And so we come at last to perhaps the most legendary kaiju film of them all, sans the original 1954 classic that is Godzilla. By the late 1960s, Toho had grown to become one of the most important film studios in Japan, renowned around the world both for its science fiction films and for Kurosawa’s historical dramas like Seven Samurai and Rashomon. No other Japanese studio—with the possible exception of special effects director Tsuburaya’s own production company—was capturing the same audience, domestic or foreign. Not even Daiei, with their own mega monster Gamera, came close. But for all the reasons Toho might have had to gloat they were also worried, because there was also reason to believe the tokusatsu film was a dying breed.
In 1968, the Toho cinematic universe—as it were—had been in existence for almost a decade and a half. During that time audiences had thrilled to any number of the monstrous creations of Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, from the towering Godzilla to the fearsome Rodan to the gentle Mothra, and made Toho rich. But looking at ticket sales from the early 1960s onward it was becoming clear that the tokusatsu genre was no longer as fresh as it once was; attendance had been on the decline ever since Invasion of the Astro-Monster and neither Ebirah, Horror of the Deep or Son of Godzilla had managed to break through to the much desired North American market. Even the pivot towards children in Son of Godzilla, intended to increase the series’ appeal, hadn’t worked and the film ultimately pulled in a measly attendance of 2.5 million.
Toho’s interpretation of this was that the genre had gone stale and was on borrowed time. As Sadamasa Arikawa put it once later: “Producer [Tomoyuki] Tanaka figured that all the ideas had just run out.” Convinced that the series was doomed to an ignoble end sooner or later, Toho decided to get out in the front of things and end it instead in one last hurrah. Conceived as the last Godzilla movie from the start, Toho pulled Godzilla co-creator Ishiro Honda back onto the series along with series veterans Akira Ifukube and Takeshi Kimura, all three of whom had opted out of the previous two films in the series and who Toho hoped could give Godzilla the flashy send-off he deserved.
For a story Toho recycled the basic premise of Invasion of Astro-Monster—aliens invade Earth with the aid of giant monsters—with a simple change: they made it bigger and crazier. Instead of just Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah, this new film would feature eleven kaiju, encompassing virtually all of the principle creatures from Toho’s previous films! As far as extravagant spectacles go, it’s a hard premise to beat. That being said the results are more of a mixed bag then you might expect.
The film opens with a UN publicity reel detailing Monsterland, a remote island in the Ogasawara chain off the coast of Japan where humanity has successfully contained all of the world’s monsters, including such big names as Godzilla or Mothra as well as lesser known beasts like Manda or Kumonga. Later films will describe a similar island known as “Monster Island” which most fans assume is the same location (and possibly even the same island from Son of Godzilla) but which is never actually directly stated. Nonetheless, the idea of the “island paradise” of monsters was one part of this film that would stick in audiences’ imagination and would be revisited several times in the future, in both film as well as licensed novels, comics, and even television shows (heck, Marvel would even eventually relocate their preexisting Monster Isle to Japan).
This new kaiju refuge, a strong contrast from humanity’s inability to contain the monsters in earlier films, is made possible by the futuristic technology of the distant year 1999, which is when Destroy All Monsters takes place, setting it apart from the rest of the series, which ostensibly takes place in the present. In this bright new future, humanity travels back and forth between Earth and the Moon routinely and the threat of monsters tearing up Tokyo (or any other large Japanese city) is a distant memory. In a way, this is a natural culmination of all the super science featured earlier in the series. Going by previous films, humanity had thwarted multiple alien invasions, discovered how to control the weather, and even invented a flying submarine by the end of the 1960s. So it’s not too bizarre to imagine humanity enjoying a Federation-esque utopia by the end of the century.
Until, of course, it all comes under threat. After we are briefly introduced to several of the film’s principal characters, contact between Monsterland and the outside world is unexpectedly cut off. Apparently having no other option available to them (which seems... bizarre to say the least), the UN Security Council orders Captain Katsuo Yamabe, a Japanese astronaut currently posted to the Moon to head with his crew to Monsterland and find out what’s going on. Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t it be easier to send a team from Japan to Monsterland? I mean, Tokyo’s a lot closer than the Moon. But whatever, it gives Honda and special effects director Arikawa a chance to show off their cool rocketship (and admittedly, it is a pretty cool rocketship).
