Tuesday, October 11, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 6: Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965)

One of the main reasons I love kaiju films is the willingness to go all out for a truly gonzo concept. Sure, Hollywood monster movies will take the occasional surreal concept, but few are willing to go for it in the way that Japanese monster movies will.

Today's film is one such gonzo concept: a movie where the still-beating heart of Frankenstein's monster is reconstituted into a living creature, thanks to being present at the bombing of Hiroshima, and then grows to gigantic size and then gets blamed for the predatory actions of a surviving dinosaur before facing it down in battle. I mean, surely this is precisely what Mary Shelley had in mind when she first put pen to paper.

At first glance it would seem shocking that this film is directed by Ishiro Honda, who just over ten years earlier had used Godzilla to play up the horrors of Hiroshima and nuclear weapons, yet here Hiroshima is essentially just the monster's origin story. I mean, put the way I just did it sounds like an American film where the destruction of the World Trade Center uncovered the tomb of Dracula. However, you'd be surprised to find that Honda finds a way to make sure this film does not minimize the horrors of what happened at Hiroshima whilst also setting the stage for a kaiju wrestling match.

I should also point out that this film was co-produced by an American company, UPA, who would have some involvement in the US distribution of several films in Toho's catalog. Hilariously, UPA originally intended the film to have Frankenstein fight two monsters, but after the second monster's appearance was filmed with the American market in mind, UPA decided to go with the Japanese ending instead. Luckily, that original ending was very well preserved and in 2007 Media Blasters was able to release the film on DVD with the option to view the film with its original, surreal ending.

Of course, that ignores the fact that both endings of this film are pretty damn weird.

In the waning days of World War II, things are naturally not going so well for Germany. So it's not shocking that when we open in a lab filled with beakers of colored liquid somewhere in Nazi territory, the surrounding countryside is being hit hard by allied bombardment. In the lab is one Dr. Riesendorf (Peter Mann), and he is despondent when several Nazi troops arrive to take away the case containing a heart floating in a jar of liquid. A heart that still beats as if it were alive. Despite Riesendorf's silent objection, and the lab-wrecking tantrum he throws after they leave, the troops follow their orders and escort the case out of the lab. A German U-Boat takes the case to the Pacific, where it makes its rendezvous with a Japanese submarine to exchange the heart.

An Allied plane has spotted the two subs and begun bombing them. The Japanese sub submerges and escapes, but the German boat is not so lucky. The sub's captain Kawai (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is stunned, wondering what could be in the case that the Germans would consider so valuable as to sacrifice a submarine for. He gets his answer when he delivers the case to a to a military lab in Hiroshima and sees the heart inside the case before he departs. The scientist explains that it is Frankenstein's heart* and it can never die.

[* Look, for the rest of this review just know that when I say Frankenstein, I mean the monster]

Unfortunately, the plans the Japanese military had for using the heart to learn how to regenerate any part of the body are not to be. Just as the scientists begin to set up their equipment to study the heart, the atomic bomb lands in the city and obliterates the lab.

We catch up with Hiroshima fifteen years later, at the Hiroshima International Institute of Radiotherapentics [sic]. I think they meant "therapeutics" but we'll let it go. Dr. James Bowen (Nick Adams) is one of the lead doctors at the institute, studying the effects of radiation on the population many years after the bomb. He is assisted by Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) and Dr. Ken'ichiro Kawaji (Tadao Takashima). We are introduced to him as he receives a gift from a dying patient, an embroidered pillow she put her last bit of effort into. Bowen is strongly discouraged by the lack of success he has had in helping his patients.

However, his luck is soon going to change, though he doesn't know it yet. For one night, Sueko sees a strange boy (Sumio Nakao) run off into the night, pursued by an old man who tells her the boy killed his dog and ran off with it in order to eat it. And in a local school the next day, children are horrified to discover a dismembered rabbit in their classroom. That night, Bowen meets Sueko at her apartment for dinner and he confesses to her that he is thinking of returning to America when they hear the sound of an accident outside. It turns out to be a cab driver who hit a strange boy, and who instantly drives off when he sees the boy's face. Sueko recognizes the lad and tells Bowen it was the one she saw earlier. She tosses a bag of food to the boy and then he departs into the rain.

However, when Bowen and Sueko are walking on the beach a few days later, the stumble upon some locals and police who have trapped the boy in a cave. Bowen convinces them to let Sueko lure the boy out and he is taken to their Institute. There, at a press conference, Bowen reveals to the press that there are several strange things about this boy: one, he's Caucasian and two, his body has absorbed a strong amount of radiation but seems to be building up a resistance to it. The press point out that the boy appears too young to have been alive during the bombing and Bowen explains that he called the conference to see if he can find out anything about the boy's background.

Meanwhile, at the Akita oil fields, we find that Kawai now makes his living working in the oil factory office. As he discusses the story of the boy found in Hiroshima, his coworker asks about the story he used to tell about a heart he saw in Hiroshima that kept beating. Kawai laughs and says the heart must have been destroyed by the blast. However, the site is then hit by an unusual earthquake. It's unusual for two reasons. One, it seems as though it is caused by something big moving under the ground. Secondly, Kawai and his comrades momentarily catch sight of a reptilian head with a glowing horn peeking out of a crack in the ground before a falling tower obscures their view.

