Daikaiju. Giant Monsters. In recent years we’ve seen the upswing of movies featuring giant monster attacks ranging from the sentimental Super 8, the found footage experience of Cloverfield, and Guillermo del Toro’s heartfelt salute to being 10 years old again, Pacific Rim. Next week, the King of All Monsters returns to the big screen after a ten year absence, and in looking forward to Godzilla’s return to the pop culture landscape, we at the Drive-In thought we should look back at the greats; the really big names in daikaiju going all the way back to 1933. These are the monsters with personality. The monsters with spirit. The monsters that made us want to build Lego cities and tear them down again. Here are the Ten Greatest Daikaiju of all time. King Kong “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.” – Old Arabian Proverb There was nothing “old” or “Arabian” about that quote. The proverb was written by Merian C. Cooper who, along with Edgar Wallace wrote the script for King Kong. And so, the movie begins with a humbug. Its central character is also a humbug. A trick of the camera. A humbug that drives the imagination and inspired every filmmaker that came after. The enormity of King Kong’s influence cannot be stated often enough or with enough reverence. Without Kong and his animator, Willis H. O’Brien, there would be no Ray Harryhausen, no Spielberg, no Peter Jackson, no James Cameron, no Ishiro Honda, no Godzilla. Fantasy filmmaking would have died in its crib without King Kong. Above even the grand spectacle of Kong is the story itself. Primal and relatable, at its heart, Kong is a love story. A rather one-sided love story to be sure, but still a powerful one. It’s an elementary school love; a simple love, but one we can all identify with and understand. That love begins with a girl, Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray. Carl Denham needs a girl in his next feature. He is a safari filmmaker, capturing great beasts in their natural habitat to wow his audience. His producers tell him his next picture needs to showcase a girl to increase ticket sales. Having procured a map to a mysterious island with the promise of the greatest creature ever seen, Denham begins the search for the perfect girl. There she is, with her back to us, trying to steal an apple from a street vendor: Ann Darrow. Hunger makes her swoon into Denham’s arms. From the very beginning, Ann Darrow becomes an object to want, to hold, to care for, to protect. She is a MacGuffin (before MacGuffin was MacGuffin) for everyone in the film. Denham wants her, Jack Driscoll wants her, the natives of Skull Island want her and finally, Kong wants her. We, the audience want her, too. Our concern for her gives the action sequences their power. Granted, it’s a long boat ride to Skull Island but once we arrive and the action begins, the movie just does not stop. The creature Denham was promised is a 60 foot ape who is worshipped by the natives. They prepare Ann as a sacrifice to the mighty Kong. Imagine yourself in 1933. The depression is on, the dust bowl was burying the nation’s breadbasket, times are tough and joy is scarce to be found. Imagine yourself in a theatre seat for a precious hour or two away from your troubles and then, there before you, breaking through the trees, is Kong. I can tell you that on a Thanksgiving night in Ohio, on a 13-inch black and white TV set, Kong marked me for all time as that gigantic face leered down. The thrill the depression era audiences must have felt would have been staggering. Audiences had seen stop-motion animated dinosaurs before in 1925’s The Lost World but nothing could have prepared them for O’Brien. His dinosaurs looked truly believable. It’s savage when Kong fights them. O’Brien and director, Cooper, come together for an animated/live action sequence where Kong traps the boat crew on log straddling a canyon. It is a perfect piece of film. I’ve seen that sequence dozens of times and it is always captivating. Obsessive love can only end in tragedy in the movies and Kong is no different. After being captured by Denham, Kong is brought to New York and placed on Broadway in chains. He breaks free and the rampaging monster movie is born. Kong destroys an elevated train searching for Darrow, picking people up off the street and tossing them aside like ragdolls. After plucking Darrow from the window a hotel room, Kong climbs the newly completed Empire State Building and meets his death from biplane gunfire. This humbug is just a trick of the camera. A wireframe doll. And his death is horrifying. It would have been simple to create a mindless beast but Willis O’Brien put longing in Kong’s eyes and humanity in his movements. He created a hero, a monster, a soul, and cinematic history. — Dave Hearn The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms