The road to Destroy All Monsters, the most famous monster mash of them all, was a long and interesting one. Fans remember this 1968 film for its gargantuan cast of monsters, its awe-inspiring special effects set pieces, its retrospectively amusing and ambitious predictions of where mankind would be in the year 1999, and its historical place at about midway into the run of the original Showa Godzilla series.
But at the time of its production, Destroy All Monsters was more than the next big spectacle. For its creators at Toho, it was something of a grand finale: a valiant death cry of a once prosperous chapter in science fiction cinema.
The film came out in August 1968 and in honor of its 50th anniversary, we thought it would be nice to discuss some little-known facts about this grand-scale Toho extravaganza. Special thanks to Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, authors of Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, for these factoids.
In its early years, the Godzilla series thrived at the box office. Ishiro Honda's original 1954 film had been a sizable hit, selling well over nine million tickets and ranking eighth among the most successful Japanese movies of the year. Its hastily made sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), also performed favorably; and the monster's induction into widescreen cinema, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), scored an all-time high for the franchise with a whopping domestic attendance of 11.2 million. From the success of Godzilla and other Toho-produced science fiction classics such as Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961) came a surge in kaiju eiga, other major Japanese studios cashing in on the craze.
But by the late 1960s, it was becoming clear the genre had run its course as mainstream entertainment. 1967's Son of Godzilla garnered a meager 2.4 million ticket sales. That same year, King Kong Escapes, co-produced by Toho and Rankin/Bass, similarly failed to go down in the books as a hit. Within that same twelve-month span, rival studios Daiei and Shochiku respectively produced Gamera vs. Gyaos and The X from Outer Space, both of which fell short of making the twenty most successful movies of the year. Kids still flocked to these movies, but adult audiences had turned their interests elsewhere.
And so, in early 1968, Toho announced the production of what was meant to be the end of the Godzilla franchise. (By March, the studio had thirty pictures planned for the following year, none featuring the King of the Monsters.) As Ishiro Honda had directed several of Toho's past science fiction endeavors — including five of the previous eight Godzilla movies — he was Toho's logical choice to helm their closing sale spectacle.
Granted a hefty budget of about 200 million yen (roughly $550,000), Honda and screenwriter Takeshi Kimura set to work with one basic instruction from the studio: Show a lot of monsters.
The initial working title for Destroy All Monsters was Kaiju Chushingura. 'Chushingura' is a moniker applied to dramatized accounts of what is perhaps the most famous vendetta in Japanese history. In the 18th century, 47 samurai were left without a master when their lord was tricked into committing ritual suicide. In retaliation, they spent a number of years planning a siege to take the life of the man responsible for their master's death. This story has been fictionalized for the screen a number of times, including a fantasy-heavy version starring Keanu Reeves, which came out in 2013.
Destroy All Monsters doesn’t take much from these events outside of 1) the notion of warriors (in this case, monsters) storming against their enemy, and 2) the naming of the villains. The aliens are called the Kilaaks. In Japanese, the race is pronounced 'Kiraaku,' and 'Kira' is derived from Lord Kira Yoshinaka, the villain of the Chushingura story. So clearly, they went with the right name in the end.
In a scene which has befuddled kaiju cineastes for decades, the giant theropod Gorosaurus burrows his way out of the streets of Paris, emerging next to the famous Arc de Triomphe, which he proceeds to topple with his massive skull. An impressive moment, but when the dinosaur roars, die-hard fans are quick to point out the sound emanating from his mouth is not his own roar, but rather the roar of another Toho monster: Baragon, who first appeared in the Honda classic Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). And to make a puzzling scene even more puzzling, the scene’s followed by a newscaster informing us Paris has been destroyed by Baragon!
So, what is the explanation behind this head-scratcher of a scene? Well… no one seems to know. Some sources claim the Baragon suit was on loan to Tsuburaya Production for the shooting of a television show, and the Gorosaurus suit was used in the interim because the staff couldn’t afford to wait. Other accounts suggest Baragon had just been returned but was in too poor condition to be used in such a complex scene. Yet another account claims the staff chose not to use Baragon for fear the suit’s elongated ears would get caught in the set and make shooting needlessly complicated.
In short: there is no clear answer.
In the film’s famous intro to the monsters, the camera travels over and around Monsterland (not Monster Island—that wouldn't come until later), surveying the island’s gigantic inhabitants and the various technologies designed to keep them contained. At one point, the narrator alludes to marine ranching: breeding underwater 'livestock' to feed the monsters (such as when Rodan dives into the sea and re-emerges with a dolphin clenched in his jaws).
Though barely touched on in the finished product, this was a concept director Honda found genuinely interesting and, in fact, wanted to explore in much greater detail. "Initially, I had a lot more underwater scenes in the script. I was going to use special effects and set filming to depict them. But because of [financial and time] constraints, what you ultimately see is what we were able to do, the bare minimum."
In terms of dramatics, there's not much to discuss: flat human characters try to repel some dull alien invaders who've seized control of Earth's monsters and turned them loose on civilization. The actors are uniformly good in their parts, but the script rarely provides them an opportunity to exhibit camaraderie or hostility.
Honda and Kimura strike an interesting note in making secondary villains out of two humans under control by the aliens, but this doesn't amount to much when the first one's killed off early on and the other's freed of her mental manipulation midway into the second act. Even the aliens, the villains upon whom the plot turns, fail to register an impact, as their motives are very nondescript and their plan of conquering and inhabiting a planet whose atmosphere doesn't even support them lends little in the way of credibility.
What ultimately saves the film and renders it into something of a minor classic is its relentless pace and strong craftsmanship. Honda, Kimura, and special effects director Sadamasa Arikawa showcase one spectacular set piece after another in such quintessential precision that boredom rarely has a chance to creep in. All the money poured into the film is plainly evident on the screen.
Most impressive is the climax, in which King Ghidorah swoops down from outer space and does battle with the monsters of Earth. The spectacle bleeds into the human element as well: a crew of astronauts blasting their way into an alien base while giant flamethrowers threaten to annihilate their ship; a well-choreographed shootout in an underground base. The film is not very personal, but it sure is exciting.
In terms of box office, Destroy All Monsters was a slight bounce back from the earlier mentioned fiscal slump, ultimately ranking as the twelfth highest grossing Japanese motion picture of 1968. And while Toho quickly dispensed with the idea of this particular film ending the franchise, things would be very different moving forward.
From this point on, the Showa movies would be geared with children first and foremost in mind, frequently produced for little money, and premiering at the triannual Toho Champion Festival, an event designed to entertain the kiddies. So even if Destroy All Monsters didn't mark the actual end of the franchise, in a sense, it was the end of an era for Godzilla.