Giant monster movies existed before Godzilla found international success on its release in 1954. King Kong is the obvious example. There was even an atomic monster movie made two years previously in Hollywood, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. The success of this film in particular, which featured stunning effects work from a young Ray Harryhausen, on top of a very successful re-release of King Kong in theatres, was reportedly part of the inspiration behind Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka starting work on Godzilla.
However, although The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is fondly remembered among monster movie and Harryhausen fans, it doesn’t even come close to the global phenomenon that is Godzilla. The creature has featured in 35 films and more entries to the franchise are still being made, including Hollywood productions, following the 2014 Hollywood reboot. The character has had its own animated TV series and his name is widely known across the globe. Godzilla also kick-started the ‘kaiju’ genre in Japan, which has remained prevalent in the country for over half a century (give or take a few quiet periods when the films briefly fell out of favour).
Given how successful the franchise has been in its home country as well as in the US to a lesser extent, it’s always frustrated me how poorly served it has been in the UK. The first film has always been readily available, as has the US co-production, King Kong vs Godzilla, but other than the US films, VHS releases of a few of the early ones and one or two of the modern Japanese entries, such as Shin Godzilla, us Brits have never easily been able to get our hands on the full series of Japanese Godzilla films. Glory be to Criterion then, who are finally treating the UK to a gloriously presented, epic Blu-ray boxset of the entire Showa era of Godzilla films, taking us from the 1954 original to 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla. I’ve long wanted to trawl through the series, only having seen the first and fourth entries, so I took up the challenge of reviewing the 15-film collection. My brief reviews of each of the films follow:
Godzilla (1954) was where it all started and saw the titular monster appear from its deep underwater lair after being disturbed by nearby H-bomb testing. As it wreaks havoc across the coast of Japan, scientists desperately try to figure out a way of stopping it. Dr. Kyohei Yamane (the great Takashi Shimura, who appeared in a huge number of Akira Kurosawa’s films among other greats) wants to keep it alive due to its scientific value and Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), meanwhile, must decide whether he should use his devastating secret new weapon to kill Godzilla, running the risk of it being used for less honourable methods in the future.
The first film is quite a sombre, bleak experience which uses imagery reminiscent of the then quite recent atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII, as well as the firebombing of Tokyo. This, added to the H-bomb causes of Godzilla’s awakening, help shape a powerful anti-nuclear subtext.
It also features some groundbreaking effects work. Western audiences may scoff at the ‘man-in-a-suit’ monster, but the scenes of destruction are spectacular and still frightening today and nothing had been seen at that level or quality at the time. The sense of Godzilla’s scale is very effectively achieved for instance and some of the superimposition and combining of effects elements are very well done for the era. With a powerful score by the great Akira Ifukube and decent photography by Masao Tamai, it’s a finely crafted film all round.
The human drama running alongside the destruction isn’t always particularly gripping, but a romantic subplot nicely reflects one the film’s core themes of tension between duty and personal feelings. The human aspect that works most effectively in this first film though is how it captures the fear of the general public against Godzilla. Watching people fleeing the city on screen must have been frighteningly close to what many of the Japanese audience members at the time will have experienced in reality not that long ago.
So, a great start to the series. My write-ups for the following titles will be much shorter, I promise…
Godzilla Raids Again (1955) sees another Godzilla appear off the coast of Japan, along with an Anguirus. A group of brave pilots are key to the effort to stop them.
This doesn’t have the extra political and moral layers of the first film, feeling very much like a cash-in where the action and effects are amped up but less attention is paid to the substance. However, I still enjoyed the film quite a lot. The monster brawls and destruction are well executed and fairly plentiful. The aerial additions to these were fun too. The technical aspects are still solid and once again I enjoyed the score, even though it wasn’t from Godzilla’s Ifukube. Yes, the human drama is much more slight and fluffy but it still has time for a poignant finale.
