The kaiju eiga (literally "monster movie" in Japanese) was born in 1954 with Ishiro Honda’s landmark masterpiece Godzilla. Its immense international success spawned a chain of sequels, numerous imitators, more than a few rip-offs, and a slew of strange, bizarre cinematic creatures arising to threaten the existence of humankind.
And though many of these films have become regarded as camp classics — and some of them aimed to do just that — we must not overlook the frightening and downright creepy creatures that have appeared on Japanese theater screens over the last 63 years ...
Just as Godzilla was originally conceived as a metaphor for the hydrogen bomb, the smog monster Hedorah, who originated in Yoshimitsu Banno’s audacious Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), stood in for another major issue in Japanese society: pollution. Director Banno came up with the idea for Hedorah while walking past a heavily polluted industrial park. Noticing the thick clouds of smog hanging overhead and the sheets of sludge drifting across the ocean surface, Banno postulated what would happen should an organism from outer space land in those waters and produce a monster; and what would happen if said monster evolved to feed on pollution and invaded civilization in order to satisfy its voracious appetite.
As it attacks industrial parks, gorging on the smoke, the smog monster produces death and devastation on a level unseen since the original Godzilla (1954). Entire rooms of people are drowned in corrosive sludge (hurled from the monster’s body); corpses are reduced to skeletons; children inhale its toxic fumes and pass out; even Godzilla, now acting as superhero, is left scarred and partially blinded before the extra-terrestrial menace is finally done in.
An interesting production note: director Banno instructed the art department to give Hedorah vertical, slit-like eyes... modeled specifically after the female genitalia.
If the Joker has been accepted as the go-to archrival to Batman, Gyaos would be the archrival to Gamera. The Gamera series has gone through three cycles — the original series from 1965-1980; a critically acclaimed trilogy directed by Shusuke Kaneko in the 1990s; a sequel-less movie, Gamera the Brave, released in 2006 — and in all three eras, Gyaos has never failed to make an appearance. Bearing characteristics of both a pterosaur and a vampire bat, Gyaos first appeared in 1967’s Gamera vs. Gyaos, in which he slept by day and came alive at night to feed on the people of Japan: snatching people and pulping them between his fang-lined jaws.
Though a feature-length movie has yet to spawn from it, Gyaos also appeared in a 2015 proof-of-concept Gamera trailer, in which he revealed he hasn’t lost his appetite for human flesh.
The final opponent in the Heisei Godzilla series, Destoroyah is something of a spiritual descendent to Hedorah: both were spawned by manmade creations; both begin as multitudes of tiny organisms which eventually combine to form larger, more destructive monsters. Even in its most basic stage (microscopic organisms left over from the pre-Cambrian era) Destoroyah is deadly, capable of reducing fish millions of times its own size to mere skeletons. And upon reaching its final stage (which towers well above Godzilla), Destoroyah has become a merciless engine of destruction. Capable of both terrestrial and aerial combat, and equipped with devastating Oxygen Destroyer beams, Destoroyah is a true force to be reckoned with.
Within the eighty-six minutes of campy cinematic joy that is Son of Godzilla (1967) exists one of the most visually impressive and creepy monsters in the history of Japanese science-fiction. Though it spends most its life nestled underground, the enormous spider Kumonga occasionally rises to feast — on anything it can catch. Its gigantic jointed legs propel it over and across any obstacle as it pursues its prey, pinning them down with sprays of sticky webbing. Upon trapping a victim, Kumonga slowly approaches, as though sickly enjoying the panic and pain it is causing, before stabbing with its venom-injecting barb. Despite being vulnerable to fire, Kumonga nonetheless put up a fierce battle against Godzilla and his son — even blinding the King of the Monsters in one eye — before finally being set aflame.
Kumonga has since appeared in two other movies — Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) — but never with the same frightening intensity and bloodlust as in his first appearance.
It would be remiss not to include one of the Ghidorahs on this list; and for this fifth entry, we are going with a lesser-known incarnation. While the traditional golden bipedal King Ghidorah has justifiably become one of the most popular monsters in kaiju eiga, the 1996 reimagining Desghidorah is also worthy of special consideration in the terror department.
This monster appeared in the film Rebirth of Mothra and validated its status as a threat to all living things. Dark in color, highlighted with fearsome red eyes, featuring a more European dragon aesthetic, and hunched over on four legs instead of two, Desghidorah ravages enemies and the landscape with his Lava Gout energy bolts. And when that’s not enough, the central head leans forward and unleashes a burst of fire capable of splitting the earth wide open — appropriately dubbed Hell’s Flame. But the monster does not rely solely on his projectile attacks in combat; he’s more than content to use his claws, teeth, and sheer weight to subdue enemies.
One of the brilliant touches of Kaneko's 1990s Gamera trilogy was how relationships between monsters and human characters actually impacted the story. And with the final installment, Gamera: Revenge of Iris (1999), he used this creative touch to conjure one of the most despicable monsters ever to appear on the silver screen.
