War of the Gargantuas / Furankenshutain no Kaiju: Sanda tai Gaira (1966/1970) -****
You’d never ever guess on the basis of the American version, but this movie is actually the sequel to the previous year’s Frankenstein Conquers the World/ Furankenshutain tai Chitei Kaiju Baragon. In the Japanese version, the title of which means “Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira,” the connection between the two films is probably more noticeable, but Henry G. Saperstein, whose Maron Distribution co-produced both movies and circulated this one stateside, all but eliminated any reference to the earlier film in his version of War of the Gargantuas. Honestly, that wasn’t such a bad idea-- the movie makes even less sense when you try to puzzle out the story arc that it forms with Frankenstein Conquers the World, and most American audiences demand that a sequel bear at least some logical relation to the original film, which this movie emphatically does not.
As you may recall (ha ha), Frankenstein Conquers the World ends with the King Kong-sized Frankenstein monster being swallowed up by the Earth for no apparent reason after defeating the monster Baragon. So it is only logical that the sequel should begin at sea, with a smallish industrial fishing vessel being attacked by a colossal octopus. (I wonder if this was done to make up for the deletion of the octopus that was supposed to have been the Frankenstein monster’s opponent in the final battle of the first movie, which was mostly shot under the working title Frankenstein vs. the Giant Devilfish.) Just as the octopus looks sure to sink the fishing boat, it breaks off its attack. The terrified captain looks out from the bridge, and we see why. The octopus has understandably decided that it would be more worth its while to fight the 50-odd-foot-tall, scaly, shaggy, green humanoid that has just emerged from beneath the waves. This Green Gargantua (whom I’ll call by his Japanese name, Gaira, because it would take too long to type “Green Gargantua” over and over again) makes short work of the giant octopus and then turns his attention to the ship, sinking it without much difficulty.
Shortly after the ensuing opening credits, we are introduced to Dr. Paul Stuart (Russ Tamblyn, of fucking West Side Story, who may actually be playing Nick Adams’s character from Frankenstein Conquers the World-- given Saperstein’s efforts to disguise the relationship between the two films, it would probably be necessary to watch them both in Japanese to be sure), his assistant, Akemi (Kumi Mizuno, who almost certainly is reprising her role from the earlier movie, name change be damned), and a second, Japanese scientist whose name appears to be “Doctor” (Kenji Sahara, of The H-Man and Godzilla vs. the Thing). Their lab has just received a call from an officer of the Bureau of Maritime Safety (the Japanese Coast Guard) who wants to talk to Stuart about his work with “giant animals.” It seems that five years ago, Stuart had in captivity what he calls “a young species of Gargantua,” and the BMS people think that the doctor’s experience would be valuable in solving certain mysteries surrounding that shipwreck from the opening scene. The ship’s captain, the sole survivor of the wreck, has been saying his ship was sunk by a monster, you see. Stuart goes to the hospital to see the sailor, who emerges from his catatonia just long enough to say, “Ohhhhhh! A giant!!!!” Stuart then leaves the sailor’s bedside, and accompanies the Maritime Safety folks to the site of the wreck. The ship, curiously enough, appears undamaged, and the only sign of its remaining four crewmen is a badly torn shirt tangled around one of the railings. Later, Stuart is present when the captain comes around and tells his story. He says that a hairy, green giant sank his ship and ate the rest of his crew. This last element of the story seems to be confirmed when divers discover more torn clothing further from the ship, which looks to have actually been chewed on. The authorities immediately begin to suspect that Stuart’s “young species of Gargantua” is responsible for the attack, despite the fact that the idea flies in the face of quite a bit of evidence.
To begin with, there is the fact that the monster that Stuart had in his lab five years before was a purely terrestrial creature, while the one that attacked the ship was (duh) aquatic. Then, there is Stuart and Akemi’s assessment of their creature’s personality. Their Gargantua, they say, was “like a baby boy” and “more gentle than most humans.” And sure enough, we are treated to a flashback to prove it. Akemi, Stuart, and Doctor are hanging out in their lab, while a creature that resembles a ten-year-old boy in 40’s-vintage werewolf makeup plays with Akemi’s purse. (An aside: Exactly what about this beast would lead Stuart, or anybody else, to conclude that it was a “Gargantua,” even a young one? Sure, it was clearly immature, but what would make them think it would grow any bigger than a less hairy boy would?) Thankfully, this saccharine scene ends fairly quickly, and the movie gets back down to business. Gaira shows up in Tokyo Bay and attacks some more fishermen. This time, there are any number of witnesses to give descriptions to the authorities and the press, and what those witnesses describe is a hairy, green giant.
This attack is followed by more directionless dialogue, which consists mainly of babble about monsters living in the mountains (I know Japan is basically one big mountain range, but is there really such a place as “the Japan Alps?”), and such intelligent musings as this one from Doctor: “He’s seen in the mountains, and in the ocean… How could such a huge monster get around so quickly?” Eventually, Stuart hits upon the brilliant idea that there are two monsters (an idea that will come to him with an equal sense of “Eureka!” at least two more times before the movie ends, the scientist apparently retaining no memory of having already thought of it), and decides to go to the “Japan Alps” to look at some Yeti-like footprints that some college students (or a mountain guide-- the movie can’t seem to decide) reported finding some time back.
While Stuart and Akemi are thus occupied, Doctor goes to Tokyo Bay to see the scene of Gaira’s attack. This scene is just chock full of the man’s patented Intelligent Musingstm. “These look like the marks of steel claws, wouldn’t you say?” he asks someone from the BMS while he examines a damaged boat. “It’s from some kind of sea animal-- membrane,” he says after looking at a shaggy, green tissue sample through his microscope. A bit later, another scientist, named Professor Kita (Nobuo Nakamura, from Half Human and Dagora the Space Monster), makes the following contribution to the Intelligent Musingstm effort: “These are microscopic photographs. They prove conclusively that the samples you [that is to say, Doctor] have given me are hair, and not scales.” This apparently also proves conclusively that the monster on the loose is a Gargantua.