The advent of atomic horror into the world has released a desperate creature from an ancient time to wreak havoc on mankind. These film tropes seem cliché by today’s standards. They are cliché because The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms invented them and inspired a generation of filmmakers including Ishiro Honda, the creator of Godzilla. The creation of The Beast is a tale of two journeyman artists that have taken their first step toward becoming masters of their craft. The year is 1953, eight years after the bombing of Hiroshima and the world lives in fear of The Bomb. The first hydrogen bomb was tested in the Marshall Islands only one year previous. Fear and paranoia about America’s atomic future and its unknowable consequences run high. The Beast builds its plot on such fear of the unknown. The movie begins with an atomic test in the arctic. The blast cracks open an ice shelf and releases a dinosaur, frozen for 100 million years. The Rhedosaurus makes its way south leaving a wake of destruction in its path finally emerging in New York, smashing through buildings and stomping citizens until it becomes trapped inside a wooden roller coaster in Coney Island. The Beast’s gigantic size and massive jaws aren’t the only threat to mankind. It carries with it ancient and deadly bacteria that poison all who come in contact. Bombing the creature will only scatter the pathogen so a riskier gambit is chosen. Scientist Thomas Nesbitt (Paul Christian) teams with military sharpshooter Corporal Stone (Lee Van Cleef) to take the creature down with a rifle grenade armed with a radioactive isotope. They succeed and the Beast dies amid the fiery remains of the coaster. The acting in The Beast is stilted and the dialogue is largely expository. The actors themselves are stiff and move through their blocking like automatons. All of that is forgivable since the undisputed star of the movie is The Beast fully designed and animated by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. After seeing King Kong when he was thirteen years old, Ray Harryhausen became obsessed with stop-motion animation. The mechanics and logistics of creating animation interested him but it was the drama and storytelling capabilities of the art that drove him. Throughout his career, his creatures gave performances as natural and human as any living actor. Ray spent years working for George Pal’s Puppetoons before Willis O’Brien, the creator and animator of King Kong, hired him as lead animator for Mighty Joe Young. After the success of Joe Young, Ray was given the chance to create his own creature. Ray Bradbury was a young writer of science fiction, a genre that garnered little respect in the literary world. Early in his career, he met Ray Harryhausen and the two became fast friends hoping, one day, to work together. When Harryhausen got the green light for a film, Bradbury’s short story, “The Fog Horn” was chosen. Cinematic history is made. The Beast was a giant success and Ray Harryhausen began a long career as a visionary in the field of filmmaking. The same year The Beast was released, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 shook the literary world and he secured for himself a place among the giants of creative fiction. The two continued their friendship throughout their lives until Bradbury’s death in 2012. We lost Ray Harryhausen a year later in 2013. After viewing The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Japanese film director Ishiro Honda was inspired by the tale of atomic destruction and created Godzilla, the greatest kaiju of all time. Many imitators have come and gone but Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms forged the template for their success. — Dave Hearn Gojira Inspired by the horrors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as well as the financial success of the 1952 Japanese re-release of King Kong and 1953 release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), Gojira was the brainchild of movie producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director/co-writer Ishirô Honda, and effects director Eiji Tsuburaya. Together, they crafted a creature that was the embodiment of pure destruction and ruin — of nature’s revenge on mankind. This was a giant beast with only one intention: to destroy. If you’ve only ever seen the Sixties/Seventies Godzilla movies, then you only know half of the story. The original Gojira didn’t have any personality. Gojira didn’t have a heroic nature or any anthropomorphic characteristics. Gojira was death, plain and simple, destroying entire villages with ease and overflowing hospitals with victims of violent trauma and radiation poisoning. Orphaned children with radiation burns were what Gojira left in its wake. In the end, there was no finding