From the hidden depths of the sea, to the farthest corners of the globe, legendary monsters lie in wait. These colossal and fabled creatures, broadly referred to as kaijū, remain dormant or lurk in the shadows until there is no mistaking their existence. During the course of their travels, they often menace civilizations or battle other beasts of a similar size. Their legacies are formidable and their powers are devastating.
Yet despite their sheer enormity and astonishing abilities, audiences today may find it difficult to imagine the likes of Godzilla being genuinely scary. Their destruction can be shocking, but the monsters themselves don’t always strike fear in mankind’s heart. Even so, there are those instances in the course of Japanese kaijū cinema — from Godzilla, Gamera, or otherwise — where viewers are genuinely unnerved by what they see on screen.
Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996)
Legion First Appears
Subways are a dangerous place to be in a kaijū movie. In Sapporo, a conductor and his passengers are unaware of what’s about to happen when the train has to stop due to large debris being on the tracks. The alien lifeforms known as Legion appear out of nowhere and start to feed on anything containing silicon. Soon enough, the subway massacre extends to the tunnels where response officers are picked off, one by one.
Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974)
The Aliens’ True Form
As Godzilla and King Caesar battled Mechagodzilla, the human heroes in the movie were still being held prisoner by the villainous aliens. The antagonists’ leader is ultimately shot in the neck, thus revealing his natural appearance. This eerie transformation into a green-skinned and ape-like extraterrestrial is achieved through classic rotoscoping.
The Return of Godzilla (1984)
The Mutant Sea Louse
Prior to Godzilla making landfall in the first entry of the Heisei era, a reporter named Gorō Maki discovers an abandoned fishing vessel. During his investigation, he finds the desiccated corpses of the passengers, as well as the culprits behind their deaths. Maki narrowly escapes several large and voracious sea lice, also known as Shockirus, only because a surviving passenger rescues him. These agile bloodsuckers fell off Godzilla, whose own radiation caused the lice to mutate.
Although it only appears in a brief scene in The Return of Godzilla, the creepy and crawly Shockirus establishes the movie’s serious tone.
Legend of Dinosaurs & Monster Birds (1977)
The Plesiosaur Attacks
This Toei-produced kaijū movie is thoroughly unsettling in spite of its crude effects. The film takes place at Saiko Lake near Aokigahara, Japan, where the nearby residents are attacked by an insatiable plesiosaur living in the water. To complicate matters, a pterosaur appears and the two beasts fight to the death.
Before the final showdown between the prehistoric creatures takes place — neither monster is actually a dinosaur, technically speaking — the plesiosaur provides most of the movie’s carnage. One standout scene is when a woman named Junko sits alone on a raft in the middle of the lake, waiting for her friend Akiko to reemerge from the water. Suddenly, Junko is viciously attacked by the plesiosaur; the monster toys with her before delivering the fatal bite. When Akiko surfaces, she discovers her friend’s body with the lower half completely missing.
Gamera the Brave (2006)
After the brilliant Heisei trilogy, the series was rebooted with Gamera: The Brave. This standalone movie saw Gamera being reborn as a baby after sacrificing itself to destroy a flock of Gyaos. Now called “Toto” and cared for by a boy named Toru, the young Gamera enjoys carefree days with a friend until a new threat appears. A mysterious kaijū called Zedus is attacking and only “Toto” can stop it.
As family-friendly as The Brave is, there is one scene in particular that shifts the tone in the coming-of-age movie. Zedus chows down on a crowd of innocent bystanders right before Toru’s eyes. Although Toru’s friend Katsuya survives, it’s hard to forget the sight of Zedus’ blood-stained teeth and the disturbing sounds of monster mastication.
Godzilla x Megaguirus (2000)
The Couple’s Death
Fans tend to forget Godzilla x Megaguirus, but the scene where a couple in Shibuya is brutally attacked is indelible. A man and woman are walking at night near a construction site when they’re separately killed by a newly hatched Meganulon. The entire sequence plays out like a scene in Mimic; the civilians are suddenly apprehended by the giant dragonfly nymph, then presumably eaten off screen.
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
The Mushroom Cloud
Godzilla gained hero status all thanks to the spate of movies where the King of Monsters helped humanity at a moment’s notice. Those days are long and gone now, though. The Heisei period revisioned Godzilla as an unstoppable threat to mankind, and that idea carried over into the next phase. The Millennium movies are occasionally anthological in the sense they sometimes have self-contained timelines. Shūsuke Kaneko’s contribution Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (GMK, for short) is one prime example; Godzilla now embodies the spirits and rage of all those lives lost in the Pacific War.
As a rampaging Godzilla is ready to set the city ablaze, the camera cuts to a classroom of children and their teacher, all consumed in a blinding white light emanating from the monster’s atomic breath. It’s during that split second audiences think Godzilla has taken aim at the school. Instead, they realize the blast is from afar. There is no relief, however, seeing as the teacher and her students see the mushroom cloud in the distance. This scene brings the series back to its grim roots in the most visceral way possible.
After a cave-in, a miner named Shigeru becomes trapped underground. It’s only after his rescue does he remember the following events, though. He’s recovering when the sight of two small bird eggs triggers a flashback.
Shigeru recalls being lost and injured in the cavern with not only many Meganulons surrounding him but also an enormous egg close by. Once the egg hatches, a young and hungry Rodan emerges. The whole sequence is dreadful; every anguished second in that subterranean chamber is so unbearably tense.
Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)
Death From Above
This is the most unusual Shōwa movie in the Godzilla franchise. With a potent eco-horror tinge to its story, Godzilla vs Hedorah is notable when it comes to psychedelic and disturbing imagery. Once the titular villain reaches its flying stage, it takes to the air and spreads toxic smog all over the city. The civilians who are unable to escape are instantly reduced to bones after their flesh dissolves.
The film’s young protagonist Ken makes the grisly discovery while running around the city during Hedorah’s attack. To this day, those scenes of victims’ rapidly decomposing faces and skeletons haunt Godzilla fans.
The First Attack
The original movie operates on a whole other level when discussing scariness. With the ‘54 Godzilla being a walking metaphor for atomic weapons, the creature’s first attack in Shinagawa, Tokyo is frightening — even today, it’s hard to watch.
While Godzilla destroys everything and everyone in its path, there are really two bloodcurdling scenes that immediately jump out. Firstly, no one is prepared for the mother who soothes her terrified children by saying they will all be joining their father soon. The coldest of comforts. On top of that is the band of reporters on Tokyo Tower who know death is imminent as Godzilla approaches. The camerawork and perspective make this moment all the more chilling. It’s this kind of merciless destruction that makes the first film unmatched in terms of fear and horror.