As it turns out, Monsterland has been seized by a group of feminine aliens called the Kilaaks. Claiming to represent the Earth’s best interests the Kilaaks reveal that they’ve taken control of both Monsterland’s research team—which includes Kyoko Manabe, Captain Yamabe’s girlfriend—and its captive monsters but also claim they really mean no harm in what’s got to be one of the worst attempts at a good first impression ever. When Manabe and the other astronauts call the Kilaaks on their duplicity they basically just shrug and say that if Earth doesn’t surrender to them they’ll basically destroy every city on the planet. And then they try to gas the astronauts, who manage to escape before they can be captured.
After this point it becomes a race between the humans and the Kilaaks to see whether Manabe and the UN can undermine the Kilaaks’ mind control before the Kilaaks level every city on Earth. Almost immediately after Manabe’s return to the Japanese mainland the Kilaaks demonstrate their power by directing simultaneous kaiju attacks against Beijing, London, Moscow, New York City, and Paris, raising the stakes to a higher level than ever before.
There are some real highlights in Destroy All Monsters. The 1960s futuristic style is pretty neat and makes for some interesting comparison with Toho’s contemporaries in America and some of the earlier scenes of the film where the characters are uncovering the aliens’ schemes and true nature are eerie in a kind of cheesy pseudo-X-Files sort of way. Plus, Akira Ifukube’s really firing on all cylinders here as the composer with some of his best work for several films, particularly during the climactic showdown at Mt. Fuji, which also happens to be one of the best fight scenes of the Showa era.
But on the whole Destroy all Monsters feels underwhelming and it feels like most of the major talent was tapped out. Ishiro Honda may be directing, but he doesn’t bring the same zest or gravitas seen in his earlier films (or even the American co-production Latitude Zero, released the same year). Takeshi Kimura may be regarded as one of Toho’s best screenwriters of the era but it’s generally regarded that the last film he had any real passion for was War of the Gargantuas and it shows in what’s one of his drabbest and least convincing scripts, with flat characterization and thin plotting that after the first act mostly amounts to “monsters wreck stuff.” I struggled during my first viewing of the film to even determine whether Yamabe and Manabe were siblings or lovers, which speaks as much to their flat chemistry as the poor writing.
Even the special effects suffer in this regard. Originally, Toho intended to bring the estranged Eiji Tsuburaya back for the film but he mostly chose to sit the film out, merely “supervising” Arikawa’s work. And while Arikawa actually did a pretty good job on the effects for Son of Godzilla he seems out of his depth here, in a film that features more urban destruction than any previous Toho film and which incorporates nearly every major monster from the series. The result is, with the exception of the final battle scene, some remarkably unconvincing set pieces, which are only made worse by the incorporation of stock footage from better films.
Again, the sole exception is Ifukube, who after seemingly suffering from a similar malaise in earlier films seems to have bounced back by 1968. His soundtrack is vibrant and exuberant and has the energy you’d expect from one of the earlier entries in the series. Revitalized, he’d return to work on six more Godzilla films (and many other films) before retiring in 1995. But everyone else seems tired or bored.
Nonetheless, it can’t be said that the film doesn’t have value. Perhaps because of the massive hype involved in bringing back Honda to direct the “final” Godzilla film, Destroy All Monsters succeeded in revitalizing the Godzilla brand—at least for another seven years—even though it actually did no better in Japanese cinemas than Son of Godzilla. It’s possible that it’s wide American theatrical release helped in this regard, reintroducing the character to (comparatively) wealthy and numerous American audiences. It also introduced the SoshingekiGoji suit, which would serve for three more films and become the signature look of Godzilla for years to come. Still, if you’re looking for an alien invasion plot, Invasion of Astro-Monster’s the better choice.