King Kong vs Godzilla (1962 – Japanese version, 63 – US version) brought the two hugely successful movie monsters together for an epic smackdown. When both creatures appear at the same time, the military and a group of PR guys from a pharmaceutical company try to bring them together so they can kill each other.
This brought the series into the campier territory I was expecting from the franchise. Gone is the serious nature of the first film, replaced by a lot of daft comedy breaking up the kaiju fan-service. I must admit I found it funny in places though and, as silly as much of it was, King Kong vs Godzilla proved very enjoyable. The ad-executive characters add a touch of light satire to proceedings too (“King Kong belongs to his sponsor!”), though this is not a particularly intelligent film. The carnage is also as exciting as always, though I found some of the vehicular models a little too obviously miniature this time around.
Mothra vs Godzilla (1964) sees Mothra’s egg wash up on Japanese shores. An executive from ‘Happy Enterprises’ buys it from the fishermen who found it, with plans to open a theme park centred around the egg and later the creature that hatches from it. Two miniature twins from Infant Island (where Mothra lives) come to ask for the egg back, but the executives refuse. When Godzilla is awoken though, a group of journalists and scientists try to beg Mothra help stop the monster and protect her egg.
This is a great all-rounder, with a clear anti-greed and anti-nuclear message nestling comfortably beside wackier elements. Bursting with colour and showing off a higher budget after the continued box office success of the series, Mothra vs Godzilla is a nice-looking film too. As ever, the carnage is well executed in the epic final third of the film, after a fairly action-free first half, and Ifukube’s music is better than ever, with a couple of beautiful and catchy Mothra themes.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) has a pretty bonkers setup, even by Godzilla standards. A princess from a small Himalayan country narrowly escapes being assassinated, jumping from her plane just before it explodes. After this event, she becomes possessed by the spirit of a Venusian and acts like a prophet of doom, warning the people of Japan that they must change their ways and team up with their enemies to save the world. And save it they must, as also coming down from Venus is a meteorite containing King Ghidorah, a fierce three-headed monster. This powerful foe proves too much even for Godzilla and Rodan who wake from their slumber and begin fighting each other. The humans ask Mothra to convince the monsters to team up so the three of them can take down Ghidorah.
This is an enjoyably bonkers entry to the series that has less citywide destruction but more monster-on-monster action. The final showdown is particularly good. I like Ghidorah – his heads move rather too wildly to make any practical sense, but I love the effect of his fire/electricity bolts. The message about working together despite differences is a fair one, though it’s not particularly deep.
Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) takes a good chunk of the action out of this world, with a team of astronauts heading on a mission to the newly discovered Planet X. They meet an alien race there called the Xians, who are being harassed by King Ghidorah. The Xians seem friendly, if rather mysterious, and ask if Earth could let them ‘borrow’ Godzilla and Rodan to fight off Ghidorah, in exchange for a cure for cancer. The humans agree, but soon find out the Xians had more devious plans for the monsters.
The space setting helps keep things fresh here and the plot is diverting enough too. The film takes itself fairly seriously but is still fun in a campy way with some particularly daft plot twists and devices. I quite liked some of the sci-fi production design too, though much of it (the costumes in particular) is very of its time. The monsters take a little bit of a side seat, but that is often the case in the series and actually helps the plots from getting stale and repetitive.
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) sees a young man, Ryota (Tôru Watanabe), on a desperate search for his brother who has gone missing. He needs a boat and, with the help of a couple of teenagers he meets, ends up hijacking one that was already housing a thief and his loot. As they search the open seas, they are attacked by the sea monster Ebirah and end up shipwrecked on a mysterious island. There they find the evil Red Bamboo organisation, who are running a secret heavy water factory, partly run by slaves kidnapped from Infant Island. Aided by a tough but attractive young slave woman called Daiyo (Kumi Mizuno), the teens try to put a stop to Red Bamboo and find their way home. They might need Godzilla’s help along the way though. The monster is sleeping in a cave on the island.
