Destroy All Monsters (1968) Destroy All Monsters/Monsters on the March/Kaiju Soshingeki (1968/1969) ***

     You might think of Destroy All Monsters as the Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter of the Godzilla franchise. By 1968, audience interest in kaiju eiga was waning conspicuously, even in Japan. Toho had been seeing diminishing returns on their offerings in the genre since about 1965, and of the other studios that had gotten into the business of giant monsters since then, only Daiei had enjoyed enough success to stick with the formula for more than one film. Taking a close, hard look at the numbers, Toho’s leadership decided that the time had come to put Godzilla and company out to pasture. They wanted to give their erstwhile intercontinental cash cow a suitable sendoff, however, declining grosses notwithstanding. That meant reversing the three-year trend of continually shrinking production budgets. It meant reuniting Godzilla’s “four fathers:” producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube, and special effects maestro Eiji Tsubaraya (although the latter was too busy running his own studio at that point to contribute in more than an advisory capacity). Most of all, it meant an unprecedented number of monsters— eleven, counting cameos by a couple whose suits were too battered by hard use or neglect to withstand the rigors of any city-smashing worthy of the name. So impressive was this “final” kaiju eiga when it reached theaters that it sold tickets on a scale not seen since Godzilla vs. the Thing or thereabouts. Suddenly the bosses weren’t so sure anymore about their plan to retire the genre, and at least one monster movie— usually but not always featuring Godzilla— would stomp forth from Toho’s soundstages each year until 1975, when the studio really did hang up its radioactive mutant spurs for most of a decade. The studio just made sure to keep the cost of those third-generation kaiju flicks under tight control, so that it didn’t matter if only a few diehard fans wanted to see them.

     Knowing that Destroy All Monsters was supposed to be the end of the Godzilla series makes sense of some setting details that are otherwise puzzling. Uniquely, this film takes place in what was then the relatively far-flung future (“the late 20th century” in the original Japanese, pinned down to 1999 in the dub produced by American International Pictures), by which point mankind seems to have the kaiju problem pretty well solved at last. Indestructible though they may be, the huge monsters do respond to negative stimuli, and it has proven possible to corral all the world’s kaiju behind an impregnable electromagnetic forcefield on the island of Ogasawara. There the creatures can live in as much peace as they’ll allow each other, with all their nutritional and territorial needs met by the island’s rich natural ecosystem. They can also be studied for the enlightenment of humanity by the scientists of the underground Monsterland laboratory complex, led by Dr. Otani (Yoshio Tsuchiya, from The H-Man and Attack of the Mushroom People).

     The other great leap forward in the future as presented by Destroy All Monsters concerns manned space travel. The United Nations has a space program of its own now, the crowning achievement of which is a permanent international moon base. The rocketship Moonlight SY-3 is on a routine visit to said base when its sensors detect an unidentified flying object in Lunar airspace. All units of the UN space fleet are under standing orders to investigate any such contact, so Captain Katsuo Yamabe (Akira Kubo, of Gorath and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) orders the Moonlight SY-3 into pursuit. Yamabe and his crew establish that the UFO is almost certainly an extraterrestrial spacecraft, but because a large part of the evidence for that determination is that it’s both faster and more maneuverable than their own ship, that’s pretty much all they’re able to learn about it before it loses them. Moon base chief Commander Nishikawa (Kenji Sahara, from War of the Gargantuas and The Mysterians) is disquieted by the news, and orders the Moonlight SY-3 back to Earth so that Yamabe can deliver a full report to Dr. Yoshido (Jun Tazaki, of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Dagora the Space Monster), the head of UN space operations.

     Nishikawa is right to be worried. The flying saucer belongs to the Kilaaks, a race of slug-like aliens (although their leader likes to manifest herself in the much more appealing form of Kyoko Ai) who have decided to add the Earth and its satellite to their interstellar empire. Like most would-be conquerors of our world going back at least to The Man from Planet X, the Kilaaks have developed a form of long-range electronic mind control, enabling them to recruit human double agents practically at will. The aliens have a far more grandiose application in mind for the technology than that, however. The mind-control system works on kaiju too, so that concentrating all of those conveniently on Ogasawara, with no one to guard them but a bunch of harmless whitecoats, suddenly starts seeming like not such a great idea. The Kilaaks infiltrate Monsterland, gas the whole staff unconscious, and then outfit them— including Captain Yamabe’s girlfriend, Kyoko Manabe (Yukiko Kobayashi, from Legacy of Dracula and Yog: Monster from Space)— with brainwashing devices concealed in various ways. The next thing the leaders of the world know, their capitals are under attack by Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Anguirus, Manda, and Gorosaurus, and their airwaves are jammed with broadcasts of mysterious women in silver robes issuing ultimatums.

