And You Thought It Was Safe(?)


Atragon (1963)
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes its a flying submarine.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes its a flying submarine.

Submarines and sci-fi stories go together like fish and chips, as anyone who’s read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea already knows. And if you thought that book hit it big in the English speaking world (I’m not even going to try and count how many times it’s been adapted to film) you should see the influence it had on Japan. Once Jules Verne hit the home islands his books sparked an SF craze that, in most respects, has never really gone away.

Local rip-offs were inevitable, the most important for us being Shunro Oshikawa’s Kaitei Gunkan (“Undersea Battleship”), published around 1900. The first in a series of what we’d now call “young adult adventure novels,” Undersea Battleship followed the crew of its titular device through a futuristic version of the Ruso-Japanese War that was, in reality, just around the corner. Like a lot of Japanese fiction at the time, it was enthusiastically imperialist, fiercely nationalistic, and (one would think) completely anathema to a post-war movie audience raised under the Constitution of 1945, with its explicit “wars are bad, m’kay” stance.

And yet…the popularity of Oshikawa’s books managed to survive both his death and the death of Japan’s imperial ambitions. Why wouldn’t it? They’re all about manly men doing manly things in service to manly causes. To a movie studio struggling to establish itself internationally as the age of James Bond dawned, that sounded like a recipe for success. And who better to bring all that to the silver screen than the people who brought you Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, Varan and The Mysterians? That’ll make for a guaranteed-great movie…right? Continue reading



Son of Godzilla (1967)
The family that slays together, stays together

The family that slays together, stays together

You’ll have to get over a few hurtles to enjoy Son of Godzilla, the first being its title. Japanese audiences knew this as Kaiju-shima no Kessen Gojira no Musuko. Obviously its American distributor changed the title to force a parallel with King Kong’s 1933 shameless cash-in sequel (which I like sooo much I rarely even speak its name). Nowadays, after decades of watching this film on television, there’s no way John Q. Public would ever pick up a copy of Monster Island’s Decisive Battle: Godzilla’s Son. What the fuck is that, when you can just call it “Son of Godzilla?” So Son of Godzilla it will forever be, with all the baggage that implies.

I’ve been alive long enough to see the stock of all twenty-nine Godzilla movies rise, fall and rise again…except Son of Godzilla. The fan view of this film remains as firmly divided as the two sides of the Grand Canyon. Half the fanbase loves it and consider it a childhood classic they would gladly pass down to their own children. As I type this, my skin’s aching to peel itself off and crawl away from the computer in terror…but Son of Godzilla really is one of the first “family friendly” monster movies in daikaiju history. There’s some…iffy stuff here, sure…but nothing too hard for the little rugrats (or, more importantly, their skittish parents). No longer an avatar of nuclear horror, Godzilla’s story here is the story of a reluctant foster parent, trying to be the dad he never had. It’s Toho’s Disney movie, and its fans argue that makes perfect mulch for any budding G-fan. They’d recommend it to everyone, kids from one to ninety-two, with no reservation whatsoever.

I’m not one of those people. Continue reading



Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
No, THIS is how you do a monster mash.

No, THIS is what I call a monster mash.

How about I take cheap shots at a film I love for a change? I seem to be running on a solid three-to-one ratio. And Japan was still synonymous with “cheap” back when this film came out, despite it being the most lavish Godzilla movie ever made…a title it would hold for a full year.

As I’ve said, with Mothra vs. Godzilla the Ishiro Honda repertory company came into the full force of its power. Its international success, combined with that of its prequel, King Kong vs. Godzilla, ensured everyone, from series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka on down, access to more cash. This allowed the Godzilla series, for a few brief, shinning years, to top itself with each subsequent entry by doing something anathema to modern Hollywood. I think they used to call it “innovating.” Continue reading



King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
"Yeah, eat it!"

“Yeah, eat it! I popularized this genre first, biz-natch!”

