With Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla vs Kong just around the corner, now is an excellent time to look back on Japan’s rich history of kaiju (monster) movies. And what better celebration of a grudge match between two of cinema’s most famous monsters than a likely foolish endeavor to rate every notable Japanese movie monster?
There are a lot of Japanese movie monsters, folks, so I’m not going to get overly picky with this series. I’ll rate a handful of kaiju at a time, and when all is said and done, we’ll have one Godzilla-sized ranking list of Japan’s finest and fiercest kaiju! A number of factors will be taken into account with my ratings, but my scores will be extremely subjective. Let’s have fun with this!
Godzilla (Showa Era)
First appearance: Gojira (1954)
Notable ability: Atomic breath
I have to start this ranking list with the King of the Monsters himself, right? 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which features incredible stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen) might have come first, but 1954’s Gojira set the standard for all monster movies to come. Ishiro Honda’s effectively gloomy film introduced audiences to the iconic monster we all know and love today.
What makes Godzilla so special, anyways?
The seemingly indestructible beast is hell-bent on destroying human civilization, but he’s always depicted in a sympathetic light. A titanic monster born of mankind’s hubris, Godzilla symbolizes the nuclear weapons that devastated Japan during World War II. Despite the heavy-handed analogy, Godzilla is depicted as an innocent creature that the modern world simply has no place for.
As the sequels piled up, Godzilla began to take on a more heroic role, saving the world from malicious, intergalactic threats. With his atomic breath and a repertoire of fighting abilities more akin to a professional wrestler than a bipedal reptile, Godzilla is more than capable of defending Earth against all manner of monstrous challengers.
Godzilla changed a bit in both appearance and temperament throughout the Showa-era films (1954-1974), but it’s all the same wonderful monster to me. Major props also need to be given to suit actor Haruo Nakajima for infusing Godzilla so much personality.
First Appearance: Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)
Notable ability: Mobility
You read that correctly. Frankenstein. Not Frankenstein’s monster. Not Doctor Victor Frankenstein. Just Frankenstein. The titular character of Frankenstein Conquers the World (AKA Frankenstein vs Baragon) is *deep breath* a feral child who grew from the heart of Frankenstein’s monster after it was irradiated by the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. And in case you didn’t think that premise could get any crazier, Nazis are involved as well. Naturally.
Frankenstein grows to an enormous size over the course of the film and eventually battles the monster Baragon in order to save Japan. The film itself is as wild and fun as you might expect from the premise, but the character of Frankenstein is rather bland, with no interesting powers to speak of. It’s also quite surreal to watch a caveman-like character in rags pouncing on a rubber-suited monster.
I enjoy the film quite a bit, but wish that its protagonist “monster” was more visually interesting.
First Appearance: The X from Outer Space (1967)
Notable ability: Spore transformation
The X from Outer Space was a rare monster movie from Shochiku – a film studio known for relatively classy dramatic fare at the time. The film is middling at best, but has earned a cult audience due to its cheesy acting and memorably silly monster, Guilala, which has a Godzilla-like reptilian body topped with a combination of a chicken head and flying saucer.
Guilala is like one of those dogs that’s so ugly it’s actually adorable. It’s a poor man’s Godzilla in nearly every regard, but I love the dopey thing regardless. Guilala does have a surprising number of abilities, though. It can shoot fireballs from its beak and even transform into a spore or an orb of energy to travel about at rapid speeds. Guilala’s enduring cult popularity proves that if you can’t do it good, you should do it dumb.
First Appearance: Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)
Notable ability: Being Godzilla’s weakest opponent ever
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (AKA Godzilla vs the Sea Monster) is a messy film. It was intended to be a King Kong movie, but the script was rewritten to feature Godzilla instead. Making matters worse, the title monster, a giant lobster that attacks boats that get too close to an island run by a criminal syndicate, is one of Toho’s weaker kaiju creations. So when lesser monsters are introduced, you know you’re in for a rough time.
Ookondoru is, as its name indicates, a giant condor that appears midway through the film to mildly annoy Godzilla before being burnt to a crisp. I could see a minor monster like this working better in a King Kong movie, with Kong focusing on protecting a human from it. With Godzilla as the protagonist, however, it simply doesn’t work. It’s debatable whether or not Ookondoru should even be considered a proper kaiju, but hey, why not establish the bottom of the barrel early on?
First Appearance: Space Amoeba (1970)
Notable ability: Freezing touch
Space Amoeba has as many different titles as it has monsters. I first encountered it as a VHS tape titled Yog – Monster From Space, but it’s Japanese title, Gezora, Ganime, and Kameba: Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas, deserves mention because it’s the longest title I can think of that’s not meant to be funny. Is the first monster, Gezora, as monstrous as the title of the movie it is featured in?
Gezora is a monstrous cuttlefish that is taken over by a parasitic amoeba from outer space. After attacking ships at sea, it eventually takes to land to terrorize the human protagonists. Gezora’s unique mutation allows it to inflict frostbite on its victims, but it also makes the creature incredibly weak against heat.
While the sight of a man in a rubber squid suit walking on land is pretty laughable, Gezora’s design has a rather unique charm. I’m actually rather surprised that it hasn’t appeared in any other Toho movies, but it does appear in the NES game, Godzilla: Monster of Monsters.
Now, this is not a total roundup, and we will absolutely be back with more kaiju ranKings and discussion. But until then, how would you rate all the monsters in the Showa Showdown?
Article by Steve Wittkamp (@MrAlarm on Twitter)
And listen to Podcasters Assemble S4: Kong-Zilla-Thon for more!