Thursday, December 5, 2013

TEN ESSENTIAL GODZILLA MOVIES FOR SHITMAS! (Special Post by Guest Writer Michael Cherkowsky)

A long time ago, I spent a year writing this blog...

Let my credentials sink in there for a moment...Good? Okay! 

Anybody who knows me well enough knows about my unabashed love for all things Godzilla.  What a lot of folks might not know is that in their native Japan, most of the Godzilla films had been released around Christmas time. That makes them Christmas movies to me! So here for you now is my top ten favorite Godzilla films. If you’re a novice to the series, these are the essential films that you NEED to see. Certain terms to keep in mind; the "showa" era is the time in which the original film came out in 1954 to Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1974. The "Heisei" era spans from Godzilla 1985 to Godzilla vs. Destroyah, and the "Millennium" era is Godzilla 2000 to the most recent, Finals Wars film. All of them are the original Japanese versions.

10. Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: All Out Monster Attack

I debated about including anything from the millennium series in this list. I know a lot of the movies in that cycle have their fans, mostly in the younger set. This one, known most commonly as "GMK", its shorthand title, is the best of the lot. A bad lot. Like most of the films of that cycle, GMK is a stand-alone story. It's sort of a "What if?" tale from uber fan boy director Shusuke Kaneko, who had recently reinvented second rater Gamera in the 90s. Godzilla is brought back as a spirit of vengeance, in the service of the angry Japanese war dead. It's up to Baragon, Mothra and King Ghidorah, here playing ancient Japanese monster gods, to defend the homeland from Godzilla's onslaught. There's some interesting allegory for modern Japanese culture being somewhat willfully ignorant of its own past, but some of this might be lost on the western viewer. Of all the millennium series of films, its not the only one to try something different, but it is the only successful one. 

9. Godzilla vs. Biollante

This was one of the more uncommon Godzilla movies in the states for a long time. A direct sequel to Godzilla 1985, it was an outright failure at the Japanese box office upon its release in 1989. Its US rights were sold off to Miramax, who shelved it for years, before dumping it directly to home video in 1992. It saw scant television airings on Cinemax in the early 90s before disappearing from circulation again. Miramax finally released it to DVD/Blu Ray in late 2012. It has a bit of a cult following now both here, and in its native Japan, and it’s easy to understand why, just as it’s easy to understand why it was dismissed upon its initial release. Far more politically minded than many of the films that came before, and after, the film deals heavily with Corporate influence on large governments, and proprietary rights for each. Godzilla and his first adversary for the heisei era, Biollante (a hideous monster plant spawned from Godzilla’s own DNA) find themselves political wild cards played against each and whole nations. There isn't a ton of kaiju fighting in this entry, but its one of the few "grown up" Godzilla movies. There’s a lot of corporate espionage at play, and a rather prophetic portrayal of Big Oil. 

8. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster)

This Godzilla film is often cited or dismissed as one of the worst in the series, but all the reasons for being the worst are what I think actually make great! There is a certain charm to the complete lack of common sense that this film is endowed with. The polluted ocean bays surrounding Japan produce a organism dubbed Hedorah, who feeds on the mankind's industrial waste, and leaves a path of poisonous sludge and smog in its wake.  Hedorahs (what would be the proper pluralization be?) can combine with other Hedorahs to make even larger Hedorahs, forming one gigantic Hedorah at the end of the film. Godzilla doesn't serve much more of a purpose than to fight Hedorah every time it shows up, doing whatever it takes to stop the monster, even flying (yes, flying!). The film is broken up by little animated Hedorah vignettes, and bizarre, hallucinogenic imagery. This was sort of the true beginning of Godzilla As Superhero, with the Godzilla series being aimed directly at Japanese children's matinee with the previous entry. It might a little too creepy and demented for smaller kids though. 