peace with the monster. There was no Gojira wading off into the ocean while people wave goodbye. No, in the end, Gojira had to be killed with a weapon so powerful its creator sacrificed his own life to keep the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer from the governments of the world. After all, if their use of nuclear bombs had created Gojira, what could they do with the Gojira-killer? One thing most people don’t realize is that the Godzilla we all know and love (up through 1975, anyway) is not the original beast. Gojira had to be stopped and his bones lie at the bottom of Tokyo Bay. Gojira is dead. Long live Godzilla. — Paul Brian McCoy Rodan In 1956, Rodan (or Radon, if you prefer the original Japanese name) was the first daikaiju movie filmed in color, and after the poor critical reception to Godzilla Raids Again in 1955, helped launch the genre as a worldwide sensation. Rodan, a gigantic mutated pterosaur, didn’t even appear for the first half of his debut feature film. Instead the first half of the movie had a serious horror film vibe as miners in a small mining community are mysteriously murdered, leaving horribly mutilated corpses littered throughout the mine. Turns out they’re being killed by giant mutant insect larvae called Meganulon, which just happen to be the natural food of newly-hatched Rodan chicks. Once hatched, not one, but two Rodans devastate the countryside. But not intentionally. Mass destruction is just a byproduct of being gigantic radioactive dinosaurs whose wing thrusts cause hurricane-force winds. Rodan started out similarly to the original Gojira, as just a gigantic beast who had to be killed to protect humanity — although the Rodans didn’t have the aggressively hostile attitude towards human beings that Gojira did. There’s a sensitivity evidenced in Ishirō Honda’s direction of Rodan that helps to create sympathy for the giant beasts. In fact, after one of the Rodans is maimed in the finale, the other sacrifices itself in a doomed attempt to save its mate from a raging volcano. Despite Dr. Yamane’s (Takashi Shimura) sympathetic words about Gojira, the giant lizard was not something you could really pity. Rodan, however, was a different story and this film discovered the first of the building blocks for the Godzilla franchise: Sympathetic monsters. As the Shōwa series of Godzilla movies really took off, Rodan developed more personality, initially acting as a rival or antagonist to Godzilla before eventually becoming one of the good guys, teaming up with the big guy on more than one occasion. — Paul Brian McCoy Mothra The second of Toho’s daikaiju to debut in color, Mothra is quite possibly the only rival to Godzilla in popularity, appearing in seven Godzilla movies and her own trilogy in the 1990s (the first Toho daikaiju to have its own series after being incorporated into the Godzilla franchise). Her first appearance was in her own film, 1961’s Mothra, and was also directed by Ishirō Honda who was becoming the man responsible for crafting an entire shared universe. Think the Marvel Movie Universe, but forty five years earlier and with one director at the helm. Mothra is an anomaly in the world of the daikaiju, as she is literally worshipped as a goddess, and her appearances are usually in two phases. She almost always appears initially in larval form after hatching from an egg on her home, Infant Island. The larval form is, quite simply, horrifying; a stark contrast to her beautiful final form after she emerges from her inevitable cocoon. From the very beginning, Mothra was presented as a danger to humanity, but a danger that we brought on ourselves. There have been a number of different Mothras in the original Shōwa continuity, not to mention her later appearances in both the Heisei and Millennium series of Godzilla films (for more explanation of these different series, tune in next Wednesday for our Top Ten Godzilla Movies column!), but they essentially maintain the same personality and level of influence. And by influence, I mean, she’s the Great Peacemaker; the Defender of Humanity. When King Ghidorah arrives on the scene (see below), she is the one that brokers an alliance between herself, Rodan, and Godzilla to take the three-headed space bastard down. Think The Avengers, but forty five years earlier. And you can’t mention Mothra without mentioning the Shobijin (originally played by the pop duo The Peanuts, Yumi Itou and Emi Itou), tiny fairies who serve as the intermediaries between Mothra and humanity. This diminutive duo provide the spark for the original Mothra story, as they are kidnapped by a ruthless show-biz promoter (who also happens to be an agent of an antagonistic foreign power, Rolisica – a combo of the U.S. and Russia) which triggers Mothra’s birth and subsequent attack on Tokyo. Without a doubt, Mothra