In the first of what I hope (?) will be an ongoing series within this blog, I would like to focus on an older film that helped shape my childhood (for good and/or bad). It’s a movie that I used to catch every time it came on late afternoon or early evening weekend TV. Most of these movies or TV shows I loved in those days were about giant dinosaurs, giant creatures, giant people, giant mushrooms, etc.
This entry’s particular keiju-eiga (‘giant monster’ genre) movie is called “War of the Gargantuas” (1966), also known by the original Japanese title, “Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira.” Yes, it’s a mouthful, but apparently this movie was a direct sequel to Toho Studio’s earlier “Frankenstein Conquers the World” (aka “Frankenstein vs. Barugan”; 1965) in which a feral street boy is surgically given the original Frankenstein monster’s now irradiated heart, and grows to tremendous height. The now giant, ugly-as-a-sack-of-sphinctors monster then proceeds to beat up old Godzilla stablemate Barugan, as well as leer at his female doctor through her high-rise apartment window… creepy doesn’t even begin to cover it.
But as a kid watching “War of the Gargantuas”, I had no inkling of its Frankenstein movie connection. Apparently American producer/distributor Henry G. Saperstein soft-pedaled that connection for US distribution. Sequels weren’t quite as compulsory then as they are today. For me, the connection is best forgotten anyway, since I always watched WOTG as a standalone movie. The Furankenshutain references (if any?) are fairly nonexistent.
The story of WOTG, as clumsily related in dialogue within the movie, is basically a Cain and Abel tale… if Cain and Abel were two giant, hairy, bigfoot-mutants kicking the living shit out of each other and demolishing half of Tokyo in the process. The ill-tempered green gargantua is called “Gaira” in the Japanese version; the mellower brown one is called “Sanda.” These names will be on the quiz later (hehe).
As a lifelong connoisseur of Japanese keiju-eiga movies (so much wasted youth watching Godzilla, Ultraman, Giant-Robo and Gamera on TV), I can honestly say that this movie is one of the better ones. Despite bits of atrocious dialogue, sleepwalker-style acting by token American Russ Tamblyn (“West Side Story” “Tom Thumb”) and many unintentional laughs, there are some wonderful set pieces, beautiful miniature work, and two truly effective monsters. And it’s entertaining as hell, too.
Our story begins with a Japanese smuggling boat that is capsized and destroyed by Gaira; the huge, green, vaguely elfin/ape-ish looking monster that resides somewhere in the sea of Japan. This is one of the few times a “Frankenstein” connection is ever made; for in the original Japanese version, the traumatized lone survivor of the boat wreck calls the monster a “Furankunshuteeeein!” In the dubbed US version that I grew up with, he coins the titular beast as a “Gargantuaaaa!”
The smuggler’s account draws the interest of monster researchers Dr. Paul Stewart (the aforementioned Tamblyn; who acts as if he were on horse tranquilizers) and his assistant Akemi, who is played by multiple keiju-eiga veteran actress Kumi Mizuno (a lovely actress who more than keeps up her end of the movie’s acting chores). Mizuno is a keiju-eiga veteran; having appeared in this movie’s prequel (“Frankenstein Conquers the World”), as well as “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero” (1965), and more recently in 2002’s “Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla” and 2004’s “Godzilla: Final Wars.” I think my pre-adolescent self might’ve harbored a teensy bit of a crush on Mizuno; she was quite a lovely woman back in the day.
Akemi hears the smuggler’s account of the gargantua’s deadly oceanic rampage and disagrees, arguing that the gargantua creature she once knew was benign. The movie then flashes back to a few years prior, where she and her fellow researchers nursed a baby gargantua (Sanda, aka ‘the brown one’) to health, before he escaped the lab and disappeared into the woods. Akemi argues that her gargantua was kind and gentle, and couldn’t possibly have destroyed the smuggler’s boat. Her somnambular colleague Dr. Stewart isn’t so certain. Despite Akemi’s pleading on behalf of Sanda, the military isn’t convinced.
It doesn’t help matters that there are several more attacks by Sanda’s evil brother Gaira; including a change-your-underpants moment when the creature stares up through the water at a fishing boat, directly into the camera (below)…
…. as well as a truly showstopper attack on Tokyo airport (great inter-cutting between miniatures and live action-matting). The airport attack sequence shows the creature in full glory; attacking jet planes as well as literally devouring a terrified woman in a control tower, and then spitting out her clothing (!). The action goes from epic to terrifyingly intimate. This was INTENSE stuff when I was 8 or so years old. Hell, it still is. And much of this action takes place within the first 30 to 40 minutes of this breakneck-paced movie.
Gaira only breaks off his attack on the airport when the sun pierces through the clouds and forces the photosensitive creature to seek refuge back in the waters of Tokyo Bay. Gaira’s attack on Tokyo airport is one of the best single best set pieces in keiju-eiga cinema. If I smoked? I’d reach for a cigarette afterward…
WOTG is arguably director Ishiro Honda’s best keiju-eiga movie since the original 1954 Japanese version of “Gojira” (Godzilla), which I was lucky enough to see uncut at a screening in L.A. in 2004. Yes, WOTG has some cheesier elements and some bad acting, but the monster set pieces are among the best ever made in 1960s Japanese cinema.
Special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya, who also worked on the Godzilla and Ultraman series (and so MANY others), does some of his best work here. He is the true star of the film.
