Film Review: Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Also known as: Kaijū Sōshingeki (Japan), All Monsters Attack (alternate), Monster Attack March (alternate), Operation Monsterland (UK alternate)
Release Date: August 1st, 1968 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Takeshi Kimura, Ishirō Honda
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kenji Sahara

Toho, 88 Minutes

Review:

This was the Shōwa era Godzilla film that literally had it all. It was jam packed full of kaiju, had aliens and a ton of kaiju action and really good action sequences that didn’t even involve monsters. It isn’t the best Godzilla film of its era but it is probably the film that is the most fun. And when I am introducing friends to the Shōwa era and old school kaiju pictures, this is usually the one I pop on just for the non-stop action and overabundance of giant monsters.

Usually these sort of films get convoluted by trying to wedge in too much. Look at the modern Avengers movies versus the solo Marvel films. Destroy All Monsters throws a dozen kaiju at you but they all mostly get to shine without stepping on anyone’s toes or complicating the plot. Granted, a few were used minimally but that was due to their rubber suits being in bad condition due to age and the effects of previous films.

While the story here is decent for a kaiju picture, it really doesn’t matter. This is the Royal Rumble of Godzilla movies and all these fantastic creatures come together. Initially, they are controlled by evil aliens and attack different parts of the world. Godzilla even takes out the United Nations building in New York City. Eventually, the monsters are free from alien control, which brings in King Ghidorah because every sinister alien group seems to have a Batphone to King Ghidorah’s study in his stately manor.

The highlight of the film is when all the good monsters gang up on Ghidorah and just kick the living shit out of him. I love Ghidorah but the mud hole stomping finale is friggin’ glorious! Then the film is capped off by our Earth heroes in a cool ship fighting a phoenix. I mean, really? How cool is this movie?

Eiji Tsuburaya handled the special effects, Ishirō Honda returned as director and Akira Ifukube returned to score the film. Honda and Ifukube took a hiatus from the series, after being instrumental in giving it life and longevity. The reason for their return, is that this was initially planned to be the final picture for Godzilla. However, Toho didn’t even make it a year before they were working on All Monsters Attack a.k.a. Godzilla’s Revenge, a universally panned sequel but probably gets a worse rap than it deserves.

This film is set in the future, at least at the time of its release, so the chronology is a bit confusing after this movie but I’ve always seen this as the real final chapter and the Shōwa films that came out after this one as events that happened before this picture. So when King Ghidorah dies here, he really dies and his return later in the series in Godzilla vs. Gigan was set before Destroy All Monsters.

I love Destroy All Monsters. It is not my favorite Godzilla picture but it is exciting for old school kaiju fans.

Film Review: Battle In Outer Space (1959)

Also known as: Uchū Daisensō (Japan)
Release Date: December 26th, 1959 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Shinichi Sekizawa, Jotaro Okami
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Ryo Ikebe, Kyoko Anzai, Minoru Takada, Koreya Senda, Leonard Stanford, Harold Conway

Toho, 93 Minutes

Review:

Battle In Outer Space was part of a trio of films unofficially referred to as the “Toho Outer Space Trilogy”. The other two films are 1957’s The Mysterians and 1962’s Gorath. All three films featured Toho’s triple threat of director Ishirō Honda, special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and musical maestro Akira Ifukube. This is the only film of the three that does not feature a kaiju of some sort. The Mysterians featured the giant alien robot Moguera, who would go on to become a part of the Godzilla mythos, while Gorath featured the giant walrus kaiju named Maguma.

Battle In Outer Space, while lacking the presence of a kaiju, doesn’t really need one. Besides, in those other two films, the giant creatures were used pretty sparingly and weren’t focal points. This film is no different, as the story and sci-fi action alone, carry this picture.

Frankly, I wish Toho would have made more of these types of films. They are visually alluring and magnificent works of moving art. Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects and his miniature work are absolutely top notch in this, more so than most of his other films. They are enhanced by gorgeous cinematography, vivid lighting and the great directing skill of Ishirō Honda. Honestly, this is further ahead from a special effects standpoint than where most American films were at the time, which says a lot about the skill and ingenuity of Tsuburaya and Honda.

In this film, we start with a bunch of strange phenomena happening across the globe. In Japan, a railroad bridge is levitated, causing a train wreck. In the Panama Canal, an ocean liner is lifted and destroyed by a waterspout. In Venice, severe flooding destroys parts of the city. There is also the destruction of a space station. A United Nations meeting is held, where the best minds in the world theorize on the cause of these events. Eventually, other strange things begin to happen and it is discovered that aliens are attacking Earth in an effort to make it easier to invade. Discovering that the aliens are on the Moon, the UN sends two rocket ships there for reconnaissance.

This is one of Toho’s most imaginative films and the execution is phenomenal. While it may come off as cheesy and hokey to modern audiences, it is a pretty pristine piece of work for 1959. And while it played in the United States on a double bill with the American film 12 to the Moon, this was the superior picture. In fact, 12 to the Moon was lampooned on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1994.

Battle In Outer Space is a true space opera epic and ahead of its time, in spite of its limitations.

Film Review: Varan the Unbelievable (1958)

Also known as: Daikaijū Baran, lit. Giant Monster Varan (Japan)
Release Date: October 14th, 1958 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Ken Kuronuma
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Kozo Nomura, Ayumi Sonoda, Fumio Matsuo, Koreya Senda, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 87 Minutes

Review:

Varan the Unbelievable was a kaiju film that I was never a big fan of. It was a total drudge to get through. However, I had only seen the English language version, which is vastly different than its original Japanese counterpart.

The American version is a short 68 minutes or so but it is edited into a completely different film and lacks the suspense and the terror that makes the Japanese version infinitely superior. The American version was also bogged down by a love story between an American soldier and a Japanese girl that felt forced and superficial.

The Japanese version, which is the one I just watched and for the first time, was an absolute delight. Finally, I got to see the monster Varan in the way that his creators intended. He was menacing, looked terrifying with his dagger like spikes and he felt like a real credible threat.

The film was made by the Toho dream team of Ishirō Honda (the director), Eiji Tsuburaya (the special effects maestro) and Akira Ifukube (the greatest kaiju film composer of all-time). While these three worked together quite often over a decade or so, one could always rest assured that when the three were a part of the creative process, as a unit, you were certainly going to get a quality kaiju epic.

Unlike most of the earlier Toho kaiju pictures, this one doesn’t recycle a lot of the acting talent. The only notable cast member in relation to their work with Toho is Koreya Senda, who played Dr. Sugimoto. He also worked in the other Toho pictures The H-Man and Battle In Outer Space, neither of which were kaiju movies but fit the general tokusatsu genre.

The film plays out similarly to the original Godzilla picture. A monster appears, gets hellapissed and decides to take his anger out on humans. The majority of the story is Varan fighting the military, as the heroes try to find a way to get rid of the giant beast.

There are some fantastic looking scenes. The one that shows Varan taking shelter underwater as the military drops depth charges is marvelous. Also, the scene where the military is dropping poison into the lake is beautifully shot and vivid, even in black and white.

The miniature work is good for a black and white picture, as it hides some of the imperfections but ultimately, Tsuburaya’s work wasn’t as good as it would become once Toho switched to making all these films in color.

Varan is an evil looking creature and he can take flight similar to a flying squirrel. Additionally, he would also go on to live in the Godzilla mythos as he appeared years later in Destroy All Monsters and the Nintendo video game Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, where he was the boss of one of the stages and continued to appear throughout the game.

Varan isn’t as popular as Godzilla, Mothra or Rodan but he is similar in that he got a solo debut film. While he didn’t appear as sporadically as the other three kaiju, that may have been a missed opportunity for Toho. A straight up Varan versus Godzilla showdown would have been interesting to see.

If you can get a hold of the Japanese version of the film, you definitely should check it out. If all you can find is the awful American version, put it back on the shelf. The easiest way to tell the difference is the running time, as the American version has twenty minutes chopped off.

Film Review: Gorath (1962)

Also known as: Yōsei Gorasu, lit. Rogue Star Gorath (Japan)
Release Date: March 21st, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Jojiro Okami, Takeshi Kimura
Music by: Kan Ishii
Cast: Ryo Ikebe, Yumi Shirakawa, Takashi Shimura, Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Ken Uehara, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 89 Minutes

Review:

“If we could come together and cooperate to overcome the danger that threatened us, can’t we take this opportunity to work together for all eternity?” – News Anchor

Gorath is an old school Toho sci-fi epic from 1962. I’m a huge fan of Toho but this is a film that has eluded me until now. I had heard of it and seen stills of its sole kaiju, the giant walrus Maguma, but it isn’t an easy film to track down. I ended up having to get a bootleg version of it on DVD with Japanese dialog and English subtitles. Luckily, it was in glorious HD and I was able to truly enjoy this picture for the first time.

While the movie does have a kaiju, he only appears for roughly six minutes towards the end of the film. He also just mostly roars and presents a sort of roadblock for the heroes trying to save Earth from a rogue star that is soon to collide with it.

The kaiju suit is passable but nothing really spectacular. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director, reused the Maguma suit for a kaiju named Todola in his Ultra Q television series (the show that started the Ultraman franchise that is still going strong today).

In general, Tsuburaya’s special effects are spectacular. His miniature work is great, the killer star Gorath looked pretty sinister and the the rocket ship sequences, while very dated now, look better than what was the norm for the time.

The highlight of the film for me is the opening fifteen minutes or so where we see the first rocketship confronting Gorath. It is a mission doomed for failure but the crew are able to get vital information back to Earth, giving the world’s leaders time to prepare for what could very well be the planet’s destruction.

The rocketship interiors are beautifully designed and have a certain quality that puts Gorath out in front of other Toho sci-fi extravaganzas. I wish there were more sequences that utilized the rocketship set.

Even though the highlight for me was the beginning, the rest of the film plays out really well. We get a lot of debate between the smartest men in the United Nations in a series of scenes that play out similarly to 2016’s Shin Godzilla, where politicians and scientists try to find ways to stop the threat destined to destroy their world.

The film also stars several of Toho’s regular actors: Yumi Shirakawa (Rodan, The MysteriansThe H-Man), Takashi Shimura (Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, The Mysterians, Mothra, Ghidroah, the Three Headed Monster, Frankenstein Conquers the World), Akira Kubo (Matango, Invasion of Astro-Monster, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, Space Amoeba), Kumi Mizuno (The Three Treasures, Matango, Invasion of Astro-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers the World, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, The War of the Gargantuas, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, Godzilla: Final Wars) and Ken Uehara (Mothra, Atragon).

Originally, there was no plan for a kaiju monster in this film but since Toho had more success with giant monsters in their movies, Maguma was added in at the last minute. Additionally, Maguma’s scenes were removed from the American version of the film and scenes with American actors were sprinkled in, similar to the US version of Gojira known in the States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Gorath is a great special effects spectacle. It re-teamed Toho’s star director Ishirō Honda and special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya and is one of their greatest films that isn’t associated with the Godzilla series that they kick started and worked on for years.

Finally seeing this picture, I was really impressed with it. In fact, it made me wish that Toho spent a lot more time making straight up sci-fi films. Of course, not at the expense of kaiju pictures but Toho just had great skill in creating science fiction. Gorath is exciting and just a really cool motion picture to look at and soak in.

Film Review: Rodan (1956)

Also known as: Sora no Daikaijū Radon, lit. Radon, Giant Monster of the Sky (Japan)
Release Date: December 26th, 1956 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Ken Kuronuma, Takeshi Kimura, Takeo Murata
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 82 Minutes

Review:

Rodan was a very pivotal movie in the long history of Toho’s cinematic legacy.