Again, the monsters don’t take centre stage here, though there’s still enough creature face-offs on screen to keep kaiju fans happy. I particularly liked Ebirah, who is fairly frightening when he appears and puts up a good fight, though he and Godzilla spend a little too much time batting rocks between themselves before actually laying into one another.
The tone is much lighter here, with a more overtly comic approach in the interactions between the goofy teenage heroes. It just about worked for me, providing plenty of daft fun and it’s rarely dull, though the storytelling is pretty random and lazily written.
Son of Godzilla (1967) sees a group of scientists experimenting with weather control on a tropical island. Before they begin they are terrorised by giant insects dubbed Kamakaras by the journalist who joins the team. When they first try their weather control device, however, they trigger a terrible storm and brutal heatwave that grows the Kamakaras into full-on kaiju size. These creatures then uncover and smash up a giant egg that was lying under a mound of earth. It turns out the egg contains the titular son of Godzilla, named Minilla, who is attacked by the Kamakaras before Godzilla comes to rescue him. Whilst the humans try to continue their experiments and stave off attacks from monsters, including a giant spider called Kumonga, Godzilla tries to teach his son how to be an effective kaiju.
This is quite a hit and miss affair. I liked the Kamakaras and actually found Kumonga pretty creepy (I hate spiders) so the big monster action is decent. However, Minilla looks pretty dodgy and the way he and Godzilla are over-humanised makes for some ridiculous sequences of father-son bonding. There are a couple of effective moments between the monsters though, most notably a surprisingly poignant shot of them together at the end. So it’s not a bad entry to the series overall.
Destroy All Monsters (1968) begins by showing us how all of Earth’s monsters have now been contained on Monsterland (later called Monster Island in subsequent films) so the planet seems safe. However, communications with the island are suddenly cut off and soon after the monsters appear in major cities across the globe, wreaking havoc as only they do best. It turns out they are being controlled (along with some chief scientists) by a race of female aliens called the Kilaaks. So a group of astronauts aboard the lunar spacecraft Moonlight SY-3 are tasked with putting a stop to this new enemy so that order can be restored.
This has a reputation for being one of the best (or at least most enjoyable) of the series and it didn’t disappoint. It takes itself more seriously than I imagined, but this doesn’t affect the fun factor. It’s one of the most action-packed entries to the series with lots of monsters to make use of and actually a great deal of human-scale combat with a number of gunfights breaking up the brawls between Godzilla and friends. This gives the film balance and keeps it moving along. The effects and production design are decent for the time too, particularly the Moonlight SY-3 spaceship, which looks pretty cool. It’s certainly one of the strongest in the series, after the first film.
All Monsters Attack (1969) focuses on a young boy named Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki), who is getting bullied and often finds himself alone whilst his parents are out at work in the evenings. He retreats into a fantasy world where he imagines he’s befriended Minilla, who is also having bully problems in the form of a new monster, Gabara (also the name of Ichiro’s bully). Minilla has been told by his dad that he must learn to fight his own battles, so does his best to knock Gabara down a notch. Ichiro vows to do the same but must ‘man-up’ to an even greater degree after he gets kidnapped by a pair of thieves who are hiding out nearby.
Coming after what many consider is one of the best of the series, All Monsters Attack has a reputation as being one of the worst, and it’s not difficult to see why. Having the ever-naff-looking Minilla as a lead character alongside a child actor was never going to go well and their scenes together are pretty cringeworthy, not helped by an ‘after school special’ anti-bullying storyline. However, most unforgivable in this film is how much recycled footage there is. Other than a couple of scenes with Minilla and Gabara, all the monster mayhem here is just made up of clips from previous films, particularly Son of Godzilla for obvious reasons.
