This Friday, an obscure movie we’ve barely talked about arrives in theaters. But this will be far from the first outing for Godzilla: In fact, this release marks his sixtieth anniversary and his thirtieth film. And you might want to see a few Godzilla movies for comparison, so, as somebody who’s seen far more of them than he’d like to admit, here’s a viewer’s guide.
Finding The Right Cuts
First of all, there’s a big difference between the “American” cuts of Godzilla movies and the Japanese cuts, not to mention in quality, especially when Devlin and Emmerich are involved. A lot of Godzilla movies will make more sense in the original Japanese. Well, to the degree that any movie about a giant nuclear lizard fighting space aliens the size of skyscrapers and talking to his frenemy the giant moth makes sense in the first place. But you get what I’m saying.
The problem was that, for decades, finding the Japanese cuts was a pain in the ass. Godzilla films were chopped up like salad and tossed together however it made sense. Similarly, the English dubs range from actually pretty good to mind-blowingly terrible. The dialogue just had to match the lip movements, not make a lick of sense, so you’ll hear things like “Awwwww, banana oil!”
This has been changing: Sony owns the American home video rights and lately has put out DVDs with both cuts. But check the back to make sure you’re not getting an already slightly incoherent movie turned into essentially dadaist art via editing.
Avoiding (Or Finding) The Really Bad Movies
Secondly, we need to talk about the eras of Godzilla. Yes, there are eras.
The Godzilla most people know and love is the Showa era Godzilla, the series of films starting at 1954 and concluding in 1975. This is where you’ll find the sheer concentrated goofiness of the series, bar the first two or three. The first stop is, of course, the original Gojira; watch the Japanese cut, which is a lot more serious and solemn than the American recut, and directly inspired the 2014 remake.
Some of these movies are actually pretty intentionally funny in their own right: Mothra Vs. Godzilla, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Dragon, and Destroy All Monsters are all Godzilla classics and highly recommended viewing. Some… well, some are Godzilla Vs. Megalon. As a general rule the further you get into the Showa era, the more the tightening budgets, kiddie focus, and general malaise of the Japanese film industry show, until you get stuff like this:
Oh, also, they’re jaw-droppingly racist. Admittedly, none of the Godzilla movies are as bad as the infamously insensitive Half Human, which basically said Japan’s native Ainu people were deformed inbred freaks. But there are a whole lot of extras in brown body paint playing “native peoples,” and it can be a little jarring.
The next era is the Heisei era, which ran from 1985 to 1995. The Heisei films are, as a rule, blandly competent; the special effects and suits are better, but fans (myself included) go back and forth on the relative merits. They’re rarely cheesy enough to be so bad they’re good, yet rarely good enough to be genuinely enjoyable on their own merits.
Finally, there’s the Millenium era. Arguably, this is the best era for Godzilla. In addition to one of the best Godzilla movies ever made, Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah: All Out Monsters Attack, Toho made the smart decision to not try and maintain continuity: Each one of these movies spins off the 1954 original, freeing up the filmmakers to do everything from goofy Godzilla to vicious, monstrous Godzilla.
It’s capped off with the absurd blowout Godzilla: Final Wars, where Godzilla essentially kicks the ass of every single kaiju Toho has featured in the series before retiring.
So, what to watch?