Thursday, February 12, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON (1965)




When Toho goes for broke...

FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON or mayhaps FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD if you will starts off in Nazi Germany near the end of WWII. A misty, corpse-strewn battlefield makes way for an eerie laboratory full of dials and switches and tubes and flasks full of mysteriously colorful liquids. It's actually rather reminiscent of the vibrantly colored productions of Hammer from around that same time period. Nazi officers come in to confiscate the good dr. Riesendorf's experiments. The allies are advancing and this top secret experiment MUST be spirited away. Where to? Why, our good friends the Japanese, of course! The credits continue as the secret cargo is budget-consciously transported by means of a line on a map towards the Pacific. At the handover spot, a Japanese sub officer asks what the mysterious cargo could be. Maybe a person... maybe... HITLER??? No cigar, but at least a self-rolled doobie: it's the indestructible heart of Frankenstein's creature that keeps regenerating, and the nazis were trying to figure out if they could make some unkillable supersoldiers out of it. The Japanese scientist that tells us this (via a wide-eyed military officer in need of exposition) is none other than Takashi Shimura, in a two minute cameo. Why so short? Because LOL the research facility is in Hiroshima and... well...

In CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, Marvel chose to downplay the nazi element to such a degree in order to focus on Hydra and the Red Skull that Hugo Weaving's baddie ends up killing more nazis than Steve Rogers. In contrast, FRANKENSTEIN not only goes all-out with nazi imagery and mentions of Hitler, it also rather callously reminds the audience (barely two decades after the facts) that their country was in league with them, AND that they got nuked. In the prologue! Ishiro Honda was serious about this shit, man.

Cut to 1965, and hunky American doctor James Bowen (Nick Adams of ASTRO-MONSTER fame) and his colleague Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno of EBIRAH fame) are treating radiation patients in the rebuilt Hiroshima. But there is something more sinister afoot... a DEGENERATE (hilariously referred to as such in a newspaper clipping) has been wandering around the city eating cats and dogs. My grandmother would say "who would notice in China" and then I would say "shush Nonna this is Japan!" and then she would throw her hands up and run into the kitchen going "aaaahhhh!" but I'd probably get some lasagna later anyway. Curiously, this degenerate WAIF is a... a white boy? A half-caste abandoned by a prostitute, one researcher asks? NO NO a full caucasian! Who would abandon a white boy in Hiroshima... what do you think, Travis?



I think we're in a new world of gods and monsters, Luca, and these monsters are tall! The feral Caucasian child is eventually captured by Bowen and Togami and is studied for his anomalies, mainly his resistance to the radiation left behind from the Hiroshima bombing. Oh, and he happens to be growing in size at a tremendous rate until he's properly at Godzilla height. But how could that be? That... that Frankenstein heart... it couldn't have been mutated by the bombing and formed into the body of a human boy with the aid of protein intake?! Preposterous! And yet when the good doctors interview the elderly Dr. Riesendorf and that military officer who delivered the heart to Shimura, it all makes sense! I guess! Much like how KING KONG ESCAPES followed familiar beats from the original KING KONG, CONQUERS takes its version of Frankenstein on a journey similar to his classic Universal counterpart: his naive skills are tested under his caretakers; he's accidentally provoked into violence and breaks loose; he plays hide and seek with the authorities. Your basic Frankenstory stuff until OH YEAH this is a Japanese monster movie so here comes Baragon! You might recognize him from GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, and here he makes his Toho debut. It's assumed that he's probably an ancient dinosaur who burrowed deep beneath the Earth to escape extinction, but who cares because that means big Franky's gonna wrestle a big dino for the finale!

Hey everyone, it's time again for Travis's Toho Info Dump! And what a dump I got for this film! The long, winding road that eventually lead to CONQUERS could be its own blog post as the film (like the monster himself) was stitched together from years of script ideas and studio concepts, but here's the most condensed version. Toho always had an interest in a Frankenstein story, so much so that they attempted work on a never-materialized sequel for its sci-fi film THE HUMAN VAPOR where the titular character met Dr. Frankenstein. Meanwhile, American producer John Beck came to the studio with a script for KING KONG VS. FRAKENSTEIN (an idea originally conceived by KONG stop motion FX artist Willis O'Brien). Toho passed on it yet saw elements of the story they thought could be used for one of their own pictures. That “inspiration” eventually lead to KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (whose own behind the scenes story is also worthy of its own post). That movie's tremendous success prompted them to work on a script called FRANKENSTEIN VS. GODZILLA, which had the basic story of CONQUERS with Godzilla instead of Baragon. That project however stalled out, and G ended up fighting another famous monster with MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA. Soon though, US producer Henry Saperstein (who had handled the Stateside release of MvG) became intrigued by Toho's gigantic Frankenstein idea, and through a partnership between his company United Productions of America and Toho, FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON/CONQUERS THE WORLD finally was given life.

Not only was Saperstein responsible for the film's financial backing, he was also responsible for its most fascinating urban legend. The original ending as shot had Frankenstein killing Baragon and roaring triumphantly as the ground beneath them trembles and sinks. The human characters look on as Frankenstein is slowly pulled underground to his death. Saperstein however had another idea. He was apparently wowed by the giant octopus scene in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and asked director Honda at the last minute to include a giant octopus in the finale for the American release. Honda and the crew were puzzled by the decision, but they obliged and shot an entirely new scene where the mammoth marine animal randomly appears to attack Frankenstein and pull him underground to his demise. Despite Honda following through, the octopus scene was ultimately never added to either the Japanese or US version. This “lost ending” gained notoriety though as the magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND showcased black & white still images of Frankenstein and the octopus grappling each other, claiming that the film's title was FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE GIANT DEVILFISH. Of course, when CONQUERS was released and no devilfish was in sight, rumors were abound in the following years. Did Toho withhold a secret ending? Was GIANT DEVILFISH a separate Frank-film in production? What was going on? Eventually, Honda spoke on record on how UPA ordered the fishy sequence, and some subsequent VHS and DVD releases actually restored the octo-kaiju scene to the film. Man, I know I haven't given my personal thoughts yet, but there's so much going on on-screen and behind the scenes that it's hard to hold it all back!



