One of the most instantly recognizable, well-beloved, and oft-parodied subgenres of science fiction film is what’s called in Japanese kaiju eiga–the movies about outlandish giant monsters brawling with one another and destroying major cities (usually Tokyo) with gloriously satisfying stomps and explosions in the process. While the Godzilla series (due for an American reboot later this year) is far and away the most recognized line of kaiju films, there are plenty of other lesser known cult classics as well, such as the Gamera movies familiar to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans. Even Godzilla’s sometimes foe Mothra has her own flicks where she gets top billing. Now, Godzilla and all the rest have fought a surfeit of bizarre enemies over the years–so many of those movie titles start with “Godzilla versus”–but some of those monsters stand out as being particularly inspired, scary, or even funny.
How could the King of the Monsters not make this list? Everyone knows the origin story of the Big G–relict dinosaur, irradiated by nuclear tests, menaces fishermen, stomps Tokyo. In the first Godzilla, or Gojira, film, the heroic scientist Dr. Serizawa devised an oxygen-depriving weapon that would suffocate Godzilla in view of the monster’s invulnerable hide, and sacrificed his life to kill the beast. Serizawa, of course, died in vain, because instead of that being that Godzilla got right back up to, uh, raid again in Godzilla Raids Again, merely the next in a whopping thirty films he was to star in. He’s the Superman of kaiju, both in terms of how iconic he is and what his powers are like. Godzilla’s strong, fast, and tough, equally dangerous on land and on the sea. The atomic beam weapon he breathes is enough to defeat just about every monster he comes across, and his instantly-recognizable roar strikes fear into the hearts of all.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is a wonderful film for all fans of science fiction, but as a broad kaiju pastiche/homage it’s especially good for fans of that genre. The kaiju that appear in Pacific Rim, of which there are many, share an origin as denizens of an undersea dimensional rift, so they are all designed in similar ways. Those shared design cues–glowing orange veins and cyan innards, and an equal balance between insect and reptilian elements–make for some cool-looking and distinguished monsters, but the best of them is Otachi. The horned-nosed gila-monster-like ambush predator has gliding membranes like the lizard genus Draco, puts those acidic blue bodily fluids to very good use with spit weapons, and has a memorable, orchid-like, extra-long blue tongue that also sees some combat application. Otachi soundly thrashes all of the protagonists in their fancy giant robot suits in her first appearance, and, yes, she does it all while pregnant.
Gamera doesn’t bother with elaborate backstories or exotic powers like most other kaiju do. He came from the Arctic, he eats fire, he’s a friend to all children, he’s a giant turtle. If you wanted complex drama, maybe you shouldn’t be watching a Gamera film. The beauty of Gamera is that he’s impossible to take seriously. Godzilla has pathos and gravitas, and has figured in movies that are considered to be genuine classics rather than just B-grade romps; Gamera, meanwhile, is a giant freakin’ turtle who’s inexplicably great with kids and that’s just taken at face value. The turtle factor plays into one of his major powers, which is the near-invulnerability of his carapace (most weapons are seen to collide with it to no effect). His other principal abilities… probably aren’t seen in most mundane chelonians, like his flaming breath and his sublimely ridiculous flight capability, in which he withdraws his head and limbs inside his shell and spins through the air like a gigantic Frisbee. Gamera can also be lauded for his tenacity in fighting some of the most undignified creatures ever to be committed to celluloid, like Guiron, whose nose is a big kitchen knife, and Barugon, who farts out weaponized rainbows.
The difficult-to-Romanize King Caesar (or Shisa, or Seesar, or See-Saw–okay, maybe kidding about the last one) is an outlier on this list: Not only is he explicitly mystical in his origins, as a kind of guardian golem for the Azumi family of Okinawa, he’s also mammalian as opposed to reptilian. Based very, very loosely on the legend of the shisa, or lion-dog, a protective spirit from Okinawan mythology that is used as a grotesque feature in architecture, Caesar first appeared in the film Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla fighting alongside the Big G. Caesar’s design is charmingly goofy, putting one in mind of a very sharp-toothed bipedal rabbit rather than either a lion or a dog, but his many fine fighting abilities manage to make lop-eared cuteness intimidating. Not only can he take even more of a beating than the average organic kaiju, having a limitless supply of magical stamina and all, he also has the unique property of absorbing and reflecting any kind of energy beam attacks, of which there are many and various in kaiju battles. Caesar was popular enough in his original outing to be brought back in flashback sequences in the sequel Terror of Mechagodzilla as well as the Godzilla Island television shorts and the later all-star film Godzilla: Final Wars.
Across every culture and language, there are a few universal parts of the human experience everyone can understand, such as “do not mess with three-headed golden dragons.” Every element of Ghidorah’s massive-winged, auric, hydra-like appearance screams “final boss,” and he’s established as one of the most fundamentally evil kaiju in the Godzilla universe, having an impressive resume of attempting to destroy Earth on the behest of multiple alien races–and even those very aliens are afraid of him, force of unbridled and indiscriminate destruction that he is. Otherwise known as “The King of Terror” and the “Thousand-Year Dragon,” Ghidorah continually appears as Godzilla’s most fearsome opponent, including on one occasion in the obligatory mecha form. Ghidorah’s energy attacks revolve around the control of gravity, hitting his opponents with blunt force trauma with beams of literal focused mass from his three mouths and pulling them towards him, as well as (kind of absurdly) using his necks as ligatures to strangle them.