Horror films are poignant, cultural commentaries, reflecting our fears back at us. Yes, you may want to sit back, turn on a scary movie, turn off your brain, and just watch giant mutated animals fight each other, but you can’t ignore what they’re saying about their cultural contexts. Take Ishirō Honda’s 1954 classic, Godzilla. At face value, it is a silly movie about a giant lizard stomping on Tokyo while crowds point and scream, “Gojira!” However, it’s more than just an old monster movie — it is a cutting reaction to the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a condemnation of nuclear power. Godzilla is literally awoken by underwater hydrogen bomb testing. But even more, Godzilla’s destruction is reminiscent of these bombings. As he crushes buildings and demolishes cities with his nuclear breath, images of devastated cities are conjured up. Characters in the 1954 film even reference the bombings when discussing their fears of the giant lizard. While these films are weird and wacky, they also serve as a reminder of the atrocities Japan has suffered at the hands of Western society.
The puppetry is ridiculous and writing can be laughable, but there’s no doubting Godzilla’s influence on the monster movie genre. These five films are the best Godzilla movies Criterion has to offer, from their message to outright monster-fighting hilarity.
Godzilla (1954) dir. Ishirō Honda
Nothing can beat the original Godzilla. Hydrogen bomb testing awakens an ancient beast from his aquatic slumber. He begins to destroy Tokyo and the government rushes to find a solution. The only way to defeat the monster is to use the “Oxygen Destroyer” created by Dr. Daisuke Serizawa. However, Serizawa can’t live with himself after causing such destruction and sacrifices himself to stop the monster.
While many of the following films are silly, this first installment is much bleaker. It doesn’t shy away from more graphic images of those injured by Godzilla, and talks explicitly about the history of the hydrogen bombs. His destruction isn’t seen as funny; it is devastating and traumatizing. The film is Japan coping with trauma by disguising it as a monster movie.
Mothra vs Godzilla (1964) dir. Ishirō Honda
Mothra vs Godzilla introduces my favorite opponent, Mothra. The film begins with a mysterious giant egg spotted in the ocean. As it washes up on shore, it becomes the center of the country’s attention. Scientists want to study it, citizens want to touch it, and businessmen want to buy it. After a rather generous offer, the egg is purchased and put on display. However, these are Mothra’s eggs, and must be protected. Once Godzilla arrives and Mothra is the only hope, it’s a race to save the eggs and hatch them before it’s too late.
Mothra is Godzilla’s best opponent for two reasons. First, she is one of the only female monsters in the Godzilla canon. Gender isn’t relevant for giant monsters, but since a gender is constantly assigned to them, might as well get excited for the one female character. Second, she is always recruited to help fight against Godzilla, or at least talk reason into him. She is the only monster who is partners with humans instead of trying to destroy them.
Destroy All Monsters (1968) dir. Ishirō Honda
Somehow Japan has gathered Godzilla and most of his enemies onto one island where they live in apparent harmony. However, aliens arrive on Earth and release these creatures from the island, sending them to cause destruction around the world. Then, the dreaded King Ghidorah appears and the monsters reunite to defeat him.
This movie is high on my list solely for its ending. There’s a lack of plot and what plot there is moves at a snail’s pace, which is surprising due to the alien invasion. Once all of the monsters start attacking Ghidorah, it’s worth it.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) dir. Ishirō Honda
This film is the introduction to Godzilla’s nemesis, Ghidorah, a golden three-headed dragon from space. He destroyed the civilization on Venus and now he has come to Earth to do the same. To have any chance at defeating him, Godzilla must partner with Mothra and Rodan to fight the alien beast. Meanwhile, a citizen of Venus takes over a human’s body to warn the humans of the imminent destruction. On top of that are assassination attempts towards a princess, a struggling journalist, and a bodyguard cop. Insane? Yes. Fun? Of course.
In Ghidorah, Mothra makes another appearance, this time acting as the voice of reason to a childish Godzilla and Rodan. It is absolutely ridiculous to watch a moth talk to a giant lizard and giant bird creature and try to convince them to fight a three-headed dragon from space. But this ridiculousness is what makes the film so great. Plus, we get to see Godzilla behave like a petulant child and kick rocks at his enemies. The biggest issue with this film is the middle portion where Honda attempts human character development in a film about a giant alien dragon. Needless to say, we don’t need that exposition.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) dir. Jun Fukuda
What’s better than one giant radioactive lizard? Two of them, but one is actually a robot version built by aliens who want to take over Earth. This group of aliens has been watching Godzilla and building a replica of him to conquer Earth. However, Godzilla has some help from King Caesar, an ancient deity awoken to protect humanity.
While brief, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla discusses issues with Japanese colonialism, particularly on the island of Okinawa. The Japanese took over the island in the late-19th century and attempted to eradicate their culture. This film reflects this history by including the Azumi tribe. A relic is stolen from them by archaeologists, which is said to help protect their village. Only when it is returned can they awaken King Caesar who can help save Japan. The tribe’s leader is also portrayed using slapstick, exaggerating his movements and covering him in stereotypical old man makeup. He is immediately established as Other from the rest of the Japanese character. In a film about fighting a robot monster, there is cultural commentary woven throughout addressing Japan’s troubled past.