THE LARGER-THAN-LIFE MAGIC OF MECHS AND MONSTERS
There is hardly anything more visually satisfying than seeing giant things hit other, bigger things. It appeals to the destructive child that sits in the beating heart of all of us, to watch heroes and monsters alike appear on the battlefield ready to lay waste to the enemy and environment around them. These films and television productions are, at their core, incredibly simple, but contain within that simplicity an incredibly moving artform that can inspire adolescent chuckles as well as tears.
If you’ve chanced any sort of encounter with me in the wastelands of the internet (not recommended), you’ll know my praise comes from a deeply ingrained, possibly unhealthy love of this genre. The adoration of franchises such as Godzilla, Gundam, and Ultraman has led me to co-writing an over-the-top, energetic series of my own with my friend, Wells Thompson (MechaTon #1-3 is currently on Kickstarter, read the bottom of the article for more details!). Today, though, we need to have a serious conversation about the best the genre has to offer. Whether you think these films and programs are nothing more than dumb commercials for kid’s toys (you’re right) or you think they can be moving tales of humanity in the face of the unstoppable (you’re also right), you’re going to find something here worth checking out.
Alright, enough preamble, let’s get to what you all came to see and sneer at.
#5: Code Geass (2006)
“You can’t change the world without getting your hands dirty”
Gundam may have the presence, but Geass has the style. A political mecha anime with a distinct flair for the dramatic, Code Geass delivers character drama alongside intense mech combat as a small group of Japanese rebels attempts to overthrow Britannia, ruling power of the world, across fifty pulse-pounding episodes. Lelouch Vi Britannia, long-lost son of the emperor, seeks to use his newfound, supernatural abilities and armada of mechs to take on the powers that be with the full knowledge that he will not come out the other side a good man.
It might be a bit too anime for its own good at times, but the political intrigue, moral implications, and strong character work (along with incredibly animated mech combat sequences) means you’re never going to be bored watching the dominos fall in the only way they could. If you’re not feeling some kind of way by the finale, then what are you even doing here?
#4: Return of Ultraman (1971)
“You are now Ultraman.”
After the success of Ultraseven in 1967, it was an odd choice to shutter production of the Ultra series. But, thankfully, Tsubaraya brought back the Warrior of Light in 1971 which, alongside the equally-great Kamen Rider, reignited interest in tokusatsu and paved the way for the world of toku we find ourselves in today (for better or worse). This sticks to the standard Ultraman formula where a racecar driver named Hideki Go joins a military monster-fighting team and assists them in secret as Ultraman.
Going full super-hero with this entry, Return doesn’t have the same kind of Twilight Zone flair the previous three series did, but it trades that intrigue for character depth and ongoing narratives all while keeping the monster bashing at an all-time high. It’s a lengthy show clocking in at fifty-one episodes, but you’ll be smiling from ear to ear the entire time as Go deals with his personal struggles while blasting away kaiju on the daily.
#3: Shin Godzilla (2016)
“There is no precedent.”
If ever there was a Godzilla film that even came close to rivaling the original, it would be Hideaki Anno’s masterpiece Shin Godzilla. Filled to the brim with fascinating ideas about mankind, institutions, and nature itself, this film takes the still-relevant core of 1954’s Godzilla and gives it new life in the twenty-first century. Japan is beset by a new threat, one that has no equal: Godzilla. But, hampered by the bureaucracy of the Japanese elite, they are woefully unprepared to deal with the beast and its ever-changing physiology.
My jaw literally dropped upon seeing this film in theaters for the first time at the unbridled imagination that went into crafting this new, Lovecraftian horror that is Godzilla. It’s a film that will stay with you long after you’ve moved on to other creature features, and one that sits comfortably in the conversation of not only great kaiju films, but great films, period.
#2: Gurren Lagann (2007)
“Gurren Lagann! Spin on! Who the hell do you think I am?!”
