Hold on to your butts, people. This is a weird one, with an even weirder history than your average cult classic. Produced in association with Henry G. Saperstein’s United Pictures, War of the Gargantuas took four years to get to the American drive-in circuit, where it premiered on a double bill with Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Like that film, Gargantuas features a Token American in the lead (Russ Tamblyn), supported by two instantly recognizable (to me at least) Honda Repertoire Company vets (Kenji Sahara and Kumi Mizuno). But unlike Monster Zero, Gargantuas is a much more grounded, much more traditional kaiju flick – arguably more so than its almost-prequel, Frankenstein Conquers the World.
That film (for anyone who doesn’t know/remember) concerned a team of scientists who happened upon a street urchin who once devoured the immortal heart of Frankenstein’s monster, irradiated by a nuclear blast after Nazi scientists shipped it to a Hiroshima during the last days of World War II. Said devouring ballooned the street urchin – which everyone pretty much just started calling “Frankenstein” – up to Ultraman-ish proportions, bringing him into inevitable conflict with the Japan’s
military Self Defense Forces and roving, wild dinosaur population.
We pick up one year later, on a literally dark and stormy night, as a giant octopus attacks a smuggler’s boat. While its questing tentacles menace the poor bastard in the wheelhouse (and I struggle to avoid making a string of increasingly blue shokushu goukan jokes) a theremin begins warbling over Akira Ifukube’s score, which is otherwise a heaping helping of his usual, big band goodness. It’s not a bad choice…but it is a weird one, since the theremin never appears again, and composers usually save it for Alien Invasion pictures. I guess it’s the octopus’ theme. And since the octopus is quickly dispatched by a giant, sea-dwelling humanoid with green hair, that would explain the theremin’s absence.
This Not-So-Jolly Green Giant sinks the ship the octopus meant to sink anyway and, by the next morning, we’re down to our by-now-standard Sole Survivor. The authorities only half-believe in his tales of a giant monster. After all, everyone knows Frankenstein is dead, and he took Baragon with him. The Green Man soon confirms his own existence when an overcast day brings him out of the ocean and onto Haneda airport’s crowded runways. You’d think this would telegraph our Green Meanie’s weakness to everyone, but we’ll still have to wait around for an act and half before anyone in the movie figures it out.
This is when things start to get complicated, and you start to notice no one really cared about tying this movie into any of the other movies in Toho’s daikaiju cannon. Hard enough to tell if all this takes place in the same parallel dimension as Frankenstein Conquers the World, so forget about aligning it with the continuity of Godzilla’s Showa series, which was already loose as a drunken cheerleader at a Homecoming house party anyway.
The English dub(s) helps by removing any mention of “Frankenstein,” but the original script (credited to our director, Ishiro Honda, along with Gorath, Matango and Rodan screenwriter Takeshi Kimura) did most of the heavy lifting. A reporter asks Tamblyn’s character, Dr. Paul Stewart, about a dessicated, severed hand (which we never see), possibly the hand Kawaji tried (and failed) to cut off of Frankenstein in the last movie. And I’m wondering Why bring that up at all? Nothing ever comes of it, and we never see the hand in question, so why’s it even here?
The answer seems to be Because it’s filler and we have to pad this thing out to feature length somehow. Jeeze, you expect your monster movies to make sense? Foolish mortal.
I know, I know…but it’s weird to see the same crew make a sequel with an almost entirely new cast who nevertheless seem to be playing all the same characters…but with new names to go along with their new faces. Confused yet? Just wait until actors from Frankenstein Conquers the World start to show up here in new roles. Nobuo Nakamura played a “Skeptical Museum Chief” in Frankenstein, but here he is in Gargantuas, playing one of Kenji Sahara’s Super Scientist colleagues. Yoshifumi Tajima was a submarine commander last year, but now we see he’s been busted back down to a beat cop.
