My notes on Film reviews – Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon/Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira (The War of the Gargantuas) (1967)
Frankenstein Conquers the World (Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon)
The special effects pioneer Willis H. O’Brien spent much of his post-King Kong career frustrated by Hollywood’s refusal to back his ambitious projects. One of his doomed ventures was an outline for King Kong vs Frankenstein, which wound up sold overseas to Japan’s Toho Studios and made in 1962 (without O’Brien’s participation, naturally) as Kingu Kongu tai Gojira/King Kong vs Godzilla. Toho didn’t just throw away O’Brien’s ‘giant Frankenstein Monster’ concept, but recycled it three years later in this odd, quite lavish creature feature from the Godzilla team of director Ishiro Honda and effects specialist Eiji Tusburaya. I’ve seen the memorable title listed in Frankenstein filmographies since the first list-type books on horror movies appeared in the 1970s, but only caught up with Frankenstein Conquers the World (in three variant versions) on an impressive DVD release in 2007.
The set-up is elaborate and contrived, but admirably weird: in 1945, with the Nazis nearly defeated, the still-beating heart of the Frankenstein Monster is requisitioned from a laboratory in Germany and sent via submarine to the Military Hospital in Hiroshima, where scientists intend to use it to breed a race of soldiers who can’t be killed by bullets. Takashi Shimura, frog-faced star of several Kurosawa classics (Ikiru/Living, Shichinin no Samurai/Seven Samurai) and the first Gojira/Godzilla, has a tiny cameo as the head of this project, which is terminated when the A-Bomb is dropped on the city. It’s a truism that the whole Japanese kaiju-cycle is profoundly influenced by the country’s first-hand experience of nuclear war, but this is almost unique in using Godzilla-style effects to depict the actual atomic strike – with a wall of flame filling the screen and a vivid crimson mushroom cloud rising into the sky. Then, ‘fifteen years later’, we pick up in reconstructed Hiroshima and find guilt-ridden American scientist Dr James Bowen (Nick Adams) working with local sweetie Dr Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) and ambitious colleague Dr Yuzo Kawaji (Tadao Takashima) studying the long-term effects of radiation, at once coping with the still-ailing victims (a perky young girl who finishes embroidering a cushion for Bowen before expiring offscreen) and searching out positive uses of the atom. The film hurries through this section, skipping a year from characters feeling sad about the doomed girl to visiting her grave on the anniversary of her death, to get to the monster stuff, which is unique in both Frankenstein films and the Japanese kaiju pantheon.
A feral boy (Koji Furuhata), referred to as ‘Frankenstein’ throughout, lives near the ruins of the hospital – we assume that the monster heart has generated this new body (one theory is that a starving local orphan ate the heart, though the script – if not the make-up – insists he’s caucasian). Frankenstein forms a bond with the kindly Sueko, but is savage enough to eat animals raw. In a sequence only Japanese filmmakers would include in a kiddie matinee picture, schoolchildren rush into their classroom to find the explicitly rent-apart and gore-spatted remains of pet rabbits on the floor. Frankenstein, presumably as a result of irradiation, has a growth spurt and becomes twenty feet tall. He wears caveman-style skins and has crooked teeth (one ineptly blacked-out), a Karloffian brow ridge and a shaggy, greenish wig. In another leftover from O’Brien, he has a King Kong-type relationship with the heroine: he tries to protect her, and she speaks up for him even when her boss wants to write off the monster and harvest that unkillable heart. Like the Frankenstein-like composite human in the later Scream and Scream Again, Frankenstein escapes captivity by wrenching off his own hand (offscreen) to get out of a shackle.
The hand has independent life before it crawls out of the picture (in the sequel, it generates into another creature entirely). The actualy plot, when we finally get to it, is simple, yet blissfully loopy: Frankenstein hides in the woods, and is blames when another monster, armadillo/dinosaur/bulldog Baragon, pops up from beneath the earth to wreck various structures. There’s no explanation of where Baragon comes from; the burrowing beast is a typical Japanese giant monster, with glowing horn (evoking The Dong with the Luminous Nose) and Godzilla-like fire-breath. Not exactly the biggest star in the Toho firmament, Baragon returned for a cameo in Gojira, Mosura, Kingu Gidorâ: Daikaijû sôkôgeki/Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack in 2001). I wonder why Toho didn’t go the obvious route and make Godzilla vs Frankenstein. The army, an angry mob and even one out of the three hero scientists take against Frankenstein, and pursue him into the woods to kill him – but when Baragon comes out into the open, only the more human monster can take on the other creature in a lengthy wrestling match.
