Friday, July 20, 2018

Top 10 Daikaiju Films

It should be no surprise at this point that I adore monster movies. But if there's one particular subgenre of monster movies that I love the most, it has to be Japanese giant monster movies, or daikaiju movies. And what better way to pay respect to this subgenre than to look at the best it has to offer? So here are my top ten daikaiju films of all time.

To clarify the difference between a giant monster film and a daikaiju film, these ones have to have a monster that's bigger than any animal on the planet, whether it's in the film for an hour or a minute, and it has to be produced, owned and released by a Japanese film studio. This means that films like the original "King Kong" or "Pacific Rim" cannot make this list, even though they are great monster movies. We're looking at those monsters from the land of the rising sun. The ones that transcend their genre and conventional stories to become an enjoyable experience, even for those who aren't a fan of the genre. So to start things off with, here is...

Number 10

To kick off this countdown, let's look at those movies use giant monsters in a more minor key. Ones that aren't so verbose or upfront about the presence of monsters. These are the ones that just so happen to have giant monsters in a story that could otherwise be a serviceable film without them, but is amplified by their presence. And these ones could be telling tales from entirely different genres to showcase the diversity of the kaiju genre, saying that these monsters aren't all alike.

Some of the prime examples of this include the gangster-monster fusion of "Dogora," the end of the world scenario that becomes even more complicated with a giant monster in "Gorath," weirdly mysterious and supernatural films like "The H-Man" and "Matango," and the feudal Japan-era "Daimajin" trilogy. And while I was very tempted to give this slot to "Atragon" for its adventurous scope and size, it can't quite hold a candle to the 1965 classic "Invasion of Astro-Monster."

"Invasion of Astro-Monster" (aka "Monster Zero") (1965) - Monster(s) in a minor role

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

While the highlights of this one are the fights between Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah, "Invasion of Astro-Monster" is more so about what it would be like if explored the cosmos and found alien life. The special effects from Eiji Tsuburaya have never been better and atmospheric, while the slow start gives the film an creepy edge that shouldn't be understated. Even the aliens are given their own mythology and culture that serves as a great development throughout the later half of the film. The monsters just serve as a powerful backdrop to an otherwise great science fiction experience.

Even if Godzilla, King Ghidorah and Rodan weren't in this movie, it'd still be a captivating and tense piece, especially when they're on Planet X. But with those monsters in it, the film expertly melds two genres together, giving us some great use of miniatures and that classic Akira Ifukube score. This is the combination of Honda, Tsuburaya, Tanaka and Ifukube at their best and most creative, which is why it deserves to be on this list.

Number Nine

Now that we've got monsters in a minor role covered, let's step it up a bit and showcase the films that have monsters in even bigger roles. These are ones where the monsters build off of an already escalating plot and feel like an organic part of the story, like an orchestra building up to its bigger and bolder pieces of music. These films don't necessarily have to start with the monster attacking, or have everyone fighting to stop the monster, but use the monster as the engine to the whole movie.

The best examples of this include the somber and personal "Frankenstein Conquers the World," the mythological "Varan the Unbelievable," and would certainly include impressive and vast scale of "Rodan." There's always the comical and ludicrous "X From Outer-Space." But for my number nine pick, I can't think of a better example than the elegant look at Capitalism, "Mothra."


"Mothra" (1961) - Monster in a major role

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

On the surface, "Mothra" may not seem like an interesting concept - a giant worm rampaging through Tokyo. But then the film throws in many subtleties and complexities that breathe far more life into it. The film is strange mix of ancient mythologies about religion and how that effects modern society, especially when confronted by men who are selfish and greedy. This battle between old and new rages on alongside the fight against Mothra.

Yet the whole movie has a very elegant and sophisticated approach to everything, from the kind and whimsical twin fairies, to Yuji Koseki's fantastical score, to the more upscale effects on Mothra's rampage. I can't recall ever seeing such detail and nuances in the effects of a kaiju film and it plays well into the whimsy of the movie, especially as Mothra's rampage escalates and evolves, showcasing that elegant mythology that we've come to know and love about Mothra.


Number Eight

Now that we've seen monsters in minor and major roles, what better way to escalate that further than by having two monsters? There are lots of different ways to tell these types of tales, including having the monsters team up or pitting them against one another, but the main focus is typically on how humanity has to rally together to combat two powerful threats and what risks they take to bring the monsters down.