Look, I’ll just be blunt here: Gurren Lagann is not only the greatest mecha anime of all time but also one of the greatest pieces of art to ever grace our tiny, unworthy eyeholes and burrow its way into our hearts and souls. Bursting with personality, style, and more inspiration than a Hallmark storefront across twenty-seven heart-racing episodes, this show is fire. A young man named Simon, scared of his own shadow, embarks on a journey to the fabled surface world with his best friend Kamina. What they find is a world full of monsters, mechs, and the potential to become so much more than they believed possible.
The insanity on display quickly travels from the depths of the earth to the impossible voids of space and you’ll be raising your fist and cheering them on the entire time. And when it’s all said and done, you may just find yourself contemplating your own silly dreams and how to make them reality.
#1: Godzilla (1954)
“Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived. What could kill it now?”
An obvious choice, I know, but it’s hard to argue that Ishiro Honda’s magnum opus doesn’t deserve the top spot on any kaiju-related list. Released not even a full decade after the devastation wrought by the nuclear bomb, Godzilla is a haunting film that seeks to hold a mirror up to mankind and wonder just how far we are willing to go in the name of science.
The primordial soup from which all other tokusatu was born, this film features compelling drama, suffocating weight, and special effects that still demand attention nearly seventy years later. One of the most important works of art ever put to film, this is required viewing, regardless of your opinion of giant monsters and tiny sets.
Thanks for once again indulging my slavish obsession with genre fiction. But we should cut to the chase here and get to the thing I was probably supposed to be promoting this whole time:
“Is now the time to start asking questions, or do we just want to pretend this is normal and move on?”
MechaTon is a love letter to everything you just read about up top, a non-stop roller coaster full of mechs, monsters, and family. Two siblings, Derek and Leah, discover a massive glove that has fallen from space. Upon encountering a kaiju-sized cockroach, the two realize that anything they punch transforms into a mech capable of fighting off the beast. So, of course, they punch a hotdog cart. And then a house. And then a tank. And then, and then, and then… Equal parts Godzilla and Gundam, MechaTon is currently in the process of its third Kickstarter campaign where you can grab all three issues and dive into the crazy world we have on offer.
Full of heart, action, and puns, it’s a comic I think every fan of the genre can find something inside to love. So head on over to MechaTon on Kickstarter and back the next giant monster hit for giant monster fans. Hell, maybe someday we’ll even release the original Japanese cut, subtitles and all.
Ultraman R/B (2018)
“Color me with your power! R/B!”
Ultraman R/B (pronounced “Ruebe”) is probably my all-time favorite Ultraman show because it is unlike any other entry that came before it. The standard Ultraman formula of police force fighting monsters with the help of Ultraman is thrown out the window to instead focus on two brothers, Katsumi and Isami Minato. It changes the show from a workplace military thriller into a sibling buddy-cop comedy with a heart of gold through twenty-five fast-paced episodes.
As much as I love the regular formula, I desperately want to see more Ultraman shows leave the realm of the military and settle into the hands of the everyman. Plus, the chemistry between the two brothers is phenomenal. Not only will you cheer as they beat up the giant monsters in their midst, but you’ll cry when they have to confront their own familial expectations. Plus, the toys are just dope.
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
“The earthmen now will have to take their own medicine!”
I know what you’re thinking and I will not apologize. Widely regarded as one of the worst films in Godzilla’s robust catalog, I’m here to set the record straight: this film slaps harder than Mystery Science Theater will have you believe. After an atomic test destroys a third of their country, the people of the underwater Seatopia unleash their monster, Megalon, upon the surface to destroy it. Filled with cheesy dialogue, awful effects, and suits that are clearly starting to show their age, this entry in the Godzilla pantheon is a prime example of the fun that still seems to bleed from the pores of the genre despite everything working against it.
It’s a film that isn’t trying to be anything more than a monster mash of immaturity and is a great entry point for children to get them hooked for life. Hell, it’s the film that hooked me, and I’m a fully-functioning, unbiased adult talking about monster movies on the internet. I’d say it’s a win-win.