Despite its problems and lazy construction though, I didn’t mind All Monsters Attack. The Earth-bound scenes with Ichiro aren’t without moments of charm and the film is short and snappy. It’s easily the weakest so far though.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) sees a hideous sea monster, Hedorah, form from pollution in the water. It attacks Dr. Toru Yano (Akira Yamauchi) and his young son Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase), badly scarring the former. The Doctor works to try and find out what the creature is and how to stop it as it grows into a huge amphibious monster that feeds off various forms of pollution. Godzilla shows up to help fight it and initially fends it off, but Hedorah rapidly evolves and comes back.
Perhaps to bring the series back on track after the ropey child-friendly All Monsters Attack, Godzilla vs. Hedorah goes quite far the other way, offering the darkest film in the set, visually as well as figuratively. There are a lot of smog-filled scenes, giving it a murky look, and Hedorah is a disgusting sludge-like creature, feeding off smokestacks and rubbish dumped in the sea. The film is actually quite scary at times too, aided by the dark look and oppressive atmosphere. Gone is the goofy humour and camp-value of many of the previous episodes, though it’s got a few groovy psychedelic sequences that have a cheesy charm. These trippy scenes, as well as a bit of animation, mixed with the pretty bleak and grimy content give the film a very unusual style.
Its environmental message is very heavy-handed, but pretty powerful. Despite this and the dark atmosphere, the film remains curiously exciting and visually striking. It’s certainly a wild card in the set and won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s one of my favourites.
Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) sees a seemingly well-meaning organisation plan to open a theme park called Children’s Island that promotes world peace. However, wannabe manga artist Genko (Hiroshi Ishikawa) grows suspicious of the owners, who hire him for some design work. When he meets the sister and friend of another employee who went missing, his suspicions grow and the trio try to get to the bottom of the organisation’s true intentions. Indeed they’re up to no good. In fact, they’re aliens whose plan for peace is to wipe humans off the face of the Earth! They plan to do this by controlling King Ghidora and a new monster named Gigan using a special mind control device hidden in a giant replica of Godzilla in the theme park. Godzilla isn’t happy about this of course, so comes to Earth’s rescue once again, alongside his old friend Anguirus.
This gets off to a bit of a slow start with most of the first half taken up with Genko and friends trying to solve the film’s mystery, which is too daft to raise much interest.
After the radical departure of Hedorah, this felt a bit uninspired too, though it’s not without its charms. The monster action is pretty good for instance. It even has a little blood here and there and it genuinely seems like Godzilla has had it at one point during the suitably dramatic, if a little drawn out, finale. The film looks good too, with nice use of lighting in the night scenes. It feels a tad slow and unimaginative overall though, so it’s not one of the better films in the set.
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) seas the undersea nation of Seatopia angered by Earth’s nuclear tests. So they send a giant monster called Megalon, joined by Gigan later on, to punish the humans. Goro (Katsuhiko Sasaki), Jinkawa (Yutaka Hayashi) and young Rokuro (Hiroyuki Kawase) cross paths with the bad guys quite early on and do what they can to stop them. They have been working on a humanoid robot called Jet Jaguar who the Seatopians have their eye on but it becomes sentient and grows kaiju-sized to stop the evil creatures, aided later by the big G himself.
A lot of these films have been quite silly, but this takes the biscuit. I don’t mind bonkers premises about aliens and monsters and such, but this often throws plausibility out the window. Most notable is the moment when Jet Jaguar suddenly grows dramatically in size and we’re told he did it purely through “determination”! There are several contrivances in the story too, caused by lazy writing. The direction and editing are also a bit weak compared to most of the films here.
However, the pyrotechnics are particularly good so the set pieces aren’t bad, though they’re a bit of a noisy mess at times. Also, to be honest, it’s that ridiculous it’s never dull and is amusing in a trashy ‘so bad it’s good’ way.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) once again sees aliens plan to take over the planet. This time they build a giant robot version of Godzilla (the titular Mechagodzilla of course) to help them achieve this. When the real Godzilla fails to stop his mechanical counterpart, a plucky band of human heroes try to summon the legendary kaiju King Caesar from his slumber to take up the fight.
