One of my favorite moments in Ishiro Honda’s All Monsters Attack is actually a small one focused upon a character we rarely see. It occurs about five minutes in. A railroad engineer played by that wonderful actor Kenji Sahara sits down next to his train for a smoke break with a co-worker. His fellow engineer concernedly asks him if he’s noticed anything out of the ordinary with his son. They live and work in Kawasaki (one of the most heavily polluted cities in late-60s Japan), and the co-worker’s wondering if the boy’s coming down with asthma. But Sahara’s worried about something else entirely. His son is very shy, reluctant to come out of his shell—a problem no doubt amplified by the fact that he spends most of his afternoons and evenings in complete loneliness. The father is well aware of his son’s plight, but there’s little he or his wife can do about the matter. Extreme poverty, a consequence brought about by Japan’s postwar economic miracle, has forced both parents to take up long hours of work, even though their combined pay only permits them to scrape by with a tiny, cramped apartment in a dilapidated neighborhood. (Sahara admits he’s been saving money to relocate the family, but such a day is long into the future.) When the fellow engineer, reading the newspaper, mentions police have uncovered a getaway car used in a robbery, the impoverished father looks into the distance and comments on the stolen loot—fifty million yen—almost as though secretly envious of the massive amount of cash the thieves acquired. (He’s too noble to do such a thing himself, but with fifty million, he could completely turn his family’s lives around.) The dialogue is trim and economical, never too explanatory, with Sahara’s humanistic expressions deepening every line. Within these few minutes, he creates a character who, frankly, could have held the lead role in his own movie. Best of all: this is but a minor moment in a lovingly detailed, thoughtful film empowered with a fine streak of social commentary.
The diegetic narrative of All Monsters Attack consumes a period of less than twenty-four hours: beginning mid-afternoon one day and concluding the following morning. At the center of the story is the railroad engineer’s son Ichiro (excellently acted by Tomonori Yazaki). We first see our protagonist walking home from school, next to a busy highway, accompanied by a little girl named Sachiko (Hidemi Ito), his only apparent school friend. The walk home is not uneventful, as Ichiro is twice mocked by a gang of bullies—predominately by their leader, Sanko (Junichi Ito), who goes by the nickname "Gabara." As has been the case for a long time now, Ichiro comes home to an empty apartment, picking up his latchkey from a neighbor along the way. The neighbor, a toy consultant named Shinpei Inami (the great Hideyo Amamoto), shows the boy an educational computer he’s been developing; but Ichiro isn’t particularly impressed by footage of the moon; he would rather leave his reality behind and escape into the fictional world of giant monsters.
And that is precisely what he does: he lulls himself into slumber and fantasizes about traveling to Monster Island. At one point in his dream-generated adventure, the pint-sized visitor finds himself pursued by a giant praying mantis and, while trying to escape, plummets into a deep hole in the ground. Unable to climb out, he is saved by Minilla, who, as it turns out, has a bully of his own. From behind the trees emerges a cackling humanoid beast. This fiend has made a habit of tormenting and clobbering Minilla at any given moment and—would you know it?—shares the same name as Ichiro’s real-life bully: Gabara.
As the evening progresses, Ichiro makes two more "journeys" to the world of monsters, where he observes Godzilla in battle with various creatures. The behemoth Gabara, meantime, continues tyrannizing the King of the Monsters’ son. Minilla tries to do battle with his oppressor, as Godzilla expects him to learn how to fend for himself. In-between fantasies, Ichiro encounters few challenges of his own, such as being kidnapped by none other than the two earlier mentioned thieves who made off with fifty million yen. Through their respective ordeals—the Monster Island fantasies serving as projections of the protagonist’s evolving attitudes—both Ichiro and Minilla discover bravery, and the lonely human boy digs up his independence.
