It might seem that there are only so many types of stories you could tell with a giant lizard, but Godzilla has repeatedly proven otherwise. The big guy made his debut in the 1954 film, Gojira (he took his more familiar name in the Americanized version), as an unmistakable stand-in for the atomic bombs that had devastated Japan less than a decade before. But symbols can be slippery, and though it would take a while for Godzilla to return to screens after Godzilla Raids Again in 1955, a quickie follow-up, he would soon appear in film after film through the ’60s and the first half of the ’70s, by which time he’d shifted from being the bane of Japan’s existence to the nation’s beloved protector.
Now known as the franchise’s Shōwa Era, after the emperor presiding over the country during its run, the 15 Godzilla films released by the Japanese studio Toho between 1954 and 1975 feature a wild variety of scenarios ranging from alien-invasion tales to ecological parables. The mammoth Criterion Collection box set, Godzilla: The Shōwa Era Films, collects all 15 of the series’ golden-age films alongside an abundance of extras. Many of these films have mostly been shown in the West in dubbed, edited, pan-and-scan prints, so seeing them as they were meant to be seen can be revelatory. Though sometimes dismissed as mere men-in-rubber-suits movies, watching the films reveals a remarkable amount of thought, inventiveness, and craft, and offers a window into the rapidly changing Japan of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
Before diving in, it’s worth remembering a few names. In his indispensable A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series — the best English-language book on the series — David Kalat notes that between 1961 and 1964, Toho released eight science-fiction films employing variations on the same core team. That team included producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (who generated the core idea for Godzilla), director Ishiro Honda (who directed the original Godzilla and seven other of the Shōwa-era films), special-effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya (who devised the effects for the first film and stayed with the series through its ’60s golden age), writer Shinichi Sekizawa (who joined the franchise in the ’60s bringing a lighter touch to the later entries), and composer Akira Ifukube (a divisive classical composer whose powerful, primitive-sounding themes would become one of Godzilla’s trademarks). Creators would drift in and out of the Godzilla world, but some variation on those guiding hands informed the series throughout its first phase.
Though the whole series is fun to watch — these are, after all, films in which giant monsters battle each other while occasionally knocking over buildings — some Godzilla movies are better than others. What follows is our ranking of the classic Godzilla films (though the film to claim the top spot will probably come as no surprise).
15. Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)
As the ’60s turned into the ’70s, the once-booming Japanese film industry entered a period of contraction. The Godzilla series survived for a while in the new era, sometimes just barely, by slashing budgets and lowering ambition. Godzilla vs. Gigan pits Godzilla (by this point long established as a reliable protector of Japan rather than its destroyer) against his old foe King Ghidorah as well as Gigan, a new threat from outer space. Directed by Jun Fukuda, who directed most of the Godzilla movies not helmed by Ishiro Honda, the film recycles shots, music, and ideas from previous movies. Gigan itself feels cobbled together from other foes. That said, even the weakest Godzilla movies tend to be filled with fun ideas. Here, those include having Godzilla’s “speech” to other monsters, rendered in cartoonlike speech bubbles, and a sinister theme park with Godzilla-shaped tower that shoots laser beams.
14. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)
After a string of great entries, the series stumbled with this slow-paced story in which Godzilla fights a not-terribly-scary giant lobster. That Godzilla’s foe looks a lot like Lobstora from John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs is a bad sign, as is the fact that the story was too obviously retrofitted from a script originally set to star King Kong.
13. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963)
While Toho introduced other kaiju (the Japanese word that would become synonymous with giant monsters) like Rodan and Mothra, Godzilla took a long breather after his second film. When he finally returned, it was to face one filmdom’s most famous giant monsters with King Kong vs. Godzilla. It was a conflict years in the making. The 1933 film King Kong provided inspiration for the wave of giant monster movies that swept over movies in the ’50s, both in Japan and America, where the giant lizard from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms beat Godzilla to the big screen by a full year. But neither could have existed without King Kong, who made his way to Japan for a pair of Toho-produced films starting with this would-be epic clash with Godzilla. Great idea. Lousy movie. King Kong vs. Godzilla features a janky-looking Kong, a plodding story, and lackluster fight scenes (to say nothing of the cringe-y sight of Japanese actors in blackface depicting the natives of Kong’s island). Still, the film brought Godzilla out of mothballs and established a formula — including the introduction of greedy capitalists as an evil greater than any giant monster — that subsequent entries would polish to perfection.
12. Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Terror of Mechagodzilla found Honda returning to the series for a final bow, but it also confirmed that the series had run out of steam. The signs begin with the title; Godzilla had just fought his robotic foe in the previous year’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. The plot involves alien invaders and an elaborate scheme that only intrepid scientists can foil, all of which Godzilla fans had seen many times before (though this one does have a robot woman). Honda would shift gears after this, beginning a long collaboration with his friend Akira Kurosawa, for whom he’d served as an assistant director early in his career. Taking on a variety of titles, Honda would aid the aging Kurosawa through his final films, sometimes serving as Kurosawa’s eyes as his vision faded. Honda died in 1993, a year which also saw the release of Kurosawa’s final film, Madadayo. Meanwhile, Godzilla would take a few years off, resurfacing in the 1984 film The Return of Godzilla. Reedited and released in the U.S. the following year as Godzilla 1985, that film started a new chapter for the big guy, but that’s a subject for another time.
11. All Monsters Attack (1969)
A departure, All Monsters Attack does not feature the battle royale promised by its title. Instead, it takes cues from the kid-friendly films of the rival Gamera series and largely focuses on a bullied latchkey kid who dreams of traveling to Monster Island, home to many of the monsters seen in previous Toho films. There he hangs out with Godzilla’s son, Minilla, learns some valuable lessons about standing up for himself, and watches a lot of battles recycled in full from previous Godzilla films. As a monster movie, it doesn’t really work. But as a depiction of a lonely kid trying to make it in a world that forces both parents to work long hours in order to support their family, it’s quite effective, and a reminder that Honda’s filmography isn’t just made up of monster movies.
10. Son of Godzilla (1967)
Introduced two years before All Monsters Attack in the charmingly weird Son of Godzilla, Minilla already knew a thing or two about defending himself thanks to the borderline abusive parenting of Godzilla. This film pits father and son against some giant bugs who never seem all that threatening but do allow the effects team to bring in some cool new monsters and showcase some impressive puppetry. As for Minilla, he straddles the line between disturbing and cute while helping bring in younger viewers.
9. Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Quickly produced to capitalize on the global success of Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again delivers pretty much what its title promises: more of the same. It’s not bad, replicating the original’s effects and introducing a new giant monster named Anguirus, a mammoth ankylosaurus who battles Godzilla here but would later become Godzilla’s BFF. But, it lacks the original film’s thematic depth and dread-filled atmosphere. A bit of trivia: In series continuity, the Godzilla of the original film remains dead after the events of the final scene. This second Godzilla is the one seen in all subsequent Shōwa-era films.
8. Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
As part of a struggle to stay profitable and relevant in the 1970s, the Godzilla series looked elsewhere for inspiration. Since the ’60s, giant robotic superheroes had starred in hit TV shows, none more popular than Ultraman series created by Godzilla effects mastermind Eiji Tsuburaya. The series brought kaiju-inspired action to the small screen, even occasionally recycling old Godzilla suits as new monsters. With Godzilla vs. Megalon, the Godzilla series tried to get in on the action by introducing Jet Jaguar, an Ultraman-inspired robot who teams up with Godzilla to fight Megalon, a sort of giant beetle sent to destroy the surface world by the residents of the lost continent of Seatopia. Godzilla vs. Megalon is pretty much as silly as the series gets, particularly a moment in which Godzilla and Jet Jaguar shake hands. But the fight scenes remain strong and the film’s sheer absurdity keeps it entertaining.
7. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Another year, another act of trend-surfing: Here Godzilla gets a robotic foe inspired by the popular mecha subgenre of manga and anime, which focuses on giant robots piloted by humans (or, in this case, some alien invaders seemingly inspired by the creatures of Planet of the Apes). This isn’t the most imaginative entry in the series, but there’s no denying the fun of watching Godzilla do battle with his metal equivalent.
6. Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
Leaving aside the classic first film, Godzilla’s golden age is the stretch between 1963 and 1965 in which the films’ creative team found their footing and dropped the big guy into fights with one colorful foe after another. Invasion of Astro-Monster is the last entry from this period, featuring a story in which some visiting aliens (or, as they call themselves, “Xliens”) who offer a cure for cancer in return for permission to borrow Godzilla and Rodan to fight a monster back home on Planet X. Why Earth doesn’t just let them keep monsters with a habit of destroying whole swaths of major cities remains a mystery, as does ostensibly smart characters’ inability to see the Xliens have a trick up their sleeves. The film does, however, feature some of the series’ most memorable clashes, including a battle on the surface of Planet X that prompts Godzilla to jump for joy.
5. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Hands down the strangest of the classic Godzilla films (even counting the one with the little kid dreaming of Monster Island), Godzilla vs. Hedorah finds Godzilla squaring off against a monster made of pollution. (In the U.S. it bore the title Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.) In his sole contribution to the series as director, Yoshimitsu Banno (another former assistant director under Kurosawa) isn’t subtle about laying on a pro-environment message, filling the film with images of waste-filled lakes, animated asides, and anti-pollution folk songs. Banno also brings in some psychedelic touches and a strange, dark look unique to this entry that helps restore a sense of threat to the series. Where recent entries focused on monsters clashing in emptied-out cities and other locations unlikely to claim human victims, Hedorah leaves behind corpses stripped to the bone by his toxic presence. Growing and changing shape throughout the film, he works as nasty, swelling symbol of waste gone amok. The film sets up a sequel that never materialized because Tomoyuki Tanaka hated what Banno did with the movie, but it’s fun to imagine what might have happened if Godzilla had continued down this borderline experimental path.
4. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
It’s not hard to parse the logic behind this wild entry. If viewers liked films with two, three, even four monsters, why not make one with over a dozen monsters? In his last Godzilla film until he returned for Terror of Mechagodzilla, Honda brings in seemingly every monster in the Toho stable, whether they’d previously appeared in a Godzilla film or not. Set at the end of the 20th century, it opens with all the kaiju happily living on Monsterland, an isolated island where they can enjoy all the things giant monsters like to do without threatening humanity. This set-up hits a snag, however, when aliens begin controlling the monsters, sending them to attack major cities across the globe. Determined to give kaiju fans an abundance of what they loved, the film includes everything from the destruction of major landmarks (a young Roland Emmerich no doubt watched it closely) to a climactic monster free-for-all. Destroy All Monsters lacks the wit of Shinichi Sekizawa’s entries — the prolific screenwriter sat this one out — but gets by on sheer monster delirium.
3. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
The misunderstood Mothra made her debut in Honda’s 1961 film, Mothra. By that film’s conclusion, the people of Japan had befriended the Shobijin, the tiny twin women with a special connection to the giant moth, pretty much guaranteeing that Mothra would trouble them no more. That made Mothra an ideal foil for Godzilla in the last film of the Shōwa era to treat him as a bad guy rather than a protector. (Mothra would prove to be a good influence.) A huge step up from its immediate predecessor, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla features a zippy story and remarkable effects, particularly whenever Mothra uses the squalls created by the power of her mighty wings against her foes. This would be the high-water mark of Godzilla’s golden age were it not for …
2. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Oftentimes, watching a Godzilla movie means sitting through dull plotting featuring interchangeable human characters in order to get to the monster battles. The best entries, however, feature storylines that work as more than filler. Mothra vs. Godzilla, for instance, throws in a memorably villainous businessman (one of Sekizawa’s favorite plot elements) while Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster features international intrigue, an amnesiac princess, and mind-controlling Venusians. What more could you ask for? How about a three-headed space dragon who quickly becomes Godzilla’s most formidable foe, one Godzilla might not even be able to defeat with the help of Mothra and the giant bird Rodan (crossing over from his own film)? It’s not the best film of the Shōwa era — the original still wears that crown. But Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster offers a giddy combination of wild ideas and creative effects that captured the series working at every level, from the meticulously realized (but easily destroyed) miniatures to the imaginative monsters, to the humans (and occasional Venusian) who do their best to keep the monster destruction from going too far.
1. Godzilla (1954)
(a.k.a. Gojira, or Godzila, King of the Monsters)
The 1954 monster movie released in Japan as Gojira (and in altered form in the English-speaking world as Godzilla, King of the Monsters) would be a masterpiece even if we never saw Godzilla again. Before he tussled with rivals, hatched a son, or took on a smog monster, Godzilla served as a terrifying symbol for the atom bomb. Honda mixes scenes of monster attacks with imagery inspired by atom-bomb survivors, squarely placing the emphasis on the terror of living in a country that could face mass destruction with little warning. It works beautifully as an allegory, and just as well as a horror film. Where subsequent Godzilla films could hardly be called scary, Gojira captures the awfulness of watching a giant monster emerge over a hillside, and of the subsequent chaos caused by panicked citizens fleeing for their lives. It’s an extraordinary achievement, one that none of the fun, creative Shōwa-era films that followed matched in artfulness. The sequels may have made Godzilla a movie star, but it’s the original that made him immortal.