The War of the Gargantuas (1966)
One of the weirdest takes on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus did not come from Universal or Hammer, but from Toho. Toho is still one of, if not the biggest of Japan's movie studios, and has been the home for Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and many other Kaiju since Gojira first hit the screen in 1954. A good many of those films, until he went into semi-retirement in the late 1960s, were directed by Ishirô Honda.
In 1965 American screenwriter Reuben Bercovitch, along with Japanese writer Takeshi Kimura, came up with an idea to make Frankenstein's monster a kaiju. The movie, Frankenstein vs. Baragon (known internationally as Frankenstein Conquers the World), featured a story in which the heart of the monster was brought to Japan near the end of World War II, only to be irradiated during the bombing of Hiroshima. A boy is born from the heart and grows to enormous size, eventually fighting one of the various monsters that like to stomp on Japan.
Bercovitch and Kimura, along with Honda, conceived of a sequel to the movie in 1966, which was The War of the Gargantuas. The problem was, when distributed in the United States in 1970, any reference to the original Frankenstein plot was removed, and to most people who saw the movie it seemed like a completely separate movie from the original. In truth, it pretty much works as one anyway, since much of the connection is tenuous, but it is also one of those times when the sequel has a better reputation than the original.
When a fishing boat is attacked by a giant octopus, the helmsman (Ren Yamamoto) thinks that he has suddenly been saved when the attacker retreats. Unfortunately, the retreat is due to the arrival of another monster - Gaira (Haruo Nakajima), a giant sea monster with green fur. Rather than saving the boat he wrecks it and begins snacking on the crew. At first no one believes the survivor, but soon the monster is seen in numerous places, and the lab that created the original Frankenstein is taken to task because everyone believes that this is Frankenstein returned in a mutated form. Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) denies this, although he knows that another creature of his may be in the wild.
While Stewart's colleague Dr. Yuzo Majida (Kenji Sahara) investigates the green monster, Stewart and his assistant Akemi (Kumi Mizuno) search in the mountains for signs of the other one. While it is not immediately found, it makes its presence known when Gaira is almost killed off by defense forces in a rural village. Codenamed Sanda (Yû Sekita), the other monster is brown in color and not violent toward humans. To that end, he becomes offended when he sees that Gaira has been eating the locals and tries to kill the other monster in its sleep. When that fails the two begin a long, drawn-out fight through the countryside, through Tokyo and finally out to sea.
I understand why The War of the Gargantuas is a favorite to many. In a lot of cases with kaiju movies the actual monster fighting takes a backseat to whatever human drama is going on, be it gangsters or aliens or whatever plot has been cooked up to try to get as close to the 90-minute mark as possible. Here, everything is focused specifically on keeping Gaira from feeding on the citizens of Japan. Unfortunately Sanda isn't immune from the humans either, as the general in charge (Jun Tazaki) is more than happy to see both monsters dead. To that end we have a long battle between defense forces and Gaira - with the introduction of the MASER guns to Toho's kaiju franchise - prior to what becomes a long battle between Gaira and Sanda. Dr. Stewart, Akemi and the General spout expository dialog every now and then, but the focus is wisely on the monsters.
Kenji Sahara, Jun Tazaki and Kumi Mizuno are all veterans of various Godzilla films, and they generally play the same roles they play repeated in the other movies. Unfortunately, Toho, in conjunction with American producer Harry Saperstein, decided to bring in an American actor. Russ Tamblyn plays the same type of role Nick Adams did in Frankenstein vs. Baragon. Unlike Adams, who appeared in a number of Japanese films, Tamblyn reportedly hated the movie and thought he could improve things by rewriting and improvising dialog, and generally did everything to reinforce the ugly American stereotype while in Japan. Famously, when recording his lines for the American English dub of the movie, he came across as completely disinterested due to having to try to remember what he said. Even when watching the official Toho English dub - which unfortunately I had to, since I could not find a subtitled version of the movie on streaming - Tamblyn is the weak link, although another actor dubbed his lines.
The result is audiences pretty much getting what they had been asking for, which was monster battles largely free of a subplot, with most of the dialog being commands to shoot, go here, go there or occasionally talking about the cells that the creatures grow from. I was disappointed the octopus didn't show up again, as it was one of the better monster effects I've seen in these movies. The laser, and MASER, effects are great, and it is a nice change that for once the Japanese defense forces got the upper hand on a monster, if only briefly.
The War of the Gargantuas (1966)
Time: 92 minutes
Starring: Russ Tamblyn, Kumi Mizuno, Jun Tazaki, Haruo Nakajima, Yû Sekita
Director: Ishirô Honda
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