Kaiju is typically translated as just “monster,” especially a giant monster. But, of course, Japan didn’t invent giant monster flicks. That honor goes to King Kong. However, in our humble opinion, Japan did perfect them, with Godzilla being the most famous of the genre.
While the Godzilla series is long, many other kaiju are just waiting to be rediscovered. So here are five kaiju crazy movies that you probably haven’t seen.
Gappa: The Triphibian Monster (1967)
By 1967, Japan was in the grips of a kaiju boom thanks to Ultraman and Godzilla. Toho Studios had struck gold with Godzilla. So it was only natural that other studios would try to get in on the giant monster action.
Enter Gappa: The Triphibian Monster, Nikkatsu studio’s cash-grab take on the genre—essentially a rip off the 1961 British film Gorgo.
The plot follows reporters visiting a south seas island who find a baby monster that the natives call Gappa. They kidnap it (much to the dismay of the locals) and bring it back to Japan for the usual media exploitation. Gappa’s parents are none too pleased with this and go on a rampage around Japan until they get their baby back.
The movie is unusual because the locations aren’t big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Instead, the touristy beach city of Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture suffers the brunt of the destruction. The effects aren’t as nearly as good as Toho’s, either, but that’s all part of the goofy good fun.
- Japanese Title: 大巨獣ガッパ
- Featured Kaiju: The Gappa family
- Where to Watch: Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play
- Trailer: https://youtu.be/oSPbG4bH9Yk
Toho Studios churned out a steady stream of unique kaiju movies in the 1960s. Atragon tells the story of the lost continent of Mu (think Atlantis), a vastly advanced empire trying to take over the surface world. Luckily, Japan has a secret new submarine, called Atragon, ready to go. Mu also has an ace up its sleeve, though: Manda, a giant undersea dragon.
Atragon is tremendous fun, the kind of light sci-fi popcorn movie that doesn’t get made anymore. It’s got some pretty heavy hitters behind the cameras, too. There’s longtime Godzilla helmer Ishiro Honda in the director’s chair and effects master Eiji Subaraya handling the tokusatsu (practical effects). Manda is awesome, but unfortunately, he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time like most monsters in kaiju movies.
- Japanese Title: 海底軍艦
- Featured Kaiju: Manda
- Where to Watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV
- Trailer: https://youtu.be/NZo0JRUyDnw
The Magic Serpent (1966)
What could be better than a movie with giant monsters? A movie with ninjas and giant monsters. That’s all you need to know about The Magic Serpent, a Toei Studios movie from 1966 that spectacularly succeeds in combining kaiju and ninja movie tropes.
The evil ninja Orochimaru kills the peaceful Lord Ogata and his family, taking the lord’s castle for his own. Luckily, Ogata’s young son, Ikazuchi-Maru, escapes with the help of a magical hermit, Dojin Hiki. The hermit trains Ikazuchi-Maru in the ways of ninjutsu and toad magic (yes, toad magic).
This all builds to a show-stopping confrontation in the castle moat between the two powerful ninjas, now changed into giant monsters: Orochimaru as a gigantic dragon and Ikazuchi-maru as Jiraiya, a massive magical toad.
Thanks to plenty of low-budget practical effects (you will believe a ninja can fly), the Magic Serpent is well worth a watch.
- Japanese Title: 怪竜大決戦
- Featured Kaiju: Jiraiya and Orochimaru
- Where To Watch: U-Next, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV
- Trailer: https://youtu.be/CAtT9mdij9E
The War Of The Gargantuas (1966)
In 1965, Toho debuted a giant kaiju version of Frankenstein (Frankenstein Conquers The World). The following year, it upped the ante with two Frankensteins, brothers Sanda and Gaira. Sanda, the gentle one, is the monster from the previous film, while Gaira, his evil clone, goes around eating people and generally wrecking things. The two clash in a series of extremely entertaining wrestling matches.
The War Of The Gargantuas is pretty much exactly what you want from a kaiju film: two giant monsters duking it out on incredibly detailed sets. It’s a solid good time from start to finish and should be high on anyone’s must-see kaiju list. And hey, even Quentin Tarantino likes it.
- Japanese Title: フランケンシュタインの怪獣 サンダ対ガイラ
- Featured Kaiju: Sanda and Gaira
- Where to Watch: Hulu, U-Next, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, dTV, Apple TV
- Trailer: https://youtu.be/7JBWFSkwNuo
Gamera the Brave (2006)
After Godzilla, Gamera is probably the most famous kaiju. A giant, fire-breathing turtle, he appeared in a series of gloriously unhinged movies in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and then again in a reboot trio of excellent films in the ’90s. Gamera the Brave sees the flying turtle reborn again, this time in a baby-focused origin story.
In this film, the original Gamera destroyed himself in 1973 to take out three Gyaos bat monsters. Fast forward to the present, and elementary school student Toru finds a turtle egg in the bay where the original Gamera died. A baby Gamera hatches and the two soon become fast friends.
However, things quickly go south when the still immature Gamera has to take on a fully grown monster, Zedus, who’s just shown up because that’s what happens in Japanese kaiju movies.
Gamera the Brave was clearly made with love for the genre. The practical effects are incredible, perhaps the best committed to film, and the final battle in downtown Nagoya is breathtaking. It’s also a moving story. Gamera, known as the “friend of all children,” is helped by kids this time around. It is also maybe the only kaiju film that will make you cry.
- Japanese Title: 小さき勇者たち〜ガメラ〜
- Featured Kaiju: Baby Gamera, Zedus and Gyaos
- Where to Watch: U-Next, Amazon Prime, dTV
- Trailer: https://youtu.be/jJQ47iSrheE
What are some of your favorite kaiju movies? Who is the best giant monster? Let us know in the comments!