^ For the curious? I highly recommend August Ragone’s terrific book of this unsung FX maestro: “Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters” (2007). If you’re curious, and can get a copy on eBay or Amazon? Go for it.
And have I mentioned the soundtrack of WOTG? The music by legendary Godzilla veteran Akira Ifukube is much worth a big mention as well. The main ‘gargantua’ theme’s initial JAWS-like tempo explodes into a brassy crescendo. Gaira’s theme is crazy and frantic; Sanda’s is in descending, ‘calmer’ scales. It’s an iconic score; the exact notes of which are still memorable to me day today, 40-odd years later. Easily one of Ifukube’s best.
Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself; back to the story…
The military locates and lures Gaira into the woods, where they zap him continuously with masers (electrical laser-like beams) that inflict some serious injuries on the creature; in fact, you actually see blood and open wounds on the creature’s body. An uncommon sight in a keija-eiga film.
Seemingly near death, Gaira is then rescued by its ‘big brother’ Sanda; the ‘gentle’ one Akemi had such fond memories of earlier. The gargantua brothers are reunited, but they’re not exactly on the same page regarding their policies on humans: Gaira tends to see them as walking Chicken McNuggets, whereas Sanda sees them as the loving, surrogate parents who raised him when he was a wee Sasquatch. Conflict is inevitable.
One of the unintentionally funnier scenes of the movie comes shortly afterward, as Akemi and Paul are strolling in the mountains following Sanda’s trail. A group of young hikers sing a lovely little folk song when they accidentally encounter an angry (and hungry) Gaira, who scares a nerdy hiker into giving the single, funniest ‘fright face’ I’ve yet seen in my 50 years of being alive.
Scared nerdy-hiker guy also makes a horrifically silly ‘keep away’ hand gesture at the camera as if he were trying to shoo an unruly mosquito. Even at age 8 or 10, I laughed my chubby little ass off at this scene.
Luckily, the movie quickly recovers its composure when Akemi is put in danger (the first of many such moments) by slipping from a cliff and nearly plunging to her death till she is caught mid-fall by Sanda, who reaffirms her faith in him by injuring his own leg to save her. Awwwwww….
Anyway, the military doesn’t give two farts that Sanda saved Akemi’s life and returns to its own Plan A: Destroy the monsters. No reprieve, no exceptions.
With knowledge of Gaira’s photosensitivity (gleaned in the airport attack) the authorities advise Tokyo residents to turn on all of their lights to repel the creature (kind of the opposite of what would seem correct in such a circumstance… those wacky monsters; they always keep ya guessin’). Well, this doesn’t really help, and soon Gaira is back with a vengeance… with a limping Sanda in pursuit (still nursing his giant injured tree trunk of a leg).
Another bit of unintentionally funny (yet scary) business happens around this mark as another token American, singer Kipp Hamilton (no, I’d never heard of her before this movie, either) is whisked away Faye Wray-style by Gaira halfway through a very Mad Men-esque rendition of a truly wretched song called, “The Words Get Stuck In My Throat” (later covered by New Wave band Devo, in the early ’80s) For once, Gaira’s intrusion almost seems a blessing, as the song is a bit of an ear-bleeder to put it charitably…
Soon after Gaira’s party crashing, there is one hell of a battle royale in the city between Gaira and Sanda, with a particularly memorable scene taking place in the lower levels of a downtown building.
Much of the terror of the scene comes from hearing Gaira’s angry, echoing, motorcycle-like roar echoing through the lower levels of the abandoned building, as the giant monster lurks at the main exit. This scene (for my money) easily takes the Pepsi challenge with some of the best moments of Ishiro Honda’s own original, B&W Japanese version of “Gojira” (the gold standard of keiju-eiga movies). It conveys the epic-sized horror that is at the heart of the best keiju-eiga films; a phenomenon no doubt inspired by the real-life horrors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Macro-scaled horror understandably weighs heavily on Japanese pop culture.
The battle between Sanda and Gaira (and the military) later takes to the sea again, with Sanda and Gaira hoisting tankers and cargo ships at each other. And add to all of this a bubbling oceanic volcano nearby.
The ending of this otherwise insanely entertaining movie fumbles a bit by going ambiguous at the last minute. It is implied that the oceanic volcano kills the battling creatures, who were last seen locked in mortal combat, but their fates aren’t definitively shown. Frustrating… a slight copout of an ending in an otherwise wildly amusing monster flick.
My guess is that the powers-that-be (Toho Studios, Ishiro Honda) were setting things up for a future sequel (?). I can only imagine two battle-scarred, horribly burned gargantuas coming back for round two in what could’ve been a bang-up sequel. The makeup and creature costumes alone would’ve been amazing…. a shame it never happened.
“War of the Gargantuas” throws everything at you, including the kitchen sink. This movie works its hairy ass off to entertain you (despite lead Russ Tamblyn’s sabotage with his truly dreadful acting). Even now, over 50 years later, it still works. Watch it when no one else is looking (or judging), or watch it with like-minded keiju-eiga fans. I guarantee you will be entertained far more than you would if you waded through 1998’s Roland Emmerich-remake of “Godzilla” or even the 2005 remake of “King Kong” (which took three LONG hours to tell a 90 minute story). WOTG delivers the goods big-time; and is one of the best of the first wave of Toho keiju-eiga movies (1954-1975).
Here’s hoping they never do an all-CGI remake…