7. Monster Zero (a.k.a. Invasion Of The Astro Monster)

A lot of people cite Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster as the best of Godzilla's duels with King Ghidorah, but I think its leaner follow up is the better of the two films. The great Nick Adams stars alongside Godzilla veteran Akira Takarada, as two astronauts who journey to newly discovered planet X. They find that not only is it inhabited, but its denizens are being terrorized by King Ghidorah, who has recently been repelled from earth. They ask mankind to allow them to acquire Godzilla and Rodan, for use in repelling Ghidorah from planet X, but all is not as it seems, and it soon turns out that the Xians are up to no good. In a way, this is sort of the ultimate 60s movie, in that it has everything, monsters, alien invaders, espionage, exotic beautiful women, and let's not forget Nick Adams! It also introduces the trope of "seijin" or extraterrestrials into the Godzilla franchise for the first time. Toho had made numerous alien invasion movies before this, but none had shown up to combat Godzilla up to this point, and while new alien races trying to seize earth would become a staple of the Godzilla films, especially in the 70s, its the Xians that are still the most famous. 

6. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster)

In 1974, having little to no success with the recent adversaries introduced for Godzilla, Toho decided to recycle a successful concept from their previous King Kong Escapes, and introduced a mechanized double for Godzilla to tangle with. Originally introduced as a war machine sent to exterminate earth bound kaiju by invaders from a planet slowly being devoured by a black hole, Mechagodzilla would eventually join the top tier of Toho's kaiju, alongside Mothra and King Ghidorah. Directed by Godzilla veteran Jun Fukuda (well known for his yakuza movies and some of the worse Godzilla films...), this film is the most violent in the series. Humans and space men beat each other senseless during fistfights that rival the kaiju battles blow for blow. The titular showdown in the film’s climax sees Godzilla getting more bloodied in battle than he has before or since. It also contains possibly the best of the non-Akira Ikfube scores for these movies, with a lot of jazz and rock N' roll beats to it. 

5. Terror Of MechGodzilla (a.k.a. Mechagodzilla's Counterattack/Terror Of Godzilla)

Mothra might be Godzilla's archenemy, and Ghidorah may be his strongest, but his most versatile is Mechagodzilla. He's sort of like an early version of the Terminator, serving whatever cause he is programmed for. Terror of Mechagodzilla was the end of the Showa series, and also the last Godzilla film that Inshiro Honda, who started the Godzilla series in 1954, would direct. I always found it to be the better of the two original Mechagodzilla movies, if only by a narrow margin. Oddly enough, Mechagodzilla takes a backseat in this one, along with Godzilla, as most of the plot is focused on a new kaiju dubbed Titanosaurus, a tall, red dino horse sort of thing, with no special skills beyond being able to grapple with the best of them, and...whinny like a horse. Alien invaders take control of Titanosaurus, and send him into the heart of Tokyo, along with a new and improved Mechagodzilla. Godzilla shows up, only to take the worst beating of his life at the hands of these two. A good portion of the film is a protracted two against one kaiju melee. A lot of it is the kiddie matinee superhero histrionics that Godzilla had become infamous for at that point, but Honda is able to infuse enough human angst and drama to elevate it above the previous five movies, with a strange somber send off for Godzilla at the end, that while not intending to close the door for further adventures, has a melancholy quality to it, as Godzilla wades out into the sunset.

4. Destroy All Monsters

For a long time, this was the holy grail of Godzilla movies. Rarely shown on TV, and unavailable on home video for a long ass time, the only way to see it was to purchase a bootlegged VHS tape dubbed from grainy UHF station broadcast tapes. This is the film that featured almost every Toho owned kaiju. They even manage to be onscreen, altogether at the same time at one point. Set during the end of the millennium, the world has managed to round up all the kaiju and contain them on one island in the south pacific. Unfortunately, a race of nomadic aliens decides to seize control of the kaiju and unleash them on the major cities of the world until mankind submits to becoming slaves. The main reason that this film is held in such regard is for the melee at the end of the film in which King Ghidorah is finally put down by Godzilla and almost a dozen allies. It's also considered the last of the "real" Godzilla movies, as Toho intended it to be the final entry in the series, having seen diminishing returns on the sequels that came before it. The six movies that followed it were constructed purely for kids’ matinees in Japan (hence they're becoming sillier and sillier).

