As Japanese scientists have probably proven by now, there are few sights in cinema more awesome than a man in a rubber suit stomping his way through a tiny model set of Tokyo. How else to explain that the titular giant lizard of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) immediately became a worldwide icon — thanks largely to Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), a U.S. dub-and-recut job that inserted Raymond Burr as an explanatory American reporter while omitting all of the Hiroshima references crucial to Honda’s grappling with atomic fear and the legacy of a lost war.
The original Godzilla’s somber tone was quickly discarded anyway, by a succession of sequels and competing products that favored colorful, often campy and child-oriented slugfests between an escalating number of beloved monsters. (Godzilla himself turned, Terminator-like, from foe to friend.) These “Kaiju” (or “giant monster”) movies spawned an international cult — more, one suspects, for their rubber-suited fantasy wrestling than for their ongoing oblique reflection of intra-Japanese social problems. The American Cinematheque’s Kaiju series may not right this, but it does provide ample opportunity to rejoice in the giantness of the monsters (and the tininess of their plaster-and-paint stomping grounds) where it really counts — on the big screen. Godzilla appears in his original form (albeit in the now ultra-rare ’56 U.S. dub) as well as in two recent revivals. Godzilla 2000 (1999) is not as millennial as it should have been, but Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) is a dark highlight (the title of which doubles as a review). Meanwhile, the other king of Kaiju, a flying turtle, sweetly illuminates the genre’s kid-friendly side in Gamera the Brave (2006).
More sensational is The Great Yokai War (2005), a big-budget fantasy by prolific cult auteur Takashi Miike. Usually pegged as a paragon of today’s “Asia Extreme” excesses for his wild, violent cheapies, Miike is actually a fierce humanist, and there’s no better proof than this endearing and triumphant, yet ultimately disillusioned fable of a chosen child’s wacky fight against the forces of evil. Including the film in this series is a bit of a swindle, since the boy sides with monsters who are definitely no giants. But they’re so lovably outré, who could resist? They include the incomparable umbrella monster, a bean counter and, yes, a talking wall. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian; thru July 2. www.americancinematheque.com)