The release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is rekindling warm memories of the destructive paths of favorites like Godzilla, Gamera, Rodan, King Kong, and Mothra that we witnessed while huddled around the television for Monster Week or a Thanksgiving marathon…because nothing says warm holiday cheer like some mutated beast mashing Tokyo into a fine powder.
But there are many unsung monster movies with forgotten kaiju that don’t get the play of the aforementioned beasties. A number of giant engines of fanged death have faded from the annals of monster history. Well, it’s time to remember these stalwart, lesser-remembered kaiju, the havoc they wrought, and the shattered civilizations they left behind!
First Appearance: Gappa: the Colossal Beast a.k.a Gappa: The Triphibian Monster and Monster from a Prehistoric Planet (1967)
Gappa was originally intended to be a parody of the kaiju genre, and if one watches the film in its native language, the light-hearted approach is evident. Awesomely, the parody did not survive the translation into English, and the American version plays it pretty straight. Gappa is the story of a prehistoric bird/fish/lizard thing found by Japanese scientists and brought to the mainland.
Turns out, there is a Mama and a Papa Gappa (Papa Gappa, Papa Gappa, man, that’s fun to say) that want their baby back…so they wreck Tokyo looking for junior. Some memorable moments include Mama Gappa feeding Baby Gappa a giant squid and Gappa wrecking a kabuki theatre mid-performance. Sounds good? Make no mistake, Gappa possesses a special kind of suck that made it a staple of late-night syndication for over two decades.
First Appearance: Great Monster Yongary (1967) a.k.a Yongary: Monster From the Deep
The Japanese don’t have a monopoly on rubber-suited bringers of fiery oblivion. South Korea produced their own kaiju legend with Yongary, a sort of horned-dragon looking thingamabeast. He kind of looks like if Gamera and Anguilas went on a drunken bender and their subsequent visit to Kaiju Planned Parenthood didn’t end well. Y’see there’s a bomb that causes an earthquake in the Middle East that awakens Yongary.
Yongary finds its way to Seoul where it consumes mass quantities of crude oil (y’think there was an America analogy going on here? Nah!) The Koreans use oil to lure Yongary in and kill it with ammonia or something. The movie was later remade in 1999 as Yongarry (‘cause the extra “r” is so modern) and it bombed horrifically. Korea tried again by reshooting part of the movie and re-releasing it as Reptilian in 2001. The remake of Great Monster Yongary was the most expensive South Korean film production ever. Maybe that makes Disney feel a little better about The Lone Ranger.
First Appearance: Pulgasari (1985)
This will be the single greatest story you have ever heard. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il (who my Chinese wife says looks like a giant baby…which is a fantastic kaiju idea no one has tried yet) really liked movies. He particularly liked the Godzilla franchise. So, like any good dictator, he sent North Korean black ops agents to kidnap South Korea’s greatest filmmaker Shin Sang-ok. Kim forced Shin to make Pulgasari, the tale of a metal-eating kaiju who helps free a peasant village from the hands of their oppressor and then turns on them by consuming all their farming equipment.
Pulgasari was a doll made out of rice crafted by an imprisoned blacksmith. When the doll comes into contact with the blacksmith’s daughter’s blood, it comes to life, at first defending the village before becoming a tyrant itself. This is clearly a thinly veiled shot at capitalism and by “thinly veiled,” I mean sledgehammer-to-the-nutsack obvious. Pulgasari was only one of seven movies Kim forced Shin to produce before the filmmaker escaped to America. Pulgasari has some pretty awesome special effects done by Teruyoshi Nakano and the staff from Japan’s Toho studios. Despite the horrific insanity, Shin took a liking to the movie and loosely remade it as The Adventures of Galgemeth in 1987.
First Appearance: King Kong Escapes (1967)
Gorosaurus does not possess the nuclear fire of Godzilla, the sonic boom speed of Rodan, or the might of Kong, but he makes up for it in sheer tenacity, and the Christ-like power to rise from the dead to defend the world. In King Kong Escapes, Kong faces of with Gorosaurus who wants to make a snack out of Kong’s human love interest. After a fierce battle in which Goro reveals his Jim Brunzell-esque dropkick, Kong snaps Goro’s jaw somehow forcing the dying prehistoric beast to aspirate bubble bath.
