I would imagine the last time I saw 1965's Invasion of Astro-Monster (Kaiju Daisenso), retitled years later as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero for American TV (both versions are available on this Classic Media DVD release), I was probably around seven or so, watching Ron Sweed's The Ghoul syndicated out of Detroit's WKBD Channel 50. I distinctly remember being particularly excited anytime a Godzilla film showed up on his show, because it was virtually guaranteed that Sweed would imitate the giant Japanese monster, stomping around on some model airplanes and cars, in between blowing up Froggy with illegal M-80s (just ask somebody who grew up on the show). Featuring spectacular battle royales between Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah, Invasion of Astro-Monster has plenty of comic-book action sequences to get you through the rather pedestrian exposition scenes, with model work equal to the best that Hollywood had to offer at the time.
Invasion of Astro-Monster starts with Earth's discovery of the mysterious Planet X. On orders from the World Space Authority (take that, measly U.N.), astronauts Frank Glenn (Nick Adams) and Ken Fuji (Akira Takarada) set off to explore the planet, and in the process, discover The Xians, underground dwellers who live in fear of rampaging King Ghidorah, who roams the surface of Planet X. In exchange for a drug that will cure cancer, The Xians ask if they can bring Godzilla and Rodan in giant soap bubbles back to Planet X to battle King Ghidorah. Once approved by the suits back on Earth, our own planet's mutant headaches are on their way to Planet X, where they defeat (too easily, I might add) King Ghidorah in a massive brawl. In a move that still makes kids go, "Awwww.....look, Godzilla is sad!" (a quote from my seven-year-old), the astronauts hightail it back to Earth, leaving behind the pathetic looking Godzilla and Rodan.
While the returning astronauts have problems of their own (Fuji dotes on his sister to the point of being a little weird about it; Glenn falls for Kumi Mizuno's Miss Namikawa, a double agent babe for The Xians; and Fuji's sister, Keiko Sawai's Haruno is falling for dopey inventor Tetsuo, played by Akira Kubo), the worst is yet to come. The Xians return to Earth, but not to celebrate the cancer cure (that was all a dodge). Bringing all three monsters with them, The Xians reveal that Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah are in their total control, and they immediately set out to destroy the Earth.
Putting in Invasion of Astro-Monster for my kids, I was fairly sure they'd tune out quickly, considering the quantum leaps that have been made in special effects over the last forty years, but I was surprised to find them laughing along with the film, totally caught up in the battle scenes. Now of course, they started to drift during the turgid dramatics (my teeth go on edge every time I hear Nick Adams fail to sell that "old buddy" line when referring to Akira Takarada), totally missing all the Japanese nuances of the Fuji's overprotective relationship with his sister. But then again, I would imagine we did the same thing as kids; when the talking started, that's when we went back to concentrating on the all-night Monopoly game.
So why did they like Invasion of Astro-Monster today, with actors running around in rubber suits, smashing scale models of tanks and buildings? I would imagine Invasion of Astro-Monster creates that same feeling that every kid has, standing over his or her small toys, feeling like an all-controlling monster who cooly surveys what has been built, now ready to be destroyed on a whim. Do you remember that marvelous feeling of taking a long time setting up your toys, only to viciously stomp them into oblivion? Just because you could? I think it's the same thing for Invasion of Astro-Monster. Kids identify with the monsters, especially Godzilla. They're like naughty children, throwing the tantrum to end all tantrums, totally unmotivated or unprovoked, just because they can. The spectacular model work, which still delightfully look like elaborate toys, only reinforces that feeling of deliberate artifice -- it's playtime with Godzilla and Rodan in Invasion of Astro-Monster. And when the filmmakers comically humanize the monsters (like their hilariously sad, pathetic looks when abandoned on Planet X, or famously, Godzilla's exuberant victory jumps when he smashes King Ghidorah), little kids can't resist loving the big lugs.
And let's be honest, grown men get off on the destruction in Invasion of Astro-Monster, too (somebody please email me and tell me I'm wrong, but I've yet to meet a grown woman who enjoys these juvenile fantasies). Invasion of Astro-Monster is pitched so blatantly as an outrageous, infantile spectacular, we can safely giggle along with the kids, while deep down inside, we wish we were first building those cool models, and second, stomping the crap out them in a giant rubber suit. When I was a kid, the fact that movies like Invasion of Astro-Monster were probably the first exposure many of us had to foreign films, certainly gave them an exotic cache that may not exist with today's more sophisticated younger viewers. But that's certainly part of the nostalgic appeal that came flooding back to me when I viewed Invasion of Astro-Monster. When something like Invasion of Astro-Monster showed up on an already fun show like The Ghoul, you knew you were watching something "other" than what came out of our own movie studios or TV networks. The bizarre, awkward inclusion of a foreign actor like Nick Adams only amplified that feeling. Sure, the U.S. critics may have laughed at these cartoon-like imports (if they even went to see them for review), but for many kids from my generation, they were our first foreign "art" films (yes, I wrote that), giving us specialized delights from a distant land that we couldn't find in our own domestic product.
Classic Media's DVD cover states that Invasion of Astro-Monster has been remastered "direct from the Toho vaults." Switching back and forth between the English and original Japanese versions included in the DVD release (the Japanese version runs about two minutes longer, with nothing that I could see of great importance added), it seemed to me at least that the original Japanese version's image was slightly improved, brighter and certainly cleaner. Both versions are presented in the correct 2.35:1 Tohoscope ratio (the American version's credits start in 1.85:1, with obviously squeezed title cards, but then corrects to 2.35:1), and are enhanced for 16x9 TVs. They certainly look light years ahead of the last time I saw the film -- on an old 9 inch black and white portable!
The original mono Japanese soundtrack is available on the Japanese version (with optional English subtitles), while the original dubbed English soundtrack is presented in mono, as well. Both are clear and strong.
There are some great extras included on this Classic Media release of Invasion of Astro-Monster. First, picking the original Japanese version, go to "Special Features, and the original Japanese trailer is included (you won't find it on the English version "Special Features"). Then, we have The Creator of Godzilla: Tomoyuki Tanaka 1910 - 1997, a eight-and-a-half minute look at the producer of the series. Then there's a poster slide gallery and an image gallery you can navigate through. Picking the English version's Special Features, you can access those same bonuses, with an additional added attraction of having DVDTalk's very own Stuart Galbraith IV's running commentary track. Now, I'm biased when it comes to discussing Stuart's work; I think he's one of the best reviewers I've read on the web. So it's enough for me to say that as usual, Stuart maintains his usual high standards with this funny, informative commentary. I learned quite a lot from it.
Totally insane and silly, with some slow spots in the dramatics, the high-energy battle royales in Invasion of Astro-Monster more than compensate, giving fans of this genre a real treat in the marvelous model work -- along with vicarious thrills as Godzilla and crew smash them all to hell. This grown adult highly recommends Invasion of Astro-Monster -- kids or no kids.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.