Monster movies have been around for decades, but there's a very special type of monster movie that was popularized by Japan involving huge, towering creatures of destruction: the kaiju movie.
The term kaiju literally translates as "strange beast," so when you think of a traditional kaiju, it's a colossal creature with strange origins.
A common theme in the kaiju genre is mutation. Mankind's ignorance towards Mother Nature—often in the form of nuclear activity and environmental abuse—is always a fitting origin story for a kaiju. This explains their tendency to go on city-destroying rampages, which trigger military responses and frighten citizens.
Yet, as frightening as they are, we still admire the monsters that have cemented the legacy of kaiju movies. Here are the best kaiju movies of all time, from Toho originals to Hollywood's modern homages.
12. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Directed by Ishirō Honda and Jun Fukuda
Starring Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki, Yukiko Kobayashi
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (1h 28m)
We start our list with a Toho-produced kaiju movie. The ninth movie of the Godzilla franchise, Destroy All Monsters is a crossover event that brings Godzilla and his monster comrades to one island, where they become subjected to the control of aliens known as Kilaaks.
Any fan of the giant lizard will find joy in seeing him join forces with the monsters he fought before. Likewise, Destroy All Monsters also features one of Godzilla's greatest battles against King Ghidorah.
As a favorite among fans, this film certainly lives up to its title.
11. Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert
Animation, Action, Adventure (1h 34m)
In the late-2000s, DreamWorks had a focus on spoofing genres—and in 2009, they took their shot at the creature-feature B-movie genre with Monsters vs. Aliens.
Per the title, this movie follows a ragtag team of monsters who are tasked with saving the world from a villainous alien genius. And with its fresh 3D format, it makes for an action-packed adventure for kids.
Effort, humor, and heart went into paying homage to notable sci-fi B-movies of history, including Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, Mothra, The Fly, and pretty much every other alien invasion movie.
10. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Directed by Eugène Lourié
Starring Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway
Horror, Sci-Fi (1h 20m)
The very year before Godzilla hit cinemas, there was Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Based on a story by sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury, this kaiju movie centers on a frozen dinosaur that's revived and evolved to spread relentless destruction upon its wake.
Fans can see the seeds sowed by this movie, which Godzilla would borrow and improve upon. For one thing, they both serve as parables warning against the use of atomic weapons and the dangers of manipulating science. It makes for an eerie monster feature.
9. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Directed by Ishirō Honda
Starring Yōsuke Natsuki, Yuriko Hoshi, Hiroshi Koizumi
Action, Adventure, Fantasy (1h 25m)
The three-headed King Ghidorah is Godzilla's greatest adversary, who made its first appearance in 1964 with its self-titled movie.
King Ghidorah made a huge impression as the destructive alien-dragon that wiped away the civilization on planet Venus. With Earth as its next target, all hope rests on Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra.
With this being Ghidorah's debut and the first instance of a Godzilla team-up, there were high expectations for the monster-on-monster combat—and it successfully delivered on them.
Combine that with Detective Shindo's interesting character dilemma and you have an unforgettable Shōwa Godzilla movie.
8. Mothra (1961)
Directed by Ishirō Honda
Starring Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyōko Kagawa
Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi (1h 41m)
Here we have a Toho kaiju movie without Godzilla! Mothra introduces us to the world's most famous giant insect. Though technically a monster movie, Mothra is really more of a mystical deity than a destructive monster in the style of Godzilla.
When entrepreneur Nelson exploits an island's people and resources, the moth-like behemoth emerges to save the day. Mothra is never shy with its handling of themes of environmentalism and exploitation, and that just makes Mothra's lore even more grand and compelling.
With the kaiju's memorable design and empathetic traits, Mothra became one of the most beloved creatures in movie history.
7. Cloverfield (2008)
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Annable
Action, Adventure, Horror (1h 25m)
Back in 2008, Cloverfield was an absolute sensation. Its mysterious marketing campaign and the involvement of J. J. Abrams hyped audiences to check out this found footage film.
And its powerful, underlying mystery spawned an equally intriguing universe that explained the origins of the Cloverfield monster.
