Ranked: Godzilla, the Showa-Era Films

In an act of generous self-care, I recently gifted myself the Criterion Collection hardback book boxset of all 15 Showa-Era films in the Godzilla series. The original and defining kaiju films. Spanning over 20 years, these films range from the genuinely chilling (well, the first one) to the downright mad (most of the rest). They’re an immensely charming bunch and, after a month of watching rubber-suited monsters pummel one another atop creatively-realised miniature landscapes, I present my own personal ranking of these joyous oddities. As Adam Wingard’s latest westernised version has shown, Godzilla remains an enduring commodity. Here, then, are the worst-to-best of Big G’s initial furtive rampages…

15. Godzilla vs Megalon     (1973, Jun Fukuda)

Having covered off global warming and sea pollution to name but a couple environmental ills, the franchise returned to the anxieties of nuclear testing for this thirteenth installment in the Showa-Era run. Unfortunately, Godzilla vs Megalon is a wantonly daft and chaotic hodgepodge (even by Big G standards), one that steals more than just atomic paranoia from what had gone before it. Child stars and mad alien plots once again clutter an overly silly and slapstick affair, one clearly positioned to kick-start a Jet Jaguar franchise (think a ’70s Power Ranger). Godzilla is very much an afterthought here. Dancing condom ladies cavorting before Easter Island statues add a touch of the uncanny, no doubt, but its hard not to see Godzilla vs Megalon as utterly inessential. With only two more movies in this cycle to come, Toho’s flagship appeared to be running on fumes.

14. Son of Godzilla   (1967, Jun Fukuda)

A bunch of ambitious scientists start doing wacky experiments on a little known island in the Pacific, unaware that there are natives in the jungle and mysterious monsters all around. Honestly, it’s like an episode of LOST. Jun Fukuda’s second offering for the series definitely isn’t a Good-zilla movie (hope I don’t make that pun again), with the titular offspring inspiring as many groans as the ‘Baby’ from Alien ResurrectionStar Trek style sets abound, and Godzilla looks especially circumspect; the lizard suit at its least convincing (its baggy and blobby). Still, Son of Godzilla has a global warming concern that at least keeps track with the series’ interest in wider humanitarian issues, and the effects department show a keenness to try new things.

13. All Monsters Attack  (1969, Ishiro Honda)

AMA

A valiant effort to do something different with a series that was, by 1969, growing a little repetitive. In All Monsters Attack, Godzilla takes on the role of guidance counselor to a bullied school boy who dreams of escaping his humdrum life and travelling to Monster Island. It’s the era’s most overt tilt to the child audience that it had increasingly embraced, and it’s nice to have a Godzilla movie with a message again (alongside the usual environmental concerns, conveyed here in song!), but the reliance on a child actor and a wildly resized (and still shit) Minilla take their toll, rendering this as a cute entry, but a particularly slight one. The amount of recycled footage (due to budgetary constraints) doesn’t help it any.

12. Terror of Mechagodzilla   (1975, Ishiro Honda)

Ishiro Honda returns – and the Showa-Era ends – on something of a half-hearted effort, jumbling up many of the elements already exhausted. The Black Hole Aliens are back. There’s a new monster lurking in the deep (Titanosaurus this time) and, of course, Mechagodzilla needs to make his Goliath return. It’s dependably daft but all feels a little tired this time and you can understand why this marked a line in the sand for the franchise. It’s a shame that the run ends on a bit of a whimper, but there’s still a good time to be had here, but average is sometimes the most disappointing something can be.

11. Godzilla vs Gigan     (1972, Jun Fukuda)

AKA, the one where Godzilla talks… But when Godzilla talks, you’d best perk up. The twelfth entry in the Showa-Era run is an odd mix. Opening with a prospective manga artist bagging a job for a theme park magnate, there’s a strong whiff of Jurassic World about Godzilla vs. Gigan. But then it turns out that the corporate goons are really alien cockroaches wearing human suits, and their plan is to take over the planet with novelty holiday destinations. So, it’s Godzilla vs. Disney, really. And Disney gets a good kick in the dick. Gigan, meanwhile, turns out to be a pretty serious foe, putting up a significant fight. This is, also, the first movie in which the monsters bleed, skewing what is ostensibly a kid-friendly fantasy into muddier territory. Side note: Anguirus standing off against the Japanese army has incredible Divine-in-a-John-Waters-movie energy and no, I won’t explain myself.

10. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep   (1966, Jun Fukuda)

Jun Fukuda’s first offering for the Showa-Era run wasn’t even intended to be a Godzilla movie, and it shows. Following the intergalactic mysteries and mayhem of Invasion of Astro-Monster, the series turned to our more terrestrial great unknown; the sea. Embracing the rising trend in youth movies, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep features a quartet of wayward teenage boys who steal a small yacht, shipwreck on a tropical island, and eat an insane number of bananas. There, they find that the natives are involved in a mad conflict with, effectively, a Bond villain, while the shores are beset by a gigantic psychopathic crustacean. It’s all particularly silly, but agreeably so, and set to some groovy surfer rock indicative of the time.

9. Godzilla Raids Again   (1955, Motoyoshi Oda)

Godzilla Raids Again

Given the huge success of the first movie at the box office, its little surprise that Toho rushed to capitalise with a sequel. Motoyoshi Oda’s sole entry in the Showa cycle is an often functional affair. The miniatures look cheaper, the human elements less developed/interesting, and the absence of Akira Ifukube’s music creates what feels like a literal void in the film, especially when viewed in close quarters with its predecessor. Nevertheless, there’s fun and innovation (of a kind) to be found here, chiefly in the spirited bouts between a second Godzilla and territorial nemesis Anguirus as that lay waste to Okinawa while settling their beef.

8. Invasion of Astro-Monster   (1965, Ishiro Honda)

Set in the year 196X (no, not a typo), Invasion of Astro-Monster inevitably folds the era’s galactic dreams into the growing Godzilla universe. Space missions… UFOs… Computer controlled space babes… Invasion is a particularly silly entry filled with mystery, intrigue and unintentional belly laughs (Big G does a low-gravity Irish jig). An extra-terrestrial race known as the Xiliens have come under threat from Ghidorah and wish to abduct Godzilla and Rodan for an other-worldly monster fight. In exchange they’ll give Earth a cure for cancer. With the combined consent of the scientific and housewife communities, we play along, but the Xiliens aren’t all that they seem. It’s all very kitsch and, technically, not one of the better entries. A shame, really, that it descends into fairly generic nonsense.

7. King Kong vs Godzilla   (1962, Ishiro Honda)

Having laid dormant for 7 years, Godzilla and his unstoppable franchise power re-awoke. Thawed from the glacier that became his tomb at the end of Godzilla Raids Again, our mile-high antihero went on a brand new rampage (who isn’t cranky mornings?). A Japanese expedition to a remote island brings back King Kong to distract Godzilla from trampling all over us. It’s incredibly disappointing that the Criterion set only includes the bastardised US version of this movie, which ultimately has impacted its positioning in this list. Even in this incarnation there’s plenty of fun to be had, not least in a spirited and inexplicable attack made by a ‘giant’ octopus. In a real sense, this is the start of a new era in the films – sillier and more spirited. 

6. Destroy All Monsters   (1968, Ishiro Honda)

Now far removed from its origins and comfortably into what I can’t help but think of as its Thunderbirds phase, the Showa-Era’s Destroy All Monsters is like Godzilla’s version of an Avengers movie; packing in everything that’s gone before in a crowded, futuristic mash-up. The series blasts itself toward the end of the 20th century. Now, Godzilla and all his kaiju chums are ring-fenced on Monster Island…. but not for long! With a verve only matched by Roland Emmerich, the gang break loose and start buggering up global landmarks. But how did they escape!? Could it be… Alien Women With Gas?? Destroy All Monsters strongly echoes Honda’s prior effort Invasion of Astro-Monster in several respects and feels like a triumphant return from the series’ creator, especially when it comes to the copious urban carnage.

5. Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla   (1974, Jun Fukuda)

Godzilla vs Mechangodzilla

Comfortably Jun Fukuda’s finest hour (and 24 minutes) for the Showa-Era, Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla piles on the kooky from the off, presaging its action with visions and cave-painting prophecies before yet another crafty Planet of the Apes-looking alien arrives on the scene with his ‘Mechagodzilla’ made from space metal. Our chief’s reptilian eyes seem larger than before… The havoc that ensues between him and his mechanical foe is set to decidedly campy music that accentuates the silly… There are plenty of pyrotechnics and crude visual effects in the offering…  Mechagodzilla squeezing out fireworks during a typhoon is all sorts of dramatic… All of these things engender a great deal of goodwill for a film that really wants to be embraced as a charming summation of everything goofy that Godzilla had, by this time, become. A treat.

4. Mothra vs. Godzilla   (1964, Ishiro Honda)

Two titans of Honda’s filmography face off in a cutesy, slow-burn offering that sees Eiji Tsubaraya’s special effects team working harder than ever to composite images together. One of Mothra’s eggs washes up on shore, leading to a belligerent contest for ownership of this rare, mysterious artifact. Two miniature emissaries from Infant Island try to get it back, then Godzilla rears his head! And he’s a bit off his game, trips a lot, mostly destroying things by accident! Amid the kooky discoveries and colourful make-up and costume designs, there’s a misanthropic undercurrent here that’s key to the entire series. Godzilla might be a giant radioactive monster, but we can’t help but feel glee when he causes destruction. We usually deserve it!

Also, Akira Ifukube’s new theme for our cranky reptile was absolutely pilfered by Pharoah Monch for hip-hop banger “Simon Says”.

3. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster   (1964, Ishiro Honda)

UFOs, political assassination, an outbreak of encephalitis, global warming, meteor showers, a missing princess… and that’s just the first five minutes. Hot on the heels of Mothra vs GodzillaGhidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is a riot of zany ideas grappling for supremacy. In keeping with this, the film marks the first Royal Rumble of the series, with monsters tag-teaming one another in a four-way fight that marks the movie’s climax. Things are looking a little cheaper, but the blu-ray transfer is particularly crisp for this one. It all feels far removed from the dreaded tone of the first film already, but there’s no denying how fun this is.

2. Godzilla vs Hedorah     (1971, Yoshimitsu Banna)

Absolutely one of my favourites and something of a creative rebirth. Coming two years after All Monsters Attack (an eternity in Japanese franchise circles), it’s clear that a bit of a rethink was required. On his sole jaunt for the Showa-Era, Yoshimitsu Banno brings a slightly different sensibility. Once again the story features a child at the centre of its human element, but this time there’s an observed tenderness to the domestic scenes that feels like a marked tonal shift. And then there’s all the post-’60s grooviness! Hedorah – a monster born of polluted sea waters – is on trend with the overarching environmental woes of the series, and the design of Godzilla’s foe here is one of the best in all the films. Shame the Godzilla suit is starting to look more and more like a onesie…

1. Godzilla   (1954, Ishiro Honda)

Godzilla 1954

The original. The best. Honda’s allegory for the traumas wrought by Hiroshima and Nagasaki hollers onto the screen off the back of Akira Ifukube’s thrilling main theme (one of the all-time great scores). Comparatively, its a bit of a slow-burn, starting off with mysteriously sunken ships and the scientific analysis of a disturbing, giant footprint. Godzilla feels quite grounded, relatively speaking, taking time to document the human efforts to ascertain the creature’s existence and origins. Even before the beast is unleashed, Honda stages impressive set piece after set piece, integrating archival footage with scenes shot with the assistance of the coast guard. The earthen monochrome adds a sense of gravity to it all, as though Honda’s film were disturbed from the deep, much like his giant stalking monster. Godzilla has atmosphere of a kind rarely if ever conjured again. The devastation in the mid-section features some all-time miniature work, while the downbeat finale reveals a film ultimately about responsibility. The cinema of excitement and agony.

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