     Destroy All Monsters is a weird film, partly because it’s such a normal one. Kaiju eiga veterans will come to it expecting most of the downtime between monster segments to be taken up with flagrant irrelevancies like the maneuverings of unethical businessmen, or the romantic travails of newspaper cartoonists, or children stealing itching rays from their elders’ laboratories, but Destroy All Monsters isn’t like that at all. In this movie, the human plot and the monster plot aren’t just compatible, but identical. Everything that happens is directly pertinent to the Kilaak invasion. That clarity of purpose surely renders this movie more accessible to the general audience, while catching the genre-savvy off their guard. And either way, it creates a curious state of affairs in which the pace feels breathlessly fast, even during stretches when it might seem to the untrained eye that nothing much is happening.

     That’s vital to Destroy All Monsters’ effectiveness, too, because this movie features a truly remarkable paucity of monster action, considering the sheer number of kaiju involved. We get some establishing footage of the creatures in comfortable captivity on Ogasawara, the destruction of approximately one landmark each during the attacks on the world capitals, and very little else until the battle royale climax. What’s more, four of the credited monsters don’t even show up until the finale! In most kaiju movies, such backgrounding of the monsters would be deadly, but because Godzilla and company are folded neatly into the same story as the human characters here, it’s easy enough to stand. After all, we’ve got rescue missions to Monsterland, spaceship chases in Lunar orbit, exploding volcano lairs, and more to keep us busy. A lot of that stuff is unusually impressive, too— especially the Moonlight SY-3, which looks like something the mecha designers for “Macross” might have kitbashed together from models of a CF-105, an English Electric Lightning, and an XB-70. And of course the final battle is well worth the wait. It pits Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Anguirus, Manda, Gorosaurus, Kumonga, and Minya (plus nominally Varan and Baragon, the aforementioned monsters with worn-out or dry-rotted suits), now under human control, against the Kilaaks’ last-ditch weapon, King Ghidorah. Sure, we’ve already seen Ghidorah fight a bunch of other monsters in both Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, but quantity (as Josef Stalin probably never actually said) has a quality all its own.

     There is, however, a downside to the complete absence of a B-plot from Destroy All Monsters. With no love story or jewel heist or missing relative or whatever to attend to, none of the characters get much chance to reveal more than the faintest hint of an interior life. “Who are these people?” and “Why am I supposed to care about this?” therefore become rather difficult questions to answer, and minor quirks like a certain general’s malformed moustache gradually become outsized draws on audience attention. So while genre novices might face a lower barrier to entry with Destroy All Monsters, they might also find less to appreciate upon clearing it.

     Curiously, though, that complaint applies less to the monsters than it does to the human characters. Between the initial strikes on the capitals and the final fight against King Ghidorah, Destroy All Monsters clearly and concisely communicates the relative power, special abilities, and even personalities of its major kaiju. My favorite example comes when Anguirus, totally unsupported his allies (who are all still maneuvering for position), hurls himself at the plainly superior Ghidorah, and manages to inflict mortal damage on one of the space monster’s three heads before getting every square inch of his ass kicked. Anguirus’s allegiances may have shifted since 1955, but nobody watching this sequence would be surprised to learn that in his debut, he was Godzilla’s most ferociously hands-on opponent. At first it seems strange that Destroy All Monsters should do a better job of distinguishing among a bunch of rubber bugs and dinosaurs than among a comparable number of human beings. When you think about it, though, the former standard is really considerably lower, since pterosaurs and giant caterpillars aren’t normally expected to have much in the way of personality to begin with. Katsuo Yamabe, Kyoko Manabe, and General Whositzawa, on the other hand, really ought to be more than a square jaw, a flawless complexion, and a bizarre moustache respectively.

 

 

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