It was an unexpectedly trippy moment during this year’s Oscars ceremony. In a clip of Hollywood stars explaining their early movie memories, Brad Pitt briefly summarized the plot of a Japanese monster movie in which an evil, green Gargantua battles the good, brown Gargantua. You were supposed to talk about The Wizard of Oz or Bambi, Mr. Pitt, not get breathtakingly honest and dish your childhood love of The War of the Gargantuas (Furankenshutain no Kaijū: Sanda tai Gaira, 1966), Toho’s bizarre Kaiju Frankenstein spin-off. In the middle of a drier-than-usual Academy Awards broadcast, this clip and a later onstage appearance by his wife’s strangely prominent leg were the highlights of the evening. I knew immediately what film Pitt was referencing, but I had never actually sat down and watched it – so it’s a few weeks later and I’ve remedied that problem. I should preface by stating that I’ve never been much of a Kaiju fan. (That’s men in monster suits crushing miniature sets.) I watched Godzilla movies and a bit of the Ultraman TV show as a child, but my deep disappointment in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) – which replaced Willis O’Brien’s beautiful stop-motion creation with an actor in a lousy-looking ape costume – pretty much had me checking out of the genre for good. As a child, Godzilla movies were fine; as an adolescent, my monster movie needs were a little more demanding. (Of course, I hadn’t been able to view the uncut, Japanese version of the original Godzilla, and wouldn’t until an early-2000’s theatrical re-release. That experience won back my respect for the giant lizard.) Since then, the only Kaiju films I’ve watched are Sandy Frank-dubbed, severely edited, and filtered through the riffs of MST3K. But these days that’s less due to condescension than the fact that the product is so voluminous, its fanbase so rabid, as to make the genre seem daunting.
So I approach with an open mind and with caution, and this is what I get: an outré film even by Toho’s standards. I’m about fifteen minutes into the plot, and I realize I’m completely lost. How can this be? It’s a movie about a giant monster, and another giant monster, and they’re going to battle at some point, probably in a miniature city and then in the ocean. Quickly I hop onto Wikipedia, and discover that The War of the Gargantuas is a sequel. Aha. The original title translates as Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira. It’s a follow-up to Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), itself a Kaiju take on Mary Shelley, with a Frankenstein monster (actually a Hiroshima-radiated human grown from the heart of the original Frankenstein monster as the result of a Nazi experiment, and this makes as much sense to me as it does to you) that grows to enormous size and wrestles with a horned reptile called Baragon. Frankenstein Conquers the World gave Japanese audiences the kind of Universal Studios monster movie they’d prefer to watch; and American International Pictures dubbed it and distributed it on these shores to thoroughly confuse American audiences. The sequel, by comparison, may seem rather conventional, though it gets there by unconventional means: the Gargantuas (or “Frankensteins,” in the Japanese version) were spawned by the cells of the first film’s mutated monster. They’re Godzilla-sized, and they look like Neanderthals, only they’re covered with fur. And yes, there’s a green one, and there’s a brown one, and the green one is evil. Mr. Pitt’s memory was correct.
As with the original film, an American star was chosen to help sell the film to American audiences. Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story, The Haunting) sleepily guides us through War of the Gargantuas, with an unchanging expression that lurks somewhere between sarcastic and utterly disinterested. (He dubs his own dialogue with the demeanor of someone who’s already received his paycheck and has only 90 minutes to go before he’s rid of this project entirely.) The Japanese actors are far more engaged, including the lovely Kumi Mizuno (Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster), who shows so much warmth for her brown-furred behemoth that at one point Tamblyn’s Dr. Stewart has to remind her that Gargantua “is not a toy poodle.” Another American, fashion model and sometime actor Kipp Hamilton, belts out the ditty “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat,” before the feral Green Gargantua picks her up in its paw, lifts her high off the ground, then gets distracted by some bright lights and drops her from about fifty feet. Later Mizuno is also dropped by the Gargantua, and although she smacks straight onto some cement steps (seriously – ouch), Tamblyn doesn’t seem that concerned; he picks the unconscious girl right up and carries her off, potential spine injury be damned.
The special effects are impressive, for the most part. Although, like most Kaiju films, you’re perfectly aware at all times that these are men in monster suits, the miniature cities and forests are exquisitely detailed, and some of the optical effects work impressively, like one unexpectedly convincing shot in which the Green Gargantua stomps off past a seaside village into the ocean. The result is that the monster attacks are entertaining simply because they’re fun to look at: a favorite being a Gargantua rampage at an airport, during which the tower warns a pilot that he shouldn’t attempt a landing, and the airplane dives straight into the Gargantua’s claw anyway (I would’ve turned the plane around immediately, myself); then the monster picks up a girl, chews on her with gusto, and spits a skirt onto the ground – truly the film’s highlight. An opening scene, in which Green Gargantua fights a cool-looking giant octopus, pretty much summarizes the appeal of Kaiju in general. Still, it’s mystifying to me that director Ishirō Honda – who helmed the original Godzilla (1954) – doesn’t go to greater lengths to hide some of the film’s weaker effects and miniatures; when some toy artillery starts opening fire on Green Gargantua, the phony-looking toy soldiers seated in the jeeps are plainly, embarrassingly exposed. I’m not really complaining; this is exactly what you’d expect from a mid-60’s Japanese monster movie. And yes, the two Gargantuas do level Tokyo during a wrestling match, ultimately taking their bout into the ocean, where – for some reason – a volcano suddenly surfaces and swallows them both, which is the Kaiju equivalent of a deus ex machina. It’s 90 minutes, it goes down easy, and apparently it gave the world Brad Pitt, somehow. No, I’m not complaining, and it’s even convinced me that I should wade a bit deeper into Kaiju…mind the volcano.