nuclear reactor and the fear of how to respond, it's good stuff.
Besides that - when Destoroyah merges into it's final form, it is an incredible badass kaiju. We love Mothra, and Ghidorah is probably Godzilla's greatest antagonist (smog monsters not withstanding), but for my money Destoroyah ranks right up among the best of them.
Godzilla vs Destoroyah also features a return of Godzilla Jr, which would normally be an occasion for the gnashing of teeth but Godzilla Jr is all grown up and is closer to a regular strength Godzilla - but the OG Godzilla here is a nuclear furnace hell beast of pain and rage.
The music late in the movie really sells that this was intended to be a farewell for Godzilla. It is epic and sweeping, occasionally nostalgic, and absolutely perfect. Spoilers, but it ends with Godzilla melting away as the furnace inside the kaiju finally overcomes the body.
Director Takao Okawara knows what he's about and has crafted the finest Godzilla movie since perhaps the original. Nothing else quite compares.Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 5x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him