Just when I was worried the franchise was running out of steam towards the end of the set, along comes one of the best entries. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla might not have the most original premise but it’s an altogether classier affair than a lot of the sequels, taking itself seriously without falling flat on its face. That’s not to say it’s a sombre affair though, there are still some crazy twists and plenty of thrills to keep you engaged. There’s a bit of a James Bond vibe to the film in fact, with the bad guys’ futuristic underground base containing a slow death-by-heat chamber for instance. There’s a nicely varied range of action too, with some fist and gunfights breaking up the kaiju mayhem. All-in-all it’s a really solid, well put-together and entertaining entry to the series.
Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) leads on shortly after the end of the previous film, with a submarine looking for the remains of Mechagodzilla. Under the water, however, they find Titanosaurus. This is being controlled by, you guessed it, some evil aliens who want to make Earth their own as their planet is dying. On top of this, they’re also constructing another new and improved Mechagodzilla. Both the kaiju control device and Mechagodzilla Mk 2 have been partly designed and worked on by Dr Mafune (Akihiko Hirate), a human scientist who was previously shunned by the establishment and sees this as revenge. His daughter, Katsura (Tomoko Ai), works with him too, but begins to have doubts about what they’re doing. Can biologist Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki), who falls for Katsura, figure out her involvement and talk her around in time?
Oh and Godzilla turns up to fight the new monsters of course.
Seeing Honda back in the director’s chair after a 4-film gap, Terror of Mechagodzilla is pretty well put-together and another fairly serious entry. There isn’t a huge amount of kaiju action in the first half, but there’s enough going on to hold your interest. The story throws quite a few wild curveballs at you too, making for a fairly batty, if a little overstuffed, Godzilla movie. Reaching an enjoyably spectacular second half with a few nice touches to set it apart, along with some decent special effects and a fairly interesting romantic subplot, the set ends on a reasonably high note.
Overall then, the films perhaps never reach 5-star status, but there’s something going for even the weaker entries. I was worried I’d get fed up of churning through all 15 in one month but I actually really enjoyed myself. The ‘man-in-a-suit’ effects can seem laughable at first, but once you accept ‘realism’ is not in any of the filmmakers’ minds you can sit back and enjoy the ride.
Now, how about the next eras, Criterion!
Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954–1975 is out on 25th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfers are all decent, if nothing to shout home about. I did notice an annoyingly large number of occasions where there were little line flashes at the bottom of the screen when cutting between shots though. Looking further into this issue, they appear to be splice marks where two shots have been put together in the edit. Criterion must have decided to keep them as they were on the print rather than crop the edges of the screen, affecting the amount of information in shot or altering the aspect ratio. So, although the issue is a little annoying when you spot it, I can appreciate why Criterion took the decision to leave them in. The other option would be to manually paint them all out, but that would be too much work. In fact, the restorations themselves are from previous releases as doing a full new Criterion polish on all 15 titles would have cost a small fortune. Nevertheless, what we have in the set still looks very good. Other than the splice issue (which only occurs now and again on around half the films), there is little damage to the pictures and the colours come through nicely.
