Top trumps: the giants of Japan’s monster movies

Destroy all monsters! Giant monsters all-out attack! With Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim smashing its way into cinemas, the Japanese term ‘kaiju’ is set to enter the mainstream vernacular in a way unseen until now. With that in mind, we run through 10 of the film’s monstrous antecedents, the Japanese goliaths that paved the way for del Toro’s vision.

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim (2013)

‘Kai’ – mysterious, unknown, otherworldly, surprising

‘Ju’ – beast

‘Kaiju’ – monster

‘Daikaiju’ – giant monster

Godzilla

Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla (1954)

First appearance Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Origin  Creating the template that would spawn 28 sequels and countless other kaiju knock-offs, Godzilla truly is the King of the Monsters. Without question the strongest film in the series, Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film wears its nuclear allegory on its sleeve, the scenes of destruction as the monster rampages through Tokyo impossible to separate from the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that occurred less than a decade prior to its release.

The film would also set a gold standard for the effects work of Eiji Tsuburaya, whose creature design and miniature wonders (beautifully sculpted in noir-inflected light and shadow by cinematographer Masao Tamai) would prove a tough act to follow.

Godzilla as a character would evolve through the three clearly defined periods of the subsequent sequels – shifting within the so-called Showa era (1954-1975) from malevolent force of nature to defender of Japan, before being recast as the bad guy for the Heisei era films (1984-1995), then finally becoming an agent of CGI delirium for the Millennium era (1999-2004). Even Hollywood got its claws in at one point, but we don’t talk about that.

While its leading man may have morphed over the years into an emasculated pop icon, as evidenced by his appearance in the Chewits adverts of the 1980s, Honda’s Godzilla has lost little of its power – it remains a thrillingly stark intimation of nature’s ability to rise up against our careless and relentless pursuit of modernisation. It’s a reminder, and a warning, with teeth.

Friend or foe  It’s complicated.

Powers  Atomic radiation blasts, tail smashing, lots of kicking/throwing rocks.

Greatest battle  Impossible… Absolutely impossible… OK… King Kong vs Godzilla (1962)

Mothra

Mothra

Mothra

First appearance  Mothra (Ishiro Honda, 1961)

Origin

Second only to Godzilla in her number of onscreen appearances, Mothra is one of the few kaiju (along with Rodan) to have begun life in her own, stand-alone feature for the studio Toho. A peaceful deity, worshipped by the inhabitants of Infant Island, it’s only when the armies of Rorishika (a blend of the Japanese names for Russia and America) begin hydrogen bomb tests that disrupt the balance of her home, that Mothra sets off to settle the score.

Introducing an eco-friendly element to the series, Mothra’s role is often one of peacekeeper among the fighting kaiju, most notably during a protracted (and hilariously translated) sequence in Ghidorah, the Three-headed Monster (1964). Definitely a lover, not a fighter, Mothra’s role in the series evolves from that of Infant Island protector to benevolent saviour of mankind, especially when other kaiju prove too stubborn to step up to the task.

While it’s nowhere near as stirring as Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla theme, which accompanies the reptile’s every attack, Mothra is also one of the few kaiju to require a song to be sung to her before springing into action (although King Caesar would later make similar demands). Delivered by her two diminutive, psychically-connected faerie translators, it’ll be stuck in your head for weeks.

Friend or foe  After a shaky start between the two, a few harsh words from Mothra to the petulant (and sweary!) Godzilla in the fourth sequel see the pair become close and necessary allies.

Powers  Existing in different forms, representing the varying lepidopteran life-cycles, Mothra’s powers depend on whether she’s in her larva or fully-grown moth stage. As a bite-y larva, her strongest asset proves her ability to fire a jet of silk, paralysing her opponents, while the hurricane-force power of her wings in adult form can take out kaiju and cities alike.

Greatest battle  Though she would engage in more spectacular battles in later episodes, her final fight with Godzilla in the fantastic Mothra vs Godzilla (1961), in which she sacrifices herself to save her only egg, proves surprisingly moving.

Rodan

Rodan (1956)

Rodan (1956)

First appearance  Rodan (Ishiro Honda, 1956)

Origin  A flying dragon-cum-pterodactyl, but more often resembling a big, scaly chicken, Rodan hatched from a volcanically incubated egg buried deep beneath Japan’s south island.

One of Toho’s ‘Big Three’ (alongside Godzilla and Mothra), Rodan and his identical companion were stars of their own stand-alone feature before crossing into the Godzilla franchise for its fifth instalment. Undergoing a Phoenix-like transformation in the Heisei-era Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II (1993), Rodan was transformed by Godzilla’s radiation waves into the uranium-ray spitting ‘Fire Rodan’.