is the baddest assest moth you’re ever going to come across. — Paul Brian McCoy King Ghidorah King Ghidorah! The three-headed space dragon! The big bad who originally inspired the three-way team-up of Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra in order to save the planet! Just like Loki’s space minions inspired Cap, Thor, and Iron Man to team-up to form the Avengers. I’m not letting that one go, folks. Godzilla has battled many monsters over his Sixty year run, but none of them match up to King Ghidorah, regardless of whether we’re talking about the Shōwa era, the Heisei series, or the Millennium series. Through every incarnation, this armless, three-headed dragon was the one that set the tone (except for that one time he was a good guy). But he’s not just Godzilla’s biggest threat; he’s also crossed over into two of Mothra’s three solo films in the late Nineties and made an appearance in two episodes of Zone Fighter back in 1973, where he was the only monster other than Godzilla that didn’t get killed by the titular Zone Fighter! Because that’s how King Ghidorah rolls. The only bad thing about the King is that he’s pretty easily influenced by alien races. More often than not, if King Ghidorah shows up, you can bet your sweet bippy that he’s the herald of an invasion plot by space aliens (or time-travelers). Despite not having a lot of independent agency, King Ghidorah, with his lightning/energy breath and wings that cause hurricane-force winds, is a Wizard of Mass Destruction. And as Dr. Girlfriend says, he’s just cool. — Paul Brian McCoy Gigan In all of daikaiju-land, Gigan was the first to do something awesome; something no other giant monster had done before. He made Godzilla bleed. Just let that sink in for a moment. In all the battles that Godzilla has been in since his first appearance, it was Gigan who drew first blood. And no wonder. As a giant monster, Gigan is pure character design—if a monster were going to be built strictly according to the Rule of Cool instead of anything resembling logic. Seriously, take a look at that thing. Giant, slicing hook-blades for hands and feet; a massive pincer snout that looks like a cross between a Japanese fighting beetle and a phorusrhacidea (affectionately known as terror birds); laser-beam eyes; and let’s not forget a ginormous goddam table saw protruding from its belly. Gigan was clearly designed by someone who looked at all the other towering beasts of destruction that make up Godzilla’s world and thought … “Let’s weaponize that.” Granted, as cool as he is, Gigan’s films haven’t quite lived up to his potential. His first film, Godzilla vs. Gigan is a schizophrenic mess that can’t decide if it wants to stay a Godzilla kiddie flick or to push the boundaries towards brutality and violence. On the one hand you have a bunch of hippies building a Peace Park with “Godzilla’s Tower” at the center—and anyone putting anything to do with Godzilla into a Peace Park has clearly lost their minds—and on the other hand you have Gigan, the most brutally designed daikaiju ever to grace the screen, spinning and clawing and splashing blood, slicing off chunks of flesh like he stepped out of some giant monster version of the Saw franchise—What he does to sweet little puppy-like Anguirus is just disturbing. Later flicks gave Gigan a fairer shake, but he rarely lived up to his full potential. He returned in Godzilla vs. Megalon, where he had the humiliation of being beaten by Jet Jaguar of all people. Then he popped up in Zone Fighter where he managed to get killed. Finally in Godzilla: Final Wars Gigan was treated as a credible threat, and threw down with Mothra in an epic battle. You’ll just have to check out the movie to see how that went! — Zack Davisson Gamera Gamera has long been considered a bit of a joke in terms of the kaiju world. Created by Daiei Motion Picture Company to piggyback off the success of Toho’s Godzilla, the franchise quickly found its audience among children and catered to them with a rock-‘em-sock-‘em rubber-suited monster aesthetic that would have been difficult to ever take seriously even under the best of conditions, much less as a goofy knockoff of Big G. Whereas Shōwa -era Godzilla took its time devolving into such campy madness, Gamera was there almost from the start. Even if he weren’t being pitched as “…A Friend To All Children!” the relatively low budgets and slapdash scripting Daiei was working with practically insured that Gamera’s films were destined to end up as prime Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder. And let’s not forget that Gamera is essentially a 220-foot tall fire-breathing giant turtle that flies through the air by retracting into his shell and farting out jets of flame to spin like a firework pinwheel. Gravitas was not a major selling point of his