Monday, January 26, 2015

Godzilla Movies for Beginners: Which Movies to Start With, and Other Notes

Stuart K. Hayashi

Some friends informed me that they had considered watching some Godzilla movies,and thus asked me which entries were good introductions to the series.   I didn't know how to answer.  These people would be approaching the series from a context very different from my own.  I began watching as a small child, and I didn't concern myself with how realistic or unrealistic the special effects looked.  I liked the symbolism involved, and, of course, the good monster action.  For me, that outweighed the unrealism of the special effects; it was easy for me to suspend disbelief.  But that's far from the sole issue.  All of the movies are filled with far-fetched ideas, but some movies are deliberately sillier than others.  The first Godzilla movie I ever saw was Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), and it made me want to see more.  But it occurred to me that if an adult chose that as his first Godzilla movie, it would probably turn him off from the rest of the series.  The same applies to Godzilla's Revenge (1969) -- if an adult chooses that as his first Godzilla movie, it would be easy for him to assume that all of the movies are at least as cringe-inducing, and he probably won't want anymore.  I want to choose movies that can maintain my friend's interest, which will motivate them to looking at other entries. 

All of the entries are mixed bags, and therefore I cannot anticipate what would or wouldn't be tolerable.  For example, Godzilla vs. Gigan is, many respects, one of the weaker entries.  It has one of the weakest stories and it even uses stock footage from previous movies but presents them as if they are new  -- that's pretty lazy.  However, I find it has a lot of re-watch value, due to its introduction of Gigan, whom I find to be one of the most fascinating of Godzilla's opponents.

Another consideration is that if a first-timer randomly chooses a first movie among any of the entries from 1965 to 1975, he will find it confusing, not being aware of the chronology of the series.  The first-timer would probably ask, "Why are the humans rooting for Godzilla?  And why didn't Godzilla attack them?"  In the first four movies -- ranging from 1954 to 1964 -- Godzilla is consistently antagonistic toward humans.  But starting from Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster -- the second G movie of 1964 -- on to 1975, Godzilla is on the side of the humans.  This is explained in Ghidrah

I have decided that, because of the chronological considerations, I should recommend the movies that do the most to change the arcs of the series.  For a first-timer, I recommend watching the following four movies, in the order that I present them.  After  that, I will discuss some other notable entries -- these entries are notable, not always because they are good, but because they stand out for some specific reasons (some good, some bad).

1. Godzilla (1954) -- as one magazine put it, this is "the first and -- by far -- the fiercest."  This is the one that introduces the monster.  You might be surprised by the tone.  It is quite bleak.  Even more surprising, it is actually a quiet movie.  Godzilla's rampage throughout the city is presented, not as fun or glamorous, but genuinely unnerving.  With one possible, weird exception from 1971 (more about that below), this is the only entry in the series that can be counted as a horror movie. 

I have to make a special note about the differences in Japanese and U.S. versions.   When this movie was brought to the United States in 1956, the U.S. distributor worried that U.S. audiences would not relate to it unless it featured an American actor.  Fresh off of Rear Window, Raymond Burr was cast as Steve Martin, a not-so-wild-and-crazy American journalist.  Raymond Burr is very good in his scenes, but the U.S. version is still inferior to the original.  The U.S. version edits out many important scenes from the original.  These scenes are dramatic and important to the narrative and tone.   There is one scene concerning a mother and her children which was omitted from the U.S. release, probably out of the worry that U.S. audiences would find it too disturbing. 

The man in the eye patch in the lower right-hand corner is important to the story. On this poster, he is depicted with facial keloids, though he doesn't have those in the movie.

2. Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964) -- At this point, you will notice the jarring change in tone.  The first film was gravely serious.  The second film in the series, Gigantis the Fire Monster/Godzilla Raids Again also intended to be serious, but, because its production was rushed, much of the dramatic heft was lost.  Then came 1962's King Kong Vs. Godzilla, which was in bright color and played for laughs.  Ever since that one, the movies have, with a few exceptions, taken on a generally light tone.  The fourth movie was Godzilla vs. the Thing/Godzilla vs. Mothra/Mothra Against Godzilla (1964).  That movie was more serious than the others, but still less sober in tone than the first one. I'll discuss it more below.  Ghidrah directly alludes to the ending of that one.  It is also what is known in the vernacular of comic books as a "crossover," because it brings Godzilla into contact with two monsters who also had their own stand-alone features -- Rodan (1957) and Mothra (1961) -- all from the same company that owns Godzilla, Toho Co., Ltd.  This movie is notable for introducing Godzilla's archenemy -- the three-headed golden space dragon King Ghidorah ("Ghidorah" sounds more like it is two syllables than one -- "GEE-d'ruh") -- which is one of my favorite members of the Big G's rogue's gallery.  King Ghidorah is the Joker to Godzilla's Batman.  This is one of the best movies in the series, but I place this entry on my list for another reason -- it creates a major change in the narrative arc.  Godzilla starts out in this movie as a menace to mankind, but in every installment from 1965 to 1975, Godzilla is generally on the side of the humans against bigger threats.  The reason is vague, but it will be easier to understand if you watch this movie.

