A Few Non-Godzilla Kaiju Movies

Rodan

Rodan was Toho’s first color kaiju film, and Honda’s team really did a phenomenal job with all of the visual aspects in this very first outing. There are some stunning matte paintings and the miniature work is up to par with any of the early Godzilla movies. The destruction of Fukuoka is a particularly inspired sequence, and a bit unique compared to other kaiju movies as the main mechanism of the city’s destruction is just the incredible winds generated by the two Rodans’ wings.

If you know me, you know I’m a much bigger fan of kaiju vs. kaiju action than I am with the disaster movie-style kaiju movies where humans are just running around trying to deal with the destruction caused by the kaiju and/or repel them. Still, as far as that kind of narrative goes, Rodan is another worthy entry into the genre.

What really stands out for me about Rodan is its ending, which has the human characters reacting with even more explicit sympathy to the death of the two Rodans than they did to Godzilla’s death in the 1954 film that started the entire genre. Ifukube’s score is hauntingly beautiful in both scenes, but while much of the sympathy in Godzilla seemed to focus on Dr. Serizawa, in Rodan it’s unmistakably directed towards the two “monsters.” If it wasn’t obvious enough from the lingering focus on the complicated facial reactions each character has to what they’re seeing, the moment when Kiyo buries her face in Shigeru’s shoulder because she can’t stand the sight anymore is enough to have the audience almost joining her.

(B-Rank)

The Mysterians

This is basically like the inverse of all those Godzilla movies that include aliens. Instead of a kaiju movie that happens to have flying saucers in it, it’s a flying saucer movie that happens to have a kaiju in it. It ends up feeling a bit like a dress rehearsal for those few Godzilla movies that have a very strong alien/UFO subplot to them. But one very specific thing that Honda appears to have been working on here that he’ll use much sooner than bringing flying saucers back into the mix is the effect of having something very large rise out of the ground. This is how Honda will have Godzilla burst into the scene (literally) in Mothra vs. Godzilla seven years later, rather than his customary “just sorta wander in from the ocean lol” approach. And while the effect is drastically more impressive and effective in Mothra vs. Godzilla (it’s honestly one of the best shots in the entire series???), you can definitely see the first seeds of it here.

The alien ships aren’t exactly super interesting looking, nor do we even really get a close look at them. Certainly it’s a far cry from Harryhausen’s work in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers the year before. The big dome… ship? base?… thingy clearly had a little more effort put into it, though, and that was pretty interesting looking. The real disappointment is the aliens themselves, though. I mean, the aliens in Godzilla movies are nearly indistinguishable from humans aside from usually having shiny uniforms, so my expectations weren’t exactly sky high, but wow did these ever manage to find some unused space comfortably far below those expectations. Not only were they just kinda… dudes, they had these incredibly dorky, unflattering motorcycleish helmets that I just found impossible to appreciate. Like, I’m totally cool with aliens in movies like this being incredibly silly-looking, but these were just doing absolutely nothing for me, sorry.

You know what I really, genuinely did love, though? The ridiculous sound and visual effects of the heat rays. Just. More of that, always, please. I know it sounds like I’m being facetious here, but I absolutely swear I am not. Awful ray gun effects bring me joy. You know how some episodes of the original Star Trek have highly polished weapon effects, and others have the Enterprise firing beams of light that look like they were drawn with some kind of ridiculously huge neon crayon? I will always, always prefer the latter.

The story was… basically every cliche you can think of in an alien invasion movie. (I can honestly see myself kinda loving that if the movie had been more engaging as a whole.) Like yeah, okay, it’s pretty blatantly obvious that the whole thing is one big analog for xenophobia (… and it’s largely siding with the xenophobia, awkwardly), but I just have a soft spot in my heart for “they’re coming for our women!!!” sort of alien invasion movies if we’re far enough removed from the cultural moment during which they were made that there really isn’t any sting left in it.

It’s not all about xenophobia and women-abducting, though! The Mysterians are a doomed species specifically because they engaged in acts of nuclear war. Their nuclear war had the direct impact of destroying their planet (the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is supposedly largely composed of the remains of their planet), and it’s also heavily implied that the reason their species is teetering on the brink of extinction is due to the debilitating effects of radiation. And I’m sorry to be blunt, but criticisms of atomic weapons are fucking always going to have more weight when they come from Japan around this time period, because they’re still the only country in the world that’s actually been the victim of acts of nuclear war. (And honestly, America’s monster movies of the time just never even seem to be going for that anyway. There’s often an undercurrent of interest and anxiety about atomic power, but it just always feels a lot more… vague, and toothless.)

(D-Rank)

Varan

Only Ishirô Honda could take something like this, reportedly put basically no effort into it, and still end up with a passingly good movie out of it.

Daikaijū Baran was not Honda’s idea nor was it anyone at Toho’s. Rather, an American distributor commissioned Toho to produce a new, original giant monster movie that they could heavily edit and air on American television. This was largely inspired by the massive financial success of Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, which had been a tremendous return on investment for the American distributor considering how few resources they actually had to devote to it. As such, Honda was well aware that there wasn’t much point to giving the movie an interesting, moving story given that it was just going to be chopped up and used for spare parts. He had seen what the Americans did to Godzilla, after all. So he just threw together a relatively coherent movie and then moved on with his life. The thing is, even when his standards are that low, you still end up with a pretty damn solid movie.

