When last we left our lovable 40-story-tall radioactive dinosaur, he was shepherding a series that seemed to have hit a serious snag, both creatively and financially. And while there were certainly worse days ahead, Godzilla would have a few more classic moments in the sun before retiring to Monster Island for the first time in 1975...
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
In addition to having one of the coolest titles of any movie ever, this entry is an absolute kaiju-lover's wet dream, returning the series to its former glory. Featuring the largest assortment of monsters ever seen up to that point, the flick even managed to incorporate kaiju from other Toho franchises, such as Manda, Baragon and Gorosaurus. The opening credits alone, with its driving Akira Ifukube theme, is enough to get the hairs on the arm standing. Unfortunately, the Showa series would never again return to this level of quality.
Godzilla's Revenge (1969) a.k.a. All Monsters Attack
From one of the best, to one of the very worst. In fact, it's hard to imagine that this movie followed directly after the excellent Destroy All Monsters. Featuring a talking Minya, boatloads of stock footage from previous Godzilla films, and the beginning of the series' obsession with little boys in tiny shorts dubbed by women, this is the film which finally completes Godzilla's metamorphosis from terrifying force of nature to benevolent, kid-friendly superhero. Still, it's always good for a nostalgic laugh for those who grew up with it.
Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971)
This one seems to generally divide Godzilla fandom. A trippy, radical departure from the 1960s entries, it was the product of an entirely different creative team, put together while series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was temporarily incapacitated (Tanaka was apparently less than pleased when he returned). I, for one, love it. With its bizarre visuals, unusual bad guy and classic theme song "Save the Earth", this flick is truly in a class by itself amongst Godzilla movies. I will say that its one major problem is that it features the series' most boring, horribly paced fight sequences.
Godzilla on Monster Island (1972) a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Gigan
Gigan, the giant bionic bird-like creature with hooks for arms and a buzz saw in his belly, is truly one of Toho's greatest creations. It's just too bad he never really had the opportunity to be in a great Godzilla flick. This one is almost as panderingly juvenile as Godzilla's Revenge, with Big G and his buddy Anguirus actually speaking to each other in English (translated, a narrator informs us, from their monster language)! Plus, you have one of the series' most mind-numbingly dull plotlines, involving something about insectoid aliens taking human form to conquer the Earth somehow via a kaiju theme park (I know it sounds awesome, but it isn't). Not even the return of King Ghidorah can save this one.
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
With Jun Fukuda back in place again as the series' regular director, things were not looking up for Godzilla in the 1970s. With perhaps the lowest budget of any Godzilla film, this is the movie that a lot of Godzilla-haters typically point to when generalizing about the sub-standard quality of these movies. The giant cockroach Megalon is one of the worst suits Toho ever created, plus the fight scenes are exceedingly goofy, often choreographed like wrestling matches. You do get the uber-cool robot Jet Jaguar, Toho's obvious nod to Ultraman. And at least the MST3K boys got to have some fun with it...
Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster (1974) a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla
For its final two entries in the original series, Toho somehow managed to summon up a bit of its former glory to deliver a couple of lesser gems. This one features the debut of Mechagodzilla, an inspired concept that pits the big guy against a robotic version of himself. There's also an interesting, mammalian kaiju by the name of King Ceasar who turns up to help Godzilla out. Interestingly, this is also perhaps the bloodiest of the Godzilla movies; kaiju gore, once forbidden by Toho, became more and more prevalent in '70s Godzilla flicks.
Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Ishiro Honda triumphantly returns to helm the final entry in the series he kicked off 20 years earlier. Since Mechagodzilla had been such a hit, they brought him back again this time around, and added Titanosaurus, one of Toho's most underrated kaiju, for good measure. Unfortunately, not even the high quality of this last Showa flick--with its dark Ifukube score, stark imagery, and return to serious themes courtesy of Honda--was enough to save the franchise. Diminished ticket sales meant that the ol' rubber suit would be packed up in mothballs after this one--at least for a decade or so.
And thus the glorious Showa era of Godzilla came to a bittersweet end, a series that managed to find its creative legs right before the end, but nonetheless fizzled out after going to the well a few too many times. It would remain for an entirely new generation of kids outside Japan to discover the movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s thanks to TV syndication. And when the time was right in 1984, Toho resurrected the big guy and started the second major phase of his career.
Stripping away a lot of the camp that had accumulated over the previous decades and attempting to return the monster to its roots, the Heisei series of the 1980s and '90s would become the favorite for many a Godzilla fan that had longed for a more serious, better-budgeted approach. But although I enjoy all 28 movies in the series, it's the original 15 made between 1954 and 1975 that I find myself re-watching whenever I'm in the mood for some giant monster action. For my money, nothing made since has equaled the raw power of the first film, or the amusing fun of so many of the sequels.
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