And then there’s Kumi Mizuno, the only one of Frankenstein‘s three leads to return for Round 2, once again playing the female (and thus Designated Nurturer) assistant to/colleague of our Token White Dude. Except Kumi Mizuno’s character gets a new name, Akemi, to go along with everyone’s new backstory (damnit – at least she was an honest-to-Godzilla doctor in the last movie). So you can see how thinking about this for any length of time will break your brain.
Short and sweet version: five years ago, Dr. Stewart, Akemi and Sahara’s character, Dr. Majida, captured “a young species of Gargantua”…somehow…and spent some time letting it sit around their lab, supervised by Akemi, of course. The little sandy-brown beast (who looks just like a human child with a shitload of fur glued to his extremities – like a bad beta test for the original Planet of the Apes make-up designs) responded to her nurturing so well, everyone pretty much dropped any pretensions of objectivity and began treating the creature “like a baby boy.” As the flashbacks of Akemi teaching it how to drink from a straw (and how it’s impolite to stick your hand into a women’s purse…unless she asks) clearly show us, the creature was “kinder than most humans.” It certainly wouldn’t go about eating people and/or destroying airport terminals.
They patently don’t show us how this “young species of Gargantua” escaped. Or why Drs. Stewart, Majida and…fuck it, I’m just gonna call her “Dr. Togami”…didn’t mount an immediate hard-target search of every flop house, hen house, outhouse and Waffle House within fifty kilometer radius of their lab. What harm could a baby yeti do? Grow ten times larger in five years and start eating people?
Dr. Russ Tamblyn can’t accept this, and so wastes the first half-hour of the film in a fruitless quest to locate his brown Sasquatch, and thus absolve himself of any responsibility for the green Sasquach’s actions. Dr. Kenji Sahara stays behind with the military, commanded by (who else?) Jun Tazaki, as they combat the Not-So-Jolly Green Giant.
Around the forty minute mark, after I’d “enjoyed” this movie’s second military preparation montage in under ten minutes, I had a revelation: this is Ishiro Honda on autopilot. There’s a flaccid ambivalence in his direction here, as if polite obligation (and Honda was nothing if not a class act, so universally polite I can’t find a bad story about him – not even with all the wonders of modern gossip-mongering technology at my fingertips) were the only thing keeping his butt in the director’s chair.
He’s still better than 90% of the directors in this genre, but I don’t want to compare Honda to anyone other than his past self. He would’ve been the first on tell you his enthusiasm for giant monster movies had seriously waned by this point. He never agreed with the idea – sometimes credited to his producer and friend, Tomoyuki Tanaka; sometimes to his special effects director and even better friend, Eiji Tsuburaya; and sometimes credited to Henry G. Saperstein (though only by Saperstein himself) – of turning monsters into superheroes.
No matter how much money Daiei’s “friend to children everywhere” might’ve raked in, Honda always thought of monsters as ultimately tragic but nonetheless destructive figures, unleashed to teach us the value of human life…assuming they leave us alive in the first place. So it should come as no surprise that the best parts of this movie involve its titular Gargantuas and their titular War.
After the military’s padded out the film with their Preparedness Montages, we get our first surprise: General Jun Tazaki’s plan to blast the Not-So-Jolly Green Giant with masers and an electrified lake almost works. After twelve years of being trounced by Godzilla, the JDSF almost scores itself a win…until Dr. Russ Tamblyn’s brown Gargantua carries his green sibling off into the forest.
Nursing their biggest case of blue balls since 1954, the JDSF regroups. Theorizing that the immortal cells of the Frankenstein monster have regenerated into two distinct beings, Our Scientists go on an Alpine field trip to sniff them out. Meanwhile, the military’s doing what it does best and coming up with new names for things. The brown, mountain dwelling Gargantua is designated “Sanda,” (Yu Sekida, who played Ebirah in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster) while the green, sea-dwelling man-eater becomes “Gaira” (Haruo Nakajima, who played Godzilla in every film up this point, and quite a few other monsters besides).
