2017/10/05 What's On
Best Japanese Monsters Movies Of All Time
by Jordan Mounteer
The world owes Japan a lot in terms of their effect on global pop culture, with everything from sushi and anime to samurais and haikus. But perhaps one of the most understated ways in which they’ve influenced cinema in particular is the birth of monster – or kaiju – movies which started in the 1950’s and have spawned a whole genre unto themselves. Today the infamous Godzilla franchise remains one of the longest and most successful film enterprises, and has even inspired contemporary monster movies like Lake Placid and the most recent Pacific Rim film. What is it about monsters rampaging a city that’s so appealing to us? Whether they act as a metaphorical lens for our reservations about atomic energy, genetic manipulation, or ecological disaster, or they’re simply an entertaining diversion, without a doubt the monsters we have come to love on screen owe their popularity to Godzilla’s first appearance.
Godzilla (1954) – Gojira
The film that started it all, this black and white classic introduced Godzilla (or the Romanized Gojira) as a 500 foot tall bipedal lizard who emerges out of the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on mainland Japan. The ancient reptile is awoken from his slumber by an atomic explosion, and then begins to trample through a city which very much resembles Tokyo, feasting on powerlines as he goes. In the context of history, Japan was still fresh out of WWII and the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and this theme of destruction resonated very much with the population who had seen firsthand what atomic power was capable of doing. The special effects – advanced for the time – may seem a bit awkward and pedestrian to us now, but at the time they were revolutionary, and it began a saga that would continue well into the 21st century.
Rodan (1956) – Sora no Daikaijū Radon
Following on the heels of Godzilla’s success, many other Japanese filmmakers saw the potential of the genre and began to develop their own monsters. This time the story took place near a mining camp on Kyushu where explosions and mining practices had attracted the attention of a gigantic pterodactyl named Rodan. This time the monster wasn’t so much a creation of humankind or an accidental mutation, but a surviving relic from the bygone era of the dinosaurs. The movie was praised for its coherent plot (which definitely lacked in some later monster films, American and Japanese alike) and for its special effects which featured miniatures.
Mothra (1961) – Mosura
The one monster that can parallel Godzilla’s infamy has to be that of Mothra. Unlike Godzilla’s character who was actually played by a man in a giant and elaborate suit, Mothra was actually a specially designed puppet. This was also one of the first monster movies to be filmed in color, meaning attention was paid to creating a pattern on its wings that would be unmistakable. Although it went through a number of drafts and shared the ‘cautionary tale’ feel of atomic energy with Godzilla, Mothra was actually based more on the King Kong movie which involved an irradiated South Seas island where the pinnacle character – a giant moth – was worshipped as a deity.
Ultraman (1967) – Chōhen Kaijū Eiga
Another fascinating character to appear on the stage in the late 60’s was the character of Ultraman, and today he is still an iconic hero in the canon of Japanese pop culture. You may actually be familiar with some of his offshoots – the original Power Ranger characters which became a hit in the early 90’s in North America (so much so they’re making a new feature film) took their cue from Japanese monster movies, and their heroes’ costumes bear a striking resemblance to the original Ultraman. Though he had a number of incarnations, his power was the ability to grow to a staggering height, which was perfect fodder for monster movies, and he is portrayed as a benign alien savior who works as a police officer. Although part of a television series, one of the more titular movies involved Ultraman going up against other alien enemies.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (2002) – Gojira tai Mekagojira
Jumping ahead to the year 2002, Godzilla has already gone through numerous battles with other monsters, and by this time in history the threat of nuclear war or an atomic apocalypse had been sidelined in favor of more contemporary fears. If monsters are, again, a reflection of our own fears and insecurities, then Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla certainly earns a place in our list. The plot involves the SDF, or Self Defense Force, inducting their latest creation in deployment: a full-sized automated Godzilla doppelganger named Kiryu. And, of course, the real Godzilla shows up and things begin to get out of hand. The movie, while maybe not the best in the franchise, represented a shift in the tone of kaiju monster movies, and our apprehension about technology was juxtaposed against real human dramas and dilemmas – a theme which would carry over into the future.
Attack on Titan (2013) – Shingeki no kyojin
While not a film, the kaiju phenomenon did appear in the form of a hit anime series which quickly caught on both in Japan and other parts of the world. The plot unfolds a medieval era world whose inhabitants have built a system of huge walls around their kingdom to keep out the threat of Titans: gigantic lumbering man-eating humans who look like exaggerated homunculi and are portrayed as mindless and childlike. Although very violent, the show was a monumental success and lauded for its thought-provoking study of human nature, particularly in relation to PTSD and the constant looming threat of death and destruction just outside the walls. As a kaiju anime series, it helped to bridge that gap between showing epic monster fights and adding a very real – and often tragic – human dimension.
Shin Godzilla (2016) – Shin Gojira
Literally ‘new Godzilla’, the most recent appearance of Godzilla (his 31st in total), this Japanese production was a welcome reprieve from some of the most unsuccessful and hokey American attempts at a remake. It is also one which helped to frame Godzilla in relation to the human impact on our environment, a theme which had been ‘asleep’ since the 60’s – with the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima reactor incident, suddenly nuclear power was once again a very real and pertinent threat, and Shin Godzilla helped to really encapsulate that pending fear. As a monster movie, it also was able to make use of the most current special effects and is widely regarded as one of the most successful reboots, even going so far as to win several awards at the 40th Japan Academy Prize including Picture of the Year.
WhyNot!? party is the biggest party for International minds in Osaka!
If you wanna make local Japanese friends, WhyNot!? party is a perfect venue!!