Pitting a humanoid giant against a man-in-a-suit monster tends to blow the illusion of meticulous miniature sets, and also show up how awkward the staged battles can be – but the climactic bout, set against a forest fire which visually echoes the holocaust of his creation, is fun in a silly sort of way. The ‘international version’ of the film has a very strange end as Frankenstein triumphs over Baragon only to be pounced on and dragged into a lake by a floppy giant octopus which has been barely glimpsed earlier. Not is the last-minute introduction of a new threat dramatically peculiar, but the reaction of the human characters to this turn of events (‘he saved us … he’s dead … ho hum … never mind … I’m sure he’ll be back’) is ridiculous (the dubbed cut wisely omits the octopus completely). Like a lot of Toho monster films before they turned into child-friendly free-for-alls in the 1970s, this mixes surprisingly serious themes (a vague parallel between Dr Frankenstein’s experiments and the unleashing of the Bomb) with outrageous hokum.
Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira (The War of the Gargantuas)
Though the export version doesn’t go so far as to have Raymond Burr spliced in and overdub explanatory narration, this Japanese monster movie is radically different in its domestic and US releases. Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira is a direct sequel to Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon/Frankenstein Conquers the World but The War of the Gargantuas is a standalone: ‘Frankenstein’ is dubbed as ‘Gargantua’ throughout, and top-billed US star Russ Tamblyn horns in on a few extra scenes while lounge singer Kipp Hamilton, who has only one (admittedly memorable) scene is bumped up to second-billed ‘special guest star’. Kumi Mizuno, held over from the earlier film, has a different character name, and the only flashback we get to the youth of Frankenstein/Sanda/Brown Gargantua shows a creature which doesn’t resemble the Frankenstein Boy who took on Baragon or conquered the world.
Even as kaiju eiga go, this has a whacky premise – it begins with a giant octopus attacking a ship, only to be dragged away by a shaggy green, piranha-mawed giant humanoid which proceeds to finish the job of sinking the ship and vindictively drowns some sailors who are swimming away from the wreck. In the climax of the Japanese version of the first film, a similar octopus showed up – but there’s no other reason for the thing to be here, since it’s never mentioned again and Japan has enough on its plate with the giant to even worry about the other monster at large. It is theorised that the green giant might well be the feral Frankenstein/Gargantua raised in captivity by Dr Paul Stewart (Tamblyn) and Akemi (Kumi Mizuno), but they think not since their monster was gentle unless attacked. Furthermore, shaggy footprints suggest that particular creature has been hiding out in the snowy peaks of ‘the Japanese Alps’. It turns out that the green monster generated from scraped-off cells left behind by the brown monster and takes its form because it grew in the sea.
In the Japanese version, the authorities arbitrarily name the bad monster Gaira and the good monster Sanda; in the English dub, they become the more prosaic Green Gargantua and Brown Gargantua. The snarling, pissed-off Gaira, whose seaweedy hide breaks out in gruesome sores, terrorises more boats (there’s a great shot of the monster peering up through clear waters at some fishermen) and even picks up and drops torch-singer Hamilton (after she’s delivered the amazing dirge ‘But the Words Get Stuck in My Throat’) to put a damper on a pleasure cruise she’s entertaining, then strides ashore at the familiar Toho tank and wades through the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. Sanda, the Beatle-haired, less snarly monster, is at first sympathetic to his persecuted offshoot and tries to help, but the ungrateful Gaira just wants to smash things up. Sanda remains devoted to Akemi, and catches her when she falls off a cliff during a Gaira-related landslide, so when Gaira picks up and drops her during a rampage in Tokyo – I suspect Toho are getting as much use as possible of the giant Kong hand constructed for King Kong vs Godzilla a few years before – Sanda is motivated to take on the baddie in a destructive, no-holds-barred fight which ranges through the city (many buildings are crushed) and out into the bay, with a neat-looking newly-devised zap-cannon deployed by the army to harry Gaira and a new underwater volcano (!) putting an end to both creatures.
Because the humanoid costumes are more manoeuverable than the typical big lizard/moth/lobster/turtle/walrus/sludge suits of Japanese monster fame, the battle between Gaira (Haruo Nakajima, the longest-reigning Godzilla performer) and Sanda (Hiroshi Sekita –a good guy kaiju for a change, since he usually fought Nakajima as MechaKong, Ebirah, etc) is among the most exciting, fast-paced and brutal in the genre. It’s also surprisingly nasty – Gaira eats people, so we see him cram a girl into his mouth and spit out the flowers she was carrying, and Sanda does an ‘oh not again’ double take when he finds a strew of mountaineering clothes lying about like peanut shells near a bloated Gaira. Directed and co-written by genre specialist Ishirô Honda.
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