Pacific Rim came out this summer and immediately became a cult success for its strong characters, quirky universe, and memorable visuals. So if you’re a fellow Rim-lover and you’re anything like me, you can’t wait for the DVD/Blu-Ray/Blu-Ray 3D/VHS/Betamax/better-quality illegal download to touch down.
Unlike many other Rim-fans, though, I am blessed with glorious knowledge: I’ve been a kaiju aficionado since the tender age of eight. You see, before the word was used on screen, it was a fan-term which described a sub-genre of its own: classic Japanese monster movies. And Pacific Rim is a loving homage to these movies through and through, so much so that there are definitely tons of choices at your (entirely hypothetical) local Blockbuster video store that can help scratch your itch.
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla: Tokyo SOS
This 2002-2003 duology is one of the most accessible offerings for post-Rim kaiju converts. A team of troubled pilots and mechanics, including a strong female protagonist, operates a titanic mecha to defend their homeland from relentless giant monsters…gee, does that sound familiar at all? An interesting feature of the duology is that the first film has a simple plot and is very self-contained until the ending, which sets up the sequel. Then, that sequel introduces additional kaiju, fantasy elements, more widespread destruction, and references to other classic kaiju films from the ’60s. In other words, if the first movie doesn’t at least put a smile on your face you may not have been much of a Pacific Rim fan, and if the duology keeps you hooked all the way through you may just have become a Godzilla fan.
Special Note: Confusingly, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) and Godzilla VS Mechagodzilla II (1993) have extremely similar titles to Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002), were all distributed on DVD by the same company, and are usually available in the same retail locations. However, while the films are all very different, they are all very enjoyable, so no big loss!
A unique entry here, for several reasons. It is not a Japanese film, but a Hollywood one. Its tone is very different from Pacific Rim, being essentially a cross between the funereal Godzilla (1954) and The Blair Witch Project. Yes, this film was part of the “found footage fad,” but it is also perhaps the ONLY true kaiju movie released anywhere in the back half of the last decade. Since it uses modern instead of traditional “man in suit” special effects techniques, the destructive spectacle showcased here was unparalleled until Pacific Rim itself. Historically, it also inspired an early marketing “Alternate Reality Game.” No surprise, as the film was produced by none other than J. J. Abrams.
The Gamera Trilogy
Director Shusuke Kaneko re-imagined second-tier kaiju Gamera in this critically acclaimed 1990s series, which was recently released to Blu-Ray in the US. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe depicts the titular turtle as an ancient bio-weapon, which re-awakens in the modern day to save humanity from fearsome flying predators. Understated, realistic performances, a careful script which paid attention to detail and verisimilitude, and just a touch of action-movie verve made this an immediate standout in the genre and highly accessible. Gamera 2: Attack of Legion was a very different piece with a hard sci-fi edge, with Gamera and the military uniting against an insectoid interplanetary invasion. But the third film, Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris, was the masterstroke that united the first two films into acts in a saga about mana, Earth’s life energy, and how Gamera must expend it even as he tries to preserve it. The special effects are jaw-dropping for a micro-budget 1999 film, seamlessly marrying man-in-suit kaiju with full-body computer-generated kaiju. The premise is borderline deconstructive: Gamera’s enemy is a survivor of a building he accidentally destroyed in the first installment of the trilogy. The ending of the trilogy is dark-beyond-dark and a story move that would never be approved in Hollywood. Yes, it will be hard to get your friends to watch three movies about a flying turtle, but I’ve never seen anyone willing to give these films a chance walk away unsatisfied.
Many have heard of this classic Pteranodon-based kaiju, who has a strange habit of showing up on The Simpsons. Many have also seen his clashes with Godzilla over the years, but few have seen his debut standalone film. One would hardly believe that this was the first kaiju movie filmed in color, because the scene in which the city of Fukuoka is destroyed is a visual feast that still stands up today and is at least as convincing as the contemporary, but much more lavishly-produced, War of the Worlds. The ending also invokes tragedy just as effectively as the famous King Kong (1933). There’s an undercurrent of horror, rare in the genre, but common in its most effective entries. Unfortunately there are some incredibly lame bug-monsters in the first part of the film, but just stick it out.
King Kong (2005)
The original King Kong was one of the most direct inspirations for Godzilla, the masterpiece that began the kaiju genre. So this remake could be considered a nicely accessible “cousin” of the genre. Peter Jackson directs this as an adventure film in the style of his Lord of the Rings. Much like the stop-motion original, this motion-captured Kong, played by Andy “Gollum” Serkis, is a brilliantly realized, emotional character. This is a contrast to most of the kaiju, who are impersonal “forces of nature.”
The Valley of Gwangi, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and 20 Million Miles to Earth
Pacific Rim is dedicated to two men: Godzilla director Ishiro Honda, and special effects genius Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen produced visuals for many Hollywood adventure films, including cult favorite Clash of the Titans (1981), but these three most closely use the typical monster movie structure of a single strange creature, discovered by men who drag it into a world where it must inevitably wreak havoc. Gwangi is really a dinosaur movie, not kaiju, but it’s a Western mashup so I had to mention it. Beast is a loose adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn,” notable for being the direct visual inspiration for Godzilla, and perhaps the first movie in which a 100+ foot animal struggles with the military for a substantial part of the running time. (Though while Godzilla is simply invincible, the Beast can’t be killed because it’s blood is incredibly toxic, foreshadowing the famous Alien (1979).) 20 Million Miles features a rapidly growing extraterrestrial, the Ymir, who visually fits right in with the menagerie of Japanese kaiju, though he is smaller and the emphasis is more on his tragic circumstances than his destructive might.