Frankensstein, for his part, has grown into a teenager (Koji Furuhata). He also shows rather violent tendencies when startled, like throwing a TV out a window when someone screams on it, and he violently grabs Sueko when he wants her pretty necklace. Bowen reacts to this by hitting the lad with a stool (!) but the boy eventually calms. However, both Sueko and Bowen are concerned by the boy's mysterious growth and soon are forced to move him to a facility on campus that acts like a cage. By this time the lad is easily over seven feet tall if not more.

Frankenstein Goes To The Spa was when Hammer knew it was time to give up the franchise.
The institute is increasingly concerned about what to do with the boy. Luckily, they get two lucky breaks: one, a report about an officer at any army hospital who saw a strange toddler running around the abandoned hospital a few years after the bombing. And then Kawai arrives to tell them the story of how he personally delivered the heart of Frankenstein to that very hospital. The heart was suspended in a liquid protein, as he understands it, and was intended to be used to create undying cells.

Ordinarily I might scoff at how quickly the scientists take him at his word, but then again they do have a gigantic teenager in a cage just down the way who won't stop growing. (There's also a strong possibility that Frankenstein is just an accepted part of history in this film's universe, and much of the dialogue would support that reading) Kawaji follows this lead to Frankfurt, Germany where the aged Dr. Riesendorf explains the story of how they discovered that not only is the heart undying, but as long as protein is supplied to its system, Frankenstein can regenerate lost limbs and, indeed, its severed limbs will also survive and grow if provided protein. Riesendorf suggests that they can determine if the boy is really Frankenstein by cutting off his arms or legs and seeing if they grow back.

Bizarrely, Kawaji thinks the sadistic advice of a former Nazi scientist would be a great idea to implement and Bowen oddly seems to think it is a great idea, too! Of course, Sueko has already noticed that the chains on the boy's wrists are cutting into his flesh, but she is just as reasonably opposed to the idea as anyone ought to be. Bowen decides they should hold off because obviously the result if they're wrong would be monstrous.

However, while Sueko and Bowen have dinner, Kawaji sneaks into the facility with the intent to cut off one of Frankenstein's limbs. However, he's interrupted by a film crew barging in and shining bright lights into Frankenstein's eyes. The enraged creature breaks down the bars of his cell and crushes several of the crew beneath it. Bowen is called in and advises Sueko to stay put. Bowen the devises a plan to recapture Frankenstein, but police simply barge in and shoot at the creature. Frankenstein breaks out of the wall and escapes into the night. He pays a visit to Sueko at apartment, revealing him to now be at least twenty feet tall, and she urges him to run away before he's killed.

"Man, this big screen TV window is awesome!"
Trying to determine how Frankenstein got loose when his chains are intact, two curious officials discover it's because he severed his left hand--and the hand is still alive and crawling towards a barrel of food. Bowen and Kawaji quickly get the hand into a protein fluid bath, hoping they can keep it alive for study.

Frankenstein, meanwhile, has been busy eating animals and cattle from Okayama to Osaka. He terrifies a pleasure boat when he surfaces in a lake ahead of them, now revealing himself to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 feet tall. Unfortunately, the military has decided Frankenstein is to be killed, which Kawaji accepts as inevitable and acceptable now that they have his hand for study. Shame, then, that the hand escapes from its fluid bath and dies before it can be recovered.

Frankenstein continues to accidentally wreak havoc in search of food, such as  crushing a hut when he throws a tree to try and catch a bird and accidentally catching a JSDF tank in a pit trap he digs for a wild boar. Still, Bowen is convinced that now Frankenstein must be saved because of the importance he has to science. Bowen thinks he has an idea of where Frankenstein might go: a climate in Japan more similar to Frankfurt.

Unfortunately, about this time at a mountain resort, something bursts out of the mountainside. It's revealed to be a giant dinosaur, later christened Baragon, with a glowing horn on its nose and huge floppy ears. Baragon immediately destroys the resort and devours everyone there, which the military naturally blames on Frankenstein even though Kawaji points out that there is no way the boy could have made it the 65 miles from his last known location to that area in the time between the attack and his last sighting.

"Boy, these tiny hairless apes aren't very filling, but they sure are easy to catch!"
We know where this is headed, of course. As Baragon rampages across the countryside, Frankenstein gets closer to the creature's position so that the blame for Baragon's attacks becomes easier to pin on Frankenstein. As Kawaji plans to find a way to preserve a part of Frankenstein before he is killed, Kawai seeks the heroes out to tell them about his sighting of a creature at the Akita earthquake. Unfortunately, nobody in a position of authority believes Kawai's story.

However, just as they are running out of the money they need to stay and search for him, our heroes figure out where Frankenstein is after he takes the food they've left for him. Kawaji thinks he hears Frankenstein approaching in the incoming fog and advises he intends to use a flashbomb to blind the boy and then cut his brain and heart out for preservation. Sueko and Bowen barely have time to be horrified before Kawaji finds out that he greatly misjudged which monster was waiting for him after his flashbomb draws Baragon up from the ground.