early resume. Then something amazing happened. In 1995, around the mid-point of Godzilla’s Hesei era, Shusuke Kaneko resurrected the giant space turtle to tremendous acclaim in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. The film is a slice of kaiju heaven that catered directly to fan’s fond memories of Gamera while updating him in a way that stripped clean the camp and left us with a badass giant monster hero. While Gamera’s heroic side is left intact, the film also touches on the abject terror of living through a kaiju attack in the form of the film’s antagonist the Gyaos. Whereas Shōwa -era Gyaos was a poor-man’s Rodan, the Gyaos of Kaneko’s film are smaller and sleeker and there are several of them wreaking havoc throughout Japan. Gamera emerges to do battle with the beasties, and it’s here that we see the kaiju genre grow suddenly by leaps and bounds. Taking a page from the then burgeoning tatsunoko scene, Kaneko’s Gamera is lightning-quick and possesses a unique martial-arts-influenced fighting style. While Godzilla films of the time continued to depict kaiju as slow and lumbering, Gamera is a fireball of fast-paced action. By the time the final Gyaos has mutated into a giant Super Gyaos, Gamera has proven himself a force to be reckoned with. The film also includes some brilliant homage in Gamera’s origin story as it relates to the Godfather of Kaiju, Godzilla. Whereas the original Godzilla origin is often seen as an anti-nuclear allegory, this film sends a clear anti-pollution message. That’s not to say that Gamera is depicted as some kind of kaiju Captain Planet, it’s more of a progression from utilizing the fear of nuclear war as a backdrop for a monster story to discussing how humanity is destroying the planet with pollution and waste. How when the scale is tipped to far, Gyaos and Gamera appear to very literally battle it out for the fate of the Earth. I bought a bootleg VHS copy of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe without any idea what I was getting into. I’d asked the guy who sold it to me if he had any Godzilla films (the Hesei-era was particularly hard to lay hands on in the US at the time) and he offered me this instead. I believe his exact words were “If you like Godzilla, this is going to blow your fucking mind.” He couldn’t have been more right. The film spawned two sequels of equal (if not increased) caliber, and the trilogy elevated Gamera’s status from running joke to serious contender amongst kaiju fans. Those interested in checking it out can find the trilogy on blu-ray for under ten bucks, about a third of what I paid for that bootleg containing only the first film back in the day. The films hold up about as well as any 90’s era Godzilla flick; Kaneko managed to get a hell of a bang for his special-effects buck. As large-scale interest in kaiju film seems cyclical, it would be 7 years before Gamera returned to the screen in Gamera The Brave. This Millenium-era effort does a decent job of balancing the character’s early roots with the Gamera we came to know in the trilogy, but ultimately dismisses the continuity of the trilogy to focus on a much more kid-friendly take that picks up where the Shōwa -era left off. While Gamera The Brave packs some emotional punch as the child protagonist raises the creature from a mere hatchling, it’s all ultimately undermined by a lean budget and lack of imagination. Rumors are that a new film may go into production this year, here’s hoping it lives up to the standard set by the Guardian of the Universe trilogy. — Adam Barraclough Daimajin Tell me your favorite daikaiju is Daimajin, and I know something about you. You’re a little bit more sophisticated than your fellow giant monster fans. You expect a little more substance with your titanic battles, a little more depth to accompany the visceral enjoyment of a man-in-suit monster smashing around on miniature models. You want tears and emotion, loss and hardship. Maybe even a political stance. Daimajin is the graphic novel of the daikaiju genre. It’s a series that needs no explanation of guilty pleasure, no embarrassment. Daimajin took the daikaiju genre into more somber territory, combining the depth and story of the samurai genre along with a giant man in a rubber suit destroying things. The three films in the Daimajin Trilogy were filmed simultaneously with different directors but similar themes. The special effects are impressive, amongst the best of the ‘60s kaiju films. The series is heavily influenced by Japan’s native Shinto religion. Almost every village worth its soy sauce has a nearby mountain occupied by a mighty protector spirit. Many of these have local legends about how, in times of strife, these gods will rise up and protect their chosen village. That forms the base of the Daimajin films, with the Great Grey God