I just committed kaiju-fan blasphemy. You see, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 “re-imagining” of Godzilla made a mockery of the famous beast. The monster’s form was distorted into a design student’s nightmare, and the defining elements of Godzilla – invincibility and atomic breath-blast – were cluelessly stripped out, in favor of super-speed, stealth (!), and the ability to spawn hundreds of velociraptor-like babies. As a matter of fact, I don’t like this movie very much at all. But having said that, it’s in English, with a recognizable cast, good special effects, and flashes of humor and pathos. When you strip out the baggage of butchering an iconic character, it’s a competent “disaster movie” of the sort that Emmerich has made a career out of churning out, so I’ll be a mensch and say it may well scratch your post-Rim kaiju itch. In an odd twist, the film’s monster is such a radical take on Godzilla that subsequent fan works, official comics, and even a feature film (see below) have simply inserted him into the Godzilla mythos as a separate kaiju altogether, called “Zilla.”
The only Godzilla film since the original with no other kaiju in it for him to fight, this too is a mashup of the kaiju and disaster genres. Some of the most iconic images of the whole series occur here, as Godzilla attacks the gigantic, neon-lit towers of modern Tokyo. While there are no mecha to be found, Rim fans will find much to enjoy in Godzilla’s tangles with a nuclear submarine and an experimental airship. While not all of the special effects quite hit the mark, a Cold War subplot and able performances ensure that there’s not a bite of cheese to be found. The film inspired a bumper crop of six sequels, the best of which, Godzilla vs. Biollante, just came out on Blu-Ray.
Destroy All Monsters! and Godzilla: Final Wars
These are the kaiju equivalents of Universal’s “Monster Mash” films. If you thought Pacific Rim didn’t have quite enough monsters in it, or that Monster Squad should have had everyone be the size of a thirty-story building, then these are for you. Destroy All Monsters! (1968) closed out the “Golden Age” of kaiju movies that began in 1954, showcasing four monsters attacking a city at once and ending with a ten-on-one battle royale. Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) is the last entry in the Godzilla series to date, going completely, GLORIOUSLY off-the-rails with a cheesy sci-fi action plot “inspired” by The Matrix, X-Men, Return of the Jedi and Independence Day. It’s difficult to describe the movie as in any way “good,” but it’s also impossible not to recommend, with mumbly MMA expert Don Frye stealing the show from the Japanese cast, a pimp getting blown away by Rodan, and a second half consisting of Godzilla tearing EVERY one of his old kaiju costars a new asshole. We used this movie in college to “initiate” new folks into our dorm suite in college. Interestingly enough, each movie also employs humanoid alien invaders as antagonists, a bit of genre-blending that became a nearly ubiquitous plot crutch in the kaiju movies of the late ’60s and ’70s, before virtually disappearing after that. Oh, and you might want to see GODZILLA (1998) before seeing Final Wars, as the true Godzilla shows exactly what he thinks of his US imitator.
The Host (2007)
OK, this South Korean sci-fi movie’s monster is only 20 feet or so, but it is certainly inspired by the history of kaiju movies from over in Japan. This vicious satire is the most overtly comedic kaiju movie since 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla – and you can’t get a proper translation of the latter film in the US, so it’s all we got. A cabal of bumbling Americans creates a monster by polluting Korean rivers, then erroneously believes that the monster’s attack has spread a plague and quarantines a hapless family, who must escape to rescue their youngest daughter from the creature. It’s estimated that a QUARTER of South Koreans saw this movie when it played in theaters, resulting in a limited US theatrical release and ready availability on DVD. Be ready to laugh, cry, and go “WTF?” a lot.
Gamera the Brave
There are many kaiju movies that were written for kids, but this is the only one I would wholeheartedly recommend. Inspired by American family classics like ET, this is a coming-of-age story where a young boy raises a new incarnation of Gamera from a foot-long turtle to a 40-foot kaiju, ready to take on the much larger Zedus who’s snacking on the good people of Japan. This was my wife’s entry point into the genre and still her favorite example.
Kaiju on TV: Mystery Science Theater 3000, MEGAS XLR, Power Rangers
For those who prefer their bad movies with Joel and the ‘bots, there are several MST3K episodes based on kaiju movies. The Godzilla episodes can’t be distributed right now, but there is a Gamera DVD box set. Jokes are hilarious; picture is terrible. MEGAS XLR is a hysterical short-lived US cartoon that spoofs every kaiju and mecha-anime trope out there, and is available on iTunes. I cannot recommend it highly enough. As for Power Rangers (which just turned twenty), it’s the US adaptation of the long-running Japanese series Super Sentai. This is one of the exemplars of the sentai (Japanese superhero) genre, which itself is a spin-off of the kaiju genre (kaiju are used as the enemies of sentai and their mecha, and Eiji Tsuburaya, creator of Godzilla, later went on to create Ultraman, the first and most iconic sentai). Sentai series are the only productions still keeping alive the special effects techniques that Tsuburaya created to realize Godzilla back in 1954. Which is just a long-winded way of saying c’mon, it’s DAYS worth of kaiju vs. robots up in your Netflix.
Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
From director Shusuke Kaneko (see “Gamera trilogy” above), this is not the most accessible film on the list, because it is so dense with Japanese mythology and history that the English translation simply isn’t very good. And that title is just awful. But, it’s definitely the best modern Godzilla film, depicting the scariest and most violent incarnation of the icon. It’s still much more fun and engaging than the original film, which it lovingly pays respect to, but if you find yourself really digging this film, you should check out Godzilla (1954) and see where it all started.
Pacific Rim is expected on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital formats this holiday season.