This would include a large number of Godzilla movies, including the first example of two monsters fighting each other with "Godzilla Raids Again," or the far more memorable and epic "King Kong vs. Godzilla." "Space Amoeba" is a campy, cheesy example of this, as is "King Kong Escapes." But for my number eight spot, there really isn't anything quite like 1966's "War of the Gargantuas."

"War of the Garganutas" (1966) - Two monsters for One

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

Like "Invasion of Astro-Monster," this film came out at the height of kaiju popularity in Japan and took things a slightly different direction than that film. Rather than going bigger and more epic, "War of the Garganutas" feels scaled down, focusing on the minute and personal rather than the grand scheme. The two monsters in this movie have far more personality and inner conflicts going on than any other previous monster, all without saying any words, which makes their brotherly battle feel so more real and passionate than most other monster battles before or after it.

These monsters are smaller than many of the other ones on this list, which allows for more attention to detail on the effects and sets. Even watching one of the garganutas falling into the side of building feels more intense and harmful than most effects in these other entries. This is probably why "War of the Gargantuas" feels so much more brutal and raw than other kaiju films, which is why it deserves to be amongst the greats.

Number Seven

Of course, not all kaiju films involve the fate of the world or the destruction of major cities. Some of them can surprisingly tug at the heart strings or make us laugh, so let's take a moment to look at those that do both effectively. These are films that put sentiment and comedy above anything else and treat their monsters more as the butt of a joke than you'd see in films like "Mothra" and "War of the Gargantuas."

Think something like the outrageous and ludicrous plot of "Ebirah, Horror of the Deep" or the child-like imagination of "All Monsters Attack." Nearly every campy or cheesy kaiju film would fall into this category, which includes nearly every Godzilla film from the 1970s and all of the early Gamera movies. But I'm looking for one that is both sentimental and funny, which is why my number seven pick is 1967's "Son of Godzilla."

"Son of Godzilla" (1967) - Sentimental/Comedy Kaiju

Directed by Jun Fukuda and Released by Toho Co.

"Son of Godzilla" excels by doing the exact opposite of what a kaiju film should be doing. Rather than offering commentary on the problems the world faces and monsters destroying cities, this film thrives on giving its monsters rich character development and making you care for Godzilla and his adopted son. Minilla serves as a contrast to any other monster by behaving and acting like a precocious and intrigued child, while Godzilla begrudgingly puts up with his behavior and ends up being the butt of a lot of jokes. Like the Garganutas in the last entry, all of this is communicated without the two ever saying a word.

But the true reason this film stands out is because of how surprisingly touching and heartwarming the film can be. There's a genuine love that develops between these two that becomes infectious, which is no easy feat for two actors in rubber lizard suits. This culminates in the most heartfelt and honest moments in monster history, making stand out as possibly the most unique kaiju film ever made.

Number Six

But not all of the best monsters come from Earth. Some have been terrorizing planets just like ours for thousands of years, so let's talk about a modified version of the "Monsters vs. Monsters" concept and look at monsters fighting aliens. Films that showcase two different worlds colliding in a struggle between the best both worlds have to offer.

This could include the trippy yet surprisingly poignant "Godzilla vs. Hedorah," or the first film to give us our favorite three-headed golden space dragon in "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster," or even the first incarnation of Godzilla's mechanical doppelganger with "Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla." But just for a change of face, I think it's appropriate to mention an often underrated kaiju film with 1996's "Gamera 2: Advent of Legion."

"Gamera 2: Advent of Legion" (1996) - Monster vs. Aliens

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko and Released by Daiei

Coming directly off the success of the surprising "Gamera: Guardian of the Universe," "Advent of Legion" ups everything the first film established while expanding on the mythos, better emotional acting and of course some of the best practical effects of any Japanese monster movie. As the film explores the biology and desires of the alien Legion, a large swarm of bugs that feed off of silicon, the more terrifying and horrible they become, again without the aliens ever saying a word. It's amazing how this film breaks down how this swarm ticks in such elaborate detail without removing any of the mystery and menace.

