Although many people dismiss the "Daikaiju," or "Giant Monster," movies made in Japan as cheaply-made, shoddy productions suitable only for children, a simple examination of the best that the genre has to offer quickly dispels this notion. Many of these films were elaborate, expensive productions that have left a lasting mark on our popular culture landscape. Here's a look at just a few (Japanese titles are given first, followed by English translations in parentheses):
1. "Gojira" ("Godzilla," 1954): This has to be the top film on any list of this type, as "Gojira," created as an allegory for the devastation Japan suffered under the atomic bomb, was the first, and best, picture in the genre. Directed by Ishiro Honda, and with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, this film was a dark nuclear nightmare about mankind unleashing forces it could never hope to control. A sombre and serious film, any viewer interested in this genre should seek out the original Japanese version of the movie, as the American release was heavily edited. Thankfully, that original cut is now widely available on DVD from Classic Media.
2. "Gojira no gyakushu" ("Godzilla's Counterattack"/"Gozilla Raids Again," 1955): Often dismissed by even the most ardent Godzilla fan, this is the film that suffered the most from American editing. Originally seen as an important follow-up to "Gojira," this is the story of a people forced to rebuild and go on after a horrendous tragedy. Just as the Japanese people had to pick up the pieces and move on after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so, too, do the characters in this film pick up the shattered pieces of their lives and move on after Godzilla's latest raid. Consequently, the focus is, for the first time, on the human characters and not on the monsters. Again, the film was virtually destroyed when reedited for American audiences, but the original version is now widely available on DVD. This is a deeply moving and intense picture.
3. "Daimajin" ("Daimajin," 1966): Of all the giant monster imitators that followed in Godzilla's wake, this movie, and its sequels - "Daimajin Ikaru" ("Wrath of Daimajin," 1966) and "Daimajin gyakushu" ("Daimajin's counterattack"/"Return of Daimajin," 1966) - are some of the best. Daimajin is a giant stone statue that comes to life to protect the weak and helpless from injustice and tyranny in the days of feudal Japan. Greatly influenced by mythology, and effectively utilizing a period milieu made popular in the ever-present samurai genre, this is a fabulous trilogy of films that are well worth seeing.
4. "Daikaiju Gamera" ("Gamera," 1965): Although never as big a star as Godzilla, Gamera, a giant turtle who flies through the air, and billed as "The Friend to Children Everywhere," has become immortalized as one of Japan's biggest giant monster stars. Although lacking the dark subtext of Godzilla, Gamera has proven to be an immensely popular character, and the debate between adherents of the two can become quite heated. Many see this as the final film in the original wave of daikaiju pictures, as it was the last giant monster movie to be filmed in black and white. Although clearly intended for younger viewers, the initial Gamera film is a must-see for anyone interested in this fascinating genre.
5. "San daikaiju: Chikyu saidai no kessen" ("Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster"/"Earth's Greatest Battle," 1964): As the Godzilla series of films progressed, the producers found it harder and harder to come up with opponents for the self-style "King of the Monsters." With this film, they succeeded in creating a creature that would more than give "The Big G" a run for his money. Ghidorah, the three-headed golden dragon, arrives on Earth in a meteorite and goes on a rampage that requires the combined powers of Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra - Toho's most popular monsters at the time - to stop. A highly effective monster team-up film, this movie marked the beginning of Godzilla's transition from nuclear menace to protector of the Earth, a move that would reach its climax in "Gojira tai Hedorah" ("Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster"/"Godzilla vs. Hedorah," 1971). Although many see this as the beginning of the end for the character, this remains one of the fastest-paced and most enjoyable films in the entire canon.
6. "Furankenshutain tai chitei kaiju Baragon" ("Frankenstein Conquers the World," 1965): When a starving homeless boy eats the heart of the Frankenstein monster, which was taken to a lab in Japan after being rescued from Germany at the end of World War II, he grows to giant size and - you guessed it - goes on a rampage. A brilliantly bizarre concept, brought to life by talented director Ishiro Honda, makes this movie work. A bonus is seeing star Nick Adams, perhaps best known for his supporting role in "Rebel Without a Cause" and his star turn as Johnny Yuma on TV, in one of his great Japanese parts. Adams played in several Japanese productions before his untimely death in 1968 from a drug overdose, and he's always a pleasure to watch.
7. "Urutoraman: Kuso tokusatsu shirizu" ("Ultraman," 1966): Special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya left Toho Studios to form his own production company in 1963, and, in 1966, produced a groundbreaking TV series, "Ultra Q," about a group of monster hunters. Emboldened by the success of this effort, Tsuburaya went on to create Ultraman, a hero from space who comes to Earth to protect it from a seemingly never-ending series of giant monsters. A smash hit in Japan - the franchise is still very active there, with new movies and TV shows arriving on a regular basis - it was also dubbed and released in America to great acclaim. Although all of the various series have their high points, the best is still the original, with its brilliant array of monster designs (a redesigned Godzilla, easily recognizable, shows up as "Jirass" in Episode 10), all of whom Ultraman defeats with a mixture of superpowers and devastating martial arts. Frequently rerun on TV, and available on DVD with a little hunting, this series is highly recommended to any fan of the genre.
8. "Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaiju" ("Yog, Monster from Space," 1970): Another picture helmed by Ishiro Honda, who, by this time, was Toho's leading director for the popular giant monster pictures, this one is about a space amoeba who comes to Earth and creates giant versions of indigenous creatures. Although a largely forgotten picture even by daikaiju buffs, this is a fun film with some great creature designs.
9 "Mosura" ("Mothra," 1961): Godzilla's polar opposite, Mosura (or Mothra, as she was renamed for American consumption), was a benevolent giant monster, who served as the protector of the remote Infant Island and its people. Only when those peple are threatened does Mothra go on a rampage through Tokyo. More recently, Toho released a series of three films starring this beloved monster, and while they were primarily aimed at a younger audience, they are quite watchable, especially the films that feature King Ghidorah as Mothra's opponent.
By limiting this topic to giant monster movies, this list necessarily excludes such Japanese sci-fi classics as "Bijo to Ekitainingen" ("Beauty and the Liquid People"/"The H-Man," 1958), "Uchu Daisenso" ("Battle in Outer Space," 1959), "Gasu ningen dai ichigo" ("The Human Vapor," 1960), "Matango" ("Matango: The Fungus of Terror," 1963), and "Kaitei gunkan" ("Atragon," 1963), all of which are worth seeking out and watching. If you think that sci-fi begins and end in America, think again: you ain't seen nothin' yet.