For G-fans, this is the Big One, the culmination of all that came before. It’s easy to see why since Kaijû sôshingeki (“Charge” or “Invasion” or “Attack of the Monsters“; take your pick) hits the ground running with none of the drawn-out build-up we’ve come to expect from these flicks…especially those directed by Ishiro Honda. By the eleven minute-mark, Godzilla’s nuking the UN and his monstrous colleagues are reducing other major cities to scrap. By the end of the film, ten monsters engage the twice-defeated (yet inexplicably popular) King Ghidorah in a no-holds-barred brawl in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, which became legendary before the film’s premiere.
So the number one reason cited for out-and-out loving Destroy All Monsters is totally valid. Here, you really can get more monsters for your money and the scope of that Climactic Battle is mind-bending, both as a piece of cinema and as a technical landmark in film making history. Ten monsters, most of them actors in costumes, the rest puppets, all requiring some manner of off-screen puppeteers to keep up the illusion. It was a logistical nightmare of actors and wires and animatronics, all under hot lights, sixteen hours a day…but thanks to the magic of editing and shot composition, its made not only beautiful, but enduringly awesome.
For many G-fans, that fight alone ensures this film can do no wrong. For others, Destroy All Monsters can do no wrong because it was their introduction to Godzilla and his universe. A certain generation (the one right ahead of mine, in fact) grew up seeing this film on network TV, where it played with varying degrees of regularity until the 1980s. This was back in the days when there were only three networks and they bought up catalogs of cheap, old films to shore up their schedules. Continue reading Destroy All Monsters (1968)→
Hold on to your butts, people. This is a weird one, with an even weirder history than your average cult classic. Produced in association with Henry G. Saperstein’s United Pictures, War of the Gargantuas took four years to get to the American drive-in circuit, where it premiered on a double bill with Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Like that film, Gargantuas features a Token American in the lead (Russ Tamblyn), supported by two instantly recognizable (to me at least) Honda Repertoire Company vets (Kenji Sahara and Kumi Mizuno). But unlike Monster Zero, Gargantuas is a much more grounded, much more traditional kaiju flick – arguably more so than its almost-prequel, Frankenstein Conquers the World.
That film (for anyone who doesn’t know/remember) concerned a team of scientists who happened upon a street urchin who once devoured the immortal heart of Frankenstein’s monster, irradiated by a nuclear blast after Nazi scientists shipped it to a Hiroshima during the last days of World War II. Said devouring ballooned the street urchin – which everyone pretty much just started calling “Frankenstein” – up to Ultraman-ish proportions, bringing him into inevitable conflict with the Japan’s military Self Defense Forces and roving, wild dinosaur population. Continue reading War of the Gargantuas (1966)→
Submarines and sci-fi stories go together like fish and chips, as anyone who’s read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea already knows. And if you thought that book hit it big in the English speaking world (I’m not even going to try and count how many times it’s been adapted to film) you should see the influence it had on Japan. Once Jules Verne hit the home islands his books sparked an SF craze that, in most respects, has never really gone away.
Local rip-offs were inevitable, the most important for us being Shunro Oshikawa’s Kaitei Gunkan (“Undersea Battleship”), published around 1900. The first in a series of what we’d now call “young adult adventure novels,” Undersea Battleship followed the crew of its titular device through a futuristic version of the Ruso-Japanese War that was, in reality, just around the corner. Like a lot of Japanese fiction at the time, it was enthusiastically imperialist, fiercely nationalistic, and (one would think) completely anathema to a post-war movie audience raised under the Constitution of 1945, with its explicit “wars are bad, m’kay” stance.
And yet…the popularity of Oshikawa’s books managed to survive both his death and the death of Japan’s imperial ambitions. Why wouldn’t it? They’re all about manly men doing manly things in service to manly causes. To a movie studio struggling to establish itself internationally as the age of James Bond dawned, that sounded like a recipe for success. And who better to bring all that to the silver screen than the people who brought you Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, VaranandThe Mysterians? That’ll make for a guaranteed-great movie…right? Continue reading Atragon (1963)→
There is no human achievement more complex, daunting or inspirational than the “conquest” of outer space. I put “conquest” in sarcastic quotes because we really haven’t conquered jack shit. We’ve played golf on our nearest satellite and left a plaque for the cockroaches to find. By the standards of SF in the mid-60s, we’re way behind schedule.
We should’ve discovered our tenth planet by now. Instead we’re down one and the space shuttle’s been mothballed. Robots do all our exploring for us because it’s cheaper and “safer.” As if anyone said space would be “safe.” We’ve known there were monsters out there since before we knew how out there could really be. Martians invaded in 1898, 1938 and1953. Earth itself faced off against (not just any ol flying saucers but) theFlying Saucers in ’56. The Mysterians came for our women in ’57, Krankor came for our rocket fuel in ’59, and in ’61 the Neptune Men came for…umm…yeah…something…I forget because that movie was so boring. King Ghidorah’s arrival in 64 was only the icing on the cake. And in 196X, we discovered Planet X. Continue reading Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)→
How about I take cheap shots at a film I love for a change? I seem to be running on a solid three-to-one ratio. And Japan was still synonymous with “cheap” back when this film came out, despite it being the most lavish Godzilla movie ever made…a title it would hold for a full year.