This movie will probably make more sense to you if you watch both Mothra (1961) and Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964) before this one, as it alludes to events from vs. the Thing, but I don't think watching those prior to this one is mandatory.  For reasons I will address, I don't like Godzilla vs. the Thing all that much. 

A truly epic battle
Note that King Ghidorah is taller than Godzilla. Except for the case of one movie (mentioned below), that rule always applies.

3. Godzilla 1985 (actually 1984) -- Here's the story behind this one.  As the movies went on in the 1960s and 1970s, they became increasingly kid-friendly and benign.  After 1975, the producer of all the G movies -- Tomoyuki Tanaka -- decided that he regretted the direction in which the series went.  Therefore, long before there was Batman Begins, Tanaka decided to do what is now known as a "reboot."  The series starts all over again at this point.  The characters remember the events of the very first movie from 1954, but it is as if none of the entries from 1955 to 1975 took place.  Godzilla is once again a menace to mankind.  It would be misleading, though, to say -- as many American writers have -- that here "Godzilla goes back to being a bad guy."  The truth is that neither the films' makers nor their characters ever thought of Godzilla as evil; they don't think in those terms.  Rather, their attitude is, "Godzilla is just going to do what he's going to do, and either you fight him or you don't."  The characters try their hardest to stop Godzilla's devastation, but they find it pointless to judge him as a bad guy or even as their enemy.  He just is

This movie also introduces something new to the Godzilla canon.  It explicitly establishes that Godzilla does not eat in any conventional sense. Rather, he absorbs nuclear radiation through his skin and stores it in his dorsal spikes. 

This movies is quite good, and, though far from being as somber as the original, this returns to seriousness in tone.  You wouldn't notice that seriousness, though, from the U.S. release.  Again, I must make note of that.  This movie was released in Japan in 1984 -- exactly thirty years subsequent to the original.  In 1985, Roger Corman's New World Pictures released the movie in the USA.  In a rather inspired move, New World hired Raymond Burr to reprise his role as the reporter Mr. Martin -- now, conspicuously, with his first name going unmentioned.  Burr is great, but, unfortunately, he plays his scenes alongside a really irritating, smarmy major who delivers such wisecracks as "Wonder Lizard is down for the count!"  The major is supposed to provide comic relief, but he's really superfluous at best.  Also, since this came out at the height of tensions between the Reagan administration and the Soviet Union, the U.S. release bowdlerized dialog in some scenes (the subtitles don't actually match what is said in Russian!) and it added new scenes to make the Soviet characters more belligerent and less sympathetic. 

The U.S. release cut the movie to be shorter, allegedly to help its pacing.  However, in the process, some important explanatory scenes were excised.  In the beginning, a sea louse -- an ocean parasite -- that is three feet long jumps out and attacks a man. Later, a scientist tells that man that the giant sea louse was a parasite that fell off of Godzilla.  The scientist mentions that the sea louse was that big because the nuclear radiation mutated the sea louse much as it did Godzilla.  That explanatory dialog was removed from the U.S. release, which leaves the giant sea-louse scene unexplained and completely baffling.  Since I saw the U.S. release first, I thought it was pretty funny that this weird, previously unknown creature attacks this man and, later, it's never explained; the man forgets about it as if the scene never happened. 

Finally, unlike the first entry in this series, this movie is loud, as it should be.  The U.S. release reduced the movie to monaural.  Recently, I watched the original Japanese version in stereo.  It was beautiful.  When you have this on stereo, it really is as if you are close to Godzilla as the devastation takes place.  From this entry forward, every Godzilla movie should be watched in stereo, with the volume pumped up to the max.

4. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) -- This is a game-changer for the series.  It is a direct sequel, starting off directly following the events of Godzilla 1985.  It sets the tone for most of the sequels to come.  From 1989 to 1995, the filmmakers do a good job of maintaining continuity.   There are recurring characters in several movies from 1989 to 1995, and, except for one minor casting change, these characters are always played by the same actors.  There is one character -- psychic(!) Miki Saegusa -- who appears in all six entries from 1989 to 1995.  Prior to 1985, continuity in the series was pretty sloppy -- as with the Sean Connery James Bond movies, the characters in the G movies from 1962 to 1975 exhibited no more than a vague recollection of what happened in the previous movie.  Unfortunately, the good continuity that existed from 1989 to 1995 dissolved after 1999.  When it comes to the Godzilla movies made between 1999 and 2004, every entry -- with one exception -- was a "reboot," in which the movie was taken as a continuation of only the first film, and in which all other previous entries were ignored.

Anyhow, this is quite a good movie.  Great detail and time is spent on the intricate miniatures used, and the pyrotechnics are superb. Sadly, the filmmakers got lazier in this area from 1993 to 1995. Also notable is the appearance of Biollante, one of Godzilla's most menacing foes.  The climactic showdown between Godzilla and Biollante is impressive and, in my mind, one of the most exciting Godzilla battles -- better than the one from the 2014 Godzilla movie.

There are many annoying, preachy speeches in this movie about the supposedly inherent badness and hubris of humans manipulating genes for selfish purposes.  Whenever I hear one of these speeches, I shrug and think, "What can ya do? It's a Godzilla movie."

So those are the four must-see Godzilla movies for the beginner, in the order I think they should be watched.  Now I will discuss some other noteworthy (not necessarily good) entries.


* Godzilla vs. the Thing/Godzilla Against Mothra (1964) -- This is considered one of the best entries in the series.  It is one of the most well-made.  It has some of the best acting.  The tone is mostly serious.  But I find it to be the least fun.  The "businessmen are evil" theme is even heavier-handed than usual.  And I must admit Mothra is one of the most boring -- possibly the most boring -- of Godzilla's opponents.  I love Godzilla; I don't love Mothra.  I really don't appreciate the indignity with which the filmmakers treat Godzilla near the end. 

* Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster/Great Duel in the South Seas/Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) -- This has a reputation for being one of the weakest movies of the series, but I don't know why.  The giant shrimp Ebirah makes for an interesting foe.  The scenes where Godzilla stomps on the communist agents' secret military operations are quite fun. 

* Godzilla's Revenge (1969) -- I am not being controversial when I say this is the single worst film in the entire series.  It is pandering to the child audience taken to a terrible extreme.  The movie's protagonist is a small latch-key boy named Ichiro, who is bullied.  None of the monster scenes are "real."  All the scenes pertaining to the monsters involve Ichiro dreaming that he is on Monster Island. There, Godzilla's son Minilla -- who looks like Barney the Singing Dinosaur -- shrinks down to human size to speak to Ichiro in the same voice as Barney the Singing Dinosaur.  Ichiro and Minilla then watch Godzilla battle some monsters but, unfortunately, all of these scenes are stock footage from previous movies!  The only new monster battles are those of Godzilla and Minilla against a new creature called Gabara.  Contrary to what many G fans say, though, Gabara is interesting-looking.  Ichiro then tries to incorporate what he learns from these battles into his own struggles against bullies and a couple of bumbling criminals.  The arc involving Ichiro and the two crooks seems to anticipate the Home Alone movies.  And this one undercuts its own anti-bullying message because, at the very end -- SPOILERS -- Ichiro does something really crummy to "earn" the bullies' respect.  And -- perversely!-- the audience is expected to approve of that.  This remains in my collection for three reasons only:  (1) I want my collection to be complete; (2) contrary to most G-fans, Gabara is pretty neat-looking, and, related (3) the battle between Godzilla and Gabara is decent.  

* Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster/Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) -- There is so much to say about this movie.  It was made during the psychedelic era, and it shows.  There are very odd sequences in this movie that have no bearing on anything, and have no explanation other than "this was the psychedelic era." In one scene, the young boyfriend gets high in the disco and starts hallucinating.  He thinks that all of the people around him have fish heads instead of human heads!  After that scene takes place, it is never mentioned, and it doesn't affect anything that happens to the characters.  The trippy hallucinogenic fish-head sequence wasn't pertinent to the story at all!

