A wise man once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, inside every giant monster is the soul of a sweaty Japanese man (and occasionally Rick Baker) crying out to be free. From the lowliest monkey suit on Poverty Row to the pioneering work of Eiji Tsuburaya and Haruo Nakajima, men in outlandish rubber costumes wrestling on miniature sets have captured the imaginations of filmgoers for generations. Something about Ultraman Judo-flipping Neronga or Bemular, or seeing Gorgo punch out Big Ben, awakens the inner child in many of us. It’s a rush of pure fantastical joy that no other cinematic experience can equal. Seeing the creativity and craftsmanship of the performers and effects technicians come together to bring these creatures to life is magical. Most of the time. Occasionally we get a Guilala, so they can’t all be winners. Today, though, I want to highlight five sequences of calamitous kaiju carnage that represent some of the very best the genre has to offer.
KING KONG LIVES (1986)
We’ll start off with a movie almost no one thinks of when contemplating their favorite monster flicks. Ten years after his misbegotten and baffling but enjoyable remake of KING KONG (1976), Dino de Laurentiis decided it was time to bring the big ape back for another round. The story is absurd even by de Laurentiis’ standards. You’ll get whiplash from the tone ricocheting between spoof comedy and deadly serious action movie, but I love this goofy sequel more because of its flaws than in spite of them. Whatever you think about the rest of it, the final confrontation between Kong and the military is one of the best monster vs. soldiers sequences ever put to film. With a smaller monster like Kong, the miniature sets and vehicles are much bigger than those on a true daikaiju movie, which means a lot more room for detail. You can see every penny of the budget on screen. The effects in this sequence are great, the fight is brutally bloody, and Colonel Nevitt’s comeuppance at the angry fists of Kong is very satisfying.
GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974)
Japan’s enduring love of robots and fighting machines known as mechs guaranteed that Mechagodzilla would become one of the Big G’s most popular foes, but none of his subsequent appearances would ever top his original outing, which remains one of my favorite Godzilla movies. Mechagodzilla is the only monster to have a cooler theme tune than the star of the series. Laying that bombastic piece of music over the scene where the mechanical menace from beyond the stars unleashes the full force of his fearsome firepower on Godzilla and King Caeser makes for one of the most thrilling effects sequences in monster movie history. Missiles and lasers and fire, oh my!
GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK (2001)
Originally intended to have Varan and Anguirus as the other two guardian monsters, Toho decided that more popular beasts were needed to put butts in seats. Apparently, Baragon is bigger business in Japan than he is in the States because he survived the cut. The merciless beating he receives from Godzilla is what I want to point out here. Monster designer Fuyuki Shinada and special effects director Makoto Kamiya really focused on making Baragon cute and sympathetic. Since he’s so much smaller than the other monsters, you really root for the feisty little badger/bulldog/lizard when he fearlessly goes one-on-one with one of the most powerful and vicious incarnations of Godzilla in the whole series. You know he doesn’t stand a chance, and that makes it even harder to watch him get bashed to a pulp and incinerated.
MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY LEGEND (2009)
When Americans think of giant Japanese monsters we tend to think of Godzilla first, but in Japan, Godzilla’s popularity pales in comparison to Ultraman. From the original series in 1966 to ULTRAMAN X (2015) and ORB (2016) – both of which have new movies coming out this year – the Ultra-franchise continues to be a money machine for Tsuburaya. This movie from 2009 brought back a host of Ultramen from previous series, introduced a new character in Ultraman Zero, son of UltraSeven, and pitted them against the evil Ultraman Belial and his army of resurrected kaiju that had been defeated by the various Ultramen over the years. Most of the backgrounds in the movie are green screened to varying degrees of success, but the fights are an utter delight. When Ultraman Zero arrives to avenge his father in the final battle and proceeds to beat down dozens of monsters single-handedly, it’s as close as you’re ever going to get to seeing what the inside of my brain looks like.
GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS (1999)
This final installment of Shusuke Kaneko’s trilogy remains, in my eyes, the loftiest height of daikaiju filmmaking. Using the fabric laid out by the first two movies (both great in their own right), Kaneko weaves a tapestry of mythology and great characters that has yet to be surpassed. Perfectly complementing the brilliant storytelling is Shinji Higuchi’s breathtaking effects work. He achieved some great things in the first two movies, but when several Gyaos appear in the sky over Shibuya pursued by an enraged Gamera hurling fireballs hither and yon, and proceed to demolish the city ward with their battle, it became clear to me on my first viewing that this one was really something special. Any time someone makes fun of the practical effects in monster movies, I point them to this sequence. It showcases just about every tool an effects director has in his kit, from miniatures to suits to composite shots, being used by a master of the art who creates a world more believable and engaging than anything digital effects alone could ever achieve.
These five examples are by no means meant as a top five list, nor are they ranked in any kind of order. Rather, they are meant to highlight some wonderfully executed sequences in a genre that is too often lambasted for stunt men knocking over “cardboard buildings” (and them right there is fightin’ words to any true monster fan). I tried not to go too heavy on the obvious stuff like Godzilla (although it’s virtually impossible to talk about this topic and not address the 80-meter nuclear lizard in the room) because there is a whole vast world of crazy monster action out there. This is but a tiny drop in the pond. I’m sure I’ll be back again with another round someday. Until then, stay stompy, my friends.
Contributed by Bryan Clark