A kaiju is a bit like obscenity: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. They must be gigantic, of course, and preferably either reptilian or insectile in nature, though there’s some room for flexibility on that point. (Is King Kong a kaiju? While Legendary’s new MonsterVerse thinks so, we’ll leave it to you, our readers, to debate that question in the comments.) Stomping on a major metropolitan area or two is a must, and the creature must be a work of pure imagination—or a ripoff of another original creature concept—rather than a mythological creature like a dragon or a real-life monster like the T. rex.
Defining the kaiju becomes even more important when we step outside of the cinematic world of original kaiju powerhouse Toho, the Japanese film studio that unleashed Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla onto the world in 1954. Toho created, and owns the rights to, dozens of giant movie monsters, from Godzilla himself to more obscure kaiju like Ebirah, an 164-foot-tall space shrimp. But while Toho arguably still dominates the kaiju market—all of the new creatures featured in Godzilla: King Of The Monsters are Toho creations, and the company is billed alongside Warner Bros. in the film’s credits—you can’t copyright the overall concept of a giant monster with destruction on its mind. The kaiju concept has appeared in locations as far-flung as Denmark and genres as unexpected as the indie dramedy, and we’ve rounded up 12 non-Toho kaiju movies that stand on their own merits.
Like Toho’s original Godzilla, J.J. Abrams released his first big “mystery box” blockbuster, Cloverfield, less than a decade after a transformative national tragedy. Also like the original Godzilla, Cloverfield featured monstrous manifestations of said trauma, and employed cutting-edge special effects and filmmaking tricks to wow audiences while exploring society’s technological fears. When a young, beautiful Brooklyn socialite’s going-away party is rudely interrupted by the arrival of very pissed-off sea monster with the Statue Of Liberty’s head for a party favor, Cloverfield quickly becomes a rescue mission through the boroughs of NYC, complete with military skirmishes, icky giant sea-lice creatures, and a surprisingly bleak finale as far as kaiju films go. What separates Cloverfield from other monster movies is its reliance on the “found footage” trope made popular by The Blair Witch Project and a slew of subsequent horror releases of the mid- to late-2000s. It also featured a well-designed alternate-reality game and viral marketing campaign as a lead-in, providing a nice mystery for fans to unravel. While the shaky-cam point-of-view style might disorient those with weaker stomachs, the film still does a nice job of emphasizing sheer kaiju size and calamity, and provides a more personal, eerie touch to the image of citizens wandering dazed around a familiarly ashy, panicked New York. [Andrew Paul]
Every generation gets the heroic turtle that it deserves, and while it took Godzilla three movies to turn face, Daiei Films’ own Gamera was a “friend to all children” from the outset, befriending misunderstood turtle enthusiast Toshiro in his 1958 debut. Less political statement and more eco-horror than the original Godzilla, Gamera, The Giant Monster comments on the human race’s environmental abuse, as well as our misunderstanding of our own world. In the end, with Gamera’s only weakness apparently being plastic straws, the earthbound scientists shuttle the big guy off to Mars rather than destroy him, opening the door for the flying turtle’s eventual comeback. Gamera would indeed return for several more cinematic adventures, facing off against a rogues’ gallery of some of the weirdest and wildest kaiju designs of the ’60s and ’70s: There’s Zigra, the deep-sea monster, as well as Gyaos with the laser breath, and Guiron with a head that slices and dices. Gamera, much like Batman, has been portrayed a number of ways over the years, from a bio-engineered guardian of Earth to a force of nature. Also like Batman, he only uses violence when he absolutely has to, never retaliating against the Japanese military even as it routinely attacks him. [Mike Vanderbilt]
Part murder mystery, part mob caper, and part Aztec apocalypse, late cult schlock icon Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent might be the oddest giant monster movie of all time. Above the grimy streets of early ’80s NYC, Quetzalcoatl—the feathered snake-god of Mesoamerican antiquity—takes up residence inside the Chrysler Building’s belfry, where it promptly begins swooping down to feed on unsuspecting rooftop sunbathers and window washers. The cast of character actors includes David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, with Michael Moriarty giving it his all as a cowardly sad-sack jazz pianist roped into a jewelry store heist who then discovers Q’s high-rise nest through—look, it’s a long story. Suffice to say, Moriarty does what any guy who finds an Aztec snake-bird-god’s lair would do: He blackmails the NYPD into granting him a “Nixonlike” pardon for his crimes in exchange for information on Q’s whereabouts. As we said, it’s an extremely odd monster movie. There’s also a ritualistic Aztec human sacrifice subplot that somewhat ties into the larger arc, but given that Cohen apparently wrote the film in six days, it’s understandable there’s a few loose ends by the end credits. That said, Q is worth a watch, if only for Moriarty’s surprisingly dedicated performance alongside a giant bird-monster puppet. [Andrew Paul]
