Friday, October 28, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 23: War of The Gargantuas (1966)

It's pretty amazing how many sequels could be described as a straight-up remake of the first movie, but you don't realize it until you watch them multiple times. Usually it's pretty obvious when a sequel takes such an obvious route, but sometimes the change are subtle or drastic enough that you don't really catch it.

For instance, James Cameron effectively did this twice: Aliens and Terminator II: Judgment Day take the basic plot of the first film and dial the elements up to more extreme levels. You probably think I sound like one of those annoying fan theory articles or something from CinemaSins, but really consider it for a moment and you'll see that I'm right.

That is not a knock on either film, however. Sometimes more of the same actually works out beautifully, which brings us to today's film. Based on the English title you wouldn't know it and the plot doesn't actually make it all that clear, either, but this is a sequel to Frankenstein Conquers The World.

Confused? Well, you'll probably still be when I describe the film to you, but maybe slightly less so.

Despite not using it in the Japanese ending of the film, either Ishiro Honda or Eiji Tsuburaya must have been very attached to the giant octopus prop that was supposed to drag Frankenstein to his doom. I say that because this film opens with the poor creature being given a second chance at stardom. A fishing boat is caught in a storm off the coast of Japan, and as the lone crewman (Ren Yamamoto) manning the helm tries to find a way through the storm the door behind him opens and an octopus tentacle reaches through it. When the crewman sees the tentacle he grabs the nearest axe and chops it up before throwing his weight against the door. This means he doesn't see the rest of the octopus rising up out of the water and reaching into the wheelhouse windows to grab him.

If only he'd listened to the Ominous Harpsichord!
As the sailor tries not to be dragged out the window by the octopus, he screams out for his fellow crew to help him. However, suddenly the octopus loosens its grip and drops the sailor. When he peers out of the window to see why, he is greeted by a shocking sight: the octopus is engsged in combat with a hairy green giant. In the Japanese film, this creature is named Gaira and in the English version he'll be called Green Gargantua, so I'm going to call him Gaira.

Gaira eventually tosses the octopus aside and it flees. Except, well, Gaira isn't there to save the ship. He just fought off the octopus because he wanted the boat and its crew to himself, so he immediately grabs it and deliberately sinks it.

Luckily for the sailor, he survives the sinking. Unluckily, well, the police kind of think he's making up his story to hide what really happened--especially since they believe he was part of a crew of smugglers. It's understandable that they're skeptical. After all, in the English version he's claiming his boat was sunk by a Gargantua and in the Japanese version, he claims it was Frankenstein.

Yes, that is the connection to Frankenstein Conquers The World in this film and it's immediately easy to see why the English version ignored the fact it was a sequel at all, because there's not really any clear connection to the earlier film beyond the Gargantuas having the same regenerative powers as Frankenstein. Hell, based on what we'll see later I'm not even 100% sure this wasn't intended as more of a remake than a sequel.

At any rate, when the press gets wind of a boat being sunk by a Gargantua, well, they obviously call up Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) and his assistant, Akemi Togawa (Kumi Mizuno!), since they famously had a young Gargantua in captivity five years earlier. Stewart is dismissive of the claim of a Gargantua attack at first, for several good reasons, but the Japanese version delightfully renders his response to the press as:

[Subtitle: "Frankenstein cannot be found in the ocean. Goodbye."]
The best part is he's not correct.

Well, Stewart goes to visit the sailor in the hospital anyway and hears his incredible story, which we see in flashback. He and the rest of his crew swam desperately for shore after the sinking, but Gaira saw them and swam after them. Naturally, the huge beast quickly overtook them and grabbed up all the sailors except the lone survivor--and devoured them. The sailor points out a very profound truth: if he were lying, wouldn't he make up a more believable story? Well, he must feel pretty vindicated when police divers shortly recover clothes that belonged to the boat's crew scattered between the wreck and the shore, and all of them sure look like they've been chewed up and spit out.

Incidentally, the crew of that boat had fantastically awful luck, as we're told the ship sank only a few hundred meters from shore--and somehow they drew the wrath of a giant octopus and a Frankenstein monster.