Perhaps the most crippling thing about All Monsters Attack is a simple misunderstanding of just what sort of picture it is. The film has the infamous reputation of being the definite turning point where Godzilla truly became a child-oriented franchise. Previous entries included amusing bits of monster-anthropomorphization, such as Godzilla dancing in victory in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) or homaging Yuzo Kayama with a nose-scratch in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), but the 1969 production marked the moment where the gears completely shifted in another direction. (This was also the first movie in the series to play at the Toho Champion Festival, a triannual event designed to entertain children.) But there is another, much more distinguishing quality to this film rarely commented on or acknowledged: All Monsters Attack is the only entry in the Japanese series that is not a Godzilla movie. It’s not a monster movie. It’s not even, for all intents and purposes, a science-fiction movie. It is a picture set in the reality of 1960s Japan, in which monsters exist as an element of pop culture and in the imaginations of movie-going kids.
Evidence comes in unobtrusive little jabs. For instance: when Ichiro is digging out his homemade radio apparatus just before the first dream sequence, pay close attention to the left side of the frame: notice the Bullmark Godzilla figure inside his closet, positioned amongst various other toys and playthings. (A hint that Godzilla is one of the boy’s interests and not a real-world entity.) Going even further: at multiple points in the story, Ichiro mentions the name Minilla—to his school friend, to one of the crooks, to the reporters who come to congratulate him on his escape—and the response every single time out is sheer puzzlement. Why are the adults, in particular, so nonplussed? If a giant creature, even one as "small" as Minilla existed, wouldn’t every man, woman, and child in Japan know about it? Wouldn’t the journalists, whose profession stipulates paying close attention to what happens in the world, recognize the name right off the bat? Wouldn’t such information be more noteworthy than a local burglary, of which everyone in the film is intensely aware? Alas, the dots go unconnected for a great many people in this film. Only Shinpei, a toymaker, a man familiar with the interests of children, can explain the scenario to his fellow grown-ups. (Could this be a shrewd metaphor on the part of the filmmakers illustrating their shrinking audience? By the late 1960s, ticket sales for Godzilla pictures were steadily declining, with youngsters continuing to see the movies while adults went elsewhere.) Whether the film does take place in continuity with the other Showa films is never outright specified, but all implications strongly suggest it does not. And regardless, the story is about a little boy whose world is not the least bit affected by the physical presence of giant monsters.
With that said, All Monsters Attack is much easier to appreciate when scrutinized as a depiction of the "Golden Sixties" of Japan’s economic miracle—in which industrialization was rampant, in which pollution was worsening, in which poverty was commonplace, in which retail prices were skyrocketing, in which entire families were being pushed deeper and deeper into shabby neighborhoods. Director Honda maintains a consistent visual tactic showcasing the ramshackle conditions of downtown Kawasaki as well as its outlying suburbs. In an opening montage, he presents: streets packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic; cityscape vistas dirtied by smog; industrial facilities complete with smoke-pumping stacks and incessant, mechanical clanging. (As the admittedly unpleasant theme song states, these are the real monsters in the human world.) And weaving through this mess of a city, into the scummy residential areas—without adult supervision, mind you—are the children of 1960s Japan. They run alongside the traffic, they breathe in the unclean air, they explore rundown buildings, they fish from a pollutant-infested river, they play with junk on the curb, they reside in dingy apartment complexes their hard-working parents can scarcely afford. This place is resolutely unsuitable for raising children—as was the case with numerous Japanese cities in this decade.
The film proficiently delineates the strains placed upon middle-class families of the time. Ichiro’s parents remain, consistently, throughout the entire picture, separate; they sometimes refer to one another in conversation with other characters, but they never share the same physical space or even speak on the phone. (There’s no indication they are growing apart as a couple; they simply cannot afford to spend much time away from their jobs; the bills will not allow it.) And as many have noted, the father and his son do not cohabit a single frame of film until the very end of the picture; and even when they do, they are hardly united. In the screen-cap above, notice the choice of composition: the father is still pent up inside the cabin of his train, with little Ichiro framed through the chassis like a beggar. This is the closest thing to a "reunion" we get; no warm embraces, no heart-to-heart conversation in which dad gives his descendent a valuable life lesson.
