With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound, Godzilla (or Gojira, as his first movie was called in his native land) burst onto Japanese movie screens in 1954 as a frightening, melancholy metaphor for the nuclear nightmare that descended upon Japan just nine years earlier at the close of World War II.
Released in the U.S. two years later as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (with additional footage starring American actor Raymond Burr), that debut was such a success that it launched what has become the longest running franchise in film history, spanning 35 films (32 from Japan’s Toho Studios, three from Hollywood) over the course of 65 years and creating a genre known as the kaiju eiga (monster movie).
The Toho films have been separated into four distinct eras, and now the Criterion Collection — the elite showcase label for classic cinema — has compiled all 15 films of the first, known as the Showa Era, into a deluxe Blu-ray box set packed with commentary, bonus supplements (including rare archival features) and historical context. The fact that Criterion chose this series to celebrate as the company’s 1,000th release is a testimony to Godzilla’s staying power as both entertainment and cultural touchstone.
Of course, many of the Godzilla movies over the years (including some of the most recent ones) have not been of the highest quality, including a number of the entries from that first, memorable Showa Era. But that initial stretch of titles, beginning in 1954 and ending in 1975, established many of the series’ most beloved recurring elements and motifs even if they were noticeably wobbly as filmmaking.
While diehard Godzilla fans will watch all the movies in the Criterion set with a mix of glee, awe and loving patience, we thought that a ranking of the films from the bottom up might prove a useful guide to both the longtime devotee and the newcomer. Your mileage may vary from ours, but there’s no question that these movies remain etched in the memories of generations of viewers. When you’re a 400-foot-tall lizard, you tend to cast a hell of a long shadow.
15. Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
This late entry in the original Showa series was not even originally intended as a Godzilla movie, and it shows. Padded with stock footage and bringing the big G into the action late in the game, Godzilla vs. Megalon was supposed to be a solo film introducing the robot Jet Jaguar (the result of a children’s contest sponsored by Toho), but the studio realized that the cyborg would not carry a picture on his own. The U.S. poster showed Godzilla and Megalon fighting atop the Twin Towers — a scene that exists in no version of this shoddy film.
14. All Monsters Attack (1969)
Widely derided as the worst of the Showa era — if not the entire Godzilla franchise — and barely making it to feature length at 69 minutes, the slipshod All Monsters Attack (released in the U.S. as Godzilla’s Revenge) is the second Godzilla movie expressly made for children. While its laughable effects and use of stock footage belie its low budget, its story of a lonely but imaginative latchkey kid who daydreams about making friends with Godzilla’s son Minilla is sweet and thematically sound.
13. Son of Godzilla (1967)
This is the first Godzilla movie marketed specifically for kids, with the cutesy Minilla getting some lessons in being a fierce monster from the old man before fighting off a giant mantis (Kamacuras) and a massive spider (Kumonga). In reality, this isn’t that bad, and certainly played well to viewers of a certain age. Director Jun Fukuda showcases some nice setpieces and special effects, but if you’re not all-in for the kiddie-friendly Godzilla movies, you can probably skip this.
12. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)
Many of Godzilla’s onscreen enemies have been pretty decent monsters in their own right, but this entry — the debut of director Jun Fukuda, who helmed a number of Godzilla features — stars one of the weaker ones. Ebirah is a giant crab, controlled by a terrorist organization on a remote island, whom Godzilla eventually rips the claws off with relatively little effort. Luckily Mothra comes on the scene too, and since the giant moth and Godzilla are still sore at each other from their previous encounter, they get a quick rematch in just to liven things up for the big finish.
11. Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Designed to cash in quickly on the huge success in Japan of the original Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again was the second (and last) film in the series to be shot in black and white and the first to introduce a new monster nemesis in Anguirus, the oversized ankylosaur. With Gojira director Ishiro Honda engaged on another film, this one was helmed by Motoyoshi Oda, who captures much of the sober atmosphere of its classic predecessor but is hampered by the rushed feeling of the whole thing. Issued in the U.S. as Gigantis the Fire Monster.
10. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
All hail King Caesar! Well, sort of. The giant walking lion is the newest kaiju to ally with Godzilla in this entertaining if vastly uneven film, but the real star is the title villain, a cyborg version of the Big G created by apelike aliens to take over the Earth. The ambitious script perhaps reaches for too much than the low-budget film can handle in its clash between old myths and futuristic technology, but it’s worth sticking around for the big battles.
9. Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)
Godzilla and frenemy Anguirus team up this time to fight Ghidorah and the fearsome new foe Gigan, a cyborg monster from space being used by aliens to wipe out humanity and pave the way for Earth’s colonization. Gigan is formidable indeed and the monster battles in this one are pretty epic, but the slow-moving story and silly “dialogue” between Godzilla and Anguirus take this one down a few notches. It’s still a worthy later entry in the Showa run, however.
8. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
The first color Godzilla movie also marks Kong’s first appearance on the screen since his original 1933 debut — albeit a very different, man-in-suit Kong whose design and appearance is, to be honest, a major drawback. Nevertheless, a sturdy, surprisingly crafty story and the sheer showmanship of having the world’s two most iconic monsters go mano-a-mano makes this a delight and a fan favorite. The Criterion set boasts the hard-to-find Japanese cut of the film as a bonus supplement.
7. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
This was the first Godzilla movie this author saw in a theater and looking at it now only brings home just what a weird, dark, surreal entry it is. Delivering a potent environmental message in its tale of Godzilla battling a monster born out of pollution, its bizarre mix of disturbing imagery (a family buried in sludge), animation and classic kaiju destruction make it one of the most experimental and effective entries in the second half of the Showa run. Known in the U.S. as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.
6. Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
A Japanese-American co-production that featured an American star (Nick Adams) as part of the action from the get-go, Invasion of Astro-Monster (released in the States as Monster Zero) introduces the alien race known as the Xiliens, who lure humanity into trusting them before betraying the Earth and unleashing King Ghidorah plus a hypnotized Godzilla and Rodan upon us. Wedding an effective alien invasion story with the usual monster antics, Invasion of Astro-Monster suffers from a lower budget and the use of recycled footage, but is still a fun mid-period installment that should please most fans.
5. Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Largely superior to its predecessor (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), the final film in the Showa series closed out the era in style by bringing back original Gojira director Ishiro Honda for one last turn behind the camera. Pitting Godzilla against his mechanical foe again, as well as a new monster called Titanosaurus (originally developed as a pair of creatures called Titans, a name that might ring a bell with fans of the last two American Godzilla movies), the script also devotes more time to developing its human characters. The result is perhaps the most satisfying Godzilla adventure of the 1970s — although sadly it remains the lowest grossing entry of the entire franchise.
4. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
The Avengers: Endgame of the Showa era, Destroy All Monsters is another nostalgic favorite that papers over its script and character flaws with the pure visceral thrill of seeing eleven, count ‘em, eleven kaiju (mostly) share the screen in an epic monster rally. Yes, Godzilla is still the main star, but Rodan, Mothra, Gorosaurus, Anguirus, Manda, Kumonga and more are all here, battling to save the Earth from a rampaging, alien-controlled King Ghidorah. Honda’s surehanded direction and a great score from Akira Ifukube make this one of the most entertaining of the series.
3. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
The fourth Godzilla movie and last to feature him as a straight antagonist, Mothra vs. Godzilla (known as Godzilla vs. the Thing in the U.S.) finds the Toho team of director Ishiro Honda, screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, composer Akira Ifukube and effects master Eiji Tsuburaya firing on all cylinders. An intelligent script that brings together mythology and modern sociopolitical themes is married to some of the best monster action in the series, with Godzilla himself sporting an impressive new design and Mothra proving why she has remained the second most popular kaiju after her co-star.
2. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
The Toho team rolled right from Mothra vs. Godzilla into this superb entry, which is beloved for its introduction of perhaps the series’ most effective arch-villain, the space dragon known as King Ghidorah. The first movie to team Godzilla with Rodan and Mothra as allies, it marked his transition from all-out monster to antihero, a reinvention that would dominate the rest of the Showa era and many of the films beyond that as well. The battle sequences here are classic and Ghidorah remains a formidable enemy, which is why his debut is still one of the best-remembered entries in the series.
1. Gojira (1954) / Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)
Was there really any question which of these movies would end up being Number One? The original Gojira, an incredibly somber outpouring of grief and pain over the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, remains a landmark in Japanese cinema and one of the best sci-fi films of its era, even with its now admittedly dated visuals. Director Ishiro Honda and his team, along with the special effects of Eiji Tsuburaya and the unforgettable score provided by Akira Ifukube, not only launched a modern myth that still reverberates today but created a screen monster whose meaning and relevance has changed with the times. Long may the king of the monsters reign.
Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975 is available now from the Criterion Collection. You can order it on Amazon.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye