Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Once Over Twice: Destroy All Monsters

(1968) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Ishirô Honda and Takeshi Kimura; Starring: Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki and Yukiko Kobayashi; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *** ½

Movies can serve to lift the spirit or hold a magnifying glass to our world’s ills.  We can marvel at the wonders of nature or cry at the scourge of our environment.  Motion pictures are the perfect medium to convey in metaphor our most grandiose desires and deepest fears.  Sometimes, however, we just want to see buildings get smashed and stuff get blown up.  Destroy All Monsters is tailor-made for that 10-year-old in all of us who would rather be entertained than sermonized. 

Toho Pictures’ bigger-budget follow-up to Son of Godzilla (aka: Kaijûtô no kessen: Gojira no musuko) was released as Kaijû sôshingeki (translated as March of the Monsters), but American International Pictures adopted the flashier title, Destroy All Monsters for the U.S. release.  The film went through a number of name changes over the years, including a re-release in Japan under the curious moniker Godzilla Electric Battle Masterpiece.  Whatever you choose to call it, Destroy All Monsters was a landmark film for Toho and the Shōwa era Godzilla flicks, when kaiju movies were experiencing a decline, losing ground to cheaper television productions.

According to the Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s informative DVD commentary, Honda was getting bored with being typecast as a monster movie director, and was becoming increasingly frustrated by Toho’s refusal to finance his other, non-kaiju projects.  Unlike his masterpiece Gojira, Honda didn’t attempt to infuse Destroy All Monsters with social commentary about our inherent destructive impulses, or ponder Japan’s role in the late 60s as an emerging global economic powerhouse.  Instead, he set out to showcase a veritable who’s who of giant monsters creating mass havoc. 

Destroy All Monsters is set in the future year of 1999(!), when humankind has established a permanent presence on the surface of the moon and the bottom of the ocean.  Peace on Earth is maintained, thanks to the world’s monsters being confined to an inescapable remote South Pacific island.  Of course, it would be rather dull if the monsters simply stayed on the island for the duration of the film, so we’re introduced to a malevolent alien race to mix things up.  The Kilaak want to create a utopian society on Earth, but they figure you can’t break an omelet without breaking a few eggs.  They decide to release the monsters from their island prison and lay waste to the world’s major cities in the process.   It should be no surprise that Honda chooses to focus on the destruction in Tokyo, while other cities get the short end of the stick (we have to take an announcer’s word that London was devastated, rather than actually see it.).

With a budget of roughly $500,000 in U.S. dollars, Honda had to get a lot of bang for the buck (or Yen, in this case), using limited resources.  Several readily familiar kaiju, along with a few more obscure monsters, appeared in the film, with most having been literally recycled from earlier Toho flicks.  While a new Godzilla costume was created for Destroy All Monsters, the filmmakers had to make do with monster props that were in varying states of disrepair.  Probably the most obvious (and disappointing) concession to a dwindling budget was Mothra, who only appeared in larval form, since the original winged prop was too damaged to use in the production.  Despite the cost-cutting woes, we’re treated to several welcome guests, including the serpentine Manda from Atragon, who makes short work of an elevated train track, and King Ghidorah, who arrives just in time for the climactic kaiju-filled smack-down.

 While the monsters are the star attraction, several human contributors are worth noting.  The stirring music by Akira Ifukube, borrowing many themes from his Gojira score,  pushes the right buttons, and provides a certain dignity to the proceedings, no matter how silly the on-screen action becomes.  The leads are also suitably appealing in their somewhat two-dimensional roles.  Akira Kubo makes a convincing leading man as Captain Katsuo Yamabe, who leads his crew on a desperate fight against seemingly indestructible aliens.  Yukiko Kobayashi appears to be having fun in her role as Kyoko Manabe, a human pawn under the influence of the Kilaak. Eiji Tsuburaya, who also worked on Gojira, deserves praise for his inventive miniature effects work.

There’s been some debate about where Destroy All Monsters stands in the pantheon of Godzilla flicks.  Some have held on to their fond childhood memories of the film, while others take a revisionist tact, citing it as an overrated entry in the series.  Although both camps’ skewed opinions certainly have merit, I can’t help but side with the former.  Destroy All Monsters won’t win any awards for originality or attempts at profundity, but it ultimately delivers the goods.  Even if Honda’s efforts at this point were more perfunctory than enthusiastic, his movie lived up to its premise, with its Toho monster dream team.  In terms of sheer quantity of kaiju (with only a couple notable exceptions), it has most of the competition beat.  It’s best watched with your inner 10-year-old in tow, free from the encumbrances of over-analyzing what unfolds on screen.  Sit down, shut up, and strap yourself in for the ride.


  1. Very nice review of a fun film, Barry! I'm blown away by all the Japanese titles you reviewed in January - kudos! I'll be back soon to check your other reviews out in more detail. (Couldn't pass up a chance to comment on this G-flick, though). The commentaries on these Media Blasters' Godzilla DVDs are really first-rate and very entertaining.

    I tend to agree with you on this title...few of these kaiju eiga can be taken seriously as "Deep cinema" but that's not what they're trying to do. They achieve their aim - to provide lots of spectacle and fun thrills - very well.

    1. Thanks, Jeff! Can't wait to do Japan-uary III next year!

      I can definitely relate to your comments about Destroy All Monsters and Honda's kaiju flicks. They'll never be confused for the work of Kurosawa or Ozu, but they serve a purpose as pure entertainment.