Also worth serious consideration is one of the last scenes in the picture. Ichiro has been rescued from the crooks; the very next morning, just before he heads off to school, we see him eating breakfast with his mother (the transition is a static shot of the dirty river and those ever-clanging factories on the shoreline, indicating the world hasn’t changed much). Ichiro’s mother (Machiko Naka) promises she will not work nights anymore. The boy astutely recognizes if she turns down the hours, the family will fall behind on money; he assures her she need not worry about him; he’s proven he can manage on his own. When her son’s finished eating, the mother bolts to her feet, helps him put on his backpack, and wishes him a good day. And then, upon hearing the door slam shut, a saddened look crosses her face, tears well into her eyes, and she barely manages to hold back her sobs as she starts cleaning the table. She has failed her son on two counts: her absence the night previous not only led to his kidnaping but also pushed him down a path to where he no longer needs a parent for support. Honda shoots this poignant scene in a single unbroken take, the camera never budging more than a few inches, and channels a sincere emotional current: a moment that would have made Yasujiro Ozu proud. With this scene, Honda was not tackling nuclear devastation or world unity or any of the themes usually associated with him; he was articulating a disconsolate and very real problem. Not only that, it’s among the most eternal subjects presented in any of his pictures. Whereas concerns over atomic technology phase in and out with time, sadness within families, whatever the cause, is something recognized from society to society, generation to generation. Honda does not offer a solution to the issue in All Monsters Attack; he instead reveals it, with a well-rounded protagonist appropriately at the core of the drama.
And this leads me to the film’s finest aspect, for which screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa deserves a great deal of credit. Whatever one thinks of the precocious child characters from the Daiei-produced Gamera movies, there’s no denying that with All Monsters Attack, Sekizawa one-upped the competition, and then some. For even though Ichiro heralds from unique societal conditions, his woes are universal: bullying, peer pressure, loneliness, an occasional wish to escape from reality. And whereas his counterparts in the Gamera series resorted to barging into military operations, piloting submersibles, venturing into the body of a giant turtle to dispose of a parasite, etc., Ichiro exerts his imagination (believably) upon the real world—much like a real child. When he discovers a vacuum tube on the side of the road, he keeps it as a toy; while scrounging around in an abandoned building, he stumbles upon a pair of headphones, which he promptly takes to complete his pretend-radio set; he uses the aforementioned contraption to help fuel his make-believe, picturing an airliner flying him to Monster Island. His motivation is not to save his icon or change the world: he just wants to have fun and enjoy his young life, because he’s a regular kid like those in the audience. In one funny scene, Ichiro switches on a television soap opera, only to disgustedly sneer at the for-adults scenario playing before him. Part of me likes to think Sekizawa intended some irony by christening one of the unseen characters in the soap opera Ichiro. (Our protagonist scoffs at a mature character who shares the same name as him: is he rejecting the idea of growing up?) I imagine I’m reading too deep into the matter—Sekizawa likely was just trying to amuse the viewer—but speculation of this nature is fun nonetheless.
To augment an already-solid quality, Sekizawa adorns our protagonist with a complete character arc. By the end of the story, Ichiro has garnered independence and learned to stand up for himself, because his world demands it of him. External forces—such as the bank robbers—give him motivation to change, but ultimately, he undergoes this personal transformation due to his own devices, his progression anticipated and reflected through his fantasies.
Speaking of which, we now arrive to the foremost point of contention with many viewers: the stock footage-packed dream sequences. Count me among the precious few people on this planet who does not have an axe to grind with this issue. To begin with, the use of recycled footage in All Monsters Attack is a bit more sophisticated than the ‘clip show’ reputation it has been saddled with. Example: the stock footage duel between Godzilla and the giant shrimp Ebirah. Instead of merely replaying one of the key battles from Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), the staff took both fights in the aforementioned production, meshed the highlights together, trimmed the ensemble to something manageable, and inserted new footage in the form of reaction shots as Ichiro and Minilla observe from a distance. (And they don’t simply look on as in some of the 1970s Godzilla movies: when Ebirah slaps the ocean with his pincer, a cascade of seawater descends upon them; when a boulder gets flung into the distance and crashes with an earth-shaking thud, they cover their heads in anticipation of the noise.) The whole is oddly effective. Sure, it would have been better had Toho opted to shoot an entirely new scene; but the results nevertheless make for a more captivating exercise in editing than, say, Noriaki Yuasa’s Gamera vs. Viras (1968), in which fifteen minutes of virtually unedited stock scenes were plunked down one after another in patience-crushing succession.