At a press conference, Stewart, Akemi, and their associate Dr. Yuzo Majida (Kenji Sahara!) relate their experiences with the young Gargantua, which we see in flashback. You might think maybe this is going to be Frankenstein from the previous film and the hand somehow became Gaira, but you'd be mistaken. No, they really had a small furry humanoid that liked to play with Akemi's purse and enjoy what I think are milk bottles. Akemi asserts the young creature was gentle and could never have been responsible for such a horrific attack, even after he escaped into the mountains. Stewart agrees, but swears to keep investigating--especially since footprints were recently found in the Japanese Alps and surely the Gargantua could not be in two places at once.

Did anyone really want a Teen Wolf prequel?
However, a fishing boat snags something in their line and when the old fisherman looks into the water, he sees Gaira reaching up for him--and then both he and the other fisherman fall in. On shore, dozens of villagers try to pull their nets in but something in the water is so strong it begins to pull them in--and then suddenly Gaira rises from the water, bellowing at them. They waste no time in fleeing, even though the beast does not come ashore.

Akemi still refuses to believe the story, but Majida goes to investigate and finds something stuck to the hull of the fishing boat attacked by Gaira--a chunk of tissue. Under analysis, it's determined that it definitely belongs to a sea creature, but that doesn't rule out the possibility of some kind of mutation. Meanwhile, Akemi and Stewart find that the prints in the mountains are unmistakably those of a gigantic humanoid.

However, any question about Gaira being real is rendered moot when the beast comes ashore at an airport. The creature is about 75 feet tall and proceeds to cause a massive panic, before walking up to one of the airport buildings, seeing a woman who didn't get away from the windows in time, and smashing his way in to grab her. Unfortunately for her, this is not a King Kong situation and Gaira immediately shoves her into his mouth, then spits her chewed up dress out onto the ground.

"I should really quit eating these, but once you pop you can't stop."
Well, just too late to help her, the sun comes out from behind the heavy cloud cover. Gaira reacts to the sunlight like a hungover college kid and bolts for the ocean at a dead run. Majida arrives at the airport in time to watch Gaira leap into the ocean through binoculars.

The press gives Stewart, Akemi, and Majida a not entirely unjustified tongue lashing for this since maybe if they hadn't insisted that Gaira was not a threat the attack could have been avoided. Stewart advises that they accept the truth and the important thing is to formulate ideas about how to stop Gaira. He recommends that the creature's aversion to sunlight is helpful because they can use bright lights in populated areas to keep him from attacking.

Well, a party boat in Tokyo harbor apparently ignored get the memo because as a lounge singer (Kipp Hamilton) warbles the unforgettable tune "The Words Get Stuck In My Throat"--no really, good luck forgetting it--they dim the lights. As she takes her bows at the end of the song, Gaira promptly advances on the boat, presumably because the song harmed his ears as much as ours, and scoops the singer up. However, he does not get the chance to get her stuck in his throat because the boat lights are turned up to full and he drops her. We never do find out if she survived the fall back onto the deck.

Gaira then comes ashore, but with all the lights in Tokyo at full brightness he is driven into the countryside. The JSDF use bonfires and bright lights to try and herd Gaira away from villages and farms, but their tanks and other artillery just piss him off. One such offensive just results in Gaira picking up tanks and flinging them into houses. However, the JSDF then debuts the fan favorite Maser tanks to use against Gaira.

Look, if the Pentagon were developing Maser tanks I might not mind our bloated defense budget.
They use helicopters to lure him to a river, where the Maser cannons can shoot him. And this proves to be the one and only time the Masers were ever effective against a kaiju as they hurt Gaira a lot. After chasing him through the woods with strafing beams, he is driven to what he thinks is the safety of a river.

Surprise, motherfucker, the river has been electrified! Additionally, smaller laser projectors have been placed at shin height and they hurt him even worse. Between the electricity, the Masers, and the lasers, Gaira is quickly dying. It looks like the JSDF has finally managed to take out a kaiju with their hardware directly...

...until a roar echoes out of the mountains and the Brown Gargantua, or Sanda, charges to Gaira's rescue. Sanda is taller than his "brother" at 90 feet, and he quickly knocks out the electrodes feeding into the river. He helps Gaira up, roars at the military and waves them off, before helping Gaira into the woods and they both disappear.

