City-destroying kaijū, spooky obake, benevolent oni and mischievous yokai, Japanese films are rife with all manner of monsters or monsutā. The Japanese term monsutā encapsulates all kinds of supernatural beings, spirits, wizards, warlocks, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and giant-sized creatures and, much like Japan’s iconic monsutā movies, the Monsutā brand is built on a larger-than-life story representing its series of beers and chūhais.
Once every century, on an island off the Okinawa coast, the legendary Monsutā stirs from his slumber. The massive sumo wrestler sets out on a quest for the giant-sized taste of his cherished Okinawa Dry Premium Draft. Along his journey, he faces off against a colossal squid wreaking havoc on Okinawa’s cityscape, ultimately emerging as the hero and saving Okinawa’s beloved Happy Park Brewery. It’s epic stories like this that have made Monsutā and Japanese cinema legendary and, to celebrate the beer’s iconography and Japan’s cinematic history, we look at the best monsutā movies to sit down and watch with a cold beer or chūhai.
Godzilla – 1954
Popularising the term kaijū (giant monster) and Japanese monsutā movies more broadly, it’s hard to overlook the king of the monsters – Godzilla. Godzilla first appeared in the 1954 film of the same name, directed by Ishirō Honda. The film follows palaeontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane as he investigates the recent catastrophic damage of a small fishing village. Eventually encountering Godzilla, a 50-metre-tall dinosaur-like monster, Yamane returns to Tokyo to report his findings. Godzilla eventually pops up in Tokyo Bay and officials call upon Yamane for ideas on how to kill the monster despite Yamane’s convictions that the monster is unkillable. Spanning nearly seven decades and 38 films, the Godzilla franchise set the tone for hundreds of monsutā movies to come. Outside of Japan, its influence on films like Jaws, Cloverfield, and Pacific Rim is obvious. If it’s more kaijū monsutā action you’re after, check out Ishirō Honda’s other epics – Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and the ultimate monsutā showdown, Destroy All Monsters.
Spirited Away – 2001
Since 1986, Studio Ghibli and its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki have been creating some of the most recognisable Japanese films in history, perhaps the most notable of which is 2001’s Spirited Away. Winning the second-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and consistently ranked among the best films of the 2000s, it has no shortage of monsters (more specifically Japanese Yokai) and heart. In the film, a young girl named Chihiro and her parents stop by an amusement park while moving to a new town. Exploring the park, they enter a mysterious tunnel that leads them to an otherworldly realm where Chichiro’s parents are turned into pigs. Trapped in a supernatural bathhouse, Chihiro embarks on a journey to free her parents and find a way back to the human world, encountering various yokai and other supernatural monsters along the way. Often featuring strong female leads, dabbling in the fantastical world of monsters and addressing environmental themes, Miyazaki’s films are beloved worldwide. If you’re new to his films, check out his classics Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, and his latest release, The Boy and the Heron.
Death Note – 2006
Based on the popular manga and anime series, Death Note is a series of films originally released in 2006, smashing the Japanese box office and gaining cult status overseas, not to mention an unfortunate Netflix remake in 2017. In the films, genius high school student Light Yagami finds a notebook belonging to Ryuk, a shinigami (a type of Japanese death spirit) that grants him the power to kill anyone whose name he writes in it. He uses it to rid the world of criminals but ultimately attracts the attention of a genius detective named L who’s committed himself to tracking down the mysterious killer. The first two films were both released in 2006, with a third film in 2016 and musicals (that’s right) running in Japan and South Korea in 2015 and London in 2023.
Ring – 1998
Hideo Nakata’s Ring is the kind of “turn on all the lights on the way to the bathroom” scary that will sit with you for days after watching. Proving once and for all that little ghost children can be way scarier than a 50-metre-tall lizard, the film’s release in 1998 prompted the coining of the term “J-Horror” and a massive revival of psychological and supernatural horror films worldwide. The film revolves around journalist Reiko Asakawa who comes across a cursed videotape that, when watched, leads to the viewer’s death at the hands of a vengeful ghost child. After Asakawa and, eventually, her son unwittingly watch the tape, they too become cursed and Reiko investigates the tape’s origins to break the curse and save herself and her son. Based on Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel (and a 1995 straight-to-tv movie), the film has received numerous Japanese and international film and television sequels and remakes but the low-budget 1998 version still stands as the most disarmingly, unsettlingly creepy incarnation yet.
Shin Ultraman – 2022
One of the most recent and more traditional monsutā movies in the strict sense of the term, Shin Ultraman was directed by Shinji Higuchi and written by Hideaki Anno. Based on the 1966 TV series, it’s Higuchi and Anno’s second reimagining of a kaijū monsutā series after 2016’s Shin Godzilla. Prompted by the increased appearance of giant monsters, a new task force known as the SSSP is formed and, during a battle between the SSSP and a new monster, a mysterious giant silver alien appears out of the sky. Analyst Hiroko Asami is partnered with SSSP team member Shinji Kaminaga who suffered serious injuries during the battle, and reports on the giant silver alien as Ultraman. When another monster attacks, Kaminaga mysteriously assumes Ultraman’s form, proceeding to take on a variety of other giant outer space monsters. The film went on to smash the Japanese box office, highlighting an existing demand for Japanese monsutā movies and promising further monster collaborations between Higuchi and Anno. Fans of Anno’s work should also check out the Neon Genesis: Evangelion series and films as well as his recent film, Shin Kamen Rider. Fans of giant monsters should check out the Attack on Titan series or, if you’re stuck for time, the recent compilation film Attack on Titan: Chronicle before the end of the final series drops in November.
No matter which type of Japanese monsutā movie you favour from kaijū to yokai, action to anime, there’s an endless world of Japanese cinema to explore filled with exciting and larger-than-life stories like Monsutā’s iconic sumo. With many of our favourites available on streaming services and Monsutā’s drinks available from BWS, Dan Murphy’s and Jimmy Brings, there’s no time like the present to crack open a cold drink and explore the world of Japanese monsutā movies.