Be sure to check out the whole RanKing of the Monsters Series to see who comes out on top!
Last week, we looked at five monsters (well, four monsters and a dumb oversized bird, to be more accurate) from Japan’s Showa period (1926-1989), which is often considered a “golden age” of kaiju cinema.
This week, we’re jumping to the Heisei period, which began in 1989. While that era didn’t technically end until 2019, I’ll stop at 1999 here since that is when the “Millennium” series of Godzilla films began.
Godzilla (Heisei Era)
First Appearance: The Return of Godzilla (1984)
Notable Ability: Atomic breath, but from an even bigger mouth!
A new era means a new Godzilla. After a ten year hiatus, Godzilla was redesigned and reintroduced in the somewhat boring The Return of Godzilla, which made its way overseas (along with spliced-in Raymond Burr and a LOT of Dr Pepper product placement) as Godzilla 1985. The general design stuck around for another decade and is one of the more recognizable looks for the famous monster.
The Heisei version of Godzilla is significantly bigger than his predecessor, measuring between 80 and 100 meters in height depending on the movie. The Showa era Godzilla was around 60 meters, and the difference is quite evident as the chonky boy demolishes buildings with ease.
Bigger, but not necessarily better
With a much larger suit comes a bit more rigidity for the suit actor, so Godzilla sadly never shows boxer-style flair the way that his forebear did at times. The redesign also makes Godzilla look a good deal angrier, which is fitting since he is never consciously trying to save humanity in the Heisei films.
Godzilla’s Heisei iteration isn’t quite as iconic as the original, but there’s no denying that his appearance makes for some jaw-dropping poster art. The poster for 1991’s Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (above) is a particular favorite of mine.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
First Appearance: Godzilla vs Biollante (1989)
Notable Ability: Acidic sap-spitting
The basic premise of Godzilla vs Biollante was created by a fan who won a story-writing contest, and the creativity shows through the film, which is one of the better entries in the Godzilla series. The title monster, Biollante, is the surprising result of a mixture of cells from a human, a rosebush, and Godzilla himself.
Biollante has several forms, beginning with a sentient rose bush that eventually grows to massive size once Godzilla’s DNA is spliced into it. Rose bushes aren’t exactly known for their skills in combat, so this form is promptly toasted by Godzilla’s atomic breath. Biollante has the ability to reform from her spores, however, and her final form is one of the most impressive kaiju ever put to film.
Every rose has its thorn
With jaws like a crocodile, numerous fang-bearing tendrils (think tentacle versions of the “jaw within a jaw from the Alien movies), and the ability to spit acidic sap globs, Biollante is one of the most imposing opponents Godzilla has ever squared off against. And she’s the good guy in this one, so you don’t have to feel bad when she whoops his scaly butt!
The sheer logistics required for Biollante as an elaborate practical effect make it one of most memorable kaiju ever created. Behind the scenes footage shows a complex network of strings used to control the various vines and tendrils, all while puppeteers worked to operate the massive head and body of the creature. It’s incredibly impressive stuff, and just part of why Biollante is a top-tier monster.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Yamata no Orochi
First Appearance: Yamato Takeru (1994)
Notable Ability: Eye lasers (from eight separate heads!)
This is a bit of an odd one. Yamata no Orochi is an eight-headed dragon from Japanese mythology who makes an appearance in several kaiju films, most notably 1959’s The Birth of Japan and 1994’s Yamato Takeru, both produced by Toho. The latter is essentially Japan’s answer to Clash of the Titans – an answer that unfortunately arrived well over a decade too late.
Yamata no Orochi does not appear in its “true” form until the very end of the painfully mediocre film, but the appearance of a massive hydra-like dragon that fights a giant metal samurai in what amounts to an epic laser light show does make for some wonderfully silly fun. It’s a shame how little the monster is on screen, though.
It’s easy to dismiss the multi-headed dragon as a knock-off of Toho’s own King Ghidorah, but it’s clear that a lot of effort went into Yamata no Orochi’s design, and the puppetry behind the head movements is impressive. It doesn’t quite redeem the film, but it’s easily the most memorable aspect of it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Gamera (Heisei Era)
First Appearance: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
Notable Ability: Fire breath
I have a complicated history with Gamera. As a child who was oh-so-desperate for any monster movie I could get a hold of, I was ecstatic to find a new series to watch when I rented Gamera vs Guiron (1969) from a local video store. I even convinced myself for a short while that the Showa-era giant turtle was even cooler than Godzilla, but I quickly came to my senses.
Through the eyes of an adult, the ‘60s Gamera movies are remarkably silly. Maybe even too silly for many kaiju fans, to be honest, though the exploits of the monstrous “friend of all children” are much more watchable with commentary from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys. The ‘90s reboot trilogy is a different story entirely, however.
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe was released just as the Heisei era of Godzilla films came to a close with Godzilla vs Destoroyah. With Godzilla taking a hiatus, his one-time rival had the spotlight all to himself for several years. I think most kaiju fans would agree that Daiei studio and director Shusuke Kaneko made the most of the situation, crafting a monster movie with more cinematic weight than most of the ‘90s Godzilla offerings.
Friend to all kaiju-lovers
The rebooted version of Gamera is just plain cool. Taking a cue from Godzilla, the Heisei version looks a bit meaner, but is always portrayed as heroic. Gamera’s ability to breath fire and fly by, uh… blasting fire out of his leg holes make for some exciting action sequences in which he fights the bat-like Gyaos.
I might take some lumps for this one, but I have to give Heisei-era Gamera the slight edge over Heisei-era Godzilla. The tusked turtle helped spark creativity into the stagnating genre, and even directly inspired one of the very best Godzilla films in 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack!
Rating: 5 out of 5
Gyaos (Heisei Era)
First Appearance: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
Notable ability: Supersonic shriek
The Gamera series has always been a bit lacking when it comes to creating interesting rival monsters for Gamera to fight. Half of Gamera’s foes have googly eyes that make them look like they were bonked on the head with a kaiju-sized hammer, but one recurring enemy (or enemies) stands out.
The bat-like race of monsters known as Gyaos set themselves aside for their ability to fly at incredible speeds and cut through Gamera’s flesh with supersonic screams. These abilities are kept intact in the ‘90s reboot trilogy, but the creatures are redesigned to look much more threatening than their strangely angular ‘60s counterparts. While their strength lies in their numbers for the most part, a well-aimed shriek from a single Gyaos is all it takes to best the heroic turtle monster.
Rating: 4 out of 5
What are your thoughts on these Hisei Heavyweights? How would you rate and rank them?