Fast forward to Destroy all Monsters (1968) where all of Earth’s monsters must gather to defeat the alien controlled Ghidorah. Gorosaurus seemingly resurrects to answer the call and somehow HE HAS GROWN ABOUT A HUNDRED FEET! During the battle, Goro unleashes his mighty dropkick on Ghidorah, turning the tide of battle. During the film, before the climactic battle, Gorosaurus was mind-controlled by the same aliens that unleash Ghidorah. He attacks France (good!) and the film mistakenly refers to Goro as Baragon despite the fact that Baragon later pops up in the Ghidorah battle. Ingrates.
First Appearance: Gorgo (1961)
Listen, Godzilla is awesome. King Kong is legendary, and Gamera is the coolest turtle to ever destroy a major Asian city…but none of them starred in a comic drawn by STEVE DITKO! Yeah, that’s right, in 1961-1965, Ditko drew the Gorgo comic series published by Charlton Comics which has recently been collected in a great hardcover by IDW. Godzilla had his own Marvel series and is still being published by IDW and Gamera had a cup of coffee with Dark Horse, but none of them were drawn by the co-creator of Spider-Man.
As for Gorgo the film, like Gappa, Gorgo was just a baby, after he attacks London and is finally captured and sold to a circus, Momma Gorgo (Ogra) shows up and unleashes hell on Jolly Old London. Gorgo is considered one of the kaiju greats despite the fact that it is the only film on the list not produced in Asia. The miniature work and special effects of the film hold up today making this film a true schlock classic.
First Appearance: Atragon (1963)
What could have been if it weren’t for submarines. Manda is the most unique looking kaiju in the Toho menagerie. He’s a giant freakin’ sea dragon with tiny little yucky legs and a serpentine body. When he first appears in Atragon, a film about the crew of a super submarine that must defend the world from invaders, Manda just looks like death on tiny little kicky legs. He has the classic Japanese dragon look and gave viewers a sense of imminent death and destruction. Until he is frozen by the super sub. Dammit!
Somewhere along the line, Manda must have been defrosted because he was one of the monsters that fell under alien control in Destroy All Monsters. Manda has a memorable scene in the movie using his serpent body to crush a bridge. There was even a sequence filmed where Manda was to take on Godzilla but it was cut. Not to worry, Manda shows up at the end of the film to take on Ghidorah, he dramatically arrives and is ready for battle…and does absolutely nothing during the fight.
This brings us to Godzilla: Final Wars, where Manda is given the honor of being the first kaiju to appear in the film. This must be it! Manda’s time to shine! It seemed clear the film would finally give Manda the spotlight he deserves, until he is frozen and killed by a super submarine. Oh, Manda, what could have been if only your name didn’t make it sound like you were half-man, half-Panda.
4. The Gargantuas
First Appearance: War of the Gargantuas (1966) also released as Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda versus Gaira
In the Japanese version of the film, the Garngantuas (Sanda and Gaira) spawned from the severed hand of the Frankenstein Monster from Frankenstein Conquers the World (you know more on him is coming) because who wouldn’t want to watch a movie about giant Frankenstein clones throwing down all over Japan? Sanda is a kindly brown Frankenstein clone raised in captivity; he is sweet and docile and likes people. Gaira was born in the wild sea and is a douche. Sanda must face off against Gaira to defend his adopted home. It’s all kind of like Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew except with huge, hairy, bestial creatures cloned from a nuclear-powered giant Frankenstein’s severed hand. Sanda spends the entire movie trying to stop Gaira from eating people until the two are engulfed in an underwater volcanic eruption. Tragic, really.
The English dubbed version removed all references to the Frankenstein monster from the film thus proving why American education lags behind Japan’s. The Gargantuas were set to return to take on Godzilla in the completely unironically titled Godzilla vs. the Garagantuas showing how high Toho initially was on the Gargantua concept, but alas, it was never meant to be.
