Godzilla is the King of the Monsters in more ways than one. However, there are a lot of fantastic Kaiju movies without Godzilla in them. Even narrowly defined as giant monster movies specifically from Japan, the Kaiju genre has a lot of fantastic films on offer. If that definition is broadened out and made less rigorous, then it’s truly a motherload of terrific, city-stomping action from around the globe.
Gamera: The Giant Monster: The first movie in the long-running franchise featuring a giant, fire-breathing, flying turtle. Gamera tears his way through Tokyo doing what angry, giant turtles do. There’s lots of destruction and a particularly great moment featuring a Japanese rock band trying to flee the wrath of the angry reptile.
Mothra: When Mothra was introduced in 1961 it was only to make things right. The “Shobijin” had been kidnapped. The “Shobijin” are, of course, the one-foot tall, telepathic, singing, female twins from Infant Island that are abducted and forced into show business. Mothra was having none of it. Although usually the most benevolent of all the Kaiju, she goes on a rampage in Tokyo and even manages to build a cocoon on the famed Tokyo Tower. The combination of peace-and-love weirdness and classic Godzilla style has rarely been topped.
King Kong (1933): The giant ape who would take on New York City after being kidnapped by evil capitalists from his tropical, island home. The famous battle on the top of the Empire State Building leaves viewers heartbroken that the great beast had to die. He’s not from Japan, and he wasn’t awakened by a nuclear bomb. However, the fact that he would reappear in Toho’s 1962 “King Kong vs Godzilla” makes it hard to argue against King Kong’s Kaiju credentials. More importantly, King Kong is one of the most well-developed and tragic creatures ever to hit the silver screen. Decades after Kong’s film debut, his demise still brings tears to viewers’ eyes.
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe: This 1995 film is considered by many Kaiju fans to be the best film of the genre during that decade. It featured a rebooted, angrier, Gamera as he defends the Earth against the Gyaos. The Gyaos are nasty, giant, Pterodactyl-like creatures. One of the many great scenes in the film involves an epic battle over the Fukuoka Dome baseball stadium.
Rodan: The 1956 stand-alone feature which introduced the giant Pteranodon, Rodan, to the world. Rodan would reappear later in a number of classic Godzilla films. It was Toho’s first Kaiju film made in color, making the destruction caused by his supersonic-flight-enabling wings against the Japanese Self-Defense Forces all the more enjoyable.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: A prehistoric dinosaur is awakened by an atomic bomb. He then goes on a rampage against a major city, wreaking havoc and destruction with every stomp. Sound familiar? This movie actually came out over a year before the first Godzilla film. It featured a dinosaur awakened by an atomic bomb which then attacked New York City.
Atragon: The lost continent of Mu reappears and decides it wants to rule the entire world. Only a crew of heroes on the undersea warship, Atragon, can save mankind. However, to do so they must defeat the giant serpent Manda.
Pacific Rim: Monsters, mechas and mayhem. This big-budget epic was directed by Guillermo del Toro in 2013. Mankind does battle against a race of colossal sea monsters which have emerged from an interdimensional portal on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Humans then assemble an army of Jaegers, or giant mechas, to battle them. Fighting and destruction ensue. For the true Kaiju fan, there’s way too much robot/mecha stuff in this film. But it’s still got some great-looking creatures and a budget that allows for some beautiful destruction.
The Host: The film was made by Bong Joon-ho, the director of the groundbreaking Oscar-winner, “Parasite.” It was largely inspired by a true-life incident involving a Korean who was ordered by the US military to dump toxic chemicals into a river. In The Host, contaminants from an American research facility create a giant mutated carp in the Han River. It modernized the Kaiju genre and put a very satirical, South Korean spin on it. It premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Not a bad debut for a movie featuring an over-sized, very ugly, mutant fish.
The War of the Gargantuas: It’s a tale of two brothers. They just happen to be furry and very, very, large brothers. One is named Sanda and one is named Gaira. Gaira does things like attack Haneda Airport and eat people. Sanda tries to stop him.The humans mostly sit there and watch until the very end when they have to decide which of the brothers lives and which dies. It’s all very tragic. Almost like something the Greeks would think up, but with some building-smashing and people-eating thrown in.
Them: Nuclear bombs are tested. Giant ants attack Los Angeles. Sewers become battlegrounds. It’s Kaiju, American-style, from 1954. It’s odd how few times Los Angeles seems to get wiped out compared to Tokyo or New York. It may, among other reasons, have something to do with the density of those urban environments. LA just doesn’t look as cool getting turned into rubble. But this movie uses LA well, with both its sewers and concrete riverbed featured prominently.
The X From Outer Space: Some viewers can’t help but be reminded of a giant chicken. However, Guilala is no slouch when it comes to destruction. He’s actually the product of spores accidentally brought back from Mars. He grows into the giant beast known as Guilala and attacks Tokyo. Only bombs containing a top secret substance known as “Guilalalium” might be able to stop him. But will they? Yes, it’s silly. But what did you expect from Shochiku, a studio known for its period dramas and art house films? The company’s brief attempt to cash in on the hot sci-fi movie market was met with mixed success. Shochiku did make one very solid sci-fi effort called Genocide. But The X from Outer Space isn’t that. This film is about abandoning yourself to the whims of the giant chicken creature and just going with it in all its goofy glory.
Death Kappa: This 2010 film from Japan is one of the more unusual films in the kaiju genre. Its plot involves a group of scientists who set off an atomic bomb and accidentally create a monster called Hangyolas. The only thing that can save the city is the local water goblin, or Kappa, who has mutated into a giant Death Kappa. The two creatures duke it out and all is well. A little funny and a lot weird. Death Kappa is certainly unique
Gorgo: This 1961 production features not one, but two, giant dinosaurs stomping familiar London landmarks into rubble. The first, and smaller of the two, is named Gorgo. The second is the much, much, larger Ogra, who just happens to be Gorgo’s mother. She’s not someone you want to get angry.
Space Amoeba: This movie was directed by the Ishiro Honda, the man that brought you “Godzilla” and many other Kaiju classics. Amoeba-like aliens arrive on Earth and decide to conquer it. If that weren’t evil enough, things start to get really ugly when the aliens create an army of giant, mutated, sea creatures to do their bidding. There were some serious budget issues with the film which are very apparent in the final product. In spite of that, there’s enough Kaiju-on-Kaiju action to make Space Amoeba a silly but worthy contender.
I know there are a lot of folks out there just like me. People that get into a certain mood and can’t get enough city stomping and giant monster fighting in their lives. I’m sure I’ve accidentally left off some great films from this list. Please help me out with that and leave any other Kaiju suggestions in the comments section.
Godzilla deserves his place as the King, to be sure. But let’s not overlook the others. It’s a great big Kaiju world out there.
Please Note: Another version of this article has appeared on Ranker.com. The article’s concept and content (other than photos) are, however, all mine.