3. Godzilla 1985 (a.k.a. Return Of Godzilla)

After a ten year hiatus following 1974's Terror of Mechagodzilla, Toho decided to bring back their once most profitable franchise, only with a more adult return to form, like it was originally intended to be. This film ignores all the previous sequels, and acts as a part-sequel/part-remake of the original 1954 film. After a massive volcanic eruption on the Daikoku islands off the coast of Japan, Godzilla is awakened. The only proof of this is a fishing troller discovered by one lone reporter on holiday, who finds one lone survivor aboard. This reporter thinks he's found the story of a lifetime, only to be silenced by the Japanese government who fear that news of Godzilla's return after 30 years will ruin Japan’s burgeoning economy. But when Godzilla destroys a Russian submarine, thus almost setting off full-scale nuclear war between the US and USSR, the Japanese government is forced to reveal Godzilla's return. Not only this, but they find themselves diplomatically isolated when Japan refuses to allow American or Russian military to test nuclear armaments on Godzilla, should he decide to arrive on Japanese soil. Some find the political intrigue to be tiresome, since it takes up the first half of the film, with the second half being devoted to Godzilla's attack on Tokyo. This is what makes the film all the more compelling, as it shows the fear of a nation on the sidelines of the cold war, and their paranoia of what effect a nuclear cataclysm would do to their small country. 

2. Mothra vs. Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. The Thing)

After finding a successful formula for reviving the Godzilla franchise with King Kong vs. Godzilla, Toho decided to start pitting Godzilla against some of their other in-house monsters. The first would be their second most successful kaiju character, Mothra. Godzilla is at his best when he is the villain, and he is such a villain here. A typhoon ravages the South Pacific, washing a new Mothra egg onto the Japanese mainland. Sleazy moneymen lay claim to the egg, and refuse to return it when the twin fairies of Infant Island ask for it back. Meanwhile, Godzilla is awakened, much to the horror of industrial types clearing the beachhead. Apparently he was washed ashore, and buried in the awesome amount of silt that was washed in with him during one of the Tsunamis created by the Typhoon. The parties who lobbied with the twin fairies to return Mothra's egg journey to infant island to plead for Mothra's help, only to find a once beautiful and mysterious island has been ravaged by the atomic testing in the south pacific, and its inhabitants unwilling to grant them audience with Mothra. After some heavy handed exposition, it its agreed upon that Mothra will fight off Godzilla, even though this will be the last march for her, since she is dying. Ishiro Honda and company are all at the apex of their kaiju movie powers here. Themes such as greed, revenge, courage, and sacrifice are all at play both during the human drama and the kaiju action.  The battle between the two titular kaiju half way through the film is easily the best committed to film, with Godzilla as the ultimate Apex predator, poised to take the life of anything, and Mothra, the ultimate maternal protector, willing to give anything, even her own life, for her young.

1. Gojira (a.k.a Godzilla: King Of The Monsters)

For me, the original is, has, and will always be the best. This is not only my favorite Godzilla film, but my favorite film period. The scene that stands out the most for me is when a mother, holding her two children in a building doorway, looks up to see Godzilla's head peering over the building across the street. As he pushes through it,  she looks down at her children and says "we're going to be with daddy soon". Simply horrifying! There is no doubt in my mind that this is the best of the atomic age sci-fi films. Produced by people who not only saw the devastation first hand, but some who also lived through it, Godzilla is literally a walking Hiroshima bomb in this film. The devastation following his longer assault on Tokyo (he attacks twice) mirrors many photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A film that I find holds far more relevance today than many of the other "classic" monster movies like king Kong and Frankenstein. It’s only in the last decade or so that the original Japanese version has become more readily available for western audiences, instead of the truncated American cut, with Raymond Burr spliced in. Akira Ikufube's score is haunting, and gives the dark tone of the film all the more punch. Akihiko Hirata plays Dr. Serizawa, a battle scarred WWII veteran, and scientist who invents the only means that might stop Godzilla, the “oxygen destroyer”, but knows that his invention is so terrible that if he were to use it, word of it would get out, and he could be forced to create a weapon far more destructive than any Atomic bomb. His Dr. Serizawa is still the most compelling human character to ever appear in a Godzilla film. 

- Michael Cherkowsky 

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