Given King Kong‘s one of the most successful and popular monster movies of all time, it’s enjoyed numerous revivals over the years. Including one in the early 1950s that directly inspired the American atomic monster craze and the daikaiju eiga of Japan. Kong‘s direct sequel, Son of Kong, and its kissing cousin, Mighty Joe Young were…less than successful.

But that didn’t stop special effects wizard Wells O’Brien from conceiving yet another sequel. Something that would retain all the grandiose power of the original but do away with that slapdash, chash-in feel that made Son of Kong suck. It would be a conscious throwback to that Golden Age of Monster Movies: the 1930s, the age of O’Brien’s primes. And it would climax in a gigantic fight scene in the streets of San Francisco, with Kong squaring off against a gigantic Frankenstein monster composed of animal parts and, presumably, a constantly-beating heart, irradiated by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

By 1960, O’Brien had a treatment all worked up, but the projected cost of the stop motion animation necessary to pull all this off made Hollywood skittish. The producer O’Brien hired, John Beck, began to shop the movie around overseas. He eventually wound up at Toho, who liked the idea of a giant Frankenstein so much they sat on it for three more years…after they made this. Continue reading



The Mysterians (1957)
"Last one to Tokyo's a robot chicken!"

“Last one to Tokyo’s a robot chicken!”

Alien invasions are as old as literature. I’ve read versions of the Biblical flood myth that sound more like the plot of tonight’s film than any other part of the Old or New Testaments. Yet ever since the success of George Pal and Byron Haskin’s War of the Worlds (released four years prior to our subject), vicious extraterrestrials have tried to conquer Earth at least once a year, despite repeated, and often embarrassing, setbacks.

Case in point: The Mysterians, first of the many, many, many alien races who threatened Toho Co.’s Japan (and, by extension, The World) with enslavement and annihilation throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. And while superhero and space opera films on all sides of the Pacific had long ago burned over this particular district of science fiction, The Mysterians marks the first successful fusion of the alien invasion motif with Ishiro Honda’s daikaiju formula. The result is, to say the least, mixed. But it’s still head and shoulders over what would come after Continue reading



Rodan (1956)
So much for the new model army...

So much for the new model army...

If you’re at all like me, you probably received Rodan for Christmas at some point in the early 1990s. You dutifully spent the rest of the day ignoring your family in favor of traveling back to the middle 1950s, when giant monsters roamed the Earth and Scientists were heroes. You may not remember a damn thing about this film, but I’ll bet you remember that Video Treasure’s box art. Even the back of the box reads like a memorable relic from another time, letting us know in no uncertain terms that,

“This is the original thriller that delighted monster fans for years, starring the legendary RODAN, disturbed from his prehistoric slumber to wreck havoc on civilization.”

If you’re like me, reading this is the equivalent of ringing your personal dinner bell. If you’re not like me…well, I’ve just given you a taste of how it was for me. Now let’s see how it is. Continue reading



Godzilla (1954)

He's his own reading light.On March 1, 1954, fallout from the United States’ Castle Bravo nuclear test on Bikini Attol rained down on the  140-ton tuna boat  Daigo Fukury Maru contaminating its twenty-three man crew. All suffered from acute  radiation sickness and one eventually succumbed. According to the Japan Times, his last words were, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.”

Movie producer Tomoyuki Tanaka considered all this on a plane ride home from Indonesia. His latest picture having fallen through, he flew home facing a hole in Toho Studio’s winter release schedule (which used to be what the summer schedule is today) and, in all likelihood, a clutch of manic bosses looking for a hit, fast. The American monster picture King Kong enjoyed a international re-release the previous year, mulching a bumper crop of American giant monster films with all that lovely money it brought in, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In that film a giant dinosaur, awakened by fictional nuclear testing in the Arctic Circle, attacks New York City. What if, Tanaka wondered, a giant monster, awakened by the actual American nuclear tests going on in the Pacific Rim, awoke from its prehistoric slumber and attacked Japan? {More}