It makes perfect sense that Japan’s kaiju phenomenon eventually spread to the neighboring country of South Korea—a country that, by the time the homegrown creature feature Yongary, Monster From The Deep premiered in 1967, was suffering from some intense nuclear anxiety of its own. (North Korea’s nuclear program, though ostensibly peaceful at the time, began in 1963.) And despite the change in both physical and cultural environs, Yongary is extremely similar in tone to a classic mid-’60s Toho monster movie, complete with the requisite precocious (or irritating, depending on how you look at it) kid. Yongary also bears a striking resemblance to the king of the monsters himself, at least from the waist down. Above the waist, his red eyes and laser unicorn horn set him apart—as do his sweet dance moves and appetite for crude oil, which the monster slurps up by the tankerful even though it seems to give him a terrible stomachache. Further fine points must be made regarding the film’s director, Kim Ki-duk, who is not the same person as the Un Certain Regard-winning director of early ’00s arthouse hits like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring. They just happen to have the same name. [Katie Rife]
In the opening scene of Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, a U.S. military official at a South Korean facility orders his assistant to dump a large quantity of formaldehyde down the drain, essentially poisoning the Han River. With that kind of setup, you know it won’t be too long before the sightings of a deformed creature lurking in the water begin. Early on in the film, the creature attacks a group of ordinary citizens hanging out close to the shore and kidnaps Hyun-seo, a young delivery man’s daughter. Kaiju movies (and monster movies in general) are no stranger to themes of environmental destruction and its long-term effects. And that’s certainly true with The Host, which is said to have been inspired by an incident in the early ’00s where U.S. military officials really did dispose of formaldehyde by just pouring it down the drain. Although not outrightly anti-American, the film unpacks many of the issues South Koreans had with the incident, and its many political implications. [Tamika Jones]
If there was a cinematic trend sweeping Asia in the ’70s, Hong Kong’s legendary Shaw Brothers Studios was eager to jump on it. And that is how the sublimely silly 1975 kaiju hybrid Princess Dragon Mom was born. Technically, the movie incorporates elements of multiple tokusatsu subgenres by featuring robot superheroes as well as their rubber-suited foes. But while the monster minions of whip-wielding Viking space dominatrix Princess Dragon Mom start out human-sized, they have the power to grow to humongous kaiju proportions, and that’s good enough for us. (They’re also supposed to be “as intelligent as the most up-to-date supercomputers,” though you’d never be able to deduce that from their actions.) Between the psychedelic kitsch of its ’70s sci-fi aesthetics and the endearingly hammy voice performances on the English dub, The Super Inframan has everything kaiju fans could ever want in a movie. But don’t take our word for it: The creative team behind the new Mystery Science 3000 copied the design of Princess Dragon Mom’s skeleton army to create Kinga Forrester’s minions on MST3K: The Return, and if that’s not an endorsement, we don’t know what is. [Katie Rife]
Right up front, Pacific Rim makes a common mistake in modern kaiju films: hiding the monsters behind computer-generated rain and fog. If 50 years of giant-monster cinema has taught us anything, it’s that audiences don’t care if the monster looks cheap or cheesy. Just have a man in a suit (or a CGI facsimile) tear down some power lines and destroy a major city, and everything will be great. But where Pacific Rim’s monsters—mostly Lovecraftian tentacle creatures with little personality—come up short, its Jaeger mech suits are the coolest giant robots this side of Jet Jaguar. The kaiju in Pacific Rim are merely fine, but the film provides more than enough “stand up and cheer” moments in its ultra-cool battle scenes, like when the heroic Gipsy Danger’s chain sword lays waste to some big, bad monsters. As far as American kaiju films go, Pacific Rim is no Kong: Skull Island, but John C. Reilly is the real beast to compete with in that one. [Mike Vanderbilt]
