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?
The Godzilla Movies You Should See
Gojira: Easily the best of the series, and also the grimmest. The nuclear undertones here really make the movie.
Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah: All-Out Monsters Attack: A Millenium-era film, and one that treats Godzilla as a serious threat; it helps that it has some of the cleverest filmmaking of the series, and a strong score to go with it.
Mothra Vs. Godzilla (aka Godzilla Vs. The Thing): Probably one of the most lighthearted and lavish Godzilla movies, this can be a surprisingly funny mockery of consumerism.
Godzilla: Final Wars: Toho’s “final” Godzilla movie, and a hilarious blowout of a flick that marks one of the few points in the series where the humans are actually interesting enough to matter.
The Return Of Godzilla: Forget Godzilla 1985: The Japanese cut is far better; darker in tone, and just serious enough to work.
The Godzilla Movies So Bad They’re Good
Godzilla 2000: Normally I’d recommend avoiding the American cuts of a Godzilla movie, but first of all, the Japanese version is kind of “eh” as these things go, and secondly, the American dub team, left to their own devices, went for broke. They fill the dialogue with incidental jokes and puns, and it helps that the dub is actually pretty good; it matches the lip movements well and they don’t change the plot. It’s the Platonic ideal of a “cheesy Godzilla movie” as a result.
Godzilla Vs. Megalon: Famed, far and wide, as a trainwreck that MST3K took down, and for excellent reason. The script was a patchwork, Jet Jaguar was obviously created by a child (and is a shameless knockoff of Ultraman), and for various reasons, the American cuts (yes, there are several) are even worse. It’s a mess, but it’s a hilarious mess.
Godzilla Vs. Hedorah: What happens when a Godzilla movie gets pretentious? Hilarity, that’s what. Yoshimitsu Banno tried to make a Godzilla movie that reflected the New Wave of Japanese cinema at the time, and it… well, it has the virtue of being novel. And it just got a Blu-Ray release!
King Kong Vs. Godzilla: This movie is the source of this GIF:
And this one:
Really, do you need anything else?