Varan himself was pretty cool, and I’m honestly kind of sad we didn’t see him pop up in the myriad crossover movies that we’ll get as we move forward with Toho’s kaiju movies. I get that they probably weren’t entirely proud of him given his origin, but still. He’s got a pretty neat look, and is equally comfortable on four legs or two which is always interesting. My only big complaints are his roar (which is clearly just a recycled Godzilla roar) and those unbelievably stupid and misguided wing things. Luckily they’re only visible during the scene where they’re used, which would raise even more questions if I weren’t just grateful to see as little of them as possible. (Hi, I’m [Miles], and I have Opinions about kaiju design.)

As far as the movie itself, the ending… third, or so, was honestly pretty weak. The rest of the movie succeeded at getting me pretty excited to see Varan attack Tokyo, but the closer we got to that actually happening, the more obvious it became that it just wasn’t going to be particularly exciting. There is an extremely extended sequence of the Japanese Defense Force just trying throwing everything they can at Varan to stop him from getting to Tokyo, and in the end he makes landfall and menaces an airport but even that isn’t nearly as interesting as it sounds.

(C-Rank)

Mothra

The biggest thing that jumped out to me on this rewatch was about Mothra herself. As I’m increasingly becoming interested in the character of these kaiju rather than just in how fucking cool they look, Mothra is the only one that’s really giving Godzilla a serious run for his money in my heart. While Mothra does get the stereotypical introduction every kaiju gets if their first movie is a solo movie, that of being a menace that causes destruction and human suffering on a large scale, for Mothra this happens in an entirely different context than it normally does. Because Mothra’s story isn’t the simple story of a tragically large creature causing directionless destruction due to animalistic instinct. No, Mothra is immediately depicted as an intelligent, sympathetic character with very noble goals. Because Mothra is on a rescue mission. And honestly, every time the fairies said “Mothra is coming to rescue us” or “Mothra will come for us” it just made my heart swell. The destruction she causes in the process is of course still unfortunate, but it must be considered justified in light of her mission and what provoked it. And honestly, I just cannot accept it as mere coincidence that the first film featuring the only major female kaiju sees her on a mission to rescue two other women.

Mothra’s rampage doesn’t start because some foolish humans disturb her and she ends up destroying everything in her path like Godzilla, or “I don’t know just because” like Rodan. It starts when some cruel humans kidnap her twin fairy priestesses. And while you may rightly protest that it wasn’t Japan or the fictional country of Roliska as a whole at fault in this situation, even the fairies’ ostensible allies (the film’s protagonists) think only of protecting themselves and other humans when they give the capitalist pig who kidnapped them the means of preventing Mothra from hearing their song, which is a sort of distress call.

This isn’t the only thing about the movie I found myself thinking about a whole lot more deeply than the first time I watched it. Towards the end of the movie, the protagonists see a cross on top of a church with the sun behind it, and it reminds them of a symbol they saw on Mothra’s island associated with the worship of Mothra. Now, the first time I saw this movie, I was honestly a little put off by how heavy-handedly Christian this made the entire conclusion feel to me (I’m sorry if that’s something you’re a fan of, but I’m really not), but this time I luckily got an entirely different conclusion out of it. The way the film’s central conflict is resolved is when the “good” human characters treat Mothra as the fucking goddess she is. Seriously. They have her symbol reproduced in an enlarged form at the airport to draw Mothra away from the city, and have all the church bells in the fictional New Kirk City ring at the same time to get her attention. And the ultimate conclusion of the film is them handing the fairies back over to Mothra without any recriminations about the destruction she caused in her noble quest. They give her exactly what she wants, she leaves, and there’s even an optimistic suggestion of future friendship between her and the humans.

This is just godsdamned radical at this point in the history of kaiju films. (And it lays the groundwork for Godzilla to become a heroic character in the future, incidentally.) While both Godzilla and Rodan certainly ended on sympathetic notes towards their kaiju, they ended on tragically sympathetic notes. Mothra gives us our kaiju triumphant. Mothra gives us human characters who can only survive by worshiping the kaiju, in deed if not in heart, and giving her exactly what she wants.

(S-Rank)

Gorath

Apparently the reason this is listed as a kaiju movie is because the titular astronomical object shows back up in Godzilla: Final Wars, though in a drastically different form.

Kind of a run-of-the-mill “a thing is going to collide with the earth!” sort of space disaster movie except for the fact that the thing that’s going to collide with the earth is a fucking star. Since you can’t exactly land on a star and blow it up like every other “thing about to hit the earth” movie ever, instead they have to move the entire godsdamned earth out of the star’s way. I really don’t know a whole lot about planetary physics, but I kind of have to assume there’s no way that could work and not kill us all in the process. Anyone who knows a whole lot more about science than me, feel free to chime in here.

(C-Rank)

Atragon

Not a lot happening in this one, I’m afraid. Manda could’ve been a genuinely awesome kaiju if the movie had done much of anything with him. I think eastern dragons are pretty cool in general, and I especially like that this movie implied his main method of attack is coiling, but he’s in the movie for like all of two minutes.

As for the main plot, I just didn’t really dig the whole flying submarine thing (what’s the actual point of this???), and while I kind of get some of the social issues the character drama in this was supposed to be digging into, I just didn’t find any of the actual characters or their relationships remotely interesting.

I actually really like the overall idea of the lost continent of Mu (sort of a Pacific Atlantis) and its ancient empire wanting to reclaim their place in the world, and if it had been executed a bit better and if the kaiju stuff had been more interesting, I could easily see the basis for making a much more interesting kaiju movie about it. Ah well.

(D-Rank)

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