Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim sees the Earth under attack from extra-dimensional monsters capable of crushing cities with the swish of a tentacle. It’s an original story, but one that’s rooted in the traditional of Japan’s “kaiju” movies, the giant monster mashes that followed in Godzilla’s wake and – for the most part – from the same legendary Toho Studios. So here, ahead of Del Toro’s effort, are the films you should see to brush up on the genre…
The granddaddy of the genre and the one that all others must be measured against, Godzilla is still worth a look. Sure, it’s obvious now that that’s a toy car bursting into flames under Godzilla’s onslaught and that the rather shonky effects were often accomplished by a man in a suit, but the storytelling is sufficiently strong that such dated practices don’t derail it. And the effects were lauded at the time: this was the most expensive Japanese film ever made at $1m, costing twice as much as Seven Samurai and ten times more than the average (but selling over 9m tickets just in Japan). Essentially a response to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with its depiction of a devastated city burning in the night, Godzilla found a way to tap into Japan’s shock and horror and offer a fictional happy(ish) ending. No wonder this is the movie that has spawned 27 more films and a Hollywood remake we don’t talk about (and, hopefully, a worthier upcoming Gareth Edwards version).
While Toho was reinventing the monster movie for Japan, Disney had had a monster hit with the hugely ambitious 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), which featured a hugely memorable attack by a giant squid. This rather lower-budgeted effort the following year upscaled a giant octopus so that it posed a threat to entire cities and set it loose. As with Godzilla, it was underwater nuclear testing that dislodged the huge cephalopod from its home and sent it ravening, but with stop-motion effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen, the tentacled terror headed for San Francisco (because monsters always do, when visiting the West coast) and takes a punt at the Golden Gate Bridge. The Bridge wins, but only thanks to the combined heroism of a submarine commander and a naturalist.
We should have seen this coming when Dr Yamane said, at the end of the first film, “If we continue conducting nuclear tests… it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.” Sure enough, not a year later another one trots to the surface of the ocean – and this time Toho Studios had found him an opponent worthy of his measure and not just some one-eyed bloke with a magic fish-killing device. Raids Again introduced first supporting monster Anguirus, a sort of riff on an ankylosaurus dinosaur, forcing Godzilla into a more caring, sharing, defensive role as Osaka suffered the brunt of the monster mash. This film flopped in the US as its local distributors tried to pass Godzilla off as a new and different monster, even redubbing his roar and renaming him Gigantis. From this they learned that if the name works, don’t fix it. Anguirus, incidentally, would return in later films as a Godzilla ally – something that became a trend among these earth-shakers.
You know what’s better than giant lizard monsters with atomic breath? Nothing. But can they fly? Can they hell – and that’s where Rodan comes in. A monstrous pterodactyl, Rodan causes devastation with his supersonic boom and the “killing airstream of his mighty wings” as he passes over cities in Japan, China and the Philippines, widening out the attack zone of these beasties from Toho’s Japanese home. As with Godzilla’s nuclear links, Rodan’s supersonic speed ties into then-current anxieties about supersonic air travel. Turns out, however, that “this monstrous beast of evil” (now in colour!) has a buddy – and when one falls into a volcano at the end, the other follows because even big monsters (“FROM HELL” as the trailer claims) have feelings.
When it comes to sheer terror, really only mottephobics would point to the common or garden moth as a likely cause. But then there’s Mothra, a gigantic specimen who’s disturbed by mankind from her island retreat and who heads to Tokyo (in giant-caterpillar form) to rescue her tiny priestesses, the “Shobijin” (yes, they’re minute. No, we’re not sure why) when they’re abducted by an opportunistic capitalist in a King Kong-style move. There, Mothra goes into a cocoon on the ruins of Tokyo Tower and emerges as a huge moth with a terrifyingly destructive wingspan. Mothra proved enormously popular and went on to appear in 7 more Godzilla films and her own trilogy, often allying with mankind to protect us from whatever happens along. She’s one of the prettier monsters (which is probably why everyone assumes Mothra's a girl, a convention we've followed here), and survives the end of the film peacefully heading home with her tiny, tiny friends. But like The Terminator, she’ll be back.
While Anguirus had offered some challenge, but 1964 it was time to bring Godzilla back and give him a real workout, something that would make him break a sweat. Enter Ghidorah, the big bad of the Godzilla series and an alien invader from outer space. Cue Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra getting together and putting aside their own squabbles to deal with the three-headed, fire-breathing dragon-like invader from a “magnetic meteorite”. That’s how Godzilla and co. became more good guy than bad guy, and more human than beast: with an extraterrestrial threat to deal with, he and the other Toho monsters had to become more likeable and a little more anthropomorphised. Also, this was the first real monster team-up – and the next one would be even bigger.
Not all monsters are mutated beasts or ancient relics awakened by nuclear war. Some are mystical spirits that animate monumental statues - particularly in this trio from Toho rival studio, Daiei. Here, a treacherous retainer usurps the position of his master and only a loyal samurai saves the feudal lord’s children from slaughter. Fast-forward a few years and the bad guy in charge attempts to kill the now-grown kids and a faithful priestess and destroy a local monument. Bad idea. The giant samurai statue creaks to life and lays the smackdown on all and sundry, before being stopped by the tears of an innocent. More of a throwback to Japanese legend than a meditation on its present or future, Daimajin and its two sequels (released in the same year) weren’t nearly as profitable as Godzilla and co., but this is worth a look for the humanoid, robot-like figures.
The film that inspired Brad Pitt to become an actor (we’re not even kidding), this was a sort-of sequel to Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965), another Toho effort that saw Frankenstein’s monster grow to enormous size and fight another beastie. Cells from that monster have spawned the two here: one green and evil and known as Gaira, and the other brown and nice and called Sanda. When Gaira starts snacking on people and laying waste to Tokyo (again), the military daren’t blow him up lest the cells thus scattered give birth to yet more Tokyo-destroying beasts, so it’s all down to Sanda and a convenient underwater volcano to do the job. This is a relatively gory outing for Toho, what with Gaira’s habit of deliberately eating people rather than just knocking down the odd building, but it’s really all about the face-off between the two human-ish titans.
Here’s a film that might have something in common with Guillermo Del Toro’s effort (plot details are still under wraps so it's hard to be sure), what with an outside force sending monsters deliberately against Earth. An alien race takes control of Godzilla and his buddies, who were living peacefully on Monster Island, and sends them against the world’s biggest cities (New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing). Once control is wrested back from the alien Kilaaks, Godzilla and the gang, like a super-sized Expendables, team up to fight the still-under-alien-control King Ghidorah – and once they’ve defeated him, have to overcome the flaming Fire Dragon. The good-monster line-up this time includes Godzilla, Minilla (Godzilla’s son. Note: NOT Godzuki), Mothra, Rodan, Gorosaurus, Anguirus, Kumonga, Manda, Baragon, and Varan – try saying that lot fast twice.
It was the 70s, and technology seemed to be leaping ahead into unguessed-at realms. Hence Godzilla need a robo-menace, a mechanoid created by “ape aliens” from the “Third Planet from the Black Hole”. Mecha-Godzilla could fire missiles from his toes and laser beams from his eyes, and was on a mission to defeat the real Godzilla and conquer the Earth - again. It also battles King Caesar, a dog/lion monster introduced here, and gave Anguirus a really, really bad day along the way. Luckily the real Godzilla, after being badly injured in his initial clash with the robo-imposter, is recharged by mysterious lightning and gains the magnetic powers necessary to neutralise the mecha and rip its head off. Let’s hope things go a little more the robot’s way in Del Toro’s film, eh, since they're fighting for humanity there.