First Appearance: Varan the Unbelievable (1968) also released as Giant Monster Varan
Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and Gamera are considered the Mount Rushmore of kaiju because they carried their own films. Well, Toho had one other kaiju star in his own standalone and it deserves recognition. In 1958, Toho produced Varan the Unbelievable, a film that is overlooked by even the world’s leading kaiju connoisseurs. Oddly enough, Varan’s story begins with pretty little butterflies. When two butterfly experts travel to a remote Japanese island in search of rare Siberian migrating butterflies they get killed by Varan because butterfly hunting is evidently really flippin’ dangerous. It all ends up with Varan attacking Tokyo and being tricked into eating a bunch of bombs and is killed by an explosion in his tummy. Maybe that’s why Varan is often overlooked…because he is clearly a moron.
Varan is a great looking creature, a flying lizard-like kaiju that is covered in points and spines. It’s a shame Varan never got to throw down with Godzilla as it would have been a hell of an impressive looking confrontation. Varan pops up in Destroy all Monsters and doesn’t do a blessed thing. But he will always have the distinct honor of starring in his own film. There is an English version of the film that had brand new scenes filmed starring all American actors interwoven with Varan’s attacks. It sucks.
First Appearance: Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) also released as Frankenstein versus Subterranean Monster Baragon
The tale of how Frankenstein’s Monster arrived at Toho films is a long and storied one. In the 1960s, legendary animator Willis O’Brien wrote a script treatment where a giant version of Frankenstein’s Monster would face off against King Kong. Hollywood didn’t bite, but Toho did. Toho was more interested in featuring their treasured Godzilla and produced King Kong vs. Godzilla instead. Toho became fascinated with the idea of Frankenstein and planned to produce Godzilla vs. Frankenstein. Toho eventually rejected the idea because Godzilla was still being used as a villain and they did not want him to put in the role of protector against Frankenstein, so they inserted a new monster, Baragon, into the script and produced Frankenstein Conquers the World. So what began in Willis O’Brien’s brain morphed into an amalgamation of madness.
The story begins with the traditional Frankenstein’s heart (the film may or may not continue from the Boris Karloff classic) being hit by a nuclear bomb. The cells of the heart turn into a boy who is clearly a sufferer of some kind of radiation attack. Stuff happens and when scientists try and severe one of the boy’s limbs for study (!) the boy runs off, eventually growing to immense size and fighting Baragon. It’s a long, complex, barely coherent piece of cinematic awesome sauce that needs to be seen to be believed. The film was made by Toho in conjunction with the U.S.’s UPA Pictures. The American producers desperately wanted a giant squid tacked onto the end. The scene was actually shot but rejected because it made absolutely no sense. The scene has been restored on the film’s DVD extras, thank God.
1. Japanese King Kong
First Appearance: Wasei Kingu Kongu (1933) and King Kong Appears in Edo (1938)
Any kaiju maven worth his salt knows about the Japanese Kong that appeared in King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes, but that was not the first Kong appearance in Japanese cinema…not even close. In 1933, a Japanese film company went ahead and made Wasei Kingu Kongu without the permission of RKO pictures. Only a single still of the film survives, but it has been suggested the film was a short feature, which makes sense since Japanese production companies of the day probably couldn’t have funded a full length feature. The film is believed, probably apocryphally, to be lost in one of America’s nuclear strikes of Japan. While probably not true, this legend has just increased monster fans’ fascination with this lost Kong short. Wasei Kingu Kongu would have been one of the first kaiju films and a true piece of kaiju history.
Even more fascinating is King Kong Appears in Edo, another film lost during World War II. The one newspaper ad that survives suggests an expensive, period production. Kong was not so much ape as some kind of mish-mash of mythical creatures who seems to be able to change size. These two films have teased historians for decades, and there is almost no hope of finding surviving prints as only 1% of Japanese cinema from this era survived World War II. But the very fact these lost monster films existed at some point in some form make them worth remembering. Fuminori Ohashi, creator of the first Godzilla suit, created the monster suit for King Kong Appears in Edo, further solidifying the film as a lost kaiju gem.