As I’ve said, with Mothra vs. Godzilla the Ishiro Honda repertory company came into the full force of its power. Its international success, combined with that of its prequel, King Kong vs. Godzilla, ensured everyone, from series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka on down, access to more cash. This allowed the Godzilla series, for a few brief, shinning years, to top itself with each subsequent entry by doing something anathema to modern Hollywood. I think they used to call it “innovating.” Continue reading Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)→
The international success of King Kong vs. Godzilla ensured it would be a major moment in the careers of its two top-billed stars and the director behind both of them, Ishirô Honda. Prior to directing the original Gojira ten years earlier, Honda specialized in slice-of-life dramas with the occasional break into that new, Hot Genre of the 1950s: the Workplace Comedy. No matter the story, these films were usually quiet pieces set on a slow boil, focused (like his much more famous monster movies) on small groups of ordinary people overcoming something or other through their unwavering hope for a better tomorrow.
These films were a refuge for Honda: small-scale, relatively everyday productions he could always escape to in between monster movies. Then he made the mistake of directing a workplace comedy/daikaiju eiga hybrid. After that, his professional goose was cooked. And thank God. Because, after three mediocre-to-shit sequels, Honda and the metric tons of talent he brought with him finally gave us a Godzilla film I can unconditionally rave about.
Given King Kong‘s one of the most successful and popular monster movies of all time, it’s enjoyed numerous revivals over the years. Including one in the early 1950s that directly inspired the American atomic monster craze and the daikaiju eiga of Japan. Kong‘s direct sequel, Son of Kong, and its kissing cousin, Mighty Joe Young were…less than successful.
But that didn’t stop special effects wizard Wells O’Brien from conceiving yet another sequel. Something that would retain all the grandiose power of the original but do away with that slapdash, chash-in feel that made Son of Kong suck. It would be a conscious throwback to that Golden Age of Monster Movies: the 1930s, the age of O’Brien’s primes. And it would climax in a gigantic fight scene in the streets of San Francisco, with Kong squaring off against a gigantic Frankenstein monster composed of animal parts and, presumably, a constantly-beating heart, irradiated by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
By 1960, O’Brien had a treatment all worked up, but the projected cost of the stop motion animation necessary to pull all this off made Hollywood skittish. The producer O’Brien hired, John Beck, began to shop the movie around overseas. He eventually wound up at Toho, who liked the idea of a giant Frankenstein so much they sat on it for three more years…after they made this. Continue reading King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)→
This is a return to glory for everyone involved after the gigantic backward step that was Varan. Even uncut versions of that are painfully rehashes of previous Honda monster movies, symptomatic of those Ancient Enemies of all good film: lack of time and a low, low budget.
Mothra is a full-180 turn, the first daikaiju masterpiece of the 1960s. Like Rodan, it follows a small cast of actually-interesting characters. But unlike Godzillaand Rodan, Mothra is more of an urban fantasy than a depressing polemic against the horrors of nuclear weapons and the ethically-challenged March of Progress that overlay this entire age of world history. After all, it’s 1961: JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X are still alive! The Space Race is in full swing! The Rodans are dead and Godzilla was last seen at the bottom of an icy rock slide. All is right with the world! What could possibly go wrong? Continue reading Mothra (1961)→
Ishiro Honda directed three films in 1958. One is justly famous in international horror circles, one is rare but infamous among daikaiju fans, and one is a “human interest” drama called Song of the Bride. Good luck trying to find out anything about that. As the decade of atomic power gave way to the Space Age, the director who began his career with two “human interest” documentaries (no really: The Story of a Co-op kicks ass if you can find it…not that you asked) saw himself enthroned as King of the Special Effects Picture in general…and monster movies in particular. Having learned their lesson from Godzilla Raids Again, Toho dared not let anyone else touch their newest, fattest cash cow of a sub-genre. They needed a monster movie for 1958. Too bad they had to give us this.
Except that’s not accurate, since the Japanese version of this flick is remarkably different from the version I watched as a child; the one I’m picking apart, in public, tonight…and all for your entertainment, you sick bastards. Why must I suffer? Continue reading Varan the Unbelievable (1962)→
Alien invasions are as old as literature. I’ve read versions of the Biblical flood myth that sound more like the plot of tonight’s film than any other part of the Old or New Testaments. Yet ever since the success of George Pal and Byron Haskin’s War of the Worlds (released four years prior to our subject), vicious extraterrestrials have tried to conquer Earth at least once a year, despite repeated, and often embarrassing, setbacks.
Case in point: The Mysterians, first of the many, many, many alien races who threatened Toho Co.’s Japan (and, by extension, The World) with enslavement and annihilation throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. And while superhero and space opera films on all sides of the Pacific had long ago burned over this particular district of science fiction, The Mysterians marks the first successful fusion of the alien invasion motif with Ishiro Honda’s daikaiju formula. The result is, to say the least, mixed. But it’s still head and shoulders over what would come after Continue reading The Mysterians (1957)→