What really does prove it conclusively is another attack, this one on an airport conveniently located right next to the shore. Gaira comes ashore, grunts a lot, waves his arms at some airplanes, and then eats a woman working in the control tower. He is prevented from wreaking any more havoc when the sun emerges from behind the heavy cloud cover. Apparently, Gaira’s aquatic lifestyle makes him sensitive to bright sunlight, an idea of which the movie will make quite a bit of use before forgetting it entirely about halfway through. For example, Gaira’s next attack, in Tokyo itself, is thwarted when someone thinks to turn on the lights in the nightclub where the monster is trying to eat an infinitely deserving white lounge singer and her band of heavily sedated Japanese musicians. (I never really appreciated the true meaning of the term “show stopper” as applied to musical numbers until I saw this scene. Kipp Hamilton [that’s her name] really does bring the show to a screeching halt when she sings. Even Gaira waits until she’s done before trying to eat her.)
Following the nightclub patron’s lead (which is given a veneer of scientific veracity when Doctor makes much the same suggestion at a conference), the army uses high-powered searchlights to herd Gaira into the mountains, in the hope of trapping him far from the sea. With the monster thus hemmed in, the military attacks him in the woods with hundreds of 1/35 scale tin jeeps and tanks (M-41s and M-4A3E8s, if anyone cares), plus a few of those big maser artillery pieces that long-time fans of Japanese monster movies will remember from The Mysterians, Mothra, and several 60’s-vintage Godzilla movies. And believe it or not, this almost works. He may not be very impressed with the tanks, but those lightning guns come very close to killing Gaira. (This is the first color kaiju eiga I know of in which one of the monsters gets visibly wounded-- Gaira spends the rest of the film covered in nasty-looking scabs and burns.) But just when the soldiers are starting to get cocky, another Gargantua, this one brown-furred and considerably bigger than Gaira, comes running down the mountain to save the green monster’s ass. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this monster (Sanda in the Japanese version) is Stuart’s Gargantua. The connection between the two monsters is that Gaira grew from a piece of Sanda-- Stuart speculates that the latter monster must have hurt himself and left a scrap of tissue somewhere, just as Gaira did on the boat in Tokyo Bay.
Not long after Sanda’s appearance, Stuart and Akemi are strolling through the woods near a peaceful mountain lake. Their conversation veers between low-rent philosophical bullshit and dropping hints that the lake in question is the Garganutas’ hiding place. After a mercifully brief period of this, a fogbank rolls in and Gaira appears, sowing panic among the teenage vacationers in the area. Stuart and Akemi flee as well, but Akemi ends up tripping on something and damn near falling off the mountain. Just as she loses her grip on the tree root that was all that stood between her and going home in a Hefty bag, Sanda comes to her rescue. Aww... isn’t that sweet? The monster remembers her. After saving Akemi, Sanda returns to his den, where he finds Gaira in the throes of what is clearly post-dinner torpor. And wouldn’t you know it, the den is strewn with pieces of two teenagers we saw earlier in a rowboat out on the lake. Now, Sanda doesn’t approve of this conduct, so he uproots a tree and starts hitting his clone with it. The titular War of the Gargantuas has begun at last.
And what a war it is. By the time this movie is over, Sanda and Gaira will have wrestled their way across half of Japan, ending with a spectacular showdown in (of course) Tokyo. This is seriously some of the best city-smashing ever, mainly due to a combination of the monsters’ speed of movement (compare their energetic fighting styles to those of any of the more famous Toho kaiju) and the larger scale on which the miniature sets are built-- a movie with 50-foot monsters requires bigger, more detailed buildings than one with 50-meter monsters. The sequence in the shipyard is particularly good. On the other hand, with the larger scale of the tanks and jeeps, the special effects guys felt compelled to try to make them look manned. Their strategy-- stick little plastic army men in them. I’m completely serious, and it’s completely obvious. And it just makes the fight scenes better.
So what could any of this possibly have to do with Frankenstein Conquers the World, you ask? A fair question, and the mind boggles at the answer. Sanda is Frankenstein’s monster. That’s right, Sanda is Frankenstein’s monster!!!! Never mind the fact that he has a new name and doesn’t look a goddamned thing like the creature in Frankenstein Conquers the World, Sanda really is supposed to be Frankenstein’s monster. I’m fairly certain that the flashback scene of the main characters interacting with Baby Sanda is supposed to refer to the scenes in the previous movie in which the scientists had the boy monster in captivity at the hospital where they worked. Remember, Frankenstein’s monster did escape from the lab, and did flee to the mountains, just like Stuart says his Gargantua did. Furthermore, early in War of the Gargantuas, Stuart mentions a “desiccated” hand that no scientist had been able “to identify with any known animal.” Remember how the monster loses a hand in Frankenstein Conquers the World? It is my hypothesis that Gaira is supposed to have grown from this hand, just as Frankenstein’s monster grew his hand back. In the American version, Stuart says no such thing-- talking instead about tissue scraped from Sanda’s body and washed out to sea-- but I have a hard time imagining that even this movie would drop a reference to a mysterious severed hand if it had no meaning for the story. It’s practically axiomatic that the discovery of a severed body-part is an important event with major plot repercussions. So you see what I mean, don’t you, about it making pretty good sense to disguise this ludicrous connection between War of the Gargantuas and its predecessor when trying to market the former to an American audience? Even when you know what to look for to connect the two films, the link seems completely impossible, in defiance of all sense and logic. But, believe me, the link is there, nevertheless.