And You Thought It Was Safe(?)


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

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Mothra (1961)
Daikaiju: 2 | Tokyo Tower: 0

The score, as of1961 – Daikaiju: 2 | Tokyo Tower: 0

This is a return to glory for everyone involved after the gigantic backward step that was Varan. Even uncut versions of that are painfully rehashes of previous Honda monster movies, symptomatic of those Ancient Enemies of all good film: lack of time and a low, low budget.

Mothra is a full-180 turn, the first daikaiju masterpiece of the 1960s. Like Rodan, it follows a small cast of actually-interesting characters. But unlike Godzilla and Rodan, Mothra is more of an urban fantasy than a depressing polemic against the horrors of nuclear weapons and the ethically-challenged March of Progress that overlay this entire age of world history. After all, it’s 1961: JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X are still alive! The Space Race is in full swing! The Rodans are dead and Godzilla was last seen at the bottom of an icy rock slide. All is right with the world! What could possibly go wrong? 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 Raids Again (1955)
"No hickies!"

"No hickies!"

Lest you think quickie, cash-in sequels are something new, I have three words for you: Son of Kong. But if that only draws a blank look I can always hit you upside the head with this: the quickie, cash-in sequel producer Tomoyuki Tanaka churned out in the wake of Godzilla‘s 1954 box office success…without the original Godzilla‘s director or (with two notable exceptions) its cast.

Can you see the problem with that already? Ishiro Honda just had to go off and make Half Human. Half Human, for those unfamiliar, is a Yeti movie…’nough said. Whatever drove that monumentally bad decision on Honda’s part allowed director Motoyoshi Oda to win the big chair back in Godzilla land. Five months later he turned in a finished film…that almost sunk the franchise in its infancy. Why? Because – in spite of inspiring the “Godzilla vs.” formula that would go on to power the series for the next fifty-odd years – it’s just not very good. It came out wrong. Continue reading



Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)

In 1966 chaos and upheaval swept the world. A year after the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”, the United States of America was already well on its way to dropping its first million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, despite a recession at home. The Soviet Union found itself smack in the middle of what’s now called the Brezhnev Stagnation, with social and political reform firmly placed back on the shelf marked “Bourgeoisie Pipe Dreams.” Between the two powers, Japan soldier on, dreaming of its monsters.

In spite of the impression these movies give us here in the twenty-first century (more on this later) Japan’s scars were, at the time, still visible in hospitals across the country…nowhere more so than in the city of Hiroshima. {More}



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}