November 3 is the anniversary of the original Japanese theatrical release of the very first Godzilla movie.
Admittedly, I’ve posted this fairly recently when I posted my recommendation for Destroy All Monsters! as vaguely Halloween-related. Of course, since today is the birthday of our favourite giant, radioactive dinosaur, it seems like a good time to take a look at the legacy of the franchise and pick out some high-points you could consider watching.
Also worth noting is that the Showa–era films (50s-70s; the period is named for the ruling Emperor; that’s how the Japanese calendar works) are available both legally and for free via Tubi.
The original Godzilla got two separate releases: the original Japanese version in 1954 (Godzilla; Gojira in the original Japanese), and an edited American version in 1956 (Godzilla, King of the Monsters). Incidentally, there was also a really weird Italian re-cut of the film. In terms of cinematic merit, the original Godzilla is probably the best in the series, because it’s a stone-cold serious horror movie and a pretty sombre, sobering reflection on the perils of the Atomic Age.
Sure, the special effects haven’t exactly aged well, but the original Godzilla still manages to be genuinely scary and upsetting in a lot of places. And, honestly, the appearance of the original Godzilla still really scares me.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is notable for being the first appearance of King Ghidorah (duh), who’d go on to essentially become Godzilla’s primary antagonist. It’s also notable for being the first of many, many time Godzilla would team up with Mothra and/or Rodan. Most significantly, this is the movie where Godzilla first became a good guy, setting the course for Godzilla’s characterisation for basically the entire rest of the franchise.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah is really, really weird and probably made under the influence of something.
It’s got an expository theme song that’s almost like something out of a James Bond movie, bizarre animated scene transitions, and Godzilla using his Atomic Breath to fly around like a rocket.
It’s not even necessarily bad (especially not for an early 70s Godzilla movie), it’s just so singularly, unprecedentedly strange that it’s nothing like any Godzilla before or since.
If nothing else, it’s entertainingly bizarre.
Notably, its director was initially expected to do a sequel, but was immediately fired by the higher-ups at Toho after the movie was released.
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! is
a mouthful a more recent Godzilla movie, from the so-called Millennium Era of the series (2001, specifically). Even at this point in the series, the movies (especially the dubs) never stopped being goofy and cheesy, but GMK is notable for being a rare return to Godzilla being a villain. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, the Godzilla that was destroyed in the 1950s (i.e. the original movie) is reanimated by the vengeful spirits of those killed the Pacific Theatre in World War II.
Subsequently, the three Guardian Monsters — Baragon (who didn’t even make it into the title for some reason), Mothra, and King Ghidorah (in his only appearance as a good guy) — awaken to stop him. With, uh, mixed results.
As a result of turning heel for the first time in decades, GMK Godzilla also gets a significant upgrade in this power levels, while the Guardian Monsters get a proportional downgrade, which means they spend most of the movie getting beat up by Godzilla. Though, on the other hand, the Guardian Monsters’ stated goal isn’t necessarily to beat Godzilla, it’s to help the humans help themselves stop Godzilla.
Shin Godzilla is the most recent Japanese Godzilla movie (unless you count the Netflix anime trilogy). Released in 2016, Shin Godzilla (shin being a Japanese word that means either “new”, “true”, or “god”, all of which the title is trying to invoke) is basically the 21st century version of the original Godzilla. He’s no longer a destructive protector god, and is once again an inexorable force of destruction.
Where the original Godzilla was a metaphor for the atom bomb, Shin Godzilla is a metaphor for the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. Shin Godzilla himself is an absolute nightmare, even before he starts doing anything — and, man, when he starts, things start going south fast. He just looks so horrifying and wrong by every possible metric.
Shin Godzilla is also a fascinating satire of modern Japanese politics. Part of the reason Godzilla is able inflict as much destruction as he does is because the government’s response is held up by bureaucracy, red tape, and indecision, as observed and navigated by the film’s primary protagonist, a mid-level bureaucrat. And, honestly, he’s one of my favourite human heroes in the entire franchise
Finally, Legendary’s Godzilla movies, 2014’s Godzilla and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters are two of my favourite movies, like, ever. Legendary Godzilla is just that awesome. Also, Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe are along for the ride.
Now, they didn’t really do well with the critics, but I feel like critics expecting a proper work of cinema are unable to enjoy the simple pleasures of watching giant radioactive monsters kick each through buildings. If you like Godzilla, these are pretty much the perfect movies.
Also, in King of the Monsters, Godzilla goes Super Saiyan.
And, of course, Godzilla vs. Kong promises what it delivers. The human plotlines — one following a group of humans following Kong and one following the group following Godzilla — are probably the weakest human story of the Monsterverse films.
But you aren’t watching a movie called Godzilla vs. Kong for the humans. The flipside is that the, to borrow the MPA’s phrasing again, Creature Violence is probably the best of the Monsterverse movies. The two fights before the inevitable team-up against the actual villain — who shall remain nameless but is heavily foreshadowed in the lead-up to his reveal — are awesome.
Sidebar: Godzilla vs. Kong made only about as much money as the 2014 Godzilla, but did it in the middle of a pandemic while being released simultaneously on streaming platforms — HBO Max in the States (where it had one of the most successful debuts in the platform’s history); I rented digitally it via Cineplex, which, for my non-Canadian readers, is basically the one theatre chain we’ve got up here.
I haven’t really been keeping up with the news, but I do recall seeing announcements of a Kong show on Netflix, a Godzilla show on Amazon Prime, and another Monsterverse movie.
Finally, we’ve got 2021 anime Godzilla Singular Point, which is basically “This is your Godzilla on Quantum Mechanics.”
Based on my admittedly not comprehensive knowledge of Quantum Mechanics, Singular Point is based around concepts of space, time, space-time and that sort of technobabble that seems at least internally consistent but sounds ridiculous and is probably going to alienate most of the casual audience.
On the other hand, it’s a novel approach to the whole idea of Godzilla As Walking Calamity. Basically, Quantum Godzilla’s mere existence is threatening to unravel the universe.
Despite the high-concept, high-level Quantum technobabble, it’s a smaller scale, ground-level approach to the human characters trying to solve Godzilla and the other monsters, there are some interesting call-backs to the rest of the franchise and some neat artistic touches, but there’s markedly less Creature Violence and, like I said, the Quantum Mechanics are liable to either befuddle or alienate a good chunk of the audience.
In terms of the future of the franchise both Toho and Legendary have announced new entries scheduled for the next couple years