"Only I get to beat up on my little brother!"
Well, Stewart and Akemi are sure that Sanda must be their little Gargantua all grown up and Stewart hypothesizes that Sanda must have somehow injured himself in a way that caused a chunk of his tissue to wash out to sea and grow into Gaira, adapting to the aquatic environment as he matured. Of course, this means the military plan to bomb the Gargantuas to smithereens as soon as they're relocated is the worst possible idea because the pieces could regenerate into thousands of Gargantuas--and they may take more after Gaira than Sanda.

Stewart and Akemi think they know where the creatures are hiding, at a nearby lake, and they prove to be right when they almost walk right into Gaira during a heavy fog. As they flee, Akemi falls off a cliff and hangs for her life from a tree branch--and before Stewart can get to her, Sanda appears and despite taking a boulder to the leg, he saves Akemi's life. This proves that Sanda is still a gentle creature and must be helping his malevolent sibling because he doesn't know the truth.

However, when Sanda finds Gaira napping off the couple he just plucked out of their romantic rowboat and devoured, next to their chewed clothes, he realizes what Gaira has done. And plucking a tree from the ground, he strikes Gaira with it in a fury. Gaira fights back but it's a brief scuffle before he decides to retreat to the ocean again, running right through the middle of multiple towns.

Unfortunately, Gaira soon comes ashore in Tokyo and Stewart realizes that the beast now associates light with easy food. Luckily for humanity, Sanda isn't done with Gaira and the two confront each other in Tokyo, and after Gaira almost eats Akemi before Sanda comes to her rescue, well, that's the last straw. Nobody hurts Sanda's mother figure and gets away with it...

Don't get me wrong, I love Frankenstein Conquers The World, but I have to say that War of the Gargantuas takes the same basic story and makes some drastic improvements on it--which is why I earlier stated that a sequel that is essentially the same movie as the first is not always a negative.

By virtue of this film's structure, we get a lot more time with the actual villainous kaiju whose predations the good kaiju is being blamed for, and Gaira is also a much better villain than Baragon because he is not cute. He's a horrible green troll with crooked teeth and canines that just out like tusks. There is zero risk of mistaking him for a puppy. Even his roar is kind of terrifying, though ti does oddly sound like he's shouting, "Shit!" at times, which can be inadvertently hilarious.

Additionally, Sanda is somehow a much more engaging character than Frankenstein was. The fact that he has a much better roar may have something to do with it, and his design is much more compelling. Both of the Gargantuas are great designs--I love how they seem to just be hairy humanoids at first glance, but they also have the suggestion of scales under their fur which just adds another layer of mystery to them.

Then there's the climactic showdown where the two monsters battle each other in Tokyo. It's an amazing monster fight with some top-notch miniature work. We see them smashing throuigh buildings until finally they plunge into Tokyo Bay and continue fighting in the water. The film even kind of improves in the inexplicable geological events department, as rather than declare a clear victor, the film decides to have them both perish when a combination of their fighting and the bombs dropped on them from the JSDF causes an undersea volcano to rise out of Tokyo Bay, ala the opening of Gorgo, and consume them both. It still makes no sense, but it's a hell of a lot more acceptable than the ground just giving up and collapsing under Frankenstein.

Where the film does not improve, unfortunately, is in its token gaijin. I'm not actually sure why the film cast Russ Tamblyn in the lead instead of Nick Adams, since this was before Adams's tragic death, but it's possible he was busy or they intended to switch things up. Unfortunately, while Russ Tamblyn is not a bad replacement, he lacks the easy rapport Adams had with his costars. Adams made you believe he understood them and was playing off their lines, while Tamblyn feels like he's just waiting for his costars to finish their lines so he can say his.

However, the rest of the cast--particularly Kumi Mizuno and Kenji Sahara--ably help to carry the picture. And of course Haruo Nakajima as Gaira and Yu Sekida as Sanda deserve a lot of credit for bringing great life to the Gargantuas.

I'm far from the first to sing this film's praises, but if you're a kaiju fan and you haven't seen it, you simply must rectify that at once.

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