But one thing I've learned that gives this 1990s Gamera trilogy its staying power is the brutal struggle Gamera has to endure in each movie, getting holes blasted in his shell, parts of his body getting mutilated and more of his green blood than I'd care to admit - and yet Gamera fights through all of this, always showing his discomfort and pain, but never willing to give up. This is on full display here, as Gamera goes through a horrendous journey to fight a foe he can never hope to understand, shown to us through some stunning effects that give Gamera a full range of emotions. Even the defense force gets some great moments and development, taking an active role in preventing the destruction of the planet, which is often unheard of in this situation. While it may be overshadowed by another film in this trilogy, there's no doubt that "Gamera 2" is one of the best looks at an tenacious monster fights a cold swarm of aliens.

Number 5

One of the biggest fears in these movies is if a monster suddenly showed up in the real world. What if Mothra did start rampaging through Tokyo? Or if a swarm of Legion invaded the planet? How would we react to this? This is a question brought up fairly often in a subgenre I like to call realistic interpretations. These kaiju films thrive on taking the political and sociological landscapes of our world and throwing a giant monster into the mix, making it less about the monster and more about how the world interprets such a creature, how it exists, why its here now and what we do to stop it.

A good example of this would be the 2014 American "Godzilla" and how it analyzes the situation from the perspective of a soldier. But that one wasn't made by a Japanese company, so it doesn't count. One of the best examples is "The Return of Godzilla" and its take on how Godzilla would escalate the Cold War and tensions around the globe. But for my pick, I feel it'd be criminal to go with anything other than 2016's "Shin Godzilla."

"Shin Godzilla" (2016) - Realistic interpretation

Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi and Released by Toho Co.

"Shin Godzilla" stands out, not because of its radical changes to the Godzilla structure, but because of its style and commentary. Unlike many other kaiju films in 2000s, the scenes with the Japanese government interpreting and reacting to the monster are just as enjoyable as the destruction and monster evolution. It helps that the fear and confusion of the government is on full display, leading to them making some baffling and cold responses to show that Democracy is unequipped to handle an unexpected crisis like this.

Of course, it helps that "Shin Godzilla" doesn't have one main character, but instead makes Japan its main character. Rather than hearing one perspective, we're given countless points of view, even from ordinary citizens and those who aren't fighting the monster. This gives the movie an unprecedented national perspective to an event that should be seen that way. These elements, combined with a terrifying new design for Godzilla that only gets more haunting as the film goes on and a breath-taking cinematic approach that adds to an already impressive size and scope, and you get a modern kaiju classic that easily competes with the founders of the genre.

Number Four

Now that we've covered so many different story possibilities within the kaiju genre, let's discuss the main reason people generally watch these movies - to watch giant monsters beat each other up. Let's not pretend that we all don't love this s*it. This is the Japanese equivalent of action movies, the ones that get our blood pumping and excitement at the ensuing mayhem and destruction. But just like action movies, this can be done poorly, but also done so well that it stands out, not just as a great monster movies but as genuinely great entertainment.

Some of the best examples include the low-budget yet dark "Terror of MechaGodzilla," the equally low-budget "Gamera: Guardian of the Universe," the thought-provoking and beautiful "Godzilla vs. Biollante," and one of my guilty pleasures in "Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II." But I've always felt the most entertaining and rewarding clash between giant monsters has to be 1964's "Mothra vs. Godzilla."


"Mothra vs. Godzilla" (1964) - Monster vs. Monster

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

This one makes it so high on the list because this is the team of Honda, Tsuburaya, Tanaka and Ifukube at their peak, creating a piece that is not only highly entertaining and stunningly beautiful, but rich with character and world development. It takes the themes of its two leading monsters and has them clash, not just physically but also psychologically, as a creature worshipped as a god faces a man-made monstrosity. Even without the monsters, the acting and script carry this story about distrust and greed that remains as interesting as its monster scenes.

Which is saying a lot, because this is the best use of scale and perspective of any Toho monster film, making every scene with Godzilla feel like he's about to devour the world. The soundtrack serves as the perfect emotional compliment to the effects while breathing even more life into these action sequences, which themselves are some of the most tense and suspenseful of any monster movie. Which is why it absolutely deserves to be on this list.



Number Three

But one step up from monsters fighting other monsters is throwing as many monsters as possible at the screen. If one monster is great, then why not throw in all of them? And Japan loves to do this more often than you'd think. These are the films that are addicted to monsters like caffeine and want to share that love and admiration with the audience, creating as many insane scenes as possible with a large roster of monsters. These are, what I like to call, the all-out extravaganza's, films that throw caution to the wind and go all-in on the monster scenes.