While Rodan, the monster, isn’t as famous as Godzilla or Mothra, he is one of the good guys and an ally to both of those kaiju against the evil monsters that started showing up later.

Rodan’s film though, is one of the best kaiju pictures ever made and it opened the door and set the stage for what was to come from Toho in the future.

To start, Rodan was the first kaiju film to be filmed and released in color. It wasn’t Toho’s first color movie though, as that honor goes to the previous year’s The Legend of the White Serpent (a.k.a. Madame White Snake). While that film was within the tokusatsu genre, it did not feature a kaiju monster. Also, it was co-produced with the Shaw Brothers out of Hong Kong. So in actuality, Rodan is the first color film Toho produced by themselves.

There are also a few interesting facts about the film’s American release. For starters, it was the first Japanese motion picture to get a wide release on the West Coast, which did wonders for its success in the States. Also, it had the biggest TV advertising campaign, up to that time, for New York’s massive NBC affiliate WRCA-TV. The marketing campaign featured a contest to challenge kids to quickly draw Rodan, while an outline of the character appeared on television sets.

As a film, Rodan is quite spectacular. Being the first color kaiju picture, it has a real grittiness to it. While the picture quality isn’t as pristine as the Toho films after it, it has a realism to it, visually. In fact, it kind of has the visual tone of a spaghetti western.

Additionally, Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects work, especially the miniatures come off as more authentic looking, as the bit of graininess hides the imperfections better than the clearer Toho films after this.

The effects of the flying Rodan were well executed, even though there was some trouble on the set and one of the stuntmen in the Rodan suit had a major accident. Luckily he wasn’t hurt and the film turned out fine.

The jet fighter sequences were all well shot and well executed. The big battle between the jets and Rodan was impressive for a 1956 movie, not to mention something from Japan that lacked the budget of an American picture.

The only other monsters in this film were some subterranean bugs that were the size of an adult hippopotamus. The bugs were picking off miners underground and started to make their way to the surface but once Rodan showed up, he treated them like gas station sushi. Sayonara, bugs!

Rodan is capped off by one of the most depressing endings in kaiju film history. While the speech is great and the message clear, it is sad seeing the fate of the film’s creatures. Knowing that Rodan would be a protector of Earth and an ally to Godzilla and Mothra against much larger threats, also changes the perspective of the ending quite a bit.

Rodan was the first kaiju movie I ever saw that didn’t feature Godzilla. It was given to me for free from this girl I was crushing on at my local video store circa 1987 or so. I think she liked me but I was eight years-old and she was a teenager. But if Padme can get the hots for toddler Anakin, why can’t video store girl get the hots for my little kaiju-loving self? She got fired a few weeks later for stealing.

Film Review: Mothra (1961)

Also known as: Mosura (Japan)
Release Date: June 30th, 1961 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Shinichi Sekizawa
Based on: a story in Asahi Shimbun by Shinichiro Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga, Yoshie Hotta
Music by: Yuji Koseki
Cast: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyoko Kagawa, The Peanuts, Ken Uehara, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 101 Minutes

Review:

Mothra is the most famous Toho kaiju after Godzilla. Even though he started out in this film, his very own movie, it was probably a nobrainer to bring him into the larger Godzilla mythos. But before all that, there was Mothra and frankly, it was great revisiting this monster in his debut solo flick.

In a change of pace, Mothra’s introduction is due to people messing with his island. He doesn’t come to Japan because he’s just some rampaging beast. A bunch of jerks stole the Shobijin, who are two miniature female twins from Infant Island. Mothra crashes Japan to find the Shobijin and to return them to their home.

The special effects are amazingly handled by Eiji Tsuburaya. The miniatures were great and the heat ray trucks were a prototype for the maser weapon trucks that would be used throughout Godzilla films forever after this movie.