This is the heart of the film, which naysayers call “emotionally hollow” because our Human Heroes have so little to do. They run around a lot, sure, but that leaves no time for the little domestic asides that made the casts of Monster Zero, Ghidorah, or Mothra vs. Godzilla (again, all made by largely the same crews and all awesome in their own ways) interesting…if not exactly “memorable” to anyone other than pretentious film critics like yours truly. There are no love triangles, retrograde social attitudes or alien invasions to thwart here: just three scientists, meant to fill the frame with something until the monster action kicks in.
Obviously, it soon does, as Gaira’s habit of eating people brings him into inevitable conflict with Sanda. Their running battle – down the Alps, through Tokyo, and back out to sea – consumes the last thirty minutes of the film, and it’s one of the best climactic monster battles Tsuburaya’s special effects team ever produced. Most of that’s due to the Gargantuas’ being half as tall as Godzilla, meaning the miniature buildings around them had to be larger and full of more detail than anything since the original Rodan. If you want to see how cheap the Showa Gamera series really was, watch this on a double bill with its main Daiei Studios competition, Gamera vs. Barugon. The difference is night and day, and its the difference experience makes.
Freed from the confines of playing giant dinosaurs or three-headed space dragons, our suit actors finally have a chance to express some raw physicality. The ability to turn their heads with relative ease had to be a relief in itself, to say nothing of the ability to emote with their real life, 100% home-grown human eyes. No glassy orb-like stares for these Gargantuas: those are the people you see, shinning through the suits. Their climactic wrestling match is also their only opportunity for real characterization, and the personalities they put into their performances amaze by their presence.
Sanda, disgusted by Gaira’s eating habits, makes the first move by beating his brother over the head with a tree. And yet, Sanda spends the remainder of the fight visibly trying to calm Gaira down, retaining the hope he can bring his brother around to a place of peaceful co-existence…right up until his brother starts body-slamming him into buildings. So the reluctant Sanda – “kinder than most humans” – is left with no choice but to try and smack his brother down with oil tankers. It’s an epically staged struggle with serious mythic overtones that’ve continued to strike cords with audiences worldwide for reasons that should be obvious if you’ve ever heard a “two brothers” myth in your life.
So there really is a good movie floating around under all this padding and all these redundant, human-centric scenes that go nowhere and contribute nothing. Shame they tacked all that good stuff onto an hour of crap, but this became the default structure of daikaiju films in the late-60s and early-70s. We can see its presence here as A Taste of Things To Come. It snuck in, not because the genre was exhausted (as the Toho brass had begun to believe by this point), but because the creative minds behind the genre were tired of running through the same gauntlet multiple times each year, six days a week, twelve-to-eighteen hours a day (depending on their production schedule).
No surprise Honda went on from this to direct a rom-com I haven’t seen called Will You Marry Me? I’m even less surprised War of the Gargantuas became a cult favorite with North American monster fans of a certain age. From the drive-ins, it naturally migrated to late night, syndicated TV and into the minds of a generation. Its bad dubbing (especially from Tamblyn, who re-dubbed his own lines with all the enthusiasm of a coma patient) and uneven pace taught everyone to sit and wait for the climactic battle. Some still do so today. But daikaiju movies don’t have to be this way – and for the first twelve years of the genre, I’d argue they weren’t that way at all. They became that way as audiences got younger and creative types behind them got older and/or fed up with the daily grind.
War of the Gargantuas doesn’t skimp on the monster scenes – that octopus battle comes less than two minutes in – but its characters are useless dolts who ultimately contribute jack shit, with Sanda solving all their problems (well…okay, they only have the one problem, named Gaira…which really is the problem with the whole movie, now that I think about it) for them. Therefore, and despite its reputation, War of the Gargantuas is an ultimately average, mid-60s monster movie. In fact, it’s the average, mid-60s monster movie, the standard by which to judge all the rest. There are dark times on the horizon, people, so keep a’hold of your butts and we’ll see how low these films can really go.