The X From Outer Space is arguably the grooviest kaiju film, and the only one in the Criterion Collection other than the Big G himself. Punctuated by a swinging bossa nova score, the film’s sets pop with brash midcentury color design. The first half of the film features a team of scientists—including no-nonsense proto-Ripley Peggy Neal—on a mission to Mars that ultimately fails. But the team returns to Earth with a piece of a flying saucer—a fragment that evolves into the film’s big bad, Guilala. Red-eyed and scaly with a noggin that resembles a spaceship with a beak, Guilala is a classically styled kaiju that looks like he could go round for round with Spectreman on your local UHF station. When the inevitable destruction begins, X delivers everything audiences want out of a man in a suit stomping his way across Japan: He swats at fighter jets as terrified locals scatter in terror, tears down power lines, stomps a bridge, and—to paraphrase Blue Oyster Cult—picks up a boat and throws it back down. Devoid of political and social commentary (minus a brief mention of the A bomb), The X From Outer Space stands out as one of the most swinging man-in-a-rubber-suit monster flicks. [Mike Vanderbilt]
One of the most egregious examples of blatantly ripping off Toho, Gorgo was Britain’s answer to Godzilla without any of the subtext, artistic eye, ingenuity, or staying power. Still, there’s a certain charm to watching stern-looking Irish fishermen scurry around to avoid a remarkably familiar-looking giant green lizard stomping through seaside villages before being captured and hauled back to London for study. The titular kaiju might seem a bit disappointingly small compared to other films’ monsters, but that’s because—twist!—Gorgo himself is only a baby at 65 meters tall. And unfortunately for the Brits, his fully grown mother by the name of Ogra shows up in London looking for her missing child. In some ways, Gorgo was an innovative kaiju film for its time. Whereas most monster movies until that point framed their title creatures as fearful, destructive foes, director Eugène Lourié and the film’s screenwriters portrayed their creations as sympathetic victims of human greed and exploitation. The movie also used highly regarded special effects for the time, and Gorgo’s got a pretty cool design, complete with adorable bat ears—a potential nod to Godzilla’s original sketches, which included ears as well. [Andrew Paul]
“Every Country Has A Monster” from Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is the unofficial theme song for this particular Inventory, and it just wouldn’t be right to exclude the film being riffed in that particular episode. Reptilicus is ostensibly the Dutch answer to Godzilla, but that comparison is shaky for several reasons: First, two versions of the film, one in English and one in Dutch and both featuring the same casts, were filmed simultaneously; the American version was heavily edited by distributor AIP, resulting in a typical atomic-era sci-fi creature feature where everyone just so happens to have Dutch last names. Second, the plot of the film resembles a B-movie version of The Shape Of Water—minus the romance, of course—as much as it does a Godzilla movie. Third, the monster itself sucks. It looks like a parade float with scales and wings taped to it. All of which is to say, you might as well watch the MST3K version of Reptilicus, which is very funny and does come recommended. [Katie Rife]
In contrast to nearly every other monster movie ever made, the human drama of Pulgasari is more interesting than the monster itself. The film has gained a cult following in the years since its release in 1985, mostly because of its backstory: Pulgasari has the dubious distinction of being the final film made by South Korean director Shin Sang-ok during his captivity in North Korea. Shin and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, were kidnapped on the orders of movie-mad dictator Kim Jong-Il in 1978 and brought to North Korea to make propaganda films; Kim was a lifelong fan of Godzilla, and so one of the movies he forced Shin to produce was a new type of movie monster, one with values consistent with the revolutionary communism preached by the North Korean state. Enter Pulgasari, a kaiju who eats metal and assists an army of peasants in overthrowing a corrupt monarchy in feudal Korea. In the end, however, Pulgasari’s destructive nature makes him a danger to the people he’s supposed to serve, a plot point that’s been posited as a bit of a “fuck you” from Shin to his captor. [Katie Rife]
Foregrounding human drama in a different way than Pulgasari, the inner turmoil of Anne Hathaway’s Gloria, a once-promising writer now plagued by financial woes and substance abuse, is the most compelling part of Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal. After Gloria is dumped, kicked out of her apartment, and forced to move back to her hometown, her pain and shortcomings start manifesting into a real-life giant monster terrorizing the citizens of Seoul. By portraying Gloria’s “demons” this way, Vigalondo showcases how one’s issues, if not properly addressed, can have detrimental effects that we may not be fully conscious of. It’s only when Gloria reflects on herself that she can see that she is, indeed, the monster, and can make permanent life changes to save herself and those around her. [Tamika Jones]