coming to life at the last minute to rain stony justice on those who would wrong the innocent. The Daimajin films are not without their political bent—you can see the glimmer of socialism as the great monster rises up to defend the poor who are being exploited without pity by rich masters. There are also shades of the Jewish legend of the Golem, the creature of earth brought to life by faith and the holy spirit to defend those who cannot defend themselves. There are shades of other philosophical bents here as well, to be discovered if you care to explore them. Or … Daimajin is just a cool genre mash-up of daikaiju and samurai flicks, complete with all the melodrama and over-the-top scenes you would expect of something like that. Either way, the Daimajin flicks are fantastic. And you should watch them all. — Zack Davisson Godzilla There are many Godzillas, but the Godzilla that most people think of first is the classic Shōwa series (1954 – 1975) incarnation; you know, the one with personality. After the false start of Godzilla Raids Again in 1955 (a film rushed into production in order to make a quick yen) the big green bastard wouldn’t be seen again on-screen until 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, because who else could face off against Godzilla but the godfather of daikaiju himself? But as popular as King Kong vs. Godzilla was around the world, it wasn’t very good. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) got everything right and became the template for what would be the Shōwa series, but from here on out Godzilla would be the hero. Although he was a reluctant hero at first, refusing to help out when Ghidorah first attacks later that year in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, but at the urging of Mothra, he joins in (with Rodan) and the three of them form the world’s first movie super-team (beating The Avengers to the punch by almost Sixty years!! I told you I wasn’t letting that go!). This Godzilla is a bruiser. He loves to roughhouse and doesn’t mind tearing up the countryside to get his fight on. There’s a bit of Toshiro Mifune in him, to be quite honest; especially as the series went on. While the series itself lost focus, moving into more child-friendly films (Son of Godzilla, All Monsters Attack), just plain strange choices (Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Godzilla vs. Gigan) and the occasional return to bad-ass glory (Destroy All Monsters, Terror of Mechagodzilla), one thing remained the same. Godzilla was a cantankerous brawler who never turned down a good fight and always had fun doing it. No matter how silly the plots became, Godzilla always gave it everything and whether he was stomping on pollution monsters, fighting ape-faced aliens, or tearing down a Godzilla-themed amusement park, he kicked ass. With 1984’s Return of Godzilla, however, things changed. The Shōwa series was rebooted as the Heisei series (1984 – 1995), and this run of films were treated as direct sequels to the original 1954 film, ignoring everything that had come before. These films were more science fiction oriented (although The Cosmos itself became a character of sorts as the movies went on, lending it a fantastical element) as opposed to the family-friendly fantasy approach the Shōwa series had evolved into. As such, this Godzilla was much more a force of nature in line with the original appearance. Personality-wise, this Godzilla was a straight up monster that needed to be defeated in order to keep Japan, and the world, safe. However the portrayal became more sympathetic as the series continued until he was finally killed in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (where he passed on the mantle of King of the Monsters to Godzilla Jr. who was much more human-friendly). The Millennium series (1999 – 2004) had a different mandate than previous entries, with five different timelines spread over the six films. Godzilla 2000, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, Godzilla against Mechagodzilla, and Godzilla: Final Wars are all considered direct sequels to the original film – with Godzilla vs. Megaguirus serving as sequel to Godzilla 2000, and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. being a sequel to Godzilla against Mechagodzilla. Godzilla in these films varied from project to project, sometimes being a raging animal, sometimes being a sympathetic hero. While these and the films in the Heisei series are popular in themselves, opening up the films to new generations of fans who were craving more serious approaches to the character, it’s the original Shōwa series Godzilla that is responsible for the current fandom despite the silliness of some of the films. I mean, how can you not love this guy? — Paul Brian McCoy Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.