Better still, the Monster Island scenes enhance the picture’s themes. (It’s not merely an excuse on Toho’s part to cut costs.) In spite of its fearsome inhabitants, Monster Island teems with lush green foliage and spectacular land formations: an infinitely more attractive venue than the drab, pollution-soaked Kawasaki. It’s not hard to understand why Ichiro would favor a locale like this; not to mention, most of the monsters provide him with fascination as opposed to terror—unlike his real-world oppressors, who just leave him depressed. And through what new footage was shot, a poetic parallel between Ichiro and Minilla is deftly constructed. Consider Minilla’s predicaments: he’s been distanced from his father; he has a tormentor he’s constantly evading; he has few to no friends; he’s challenged with learning to survive on his own. And like Ichiro, Minilla’s task is not to destroy his oppressor, merely to stand up to him. Which is precisely what he does, and what Ichiro does.
Something else I appreciated. Even though the rival monster boasts an ability to discharge electricity through its hands, Gabara primarily relies on humanlike tactics when bullying Minilla: pushing the little monster over again and again until he finally gives up and runs away. A fitting touch to enhance its metaphor. It’s not until Godzilla intervenes that Gabara, having met someone his own size, engages in savage combat. The final battle itself is surprisingly well-choreographed and features a number of dazzling images, including a handheld shot where the camera travels down Godzilla’s body as waves of electricity course through his skin. Another impressive moment occurs when the King of the Monsters grabs his opponent by the arm and flips him over his shoulder and through the air, the entire action captured in three marvelously composed shots. For this film, Ishiro Honda expanded his directorial responsibilities to the special effects as well (with assistance from Sadamasa Arikawa and Teruyoshi Nakano), and the results further demonstrate the man’s multifaceted gifts as a filmmaker.
On the downside, however, the Monster Island scenes could’ve afforded tighter pacing. Ichiro’s second dream, for instance, includes a chase, two Godzilla battles, a scene with Minilla confronting Gabara, a skirmish between Godzilla and the military, and a recreation of the learning-to-breathe-fire scene from Son of Godzilla (1967). It runs a bit long for its own good. Resourceful as the recycled Ebirah footage is, I would’ve rather that been dropped on the editing room floor, as it really doesn’t add anything essential to the narrative. Having the sequence begin with Ichiro fleeing from Gabara and reuniting with Godzilla’s son, then leading into the battle with Kumonga (which is essential, as it establishes Minilla’s inability to use his atomic breath) would’ve whittled the sequence down to something more feasible and smoothed the film’s overall pace.
Continuing on the negatives, I might as well address another reservation of mine: the bank robbers. While I appreciate the symbolic relevance (what happens when people in poverty go off the deep end), these two have never struck me as particularly memorable or even enjoyable villains. For baddies meant to take center-stage in the film’s third-act climax, they do not channel enough personality and pathos to captivate my inner-child. As a result, the scenes of Ichiro maneuvering through the dilapidated hideout with the bandits in pursuit never give me a sense of urgency, and my willingness to suspend disbelief founders, replaced with an unwanted eagerness to pick at the lapses in logic.