As a kaiju film, Cloverfield is a Matt Reeves project that properly builds up its set pieces—the six main leads and their starting positions—before unleashing the monster on New York City.
While the found footage gimmick may seem tired by today's standards, Cloverfield was a pioneer—and it still feels fresh and effective now.
6. Colossal (2016)
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy (1h 49m)
In this overlooked gem of 2016, Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, an unemployed writer who leaves her boyfriend, becomes an alcoholic, and flees to her hometown.
There, she discovers a mysterious link that exists between her and a sudden kaiju attack in Seoul, Korea. Yup, Colossal is a monster comedy where Gloria can remotely control a reptilian giant by dancing.
But Colossal has a lot more depth than you'd initially expect, largely due to its exploration of emotional maturity, flagrant nihilism, and toxic friendships. Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis help propel this kaiju comedy, making it both meaningful and relevant to present viewers.
5. Pacific Rim (2013)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 11m)
Leave it to the ever-artistic Guillermo del Toro to wield his influence to craft what essentially feels like a live-action mecha anime.
With Pacific Rim, del Toro largely took inspiration from Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gundam to create a world where kaijus surface from the Pacific and mechas are the only ways to stop them.
What makes Pacific Rim stand out from other Transformers-like blockbusters is the humanity at its core. Del Toro pays great focus to the emotional toll of his characters—particularly Mako and Pentecost—that pays off its down-to-earth action.
4. Shin Godzilla (2016)
Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Starring Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara
Action, Drama, Horror (2h)
For Toho's third reboot of the iconic lizard monster, they needed a more suitable, modern story to honor its roots and a bleaker subtext to make the entire premise even scarier. Fortunately, Shin Godzilla did all of that with its conspiracy-based edge.
The most noticeable change in this reboot is Godzilla's updated design. The advancements in special effects help give it a more menacing look while still honoring its costumed origins.
Plus, Godzilla's attacks are more horrific and realistic this time around. Fresh from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and the Tōhoku earthquake, this is the Godzilla that Japan needs to embrace again.
3. The Host (2006)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Starring Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il
Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi (2h)
Bong Joon-ho is known for infusing his films—no matter the genre—with a satirical edge and thought-provoking identity. That's no different for The Host, his first attempt at a monster blockbuster.
Song Kang-ho plays Gang-du, a lowly vendor whose daughter Hyun-seo is abducted by a squid-like creature, leading him to rescue her. As a kaiju film, the tension and terror are tight, especially during the chase scenes.
Even with its simple monster premise, Bong Joon-ho fires on all cylinders with his subtle satire where the Americans are deceptive, the government is incompetent, the protestors are hypocritical, and the lower-class is left to deal with most of the consequences.
2. King Kong (1933)
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot
Adventure, Horror, Sci-Fi (1h 40m)
It may seem weird to regard 1933's King Kong as a kaiju film, but King Kong's success was a breakthrough moment—not just for the kaiju genre, but monster movies as a whole.
This monster masterpiece by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack helped pioneer the possibilities of monster cinema with stop-motion techniques and one of history's most iconic beasts of all time.
Despite its technical limitations, King Kong is an effective horror film. Its seedy execution helps wring out the terror lurking in the dense jungles and their chilling prehistoric creatures.
And when the Eighth Wonder of the World shows up, every impression he makes is legendary, culminating in a great fight on top of the Empire State Building. A true kaiju classic.
1. Godzilla (1954)
Directed by Ishirō Honda
Starring Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada
Action, Horror, Sci-Fi (1h 36m)
When it comes to true classics, what other kaiju film could possibly top the original Godzilla (also known as Gojira)?
Back in 1954, Godzilla shook the world when it unleashed one of the most terrifying monsters to ever be seen on the big screen. And its release was timely, when Japan was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II and the atomic bomb explosions.
Godzilla cemented the template for kaiju films: man manipulates nature, nature brings forth a massive city-wrecking threat, and man fights back. It's as effective today as it was back in 1954.
And it's no surprise that Godzilla's outstanding legacy led to a franchise, tons of crossovers, and a firm spot in pop culture.