Recall that I said that with one other exception, the first Godzilla movie is the only entry in the series that can count as a horror movie.  This one is the other exception.  It is surprisingly gory.  Hedorah -- the smog monster -- is made out of a corrosive substance.  It gnaws away half of a scientist's face.  People disrespect Godzilla movies' special effects all the time, but makeup for the man's facial wound is gruesomely impressive.  The director, Yoshimitsu Banno, said that he made the movie gory because he really wanted the movie's environmentalist message to be that heavy-handed.  The series producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, was angered by the final product and yelled, "You ruined Godzilla!"  That is why Tanaka refrained from hiring Banno for directing any more G movies. Ah, but this was not the final interaction Banno had in the franchise.  Banno acquired licensing rights to make another Godzilla movie, and he ended up being one of the producers to the 2014 American Godzilla movie.  Consider that Banno's Revenge!

* Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster/Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla (1974) -- This is the first appearance of Mecha-Godzilla.  The battles between Godzilla and Mecha-Godzilla are quite lavish.  But I'm worried that if a beginner picks this as his first Godzilla movie, he might still find the scenes with the silver-clad space apes to be too silly and be turned off to the rest of the series.  Also, the other monster this movie introduces -- King Caesar -- I find pretty boring. 

* Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) -- This movie is good but, unfortunately, it has a lot going against it.  When a friend of mine who normally appreciates Godzilla movies said this movie was "crap," I was horrified.  But I can see the many reasons why this movie would turn someone off.

This movie involves time travel.  Three people -- Wilson from the USA, Grenchiko from Russia, and Emi Kano from Japan -- arrive from the twenty-third century.   They propose to the Japanese of 1992 that they use their time machine to travel back in time to eliminate Godzilla.  They therefore explain Godzilla's origin.  Godzilla was once a normally docile, plant-eating dinosaur called Godzillasaurus, who was approximately fifty feet tall.  Godzillasaurus survived long past the great Cretaceous extinction.  He occupied Lagos Island in the South Pacific in 1944, during the Second World War.   The atomic bomb tests off the coast of the Bikini Atoll mutated Godzilla and made him grow to 100 meters in height.  The Futurians propose that they take some twentieth-century Japanese along with them as they alter history.  Before Godzillasaurus is to be mutated by the bomb blast, they use a matter transporter to move Godzilla to where the nuclear radiation will not affect him.  Thus, they propose, the Godzillasaurus will not mutate into Godzilla. There will therefore be no Godzilla attacks on Japan -- Godzilla will be erased from history.

The characters succeed -- or do they? -- and return to 1992.  Bizarrely, the Japanese government officials greet these time-travelers and congratulate them on a job well done.  They remember Godzilla's existence in the original chronology and commend the Futurians for changing the past. Whaaaaaaa?  If Godzilla was erased from history and Godzilla didn't attack Japan in 1954 or 1984 or 1989, then the Japanese officials shouldn't know who Godzilla is and they would have no memory of agreeing to the time-travel project.  That's silly!   This really obvious plot hole is one reason this movie can easily turn off a first-timer.

Another issue is the very obvious homage to Terminator 2.  There is an android in this movie called M-11 who is a blatant riff on the Terminator,  One scene in particular is obviously supposed to copy a famous scene from Terminator 2, but its rendering is far inferior.

Most controversial are the scenes that take place in 1944, which portray U.S. military personnel.  They are not portrayed as evil or deliberately goofy.  However, the Gaijin actors cast for these roles do quite a poor job, and I can see why Americans would be offended by how unsympathetically these U.S. military officers are treated when the Godzillasaurus stomps them to death.  The viewer is not expected to root for that to happen -- you're not supposed to cheer for that -- but the viewer isn't expected to mourn that either.  I therefore understand why the depiction of U.S. military personnel in this movie makes viewers cringe.

I also have to make a note about the differences between the original Japanese release an the U.S. release.  This movie was in stereo.  The first time I saw it, I rented it from a Japanese store. Even though the movie was entirely in Japanese and had no subtitles, I cranked up the volume all the way and watched in stereo. IT. WAS. GLORIOUS.  When this movie was finally released in the USA, I was disappointed to find the U.S. release was monaural.  The excitement of hearing all those big explosions in three dimensions, was gone from the U.S. release.  As is always the case of Godzilla movies made from 1985 to 1995, the meticulously-performed pyrotechnics of this film are a treat  -- and an enormous part of the treat is hearing those blasts in stereo.  Therefore, I have this important message: if you do watch this movie, watch the Japanese version in stereo and absolutely avoid the monaural U.S. release.

Now, since I explained some of the movie's biggest issues (there are still other issues, such as the bizarre, out-of-place jingoism), I will explain what goes right with this movie.  The pivotal scene between Shindo -- the Japanese industrialist character-- and Godzilla, is haunting and moving.  Moreover, the third act begins with a really exciting twist.  King Ghidorah does something that no longtime Godzilla fan ever expected King Ghidorah to do.

