The Best Kaiju Films
As we researched the many Kaiju films out there for our series on Lunatics Radio Hour, we are putting together two lists. One on the best Kaiju films out there, and one on the campiest. Kaiju films, though often lumped together into a broad science-fiction or creature feature genre, span from light-hearted entertainment to political and social critique. Films like Godzilla, Shin Godzilla, and The Host are obvious in their commentary.
Here are the best and most impactful Kaiju films ever made.
Godzilla (1954) Directed by Ishirō Honda, Godzilla remains one of the most impactful and haunting creature films of all time. Godzilla is largely about the nuclear bombs that the United States dropped on Japan during World War II and the aftermath that the people of Japan endured. Godzilla’s black-and-white aesthetic only adds to its dramatic and tension-filled plot.
Godzilla has inspired 37 sequels and remakes, countless comic books, video games, books, and of course, tv shows. But Honda had no way of knowing the success that Godzilla would find. When he accepted the project, he knew it would be a risky career move for him. But he was committed to making Godzilla the best it could be, going as far as asking any crew members who weren’t fully sure about the project to leave before filming began.
The Host (2006) Directed by Bong Joon-ho, The Host was the highest-grossing Korean film of all time at the time of its release. The Host is ripe with social and political commentary. This commentary is evident but not overpowering.
Bong Joon-ho calls attention to the issues with bureaucracy (a common theme in Kaiju films) and government response to a crisis, especially through the lens of both the South Korean and United States governments. But at its core, The Host is also a story about family, perception, and finding your personal strength. I can’t get the imagery from this film out of my head. It’s horrifying and beautiful at the same time. Bong Joon-ho uses slow motion to make audiences feel like they are smack dab in the middle of a comic book.
Cloverfield (2008) Two years later, Cloverfield hit theaters. In addition to being a Kaiju movie, Cloverfield is also a found footage film. Cloverfield stars Lizzy Caplan, T.J. Miller, and Mike Vogel. It was written by Drew Goddard and directed by Matt Reeves.
Cloverfield takes us on a journey along with a group of New Yorkers who start their evening at a party until a giant monster starts to attack the city. Cloverfield has been met with relatively positive reviews from critics and viewers; it stands out as a Kaiju film that flirts with the horror genre.
Shin Godzilla (2016) In 2016, the world met Shin Godzilla (shin meaning new). The film was directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. Shin Godzilla’s social commentary is inescapable. Unlike The Host, which seamlessly weaves it into a believable plot, Shin Godzilla beats you over the head with its bumbling government officials who need to move conference rooms far too many times before being able to take action against the threat. Even though the lack of governmental agility is frustrating, it doesn’t spoil the experience of watching the film. It’s a treat. It also plays with a quick evolution of the monster, which feels super unique and disturbing.
Mothra (1961) Anyone who has ever seen Mothra loves Mothra. Directed by our friend Ishirō Honda (who also directed the original Godzilla), Mothra is based on a serialized novel called The Luminous Fairies and Mothra written by Shin'ichirō Nakamura. It was produced by the same production company as the original Godzilla, Toho Studios.
This film is the first time audiences met Mothra, but since 1961 she has been in almost twenty films. For anyone new to this Kaiju, Mothra is a…giant moth. My theory on why Mothra is so popular centers around her gentle power. In the film, an expedition travels to a remote island and discovers a peaceful society living in rhythm with nature. Mothra also comes with two tiny twin fairies, the Shobijin, the priestesses of Mothra.
Godzilla: King of The Monsters (2019) In 2014, Godzilla was rebooted, and five years later, this sequel was released. King of the Monsters was directed by Michael Dougherty and stars Millie Bobby Brown and Vera Farmiga. For me, this film belongs on this list because of the impressive special effects paired with a very compelling story.
King of The Monsters also has something for the hardcore fans of Kaiju films because we see King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan in addition to Godzilla. King of the Monsters is truly a modern visual spectacle in the best way.
Pacific Rim (2013) In 2013, Guillermo del Toro introduced audiences to a fresh take on the Kaiju genre. The general idea is that Kaiju are escaping from a dimensional tear at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In an effort to defend humanity, giant robots are created to take the ring.
Pacific Rim stars Charlie Hunnam and Idris Elba. In 2018, a sequel was released to less positive reviews.
Ultraman (1960s) Not a movie, but Ultraman deserves to be on this list. Ultraman was created by Eiji Tsuburaya, who was no stranger to the Kaiju and tokusatsu genres. Eiji Tsuburaya handled the special effects of the original Godzilla film from 1954.
In some ways similar thematically to Pacific Rim, The Ultras are an alien race that was once similar to humanity but has since evolved to be more like superheroes. I’m including Ultraman on this list (and not our favorite campy Kaiju list) because of the sense of justice and morality.
Gamera: Guardian of The Universe (1995) Guardian of The Universe is the first film in the Gamera franchise. For anyone not familiar with this franchise, Gamera is a giant turtle with the ability to both breathe fire and fly. Gamera was directed by Shusuke Kaneko. We love Gamera because of its protective qualities. Gamera’s duty is to defend Earth and humanity.
Kaiju films create a ripe landscape for this sort of commentary. Beyond the giant creature, audiences automatically expect a military response, destruction beyond repair, and political interference.