A Beginner's Guide to Kaiju Eiga
So, you’re interested in Japanese monster movies, eh? Then you’ve come to the right place. This guide will hopefully help you in your quest to explore the genre and find some of these great but mostly misunderstood gems. There’s just something fun about Japanese giant monster films. Is it the suitmation factor or the great scale model work? One thing’s for sure, you either love ‘em or you hate ‘em. I love ‘em, which is why I decided to put together a list of some of my favorites. You might love some after checking them out.
The list I’ve compiled is mainly comprised of films that are easily available on region 1 encoded DVDs via online video rental sites such as Netflix, as well as retail sites like Amazon.com. There are a couple I’ve included that aren’t, but you may be able to track down a copy somewhere such as eBay or perhaps Sell.com.
Most of the films listed have the original Japanese version as well as the often edited, English dubbed version on the DVD release. Most contain subtitles in a variety of languages so you should be covered. The films are much better when viewed in their original language although I understand the charm of hokey dubbing. If you want to experience these films as originally intended though, you owe it to yourself to view them in their original Japanese language. You won’t regret it. Now, on to the list, which is in no particular order.
Atragon (a.k.a. Undersea Battleship - Toho Studios, 1963)
It’s surface dwellers vs. the Mu Empire, a lost civilization that sank beneath the sea in this exciting film. The super sub, Gotengo (dubbed Atragon in the U.S. version), goes head to head with the giant serpent-like Chinese style dragon Manda, who is worshipped as a god by the lost continent.
Based on a series of Jules Verne-inspired adventure novels for kids by Shunrō Oshikawa, Atragon features the always entertaining collaborative efforts of director Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, director of effects.
Daimajin (Daiei Motion Picture Company, 1966)
An evil warlord gets more than he bargained for when, after he attacks a small village, a giant stone statue comes to life to protect the residents. This film is actually part of a trilogy of films (Daimajin, Return of Daimajin & Wrath of Daimajin) which were all filmed in 1966 and released mere months apart.
For being man-in-suit films, the Daimajin Trilogy has great effects. The composition shots of the characters in the foreground with the statue in the background are superb. In my opinion, they far surpass many of the same type effects shots in other films of the period. As is the norm with films of the genre, the miniature work is a real treat.
Godzilla (Toho Studios, 1954-2004)
How can you have a list of kaiju without mentioning the one that started it all? Godzilla, the giant atomic ray-breathing monster, has appeared in a total of 29 films over the last 50+ years. I don’t count the 1998 American version starring Matthew Broderick, which also spawned a cartoon spin-off series. That’s not Godzilla. On the other hand, the 2014 American version, directed by Gareth Edwards and starring Bryan Cranston, is. Godzilla also appeared in the Japanese 1970s television series Zone Fighter and got a show of his own in 1997 called Godzilla Island in Japan. He also had an animated Saturday morning series in the late 70s co-produced by Hanna-Barbera and Toho Studios that broadcasted in both Japan and the United States. Godzilla has since become a world famous pop-culture icon. If you’re looking to get into kaiju, these films are a great place to start. Most of them are available in the U.S. in one form or another with the exception of a couple of films from the Showa series (1954-1974) and the Heisei series (1984-1995.)
Rodan (a.k.a. Giant Monster of the Sky Radon – Toho Studios, 1956)
A classic of the genre. Mining operations in Kitamatsu inadvertently awaken two giant pteranodons and a slew of giant insects. The bugs turn out to be Rodan chow called Meganulons. The Rodans proceed to wreak havoc and terrorize the world.
The title creature of the film also made appearances in several Godzilla films such as Destroy All Monsters, Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster, and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II. The daikaiju in the film was, in the original Japanese version, known as Radon. The title was changed for the English dubbed version to avoid confusion with the element radon although it should be noted the creature is still referred to as Radon in that particular version. George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu, provided voice talent for the English dubbed version of the film.
On a side note, one nice little benefit of purchasing this film on DVD is that you also get another kaiju with it. War of the Gargantuas, which I include in this list a little further down, is on the same DVD. Each film has both the English dubbed version as well as the original Japanese version.