This movie also features two of the most exciting Godzilla battles in history.  The final battle in this installment is better than the one from the 2014 Godzilla movie.

* Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah:  Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) -- Many fans consider this one of the best movies in the series, but I find it overrated.  It is from the third wave of Godzilla movies.  This is the phase in which all the movies, except for one, are reboots in which all the previous movies except the first movie are forgotten.   This entry is unusual in that it states explicitly that Godzilla and the other monsters are supernatural entities. Godzilla is the amalgamation of all the spirits of people Japan has killed in war; they have combined and attack Japan to punish Japan for its sins.  This time around, the three monsters King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Baragon are spirits assigned with the task of defending Japan from outside threats -- in this case, Godzilla.  This is the first time in which, from inception, King Ghidorah is an unmitigated defender of Japan; it is the first time that, on his own free will, King Ghidorah fights to save Japan from Godzilla.  Because King Ghidorah is the protagonist and Godzilla is the antagonist, the filmmakers decided to make Godzilla more menacing than King Ghidorah.  The end result is that Godzilla is substantially taller than King Ghidorah.  That is just . . . wrong.  It's wrong. Perverse.  -_-  Come on, people!  King Ghidorah is always taller than Godzilla.  You know that!  This is another movie where I don't appreciate how Godzilla is treated at the end. 

Next I will go over two entries that you should save until the end, after you have become an expert both on Godzilla movies and on Toho monster movies in which Godzilla doe not appear.


* Destroy All Monsters (1968)

* Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

For their own reasons, both of these movies are disappointing.  But they also have good points, and the good points are the reason why you should wait until you become an expert on Godzilla movies and other Toho giant-monster movies before watching them. The reason is that they gather together many monsters from previous Godzilla movies and even allude to other Toho monster movies in which Godzilla did not even show up.  Unless you're an expert on these other movies, these references and in-jokes will go over your head.

Also, if you watch Destroy All Monsters as your first Godzilla movie, it is easy for this movie to spoil a viewer.  If you watch this as your first Godzilla movie, you probably won't be impressed that it features 11 monsters (although only seven participate in battle).  To a seasoned Godzilla movie viewer, that is quite a feat, because it is unusual for more than four monster suits to appear in a Godzilla movie if no stock footage is used.  When Toho's crew made Destroy All Monsters, they planned for it to be the final G movie, and that's why they thought it would be fun to throw in as many of the classic Toho creatures as possible.  This involved monsters from non-Godzilla movies meeting Godzilla for the first time.  Hence the appearances of Manda from Gohten-Go!/Atragon, Gorosaurus from King Kong Escapes, Baragon from Frankenstein Conquers the World, and Varan from Varan the Unbelievable

The climactic battle pits Godzilla and six other monsters against King Ghidorah.  That many monsters appearing in a single Godzilla battle was unprecedented.  That is what makes it unforgettable.  That King Ghidorah has to take on seven monsters at once, though, causes disappointment.  Previous movies established that Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra are sufficient to defeat King Ghidorah, and therefore you know he is outmatched when he faces those same three in addition to four other monsters.  Therefore, the good guys in the battle come across as bullies.  :-(

A similar principle is at work in Godzilla: Final Wars.  This is another monster mash that wrangles many of the classic Toho monsters together into a single movie, and even alludes to past sci-fi Toho movies such as Gorath.  It's a shame that those fun allusions fly over the heads of first-time fans.  And this movie doesn't make the mistake of  having many heroic monsters gang up on one villain.  Instead, the two good guys -- Godzilla and Mothra -- are outnumbered.  Godzilla, standing alone, battles ten other monsters.  Unfortunately, the monster battles aren't given priority.  Instead, most of the movie is wasted on the "mutant human" characters, who have ridiculously long fight sequences that are highly derivative of The MatrixThere are two sequences in particular that are shot-for-shot re-doings of scenes from The Matrix.  For shame!  Godzilla is better than The Matrix, so Godzilla shouldn't have to resort to ripping off from The Matrix.  These Matrix-influenced fight scenes between humans/mutants go on forever, whereas the monster battles are ridiculously short.  Also, although the character of Captain James Gordon is pretty amusing and humorous,  the actor who portrays him -- notorious kickboxer Don Frye -- is overall poor in his performance, and his one-liners aren't enough to save the movie.  Worse, the human-sized alien villain, who should be really menacing, comes across as too undignified to take seriously as a villain -- he is decidedly whiny and petulant.  That is played for laughs, which undercuts the villain's presence.

Anyhow, those are my tips.  ^_^