Friend or foe  Initially intent solely on destruction, Rodan clearly had a bone to pick with Godzilla when the pair first met in Ghidorah, the Three-headed Monster. Said film proved a turning point for both kaiju, however – when convinced by the ever-pragmatic Mothra’s lengthy urge for consideration and diplomacy, the three teamed up to take on the evil King Ghidorah, putting their differences aside from thereon out. Rodan even found himself taking on the assumed role of godfather to Baby Godzilla in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II. Heart of gold really, that giant chicken.

Powers  Though capable of supersonic flight and destructive gusts of wind, Rodan generally favours a psychotically effective bout of pecking over all else.

Greatest battle  His fight with Mechagodzilla, in pursuit of Baby Godzilla in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II is one for the ages. Taken out by the giant robotic reptile, Fire Rodan transfers the remains of his life-force to an ailing Godzilla, who continues the battle on his behalf, Rodan giving his own life to save his monster chums.

King Ghidorah

King Ghidorah

King Ghidorah

First appearance  Ghidorah, the Three-headed Monster (Ishiro Honda, 1964)

Origin  Designed by special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah is a destroyer of worlds from deep in outer space. Though little of his history is given in his 1964 debut, his second appearance in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) portrays him as a being controlled by an alien civilisation intent on claiming the Earth’s resources as their own. Such examples of Ghidorah as an alien-controlled flunky follows him through his later screen appearances, climaxing with his use as a time-travelling, Terminator-like kaiju assassin for a race known as the Futurians in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991).

Friend or foe  A bizarre switch to good guy status in Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (2001) aside, King Ghidorah represents Godzilla’s biggest foe. Rarely defeated by the big guy alone, he’s fought Godzilla on-screen more than any other kaiju in the Toho series.

Powers  Similar to Rodan, King Ghidorah can summon gale force winds by beating his wings. Much faster than our chicken-chum, his ability to fire magnetic lightning bolts makes him a tough adversary for any kaiju.

Greatest battle  His fight with Godzilla in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah sees one of his heads blown off, only for his body to be recovered by the Futurians, transforming him into the cybernetic organism, Mecha-King Ghidorah for their final showdown. For those who prefer an old-school rumble, his battle against an entire tag team of the Toho kaiju catalogue in Destroy All Monsters (1968) takes some beating.

Anguirus

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

First appearance  Godzilla Raids Again (Motoyoshi Oda, 1955)

Origin  Only six months after the release of Godzilla, audiences were witness to their first kaiju vs kaiju smackdown. Beginning on Iwata Island before spilling onto the streets of Osaka, it was the extended battle with Anguirus that (even more so than the original Godzilla picture) set the template for the next 27 sequels. Reanimated as a result of nuclear testing after a 150-million-year slumber, the authorities hastily flick through a children’s book on dinosaurs until “another book came out that taught us much more”, finally discovering his descent from the spike-shelled dinosaur, Ankylosaurus.

Friend or foe  Their awkward first meeting (in which Godzilla tore out his throat and roasted him alive) aside, Anguirus swiftly became one of Godzilla’s closest allies, fighting alongside him through five more screen appearances. Finally, theirs is the monster bromance to end them all.

Powers  Anguirus possesses multiple brains, situated in different parts of his body, supposedly making him more agile in combat. In Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), he developed a rolling smash attack, but for the most part, it’s simply lots of smashing, lots of biting.

Greatest battle  If his first encounter with Godzilla is the most iconic, it’s his defeat at the hands of Mechagodzilla in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974) that most keenly tugs at the heart strings (really).

Minilla

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

First appearance  Son of Godzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1967)

Origin  Not to be confused with the Heisei series’ Baby Godzilla (or Godzilla Junior), Minilla is one strange little chap. Quite what his actual relationship is to Godzilla is never fully established, despite the title of the entry in which he first appears. Saved by Godzilla as a hatchling, Minilla teams up with his adoptive parent to battle the giant spider, Kumonga, and their relationship is fully cemented when Minilla prevents the big guy’s defeat. A blatant attempt on Toho’s part to entice a younger demographic, in Godzilla’s Revenge Minilla had an odd (some might say, terrifying) habit of cropping up in children’s dreams, offering advice on how to deal with bullies.

Friend or foe  Definitely a friend, if hardly a useful one.

Powers  Godzilla attempts to train Minilla to fire radioactive blasts similar to his own, but poor little Minilla can muster little more than smoke rings, involuntarily emitted when someone steps on his tail.

Greatest battle  More interested in kicking rocks around and riding Godzilla’s tail than fighting, Minilla isn’t for want of courage. If he tends to be more in the background of the mega-battle seen in Destroy All Monsters, his ability to talk his father out of a potentially smash-y tantrum at the end of Godzilla: Final Wars deserves some credit.

Mechagodzilla

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)

First appearance  Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1974)

Origin  Created by an alien race known as The Simians, Mechagodzilla first appeared disguised in a rubber skin as Godzilla, in order to trick the humans into believing their saviour had turned against them again. But the Simians didn’t count on Anguirus, who wasn’t fooled by Mechagodzilla’s attempt to mimic Godzilla’s roar. Teaming up with the lion-dog-god-knows-what hybrid, King Caesar, Godzilla finally defeats his robotic alter-ego, only for him to be rebuilt by a crazed scientist in Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975).

