21 October 2008

Movie Review: War of the Gargantuas

It took long enough, but DVD companies have at last started to serve fans of live-action Japanese special effects movies—specifically giant monster movies—by releasing the classics in widescreen subtitled versions, often with extras. The dubbed versions are usually available on the same disc, but I have no problem with this since many children watch these films and they would never get through a subtitled version. Kids need to get hooked on Godzilla at a young age with the easy to understand dubbed versions, and when they’re old enough they’ll appreciate having the subtitled version available so they can graduate to adult fan-hood.

Classic Media has spearheaded the monster revival with their superior DVD releases. They recently produced a two-disc double feature of two giant monster classics from director Ishiro Honda: Rodan and War of the Gargantuas. Both films deserve extensive treatment, so I’ll tackle them in separate posts.

First up, a pair of smelly hairy giant gorillas go at it over whether humans are tasty or not in . . .

War of the Gargantuas (1966)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Starring Russ Tamblyn, Kenji Sahara, Kumi Mizuno, Jun Tazaki

I adored giant monster films from a young age, so I had encountered War of the Gargantuas more than once on a Saturday afternoon or during a Thanksgiving Day Monster Marathon. At the time I didn’t care much for it; I preferred saurian, non-humanoid monsters like Godzilla and Gamera, and these shaggy ogres didn’t capture my interest. Plus, I found some of its scenes a touch too scary, something I wasn’t used to in Japanese monster movies. The green gargantua chewing up a woman and then spitting out the inedible parts really unnerved me as a young ‘un. Now I wonder how nimble the gargantua’s teeth must need to be to pull off a stunt like that. He could probably give Teller good competition with his swallowing-and-linking-pins trick.

Today I can appreciate the picture as one of the better monster-mashes from director Ishiro Honda and effects director Eiji Tsubaraya, the legendary team that created the majority of Toho Studio’s special effects pictures (tokusatsu), starting with the original Godzilla. War of the Gargantuas is a busy and action-packed film with some great orgies of special effects and one terrific city-smashing finale. Honda works in his trademark humanism and concern for the lives people affected by the crisis, and Tsubaraya unleashes some unusually scary monster work that sets the film apart from many of his others—especially his child-friendly TV series Ultraman. Tsubaraya liked to aim his monster fights toward children—he was one of the primary forces behind making Godzilla more lovable and heroic—but he swung the opposite direction here.

Seeing the film subtitled has helped my re-appreciation of it, although there are a few reasons to look into the UPA-produced dubbed version. American actor Russ Tamblyn—in a part originally meant for Tab Hunter—read all his lines in English on the set and it’s his voice you hear in the American version, so you only get the true effect of his performance in the dubbed cut. (The same is true for Nick Adams in Invasion of Astro-Monster, although Tamblyn doesn’t project anywhere near the charisma of Adams.) The American version also disguises that War of the Gargantuas is a sequel to the previous year’s Frankenstein Conquers the World (a.k.a. Frankenstein vs. Baragon). The Japanese title of the film, Furankenshutain no Kaiju: Sanda tai Gaira, translates as “Frankenstein Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira.” The U.S. title and the dubbing removes all direct references to the first film, and you won’t hear anyone talking about Frankenstein Monsters. However, you will in my review, since I’m specifically reviewing the Japanese version. Because the DVD also includes the U.S. version, I’ll take a fast swing by that cut at the end of the review.

Before I continue, I’ll briefly turn the floor over to an expert on Japanese fantasy films, Stuart Galbraith IV, quoting from his book Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films:
Next to the original Godzilla, this was probably the most influential kaiju eiga [giant monster film] for Japanese audiences—at the time it was considered horrifying—and its influence can be seen in films as recent as Gamera—The Guardian of the Universe (1995).
So I wasn’t alone as a little kid in finding this film a bit unsettling. Japanese giant monsters almost never directly menace the human population—they generally ignore the humans fleeing from them and impersonally knock down private property. And they certainly don’t eat folks. War of the Gargantuas pulled a change-up on that theme.

The horror angle of the film starts with the first scene. A pilot of a ship in a storm gets attacked by a giant octopus whose grotesque tentacles reach into the pilot house windows and entangle him. But a green hairy giant wrestles away the octopus. Hurray! He then sinks the ship, and as we find out from the only survivor, eats the crew. Boo!

The delirious survivor identifies the creature as “Frankenstein.” (The film doesn’t distinguish between the doctor or the monster, so I’ll just mention it once and then forget about it.) The only Frankenstein Monster known to exist died at Mt. Fuji in the previous movie, and the scientists who raised him when he was small n’ cuddly and disturbingly similar to an Ewok are darn certain their nice giant monster would never hurt or eat people—and he doesn’t live in the sea. Makes his fur all smelly. Our trio of scientists, Dr. Stewart (Tamblyn), Dr. Mimiya (Sahara, the most ubiquitous kaiju eiga actor of all time), and Dr. Akemi Kida (Mizuno, who co-starred three times with Nick Adams in other Japanese films) look into the strange appearances, hoping their sweet Frankenstein Monster isn’t behind the mayhem.

Director Honda, who co-authored the screenplay, shows his humanism in the scientists’ concern, especially Akemi’s, for preserving the creature’s life. Monsters were never just monsters to Ishiro Honda, never merely an excuse to smash buildings. Unfortunately, the chemistry between the human cast doesn’t work as well here as it did in Frankenstein Conquers the World, so some of Honda’s Sympathy-for-Frankenstein scenes don’t play as well as they should.