INCLUDES 15 FILMS:
GODZILLA™ (DIR. ISHIRO HONDA 1954)
GODZILLA™ RAIDS AGAIN (dir. MOTOYOSHI ODA 1955)
KING KONG vs. GODZILLA™ (dirs. ISHIRO HONDA, THOMAS MONTGOMERY 1963)
MOTHRA™ vs. GODZILLA™ (dir. ISHIRO HONDA 1964)
GHIDORAH™, the THREE-HEADED MONSTER (dir. ISHIRO HONDA 1964)
INVASION of ASTRO-MONSTER (dir. ISHIRO HONDA 1965)
EBIRAH™, HORROR of the DEEP (dir. JUN FUKUDA 1966)
SON of GODZILLA™ (dir. JUN FUKUDA 1967)
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (dir. ISHIRO HONDA 1968)
ALL MONSTERS ATTACK (dir. ISHIRO HONDA 1969)
GODZILLA™ vs. HEDORAH™ (dir. YOSHIMITSU BANNO 1971)
GODZILLA™ vs. GIGAN™ (dir. JUN FUKUDA 1972)
GODZILLA™ vs. MEGALON™ (dir. JUN FUKUDA 1973)
GODZILLA™ vs. MECHAGODZILLA™ (dir. JUN FUKUDA 1974)
TERROR of MECHAGODZILLA™ (dir. ISHIRO HONDA 1975)
There are plenty of special features included too:
– High-definition digital transfers of all fifteen Godzilla films made between 1954 and 1975, released together for the first time, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
– High-definition digital transfers of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the 1956 U.S.-release version of Godzilla; and the 1962 Japanese-release version of King Kong vs. Godzilla, presented with its original 4.0 surround soundtrack.
– Audio commentaries from 2011 on Godzilla and Godzilla, King of the Monsters featuring film historian David Kalat
– International English-language dub tracks for Invasion of Astro-Monster, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, and Terror of Mechagodzilla
– Directors Guild of Japan interview with director Ishiro Honda, conducted by director Yoshimitsu Banno in 1990
– Featurette detailing Godzilla’s photographic effects
– Toho Unused Special Effects Complete Collection, a 1986 documentary featuring archival making-of footage; scenes deleted from films including Destroy All Monsters, King Kong vs. Godzilla, and Mothra vs. Godzilla; and interviews with Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, special-effects director Teruyoshi Nakano, and others
– New interview with filmmaker Alex Cox about his admiration for the Showa-era Godzilla films
– New and archival interviews with cast and crew members, including actors Bin Furuya, Tsugutoshi Komada, Haruo Nakajima, and Akira Takarada; composer Akira Ifukube; and effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai
– Interview with critic Tadao Sato from 2011
– Illustrated audio essay from 2011 about the real-life tragedy that inspired Godzilla
– New English subtitle translations
– PLUS: A lavishly illustrated deluxe hardcover book featuring an essay by cinema historian Steve Ryfle, notes on the films by cinema historian Ed Godziszewski, and new illustrations by Arthur Adams, Sophie Campbell, Becky Cloonan, Jorge Coelho, Geof Darrow, Simon Gane, Robert Goodin, Benjamin Marra, Monarobot, Takashi Okazaki, Angela Rizza, Yuko Shimizu, Bill Sienkiewicz, Katsuya Terada, Ronald Wimberly, and Chris Wisnia
David Kalat’s two commentaries are fantastic. His knowledge and passion for the films is immense and he rattles through the tracks with no downtime, helping you better appreciate the qualities of the Godzilla films beyond mere trashy entertainment. His two tracks are truly among the best I’ve heard and, believe me, I’ve heard a lot!
Most of the rest of the features are made up of a large collection of interviews. All of these are of value, though I particularly appreciated the Akira Ifukube interview as it’s quite lengthy and he has interesting things to say about film music in general as well as telling engaging stories about his career. The Ishirô Honda interview is also long so goes into quite a lot of detail about his life, which makes for a fascinating watch.
The ‘Toho Unused Special Effects Complete Collection’ featurette is good fun too, providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the wonderful effects work that went into the film. Likewise, the shorter but equally as fascinating piece on the first film’s photographic effects really helps you appreciate how groundbreaking it was. There are far more effects shots than you realise, which is a testament to how well much of it still holds up.
It’s a wonderful set overall and looks the part too, with some striking design work (though I wasn’t sent the full boxed copy to look through). I will note that some previous DVD releases of the films contain features that haven’t been ported over here, largely commentaries, so completists may want to hang on to older copies, but there’s plenty here to get excited about so I’d certainly still upgrade if you can afford it. It should be on every Godzilla fan’s Christmas list!