Raised by a young woman with an intense hatred for Gamera, Iris begins as a seemingly harmless creature — looking like something of a cross between a turtle and a squid — before growing into a monstrous deity-like being with lashing tentacles and an insatiable thirst for power. Drawing power through his human companion’s anger, Iris claims the lives of thousands — human and animal alike — reducing its victims to mummy-like corpses and demolishing anything in its path. That it has no expressive characteristics — no blinking eyes, no moving mouth parts, no facial muscles — adds to its chilling personae.
One of the most disturbing sequences in Ishiro Honda’s Rodan (1956) demonstrates that time-tested virtue that, in horror films, what you don’t see is oftentimes scarier than what you do see. Three men are wading through waist-deep water in a dark, shadowy mine when one of them suddenly hollers in pain and is dragged underneath by an unseen attacker. (Keep in mind: this is almost two decades before Jaws.) After his other companion is snared, the third man flees to the shoreline and rushes to a phone to call for help. But his efforts are in vain, as a huge shadow washes over him, and the man sinks to the ground, his fate inevitable. It is only some scenes later the audience — and the characters — realize the murderer was a voracious prehistoric insect.
The Meganulon are among the creepiest monsters in kaiju eiga. Though relatively small by kaiju standards (about the size of an automobile) they strike terror into the hearts of those who see them with their unnerving fly-like eyes, huge pincers, and incessant chirping — a sound effect recycled, unfittingly, for the incredibly not-scary aliens in the much-duller Battle in Outer Space (1959). Rodan is among the grittiest films in Honda’s career, and these ravenous arthropods from a bygone age are a big reason why.
The antagonist of War of the Gargantuas (1966), one of the most beloved Japanese monster movies ever made, Gaira dwells in the dark cavities of the ocean, coming ashore to feed on whatever he can seize — including and especially humans. Stunt actor Haruo Nakajima, who portrayed dozens of strange monsters from 1954-1972, considered this and Godzilla his favorite roles to play; and unlike with most of the creatures he enacted, the humanoid design of the Gaira costume permitted Nakajima to show his eyes and channel even more menace into his performance. When those eyes gaze hungrily — chillingly — upon an ill-fated victim, those are the eyes of Nakajima.
Before the Heisei series felt content to remake classic monsters of the past, the team behind Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) realized one of the most visually spectacular creations in the history of kaiju eiga. Credit to the filmmakers for finding a way to take a monster which starts off looking like a huge flower and render it into a terrifying sight. The monster’s final form has enormous crocodilian jaws filled to the brim with teeth; and both forms are armed with constantly lashing tendrils and snake-like appendages. The numerous moving parts and excellent lighting define Biollante as the quintessential monster in special effects director Koichi Kawakita’s career.
“If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed with just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”
This quote by Ishiro Honda perfectly describes why the original Godzilla (1954) remains not only one of the most important monster movies ever made but also one of the most frightening. And it might not have been without the man seated in the director’s chair. During pre-production, it had already been decided Godzilla would be spawned by the H-bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean, but the staff hadn’t quite perfected the metaphor now associated with the character. Because — simply — they didn’t have the character down just yet. Original story author Shigeru Kayama depicted Godzilla as being motivated strictly by hunger: the behemoth came ashore to gorge on livestock, and much of its destruction stemmed from its efforts to feed and not from any malicious determination to wipe out the human race. When confronted by the military, the beast became irritated, content to wade back into the sea rather than put up a fight. Changing the monster into an unrelenting, emotionless doppelganger for the hydrogen bomb was one of many ingenious touches Honda brought to the project — one which paid off in spades.
In the finished film, Godzilla mercilessly destroys everything in sight. Buildings are ripped to pieces. Districts are set aflame. Fleeing civilians are vaporized by atomic fire. Newsmen scream in terror as the TV tower they are perched on is toppled over. Houses are crushed underfoot. The skyline becomes a blazing inferno. Children are left parentless or poisoned by radiation. Godzilla's only apparent motive for the immense carnage he causes is to cause pain and suffering. And when all’s said and done, just what was — is — the purpose of an atomic bomb? To cause pause and suffering. As one of the film’s characters so adamantly puts it, Godzilla is no different from the specter of the WWII bomb still haunting the Japanese people.
In addition to the metaphorical touches, Honda and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya triumphed in making Godzilla scary through some clever filmmaking. All but two of the beast’s scenes are staged at night (which lends immeasurably to the atmosphere), and the monster’s almost consistently photographed from an extremely low angle to emphasize its size and weight. The first full-body vista of the monster — smashing through Tokyo’s harbor area with crowds of screaming people fleeing in the foreground — remains one of the most jaw-dropping and horrifying shots in the history of the Japanese monster movie genre.