The real “human” core of the film is bizarrely the creatures. It turns out there are two Frankenstein Monsters—both the English and Japanese titles give that away—the second who grew from the cells of the first that flowed into the ocean. Gaira is green, mean, and lives in the sea, while brown Sanda is a more pastoral fellow who enjoys long mountain hikes. Sanda is meant to be the Frankenstein Monster from Frankenstein Conquers the World, although he looks nothing like the non-shaggy humanoid in that film. Sanda at first helps out his “clone” brother Gaira, then turns against him when Gaira makes snacks out of some boaters. The interaction between the two is touching: Sanda washing off Gaira’s wounds at a lake, wordlessly pleading with him to rein in his violence, and the tragedy of the inevitable confrontation between the two.

When Gaira makes landfall at Haneda Airport, audiences get to see how speedy and agile these monsters are; this is a shift from the trudging saurian creatures in the Godzilla series. This is also the scene that petrified me as a kid, when Gaira munches down on some poor women he pulls from an office in the airport—something else you’d never see Godzilla do.

Another aspect of the Frankenstein Monsters that sets them apart from other Toho kaiju is their vulnerability to weapons. They have to rely on their speed and stealth because the normally ineffectual military devices do real damage to them. Gaira catches on fire during a tank attack, which can’t have been a comfortable situation for suit actor Haruo Nakajima (the man who also played Godzilla more times than any other suit actor).

The Frankenstein Monsters are up against some famous military-tech this time. The Japanese Self-Defense Force, which only exists to fight giant monsters, pulls out the most iconic of kaiju-super-tech to battle the new giant urban-stompers: the mazers, mobile laser beams mounted on trucks and focused through satellite dish-shaped mirrors. The footage of the mazers firing on the monsters would show up again and again (and again and again) in the 1970s monster films as stock footage. Almost the entirety of the JASDF repulsing Anguirus’s shore-landing in Godzilla vs. Gigan is borrowed footage of the mazers firing down from the ridge at Gaira.

This attack on Gaira in the mountain forest shows the JASDF using clever tactics, and effects wizard Tsubaraya lets loose with some colorful laser blasts as the combination of mazers, ground lasers, and an electrified river almost defeat the monster. Nakajima delivers a great physical performance inside the Gaira suit, which allows him to emote much better than in some of the more cumbersome outfits he had to wear during his long career as Toho’s top monster performer.

But it’s the finale where the special effects team really gets to show what they were capable of during the height of the kaiju-craze. Gaira enters Tokyo, looking for a snack, and Sanda comes to stop him and get the titular war going. I can’t objectively critique these last fifteen minutes: they deliver the sort of giant monster pleasures that run electric shocks up and down my spine and make me ten years old again. The two monsters smash buildings, use freighters as weapons, and wallop each other in a frenzy while the JASDF pounds them with tanks and lasers. Composer Akira Ifukube orchestrates it all with a soundtrack that switches from military marches to ponderous horror themes. It’s one of the great kaiju finales.

So we’ve got horror and excitement in plentiful amounts, but this is also a garish kaiju film, so there’s going to be some comedy as well. The hilarious highlight is American performer Kipp Hamilton’s screeching out the swingin’ tune “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” with a Burt Bacharach-style trumpet blaring wildly. Gaira even kindly waits for her to finish singing this kitsch classic before trying to chow down on her.

Like any Japanese fantasy film of the period, certain plot strands never develop and a few things just don’t make much sense. Light at first repels Gaira, but later attracts him. If Gaira needs humans to survive, what does Sanda live on? What’s the real relationship between Dr. Stewart and Dr. Kida? The talk about “immortal cells” references the first movie, but doesn’t connect to anything here. And the sudden appearance of a volcano to solve the problem of dueling hairy monsters sounds as if the studio couldn’t think of any other way to end the movie.

However, it doesn’t take much to please me in the kaiju department, and War of the Gargantuas goes above and beyond what it takes.

The U.S. Version: Although Furankenshutain no kaiju: Sanda tai Gaira came out in Japan in 1966 and the American company UPA (the studio behind Mr. Magoo and Gerald Mc Boing Boing) co-financed the film with an established American actor in the lead, the dubbed War of the Gargantuas would not reach stateside screens until 1970, on a double bill with another delayed film, the Godzilla epic Invasion of Astro-Monster (re-titled Monster Zero). The reason for the delay has never been satisfactorily explained, and UPA head Henry G. Sapirstein always gave evasive answers about his dilatoriness. Most likely Sapirstein had difficulty getting a distributor; his previous relationship with American International Pictures dried up at this time. He eventually with through a smaller distributor, Maron Films, and the movies hit the drive-in circuit until moving onto syndicated TV and Thanksgiving Day Marathons and late-night movies.

As dubs go, it’s fine. You get Russ Tamblyn’s actual voice, although he acts rather bored. Tamblyn is a fine actor; you only have to watch his performance in 1963’s The Haunting to know that, but he didn’t have the same interest in the material or connection with his co-stars that Nick Adams had. He does deliver some humorous lines that aren’t transposed to the Japanese version, such as remarking that the kids who thought they saw the Frankenstein monster “were on a bad LSD trip,” and claiming that he called the SPCA as a last resort to stop the army from blowing Sanda’s brown butt to high heaven.

Another reason to watch the U.S. version is that its print on the DVD is superior to the Japanese one. It has a few scratches, but it’s a brighter and sharper. This surprised me, since on all the other DVD releases from Classic Media, the Japanese version looks far better.

The only serious transgression the U.S. version commits against the Japanese original is the removal of composer Akira Ifukube’s powerful “Mesa March” and replacing it with a track of staccato stock music that plays over and over and over again until it reaches hilarious/maddening levels. I will never understand why some American distributors thought it would help the film if they cut out Ifukube’s awesome music and replaced it with whatever they could get their hands on. It’s not as bad here as in King Kong vs. Godzilla—where almost all of Ifukube’s music was jettisoned—but it’s annoying and unnecessary.

Read the review for Rodan here.