Mothra (Mosura - Toho Studios, 1960)
Another classic and a must have for any kaiju fan. A group of shipwreck survivors are found on a mysterious island. Due to nuclear testing, the outer edge of the island is desolate. However, the interior is lush and green, prompting a company to mount an expedition. The team is comprised of entrepreneur Clark Nelson, scientist Shin’ichi Chujo, and stowaway reporter Senichiro Fukuda. After arriving on the island, the group soon discovers a couple of one foot tall girls who wish for their island to be spared from any future nuclear testing. The group returns from the island, however, Nelson decides to return to the island to kidnap the girls with the intention of exploiting them for his own greedy purposes. The island natives call upon their god Mothra to help recover the girls. Soon, a giant caterpillar hatches and begins its journey to Japan where it proceeds to destroy Tokyo.
Mothra, one of Toho’s most popular giant monsters, went on to appear in seven Godzilla films as well as a trilogy of her own in the 90s (Rebirth of Mothra I, II, & III). Like Godzilla, Mothra’s size changed throughout her appearances. Starting off at a length of 590 feet in her first appearance, she was reduced to 131 feet for her battle with Godzilla in Godzilla vs. Mothra. She was increased to 393 feet (just as Godzilla was also increased in size and power) during the Heisei period. After her initial appearance, her role as a guardian of Earth was emphasized in subsequent films.
King Kong Escapes (a.k.a. King Kong’s Counterattack – Toho Studios, 1967)
Evil scientist Dr. Who (no relation to the BBC’s famous Time Lord) builds a giant robot version of Kong to dig for a highly radioactive element for the equally evil Madame X. They soon discover the robot is unreliable and Dr. Who plots to capture the real Kong to do his bidding.
Universal Studios’ giant ape stomps new ground in this offering from Toho Studios that stars American actors Rhodes Reason (Star Trek: The Original Series) and Linda Miller. This film unfortunately is not available in the U.S. in its original Japanese version due to legal reasons involving Universal Studios’ copyright of the character of Kong. The Japanese language version of the film can be found out there on VHS and possibly DVD if you search hard enough.
Frankenstein Conquers the World (a.k.a. Frankenstein vs. Baragon – Toho Studios, 1965)
The heart of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is transported to the Pacific aboard a German U-Boat in 1945 and is subsequently transferred to a waiting Japanese vessel after the Allies bomb the Nazi sub. The heart is taken to Hiroshima for experimentation just as allied forces drop the atomic bomb. Many years later, the heart has mysteriously grown into a wild boy with strange regenerative powers. When the monster Baragon shows up and attacks a city, the boy, having grown to giant monster size, is initially blamed for the damage. The truth comes out however when he helps defend the citizens against a second attack by Baragon.
This film was originally released in Japan as Frankenstein versus Subterranean Monster Baragon. It stars American actor Nick Adams, who also starred in the sixth Godzilla film Invasion of Astro-Monster.
The Japanese video edition of the film had a deleted scene involving a giant octopus added in as an alternate ending. The executives of the American company that co-produced the film had originally requested a giant octopus be included in the movie after having been impressed with the octopus scenes in King Kong vs. Godzilla. Although the scenes were shot for Frankenstein Conquers the World, they were ultimately cut from the film.
War of the Gargantuas (Toho Studios, 1966)
In this sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World, the story centers around two giant creatures, Gargantuas, spawned from the cells of the Frankenstein monster. One, Sanda, lives in the mountains and is gentle and kind due to being raised in captivity. His brother, Gaira, lives in the sea and is a vicious, savage brute that preys on humans. Sanda eventually discovers Gaira feasting on people and attacks him. Gaira retreats to Tokyo where Sanda attempts to convince him to stop his evil ways. The two duke it out only for both to be consumed by a volcanic eruption.
When this film was released in the United States, the American co-producers removed all references to Frankenstein except one regarding a severed hand suggesting a connection to the previous film.
The giant octopus that had been cut from the previous film made an appearance here. Right after the opening credit sequence, the creature is shown attacking a ship. Marking his first appearance in the film, Gaira shows up and battles the enormous cephalopod.
Dogora (Giant Space Monster Dogora - Toho Studios, 1964)
Giant mutant jellyfish monsters attack satellites, ships, bridges, and even diamonds stolen by a group of thieves as they attempt to consume all carbon based matter. Scientists try to find a way to stop the creatures before it’s too late.
This film is technically more of a science fiction one than a giant monster movie. It is considered to be part of the broader tokusatsu genre (live action sci-fi, fantasy or horror films), of which kaiju is a sub-genre. In my book giant jellyfish-like creatures fit the bill, so on the list it goes.
The Mysterians (Toho Studios, 1957)
Aliens come to Earth asking for an area to settle in and for the right to marry Earth females. With the help of the giant robot, Mogera, they demonstrate their power. Earth’s inhabitants naturally resist and must develop counter measures to defend against the alien onslaught.