Bowen helps Kawaji to throw all his flashbombs at the dinosaur, but it's no use and Sueko accidentally gets left behind as the others flee. As Baragon looms over Sueko, intent on devouring her, Frankenstein rushes to her rescue and the battle between the giants is on.

"Bad dog! I told you never to jump on the guests!"
Now, there's a few issues with the climax of this film. For one thing, Baragon possesses a red flame breath that we see he is able to use to blast apart rock for easier burrowing but it is utterly useless against Frankenstein. Hell, his flame breath is so weak that the roaring forest fire that their final bout plays out in front of is caused by Frankenstein and not Baragon.

That's a minor issue. The major issue is that this film wildly miscalculates which monster we will find sympathetic.

We're supposed to root for Frankenstein since he's a tragic, human monster that destroys because he can't help it and Baragon is a ferocious predator that causes deliberate destruction. However, the creature designers for this film made a grave error when creating the monsters.

Frankenstein is just a more bestial--and sprightly!--version of the monster we've seen many times before. There's nothing in his design that sparks automatic sympathy, aside from the simple virtue of him being human. He also growls like a jaguar that has an upset stomach and a sore throat, which quickly renders him very annoying to listen to. Baragon, on the other hand, is not only unlike any prior movie dinosaur I can think of--he is absolutely, 100% adorable. He looks like a French bulldog, an armadillo, and a lizard got spliced together and it is utterly impossible to take him seriously as a threat. Generally speaking it's a bad idea to make your villain more adorable than your hero, and that is definitely true here since it makes Frankenstein look worse for fighting him!

I think it's largely the fault of those big floppy ears. I think they were intended to make Baragon look bat-like and they do lend him quite a lot of expression--but they also make him the cutest kaiju ever.

"Who wants to adopt me?"
And then, well, we have to discuss the ending. Both of them.

Since Frankenstein is intended to be a tragic monster, it won't do to have him happily walk off into the sunset after killing Baragon. However, it is inexplicably decided that the fight needs to have him be the unambiguous winner. (Boo! Hiss!) So, in the ending used by the Americans and Japanese, Frankenstein growls in victory as he stands over his opponent's corpse--only for the ground to slowly collapse beneath him so that he sinks out of sight. The heroes declare him dead (!) and then wonder if maybe he isn't better off that way.

Right, did you lot forget that your boy is functionally immortal thanks to his heart?

At any rate, when UPA was working with Toho to co-produce this film, they envisioned it as Frankensetin vs. The Giant Devilfish and you might notice that Baragon is neither a fish nor a devilfish, which usually describes an octopus. Well, that title was originally to have been much more accurate than you might think, as UPA wanted Frankenstein to end the American cut of the film by grappling with an octopus--and thankfully Media Blasters was able to include this cut of the film on their DVD as the "International Version."

For as inexplicable as the final ending is, the original ending intended for US audiences was even moreso.

For, in this ending, Frankenstein lifts the body of his vanquished foe above his head and then throws it off a cliff--only to suddenly notice a giant octopus crawling toward him over the rocks. Frankenstein grapples with the beast until it snares him in its tentacles and then drags him to the nearby lake that I would swear was not there a minute ago. Frankenstein is pulled into the water and then dragged beneath the surface by the octopus.

This is certainly an unusual remake of Oldboy.
Well then. The oft-repeated story usually goes that the American distributors passed on the octopus ending because the prop octopus was too silly, but I highly doubt that was the reason for rejecting it. Clearly the issue was that the ending managed to make even less sense than the Earth just deciding to swallow Frankenstein up right at that moment.

I don't dispute that the giant octopus ending is ridiculous, but my God is it ever fun.

Though, really, this is a pretty delightful film with or without the giant cephalopod. I mean, as much as I mock the film's Frankenstein for being less cool than Baragon, it's still pretty awesome that the creature is rendered here as an undying heart regenerating into a gigantic monster. There are a lot of obvious ways that a story could center on a kaiju-sized Frankenstein's monster, so I obviously appreciate they took a more unusual route with it than simply trying to retell the usual Frankenstein story, but big.

The film also moves along at a nice clip, with barely any scenes that drag. The cast is also great, especially Kumi Mizuno as the conflicted heroine who recognizes the danger Frankenstein poses but wants to help him and Nick Adams doing a great job bringing a lot of warmth to his role despite largely being asked to be the standard stern white American hero. Mizuno and Adams have wonderful chemistry together as well, as they would in the same year's Monster Zero (or Invasion of Astro-Monster if you prefer the official international title).

If you love kaiju films and have not seen this, I definitely recommend seeking it out if you can. It's a great romp and even though it's largely a serious film it isn't scared to be silly at times. After all, in one scene Baragon attacks the fakest toy horse you can imagine. Famously, Ishiro Honda supposedly asked special effects director Eiji Tsubaraya why he opted to use a model horse instead of simply super-imposing footage of a real horse and Tsubaraya replied, "This way is more fun."

If that doesn't sell you on this film, I don't know what will.
Yes, this is just here because Kumi Mizuno is so pretty.

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