The previously mentioned "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster" is probably the first example of this, while "Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack" is one of the more recent examples. Cheesy films like "Godzilla vs. Gigan" and "Godzilla vs. Megalon" do this to varying degrees. But I think we can all agree that no kaiju film has ever done it quite like 1968's "Destroy All Monsters."

"Destroy All Monsters" (1968) - All-Out Extravaganza

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

What was supposed to serve as the end to Toho's kaiju films instead becomes a love letter to everything that is grand and epic about these movies, bringing in as many monsters as possible and setting them loose on the world. This film is nonstop madness, always throwing everything it can at the screen and loving its vast range of monsters and massive sets and destruction, culminating in quite possibly the greatest scene involving guys in rubber monster suits.

Not only that, but it serves as a capstone to Ishiro Honda's legacy, following his many themes of brotherhood amongst all citizens, exploration for the benefit of mankind, and man's struggles against the monsters of the past to its logical and futuristic conclusion. This ultimately gives us Honda's vision of utopia, which is a perfect way to end a series of movies about mankind overcoming all these monsters. Even though we're clearly here to watch some insane monster action, Honda's interpretation of the future gives "Destroy All Monsters" its staying power.

Number Two

As this list winds down, I feel it's appropriate to look at those films that see monsters from an entirely different perspective. The ones that take a more personal look at these giant monsters that could crush us without even blinking an eye. Think of this is as the opposite of something like "Shin Godzilla," where rather than looking at it from a national perspective, it's just one person and their struggle in the face of impossible massive threats.

This could be as simple as a fight for survival in a crumbling city, or someone trying their best to live their lives while a monster is around. But the most common type of this example is the revenge tale, where someone feels an overwhelming desire to make the monster pay for their terrible acts. Many of the Millennium Godzilla are a prime example of this, but it was never done quite as well as my number two pick, 1999's "Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris."

"Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris" (1999) - Monsters' impact on the human psyche

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko and Released by Daiei and Toho Co.

This is one of the most beautiful and powerful kaiju films, not just because of its visuals and special effects, but because of its perspective. Can we really ever consider monsters as our saviors when they are, by their nature, creatures of destruction? The Gamera in this film blurs the line between good and evil, but its the points of view that puts Gamera's actions into question, both from a teenage girl whose family was killed by Gamera and two leaders of a cult see Gamera as standing in the way of letting nature run its course.

This makes "Gamera 3" more of a meditation how people can interpret giant monsters and what we should do to remain in control while facing such a threat. The film doesn't have an easy answer to this question, leaving a lot of its ending up to interpretation. But beyond this, "Gamera 3" has some of the most impressive effects ever put in a Japanese movie, especially in its climax where two monsters fit inside of a train station, while still serving as a fitting conclusion to the endless, brutal battle of the Guardian of the Universe.

Number One

And finally, for my number one spot, let's look at the most commonly used trope of in Japanese monster movies - the allegory. Of course, monsters are never just there to be lumbering abominations. They've always had subtle context or meanings behind their actions, trying to make a statement about the troubles or fears of our world. In Japan, these monsters are typically allegories about the atomic bomb, radiation, pollution, or as something as simple as mankind's greed.

Many of Toho's earliest kaiju films are some of the best examples of this, but I'd be fooling myself if one didn't stick out above the others. The one that started it all and still remains the greatest achievement in kaiju filmmaking, and my number one pick, 1954's "Godzilla."

"Godzilla" (1954) - The Allegory

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

As obvious as this number one pick is, this is the best example of Japanese monster filmmaking as it perfectly captures the hopes and fears of Post-World War II Japan, without ever losing sight of the emotional and personal factor. The effects are still just as jarring and horrific as they were in 1954, made even more terrifying by the cinematography always showing Godzilla from low angles while civilians run from the living atomic bomb as they struggle against something they cannot hope to conquer.

Yet, the whole movie remains intriguing from start to finish, going from a mystery that uses Godzilla like the shark in "Jaws," before making a statement about mankind's endless desire to create a better weapon and the destruction that brings. All while the filmmakers emphasis that, it's not just empty cardboard buildings being destroyed, but devastated people that are helpless to stop their homes from being destroyed. So many of the best shots in this film come from ordinary people facing down Godzilla and their demise, some do it with gusto, while others hold their children in their arms one last time. It is a powerful, emotional movie that believes less is more, with a profound statement about nuclear weapons that still resonates after 60 years. Which is why I feel it is the greatest kaiju film of all time.

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