Mothra, as a creature, was the most beautiful and ornate kaiju of his day. Tsuburaya pulled off the creature effects superbly and the art department did a fine job in decorating the monster.

It is more fun to see Mothra rough it up with other monsters but even though he is the only creature in this film, it still plays well. It is similar to Rodan in that it didn’t need to rely on other kaiju to be a success and to leave a mark on the genre.

To this day, Mothra is still incredibly popular. A version of the creature also had its own trilogy in the late 1990s, after popping up in that era’s Godzilla movies.

Mothra will probably just always be around. In fact, Mothra’s first American incarnation is coming in Legendary Pictures’ upcoming Godzilla 2.

As for Mothra, the movie, if you are a kaiju fan, this is a must-see.

Film Review: King Kong Escapes (1967)

Also known as: Kingu Kongu no Gyakushū, lit. Counterattack of King Kong (Japan)
Release Date: July 22nd, 1967 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Kaoru Mabuchi
Based on: King Kong by James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Akira Takarada, Rhodes Reason, Mie Hama, Linda Miller, Eisei Amamoto

Toho, Rankin/Bass, Universal International, 97 Minutes (Japan), 91 Minutes (USA)

king_kong_escapesReview:

King Kong Escapes is the second and last of the Toho King Kong films. It follows King Kong vs. Godzilla and while it is a sequel of sorts to it, it really is more of a standalone film. For one, there is no mention of the previous movie and Godzilla isn’t anywhere to be found. Although, Gorosaurus makes his first appearance in this picture before going on to be included in the Godzilla franchise. Also, Kong’s rival Mechani-Kong would go on to inspire Mechagodzilla and other robot kaiju in Toho’s future.

Like Son of Kong to King KongKing Kong Escapes is sort of the goofy yet lovable little brother to its predecessor. It is a highly fun film and it features a lot of adventure and great action but it is fairly hokey, even for a later Shōwa era Toho movie.

The actors are all fairly entertaining in this. This is one of my favorite roles for Mie Hama, who plays a sinister woman looking to have her country control the world by harnessing the power of Element X, as well as Mechani-Kong. Linda Miller plays a total cutie, who is this film’s version of the Fay Wray character, although she isn’t a starlet, she is a military officer. Although, Miller can get annoying at times, like every time she yells, “Put me down, Kong! Put me down!” or “No, Kong!” or just “Kooooong!!!” Eisei Anamoto plays an evil genius named Dr. Who, no relation to the British Doctor Who. Anamoto’s mad scientist is one of my favorite in Toho’s large filmography.

King Kong Escapes takes some of its action cues from the original King Kong. In fact, this is more of Toho’s King Kong remake than King Kong vs. Godzilla. Granted, the film takes huge liberties and is certainly its own thing.

To give an example, the big battle on the island between Kong and Gorosaurus plays out the same as the Kong and tyrannosaurus fight from the original movie. Kong even kills Gorosaurus the same way, ripping his jaw apart. Also, the damsel in distress is protected by Kong and put into a tree for safekeeping.

The final sequence of the film sees Kong and Mechani-Kong climb the famous Tokyo Tower for their final battle. It is a well shot and well orchestrated finale. Plus, the Tokyo Tower has sort of become synonymous with kaiju movies and television, at this point. It was a perfect Tokyo stand-in for the Empire State Building in this picture’s climax.

King Kong Escapes is a great companion piece to Toho’s better known King Kong movie. While Toho made two good films, while they had the rights to the character of Kong, I still feel like they missed the boat. Had they made a Kong film as frequently as a Godzilla film, we could have had a lot of variety: a Kong versus Godzilla rematch, a Kong and Godzilla team-up and even Kong versus some of Godzilla’s famous foes or allies like King Ghidorah or Mothra. Although, I am really happy with the Godzilla movies of that era and more Kong features may have disrupted that or created kaiju fatigue much earlier.