The best kaiju movies you've never seen

Kaiju is a Japanese word (怪獣) that directly translates to "strange beast," but it's used to refer to giant monsters of the Godzilla type. 1954's Godzilla is generally regarded as the first kaiju film, although we can trace the genre's origin back to American films like King Kong. With a movie like Pacific Rim Uprising's fan following, this seems like the perfect time to revisit some of the kaiju films you might not have seen yet — and a good time to create a watch list of the best kaiju-fighting flicks.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

In a certain sense, 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was the movie that started it all (although some purists believe that only Japanese films should count as kaiju). Sure, there was King Kong in 1933 and various other creature features along the way, however, this American production came out the year before the original Godzilla and helped inspire the more famous Japanese film that followed.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms opens with atomic testing in the arctic circle. The blast awakens a hibernating dinosaur, the entirely fictional Rhedosaurus. The huge creature makes its way down the North American coast, wreaking havoc as it returns to its ancient spawning ground, which just happens to be in New York. There's not much to the story. It's a pretty standard 1950s tale of a bunch of stiff white guys trying to stop a monster. What makes The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms stand out, even today, is the special effects. 

The Rhedosaurus was created and animated by Ray Harryhausen, protégé of Willis O'Brien, the legendary stop-motion animator who brought the original King Kong to life. In the decades to come, Harryhausen would become a special effects legend in his own right, creating stop motion creatures for films like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. As for the Rhedosaurus, he never returned for a sequel, but the whole idea of a huge creature awakened or created by an atomic blast definitely caught on — and led directly to everything else on this list.

20 Million Miles to Earth

Ray Harryhausen also created the central creature for 20 Million Miles to Earth, a 1957 film produced in the United States, albeit with much of the action taking place on location in Italy. As the title implies, the monster in this one isn't an ancient Earth creature but an alien life form from the planet Venus. The Ymir, as it was called in production but never in the finished film, arrives on Earth as an embryo and grows rapidly into a vaguely humanoid fish-lizard thing. Pursued by American scientists (as usual), it rampages through Rome and the surrounding countryside, fighting an elephant, smashing an ancient temple, and ultimately climbing to the top of the Roman Colosseum and being shot down by a bazooka.

Despite another iffy story, the combination of the unique setting and Harryhausen's fascinating creature design makes 20 Million Miles to Earth a great watch. Although it came out after Godzilla, its lineage seem to go back directly to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, putting it on an interesting parallel evolutionary path to the Japanese Kaiju films.

Gorgo

1961's Gorgo, a British/American co-production, displayed the strong influence of the Toho Godzilla films. Its creatures, Gorgo and his mother Ogra, are portrayed by people in costumes, rather than using the stop-motion techniques of Harryhausen and O'Brien. The story concerns a 65-foot-tall dinosaur-like amphibious creature being awakened by a volcanic eruption and captured by treasure hunters. The hunters sell the beast to a London circus where he's named Gorgo and put on display. 

The real shock comes when Gorgo is revealed to be an infant, leading to the arrival of his mother, a 200-foot-tall creature named Ogra. Gorgo is no Godzilla, but its interesting to see what the West does with the basic structure of the then newly popularized Japanese kaiju films, and the plot of a mother monster arriving to rescue her captioned child is a pretty interesting spin on this kind of often repetitive story. Also interesting is that the monsters prove utterly invincible. Nobody ever manages to stop Ogra — she just destroys much of London, rescues Gorgo, and they return to the sea.

Mothra

If you're familiar with kaiju at all, you probably know Mothra as a part of the Godzilla universe. Mothra, the 1961 Toho film that introduced her, is absolutely worth revisiting. It's one of the most unusual and interesting of the early Japanese kaiju films, featuring a sympathetic monster, a human villain, and pop duo The Peanuts playing singing fairies. The basic structure of the film's plot resembles King Kong, with an unscrupulous man leading an expedition to a weird island full of surprising life forms and wanting to steal its wonders back to civilization for profit. Instead of a giant gorilla, however, he finds two tiny singing women, and its their capture that leads to the awakening of the island's god-protector, Mothra.

Mothra starts out as a giant egg, which then hatches into a caterpillar. After wreaking some destruction in that form in her search for the fairy girls, Mothra builds a cocoon in the wreckage of the Tokyo tower, and emerges as a giant flying moth. Eventually, the girls are rescued, and Mothra takes them back to their island. All three would return for future films, starting with 1964's Mothra vs. Godzilla. Understandably, in those films, Mothra tends to be overshadowed by Godzilla, which is all the more reason this film, in which she gets the full spotlight, is worth a watch.

Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster

1964's Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster is the Avengers of Toho's kaiju films in a very real way. In addition to the title creature, a golden three-headed dragon inspired by Japanese mythology, it features Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan, a flying dinosaur-like creature who, like Mothra, also previously had his own film (in 1956). Unlike Mothra vs. Godzilla, which came out earlier the same year, this film features those two as well as Rodan teaming up to defeat the greater alien threat of Ghidorah. Godzilla and Rodan are initially only interested in their own petty feuds and their grudge against humanity, but the more heroic Mothra eventually persuades them to defend an Earth that's theirs as well. 

In the films to come, these three kaiju acting in Earth's defense would be a running theme, and this is the film that originates that aspect of the series. It's also just a fascinatingly weird movie in which an Earth princess is possessed by an alien from Venus, which gives her the power of prophecy. Also, Ghidorah hatches from a giant egg that literally falls from the sky.

King Kong Escapes

Even by kaiju movie standards, 1967's King Kong Escapes is worth watching, more as a unique curiosity than as a truly great film. Although King Kong, the greatest American giant monster, had previously journeyed to Japan for 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla, this follow-up is both his only other appearance in a Toho film, and the only Toho film in which he's the central monster. So while we can debate if King Kong counts as a kaiju, this is absolutely a King Kong kaiju film featuring an inarguably kaiju version of the gigantic ape.

The real villain of King Kong Escapes is Dr. Who (no relation to that British guy in the phone box), an evil scientist who creates a robot Kong, called Mechani-Kong, and then captures the real deal when the robot isn't good enough. As you can probably guess from the film's title, King Kong does eventually escape from Dr. Who's clutches, and the film climaxes with a battle between actual Kong and Mechani-Kong, with the Tokyo Tower serving as an Empire State Building stand-in. 

The X from Outer Space

1967's The X from Outer Space was an attempt by a different Japanese movie studio, Shochiku productions, to do a kaiju film in the Toho mold. It begins with a Japanese ship attempting to travel to mars and being sprayed with mysterious spores by an alien vessel. Upon returning to Earth, one of the spores develops into a truly bizarre-looking kaiju called Guilala. Guilala does the usual rampaging thing, turns into a flying fireball, and feeds on nuclear fuel. It isn't entirely dissimilar to a Toho film, but it's slanted in some interesting ways that make it a fascinating contrast with the Godzilla series.

Destroy All Monsters

If Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster was the Avengers of kaiju films, 1968's Destroy All Monsters was the Avengers: Infinity War. By this time, all the various kaiju were living on Monster Island, but invading aliens take over the monsters' minds and send them out to topple civilization on their behalf. Eventually, of course, the Earthborn kaiju escape from the aliens' control and help humanity defeat the aliens and their own kaiju champion, the always-villainous Ghidorah. While the plot, as is often the case with these films, is nothing to write home about, the scale of this film tops anything that had been attempted thus far — and they pull it off. Destroy All Monsters features kaiju attack scenes on famous cities across the globe, such as Rodan in Moscow, Mothra swooping down on Beijing, T-Rex-esque Gorosaurus wreaking havoc in Paris, snakelike Manda going full Gorgo on London, and Godzilla himself in New York City.

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

Gamera was first created for 1965's Gamera: The Giant Monster, a deliberate attempt by Daiei Film to compete with Toho's Godzilla. Despite several sequels, the monstrous turtle never starred in anything that approached the best Godzilla films in quality. Until 1995, that is, when Gamera: Guardian of the Universe was released. The new film balanced the need for modern monster action with the more child-friendly tradition of the Gamera films. A young girl forms a psychic bond with Gamera and must convince adults the creature is not their enemy but is, rather, their guardian against other monsters. Ultimately, Gamera is successful in saving everyone, and this version returned for two sequels, Gamera 2: Attack of Legion in 1996 and Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris in 1999.

Shin Godzilla

After the success of the American Godzilla in 2014, Toho decided to reboot their own Godzilla series with an all-new take on the monster. Shin Godzilla, released in 2016, takes the franchise back to its original horror roots. Whereas the 1954 Godzilla was inspired by the atomic bombs of World War II, Shin Godzilla echoed the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown and the earthquake and tsunami that caused it. This take on the creature isn't the cuddly defender he eventually became in the 1960s. Streaked with red and with a slightly more dinosaur-like upper body, this Godzilla is almost a giant zombie — an unstoppable lumbering embodiment of humanity's fears.

From The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to Shin Godzilla, these giant monsters often reflect the terrors of a nuclear age, but they also reflect our fears in general, whether embodying them or defending us against them, depending on the friendliness of the kaiju in question. Either way, kaiju movies visualize the fear that some problems might simply be too big to handle.