The Godzilla franchise is overwhelming indeed. It took me quite some time to see all the sequels or reboots or whatever else you want to call them – it didn’t help that I refused to watch any awful American re-edits. (Note: This article only refers to subtitled versions of Godzilla films. Stay the hell away from dubbed and reedited versions!) This is a franchise with more entries than James Bond, a franchise that spawned three distinct series, comics, cartoons and a despicable American remake (soon to be “rebooted” – yuck). Some would say that the only worthwhile entry is the first, I would violently disagree. Some fans prefer the Shōwa series (1954 to 1975) – although most would admit its decline into cheese – others prefer the grittier Heisei series (1984 to 1995), and, I guess, some must like the underwhelming Millennium series (1999 to 2004). I love Godzilla in all his forms, although you may notice that the Millennium series is notably absent from this list. I don’t dislike the Millennium series, but overall I found the Godzilla of the 2000s a disappointment. You may also notice that the original Godzilla of 1954 is not on this list. I’ve decided to focus only on the sequels, as the original is, of course, a must-see not only for kaijū fans but anyone interested in cinema.
I found it surprisingly difficult to pick my five favourite (or five essential) Godzilla films. I’ve tried to cover both the Shōwa and Heisei eras, but there’s so many greats I had to leave out. The problem is that the Godzilla franchise is just too damned consistent. Or, perhaps, I’m just too easy to please – I mean, I love infamously bad sequels like All Monsters Attack (1969) and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). There are no entries I actively dislike (other than the final Millennium flick, and final Godzilla film, Godzilla: Final Wars). In fact, it was so hard to pick five, that I’ve had to slap down an honourable mention…
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA original title: Kingu Kongu tai Gojira (キングコング対ゴジラ)
1962, Ishirô Honda
I had this in my five picks for a while, then ended up replacing it with Destroy All Monsters. Destroy All Monsters is the better film, but King Kong vs. Godzilla is possibly the most historically important Godzilla film outside the original. For starters, it was the original character crossover film bringing together different studios – unlike the Universal monster crossovers. It was the first time that both Godzilla and King Kong appeared in colour. And, most importantly, King Kong vs. Godzilla could be the reason Godzilla became the franchise that it is today. Despite being the second sequel, Godzilla’s fame had not reached the ludicrous heights to come. King Kong vs. Godzilla was a huge commercial success leading to the barrage of sequels to follow. The film itself is by no means the best Godzilla film, but it’s certainly entertaining. As I’ve already pointed out in my introduction, make sure you watch the Japanese version – which is very hard to find with subtitles – rather than the rotten American re-edit. Now please enjoy this awful tribute video:
Okay, now with that very honourable mention out of the film, here is my five picks for the best/essential Godzilla films…
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS original title: Kaijū Sōshingeki (怪獣総進撃)
1968, Ishirô Honda
Destroy All Monsters is a great place to kick off your journey in the Godzilla franchise outside of the 1954 original. Destroy All Monsters is pure fun and nothing more. Ishirô Honda – original Godzilla director and Kurosawa colleague – makes sure every monster from Monster Island is involved in a skirmish against King Ghidorah. The film’s finale – the beating of King Ghidorah, as I like to call it – is actually kind of sad as Ghidorah is viciously overpowered and outnumbered by Godzilla and friends. Sure, this film lacks the dread of the original and marks the beginning of Godzilla’s path to heroism and silliness, stripping the monster of his ambiguous status in previous entries, but if you want big, rubbery monsters, aliens and destruction, then this is the film for you!
GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH original title: Gojira tai Hedora (ゴジラ対ヘドラ)
1971, Yoshimitsu Banno
No Godzilla film splits fans quite as intensely as Godzilla vs. Hedorah. It even divided Toho Studios. Check out this tidbit from Wikipedia:
Tomoyuki Tanaka, who produced all the Godzilla films before this one, was in the hospital during the time the film was made. Upon recovery and actually seeing the film, it is said that he told the director of the film he ruined the Godzilla series and that he would never direct at Toho again.
Banno’s presence as director is what really sets Godzilla vs. Hedorah apart from the rest of the franchise. His direction and visual style is bizarre to say the least – but that’s what I like best about the film. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a hodgepodge of weirdness from borderline hallucinatory sequences to strange smatterings of animation. The film also scores major points for its unique adversary – Hedorah is as exciting as he is odd, it’s a true shame he only appeared in one film (not counting his pathetic cameo in Godzilla: Final Wars). Godzilla vs. Hedorah has a fantastic, and appropriately absurd, finale, and Godzilla himself is in fine form. An oddity indeed, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is one of my favourites of the series.
TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA original title: Mekagojira no Gyakushū (メカゴジラの逆襲)
1975, Ishirô Honda
Ishirô Honda made a glorious return to the directing chair for the final entry in the Shōwa series and the last Godzilla film for almost a decade. Terror of Mechagodzilla is a direct sequel to the excellent Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), and it’s by far my favourite Godzilla sequel – and that’s of any era. While the Godzilla franchise slipped further and further into cheese throughout the 70s – and hey, I’m not complaining – Terror of Mechagodzilla is a decidedly more serious affair. While keeping all the enjoyable aspects of the 70s entries, Terror of Mechagodzilla is a surprisingly dark film with a brilliant human subplot and a fantastically tragic monster. While the great Mechagodzilla may be in the film’s title – and he remains my favourite Godzilla opponent – the real star of Terror of Mechagodzilla is Titanosaurus. Titanosaurus would only appear in this entry and is described as a gentle monster forced into acts of destruction. Godzilla takes a backseat and does not appear until halfway through the film. While his screen time is limited, his entrance is nothing short of brilliant. A dark and moody picture, Terror of Mechagodzilla is a sorely underrated Godzilla film.
THE RETURN OF GODZILLA original title: Gojira (ゴジラ)
1984, Koji Hashimoto
Another entry that is hated by some – maybe due to the hideous American re-edit, Godzilla 1985 – and loved by others, The Return of Godzilla starts the Heisei era with a bang. Smartly ignoring the sequels before it and acting as a direct sequel to the original Godzilla, The Return of Godzilla is a fresh take on Japan’s favourite monster. It removes the heroism attached to Godzilla and returns him to his (in my opinion, correct) standing as a force of mutated nature – neither good nor bad, and sometimes a necessary force. While I love the Heisei series, The Return of Godzilla could quite easily have worked as a standalone film – and, based on the ending, it appears that was the original intent. Godzilla looks great in his rebooted form – a little more cartoonish than he would appear in later Heisei sequels, but not as goofy as his 70s incarnation. The film is consistent with its action and its human characters are very good – something lacking from many of the Shōwa entries. Unfortunately, The Return of Godzilla is near-impossible to find in its original Japanese form with subtitles. Despite being one of the more famous Godzilla films, it’s yet to receive a Western release.
GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH original title: Gojira tai Desutoroia (ゴジラVSデストロイア)
1995, Takao Okawara
I ummed and arred about the inclusion of Godzilla vs. Destoroyah in this list. It is not my favourite of Heisei series – not by a long shot. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) is my personal Heisei favourite, and I even prefer the underrated Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. The most impressive aspect of the Heisei series is its continuity. It is best to watch the series in order. Characters reappear, stories follow on from previous entries, Godzilla is consistent in his actions and, by the final entry, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, it truly feels that Godzilla’s journey is at an end. And that’s why I’ve decided to include this rather than some of the better Heisei films. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah caps off the Heisei series nicely, and its ending actually feels like an ending. Destoroyah is a decent kaijū (although, I would have much preferred the original idea, which was to have Godzilla fighting the ghost of the original 1954 Godzilla!) and the film, despite its flaws, is well-rounded and entertaining. Watch all the Heisei films, then finish it off with this satisfying final entry.
While I’ve watched and enjoyed (almost) all the entries of the Millennium series that were to follow Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, I can’t help but feel that they’re lacking something. Each film in the Millennium series seems to ignore the previous, and they mess with Godzilla lore in a way that brings out my nasty inner-nerd (okay, it’s not exactly “inner”) – I mean, in one entry, they made King Ghidorah, the ultimate villain, a guardian of the earth for Christ’s sake! A geeky complaint, but come on! For those unfamiliar with the Godzilla universe, that’s essentially like making the Emperor in Star Wars a nice guy, or turning the Joker into Batman’s sidekick, or having Dracula switch to wine. (I’m digging a very deep nerd-hole here, aren’t I?) For all the silliness of some of the Shōwa, and even Heisei, entries, at least they had respect for the films that came before them. Ahem, anyway. Wherever your preference lies – whether it be Shōwa, Heisei or Millennium – Godzilla fans should thank the great kaijū gods in the sky that we’ve been blessed with such an outrageous amount of excellent giant monster films!