Like Dogora, this film technically belongs to the tokusatsu genre, but I’m including it here because it features the first appearance of Mogera. This giant robot was later redesigned as an anti-Godzilla mecha designed by the United Nations and called M.O.G.U.E.R.A. (an acronym for Mobile Operation Godzilla Universal Expert Robot Aerotype). That version was featured in the Heisei series film, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla.
Space Amoeba (Toho Studios, 1970)
The Jupiter-bound space probe, Helios 7, encounters a cloud-like alien energy being. Unknown to ground control, the creature seeps into the probe. Upon returning to Earth, the probe lands in the South Pacific where the strange non-corporeal entity possesses the body of a giant cuttlefish and wreaks havoc on a small island. When photojournalist Taro Kudo and his companions arrive, they are attacked and subsequently learn of the monster’s weakness to fire. After Kudo and company use a World War II munitions cabin to flambe’ the monstrous cuttlefish, the entity seeks refuge in a giant turtle and later a gigantic crab.
Space Amoeba was one of the last Kaiju films directed by Ishirō Honda and was the first produced after the death of legendary effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya. Of particular interest is the size of the various giant monsters in the film. All are substantially smaller than those in previous entries in the genre.
Varan The Unbelievable (Toho Studios, 1958)
The saltwater lake dwelling giant monster, Varan, kills a two man expedition before destroying a nearby village and eventually attacks Tokyo.
This was Ishirō Honda's final giant monster movie shot in black & white. While the film isn’t on par with Toho’s more popular entries in the genre, it does have effects by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya and a great score by Akira Ifukube. There also exists a television version with a few scenes edited out. A heavily revised version was released in American theaters in 1962 with principle scenes reshot with American actors in the same fashion as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! had been.
The X From Outer Space (a.k.a. Giant Space Monster Guilala - Shochiku Kinema Kenkyu-jo, 1967)
Featuring perhaps one of the most bizarre monsters of all, The X From Outer Space tells the story of a spacecraft launched from Japan on a mission to Mars that encounters a UFO as it approaches the red planet. The alien spacecraft coats the earth ship with strange spores. One of the spores is taken back to earth and develops into the giant monster Guilala. The giant, fire breathing, nuclear fuel consuming monster then proceeds on a rampage through Tokyo.
The X From Outer Space eventually spawned a sequel in the form of the 2008 film The Monster X Strikes Back (a.k.a. Attack the G8 Summit), directed by Minoru Kawasaki.
Gamera (Daiei Motion Picture Company, 1965-2006)
Gamera, the giant, fire breathing flying turtle, is Daiei Motion Picture Company’s answer to Toho Studios’ Godzilla. He has appeared in a total of 12 films since his debut in the film Gamera (1965) and most recently in Gamera The Brave (2006).
In his initial appearance, Gamera is awakened by a nuclear blast in the arctic during a battle between U.S. fighters and Soviet bombers crossing into U.S. airspace. Unlike Godzilla, Gamera was already able to breath fire and was capable of flight before the atomic explosion that awakened him.
A total of eight films comprised the Showa series. After his introduction in the first film, Gamera fought many different monsters, including Barugon, over the course of the next seven films in the series.
Gamera’s origins were reworked for his first return to the screen as the filmmakers wanted to make the character more heroic. In this series, the city of Atlantis bio-engineered the giant turtle as a guardian of the universe designed to combat the evil Gyaos, a monster capable of destroying all human life. There were a total of three films in this incarnation, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Gamera 2: Attack of Legion, & Gamera 3: Awakening of Iris.
In this series’ only entry to date, Gamera the Brave, a young boy finds an egg perched on an unusual glowing red rock. A seemingly normal turtle hatches from it and begins to grow at an astounding rate. The boy soon discovers that Toto is not your typical shelled reptilian when it begins flying and breathing fireballs. Toto attempts to fend off another attacking giant monster, but isn’t powerful enough until he consumes the red rock found with his egg.
There you have it. Now, this list isn’t complete by far but it should give you a nice, substantial collection of films of the genre to check out. Many of these films can easily be found at online retailers and you might even be able to find some at your local Best Buy. Some of them will no doubt be difficult to locate and some are disappearing from shelves. For those I mentioned, you may have to check in the used bins and online auction sites. However & wherever you find them, I hope you enjoy them. Good luck and happy hunting!