Utilising the remains of the Futurian Mecha-King Ghidorah, the UNGCC (United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Centre) built what would become an even stronger variant of Mechagodzilla (known as Super Mechagodzilla) for Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II (1993), intent on destroying the King of the Monsters. One final robotic variant (called Kiryu) would surface in Godzilla against Mechagodzilla (2002). When confronted by the real Godzilla, the robot (fused with the original monster’s DNA) goes mad and proceeds on a destructive rampage through Tokyo.

Friend or foe  An enemy of Godzilla’s from the off, Mechagodzilla represents one of the few major kaiju in the series who doesn’t switch sides to fight alongside the reptile.

Powers  Made from Space Titanium, the original incarnation of Mechagodzilla ultimately proved pretty inept at the task at hand. Despite an ability to shoot laser beams, and having missiles stored in its fingers and toes, it had to be called back for repairs after its first encounter with Godzilla. In being able to attach itself to an attack-ready warship, Super Mechagodzilla is a different story altogether, if still paling in comparison to the disintegrative force of Kiryu’s Absolute Zero Cannon.

Greatest battle  Godzilla’s battles against Kiryu in Godzilla against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. prove two of the highlights of the Millennium series.

Hedorah

Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)

Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)

First appearance  Godzilla vs Hedorah (Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971)

Origin  Despite only appearing in a single film in the series until the greatest hits send-off of Godzilla: Final Wars, Hedorah’s appearance in the 11th sequel represented something of an attempt to re-incorporate social commentary into the franchise. Borne out of contaminated ocean water, Hedorah’s emergence called on the news headlines of the day for inspiration. The problem of hazardous waste from an unregulated manufacturing industry was responsible for many high-profile illnesses in the late 1960s, including a group of school kids who had fallen unconscious after a chemical smog descended on their playground.

Friend or foe  Bad guy. Big time.

Powers  Changing its form dependent on its level of water retention, Hedorah begins life as a swarm of tadpole-like creatures, merging together to enable it to move onto land. Eventually gaining the ability to fly and shoot light beams, Hedorah almost destroys Godzilla with an acidic spray that strips the flesh from his arm.

Greatest battle  Only one that counts, and it’s a close-run fight.

Gamera

Gamera vs Jiger (1970)

Gamera vs Jiger (1970)

First appearance  Gamera (Noriaki Yuasa, 1965)

Origin  While speculation in 1960s Japanese playgrounds must have been rife as to who would come out tops in a battle between Godzilla and Gamera, the two never got the chance to duke it out on screen. Gamera was Daiei studio’s answer (and box-office rival) to Godzilla. With every other Japanese studio keen to muscle in on Toho’s Godzilla dollar, few achieved the level of success of the angry, dentally afflicted turtle, Gamera. Spawning 11 sequels, Gamera’s biography isn’t dissimilar to that of Godzilla, breaking out of his frozen slumber to wreak havoc on Japan, before finally settling into the role of protector.

Friend or foe  If we ignore the fact that he flattened Tokyo that one day, essentially a nice enough guy.

Powers  Shoots fireballs, flies through space at supersonic speed, lives on uranium, blasts his arm off and replaces it with a fire sword – a turtle, basically.

Greatest battle  The most iconic has to be Gamera’s battle against the rainbow-backed reptile, Barugon, in the unsurprisingly titled Gamera vs Barugon (1966).

Gigan

Godzilla vs Gigan (1972)

Godzilla vs Gigan (1972)

First appearance  Godzilla vs Gigan (Jun Fukuda, 1972)

Origin  The two films in which Gigan first appeared hardly represent successful entries in the Godzilla franchise, but the uniqueness of this singular kaiju’s design ensure his enduring popularity. Sent from outer space by the Nebulans to pave the way for their colonisation of Earth, the cyborg kaiju teamed up with King Ghidorah on a path of destruction. Finally meeting their match in Godzilla and Anguirus, Gigan beat a hasty retreat, returning the following year in Godzilla vs Megalon (1973) for a second defeat at the hands of Godzilla and his new robot pal, Jet Jaguar.

Friend or foe  Big bad cyborg.

Powers  Looking like a turkey dressed as Robocop, Gigan sports scythe-like appendages for arms and shoots laser beams from its helmeted head. Capable of flight and teleportation, it wouldn’t be until his appearance in Godzilla: Final Wars that its full arsenal of weaponry would be unleashed.

Greatest battle  Despite the hilarious presence of Jet Jaguar in Godzilla vs Megalon, the ultimate showdown is saved till last, with Gigan’s resemblance to a furious, kaiju Inspector Gadget in the bonkers Godzilla: Final Wars an absolute blast.

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