In this case, I could not help but ask: How the hell did these two simpletons manage to steal fifty million yen in the first place? I understand this is a kids movie and that bumbling, slapstick-prone villains are something of a trope, but these guys are bewilderingly—distractingly—incompetent. They drop their wallets, they burn their fingers trying to hotwire cars, they leave their hostage unguarded, they trip and fall over every conceivable obstacle. It’s hard to imagine a couple of nitwits such as these successfully purloining a stick of gum, let alone a bag’s worth of cash. Once again, Honda and Sekizawa clearly intended this bungling to simply entertain youngsters; and had the robbers delivered more in terms of disposition, I would’ve been perfectly willing to go along for the ride. But as is, I derive most of my entertainment from the metaphorical touches in the climax and not so much from the action and comedy contained within.
A little more enjoyable but still problematic: the often-dogged ending, in which Ichiro finally stands up to his Gabara and then proceeds to bring misery on an innocent billboard painter (he’d been challenged to do so earlier), which earns him the respect and companionship of his former bully. This is followed by Ichiro running to his father to bail him out of trouble and the once-tormented lad strolling off to school with his newfound pals as excessively heartwarming music overwhelms the soundtrack. The slapstick in this scene works sensationally (what child wouldn’t laugh at the sight of a man drenched in white paint?), though people have understandably questioned the apparent message behind it: The way to make peace with your rivals is to concede to their mischievous terms.
I will cut the movie some slack in the following regards:
1) This behavior can be read not as the start of Ichiro’s delinquency but rather as a means of validating his recently acquired courage—he carried out the challenge he was too nervous to attempt prior.
2) Before he departs, Ichiro does holler an apology to the exasperated painter.
3) One has reason to suspect one or both of his parents will have a few words with him after school.
But, in the end, no matter how we choose to rationalize it, the fact that Ichiro makes peace with his tormentor at the expense of someone else, even if the painter wasn’t actually harmed in the process, does come off as a bit troubling. And, again, the music for that concluding shot is simply too saccharine for a resolution in which the audience isn’t even sure their protagonist made the right decision.
Apart from that questionable cue, however, Kunio Miyauchi delivers a solid score befitting the film’s childlike nature. He also succeeds in producing music which, in retrospect, stands out from other composers associated with kid-friendly Godzilla movies—namely Masaru Sato and Riichiro Manabe. I only wish I could extend my enthusiasm to the song Monster March (background music composed by Gendai Kando), which plays once over the opening credits and again over the early-movie city montage, and is performed to the utmost annoying degree by Lilly Sasaki.
I suppose comment is warranted on the film’s more (in)famous American cut Godzilla’s Revenge. Having recently watched that particular version for the first time in roughly fifteen years, I can safely say the original Japanese print will be the one and only cut on my future screening list. For even though the film’s visual narrative remains, to my eye, untouched, its western edition has been smothered by one of the most unendurable dubs I can remember. No, that’s not quite accurate; upon revisiting Godzilla’s Revenge, I came to find the dub was even worse than memory recalled. The replacement voices for the child characters, in particular, are painful to listen to, as they sound forced and not even remotely youthful. And the adult voices don’t fare much better. This wretched voice work, by itself, succeeds in undermining the poignancy and quiet entertainment of Honda’s original version. To list a few positives, though, I emphatically commend the decision to wipe out the Monster March song in favor of the (wordless!) tune Crime Fiction, by Ervin Jereb. I also appreciated a couple instances where the U.S. editors favored silence over spoken lines. For instance: when we see Shinpei inside the phone booth as he calls the police, we hear no dialogue, only the sounds of the nearby traffic. (In the Japanese original, every word rang loud and clear.) This provides a much smoother relation between this brief cutaway and the relatively quiet surrounding scenes of the bandits searching for Ichiro.
All in all, All Monsters Attack is arguably the most underappreciated film in Ishiro Honda’s career, at least in terms of what has been made available to modern masses. While I fully confess to having once been a hearty member of the bandwagon who considers this a bottom-of-the-barrel entry in Toho cinema, I’ve garnered a much stronger appreciation for it over the years. Through its weaknesses shines one of the director’s most earnest late-period movies, one which exhibits his personal interests to a higher degree than some of his more famous projects, and one of those rare motion pictures that actually gets better on repeated viewings.