Oh ye gods, Travis! So FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON was an early case of Jon Peters syndrome? For those of you unaware of this lovely madman, Jon Peters is a producer who, in the stop-n-start period between SUPERMAN IV and 2006's SUPERMAN RETURNS, was adamant that in his (never-to-be-realized) vision for the Man of Steel, Kal-El would fight a giant spider in the final act. This never happened, although Kenneth Branagh's villainous Dr. Arliss Loveless did find himself at the helm of a giant steampunk tarantula in 1999's WILD WILD WEST (a Jon Peters production). Let me tell you, Travis, bless Saperstein's heart! That fucking giant octopus just slithering over the mountain pass out of nowhere literally three minutes before the end of the movie (there isn't any water in sight ANYWHERE) and dragging Frankie to hell now stands as one of my favorite Toho/kaiju/tokusatsu/movie/life moments of all time. When we embarked on this journey together, this is the kind of shit I signed up for, and by gum, I'm happy it's there. Arigato, Sapurushiti-san... arigato...

It's kinda funny (okay, depending on who you ask) that Kumi Mizuno here plays a respected doctor the equal of a white man, but the year after that she was a buxom bikini island babe in EBIRAH, HORROR OF THE DEEP. Toho: they'll film whatever! At least thirty-five years later she got to be prime minister of Japan in GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA. EBIRAH was, of course, the Godzilla debut of Jun Fukuda, Toho's resident partyman and the Zack Snyder to Ishiro Honda's Christopher Nolan, so different sensibilities shouldn't come as too big of a surprise. After reviewing KING KONG ESCAPES and FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON, though, I came to a horrifying realization... Not only was Honda making Godzillas year in year out for decades, with precious few reprieve years, Toho was putting him on other such nonsense whenever he wasn't -- just the off-brand versions! Poor Honda-san... he worked with Kurosawa, you know! I'm starting to think that the hilarious still from Miyazaki docu THE KINGDOM OF DREAMS AND MADNESS wherein a wistful Hayao is captured with the English subtitle "Anime was a mistake..." could easily have been applied to Ishiro Honda as well. Just imagine the poor man staring off into the distance, a half-smoked cigarette between index and middle finger as his head rests listlessly on his hand. "Tokusatsu was a mistake..."

While FvB does very specifically address WWII (also rather shockingly and explicitly, Japan's status as an Axis nation) and the spectre of the bomb, it doesn't reach the allegorical levels of Honda's own GOJIRA. What could be to blame? Well, for starters, Frankenstein is an import monster. One of the factors that made GOJIRA such an iconic parabel of nuclear annihilation was that it was very much the product of a specific place and time -- the only place and time in history that could actually attest to having suffered nuclear attack. The society that would come from this tragedy -- and the fictional monsters it created -- was destined to tell their story their own way. Secondly, and this may seem like an on-the-nose reason, but hey, what are we dealing with here? Baragon. While Hiroshima and radiation victims are part of the film's setting, the vague anti-nuke thematic wallpaper never really coalesce into a coherent thesis statement, as was the case in GOJIRA. Frankenstein is the giant monster we created in our hubris! It'll always be back to haunt us! But also protect us from subterranean monsters! Which are just naturally occurring! Watch out, a squid! Goodbyyyeeeee Frankenstein! Anything else to add, Travis?



While Toho's Frankenstein may not be as strong of a war metaphor as Godzilla, Honda (always being the humanist in these silly monster mashes) still includes issues of scientific ethics in this movie. Specifically, even though Frankenstein is clearly a destructive mutant, he possesses a child-like mind with familiar emotions and motor skills. This causes a bit of a split among his caregivers, with Dr. Ken'ichiro Kawaji (Tadao Takashima) viewing him as an experiment that can be disassembled or even destroyed for the sake of research and Togami becoming a protective mother figure to him because she recognizes his humanity. The original Frankenstein films from Universal dealt with these topics (the question of true mortality, the danger of scientific arrogance, etc.) more directly while Toho-enstein merely uses them as flavoring for the proceedings, but never count out Honda for imbuing his kaiju with a little bit more substance.

Speaking of kaiju, though he never gained the popularity of Boris Karloff's legendary portrayal, Koji Furuhata does a fine job as the great monster for this version of the Frankenstein story. There's a rabid animalness he brings to the role that stands in contrast to the more rigid performance of Karloff. He's definitely a fun Frank to watch even if the enlarged forehead prosthetic can be a little distracting at times. And if we're bringing up cheesy SFX, I have to admit that the miniature wild hog that he hunts in the woods always makes me laugh. It's as though the FX crew randomly grabbed a plastic toy from a zoo playset and stuck it on a rod to move it around. Man, if something looks fake even in a kaiju flick, that's saying something! Luckily, the grand finale where Frankenstein and Baragon fight surrounded by a fiery forest is an impressive showstopper. Though they only have one battle together, they're pretty mean and vicious as Frank and Baragon (played by Mr. Godzilla himself Haruo Nakajima) flip each other around in the most fun, wrestling match ways. Going back to the parallels between CONQUERS and the American counterparts, Frankenfilms typically ended things in flames or explosions or whatever spectacular fashion, and here there's a goddamn inferno while Frankenstein punches a dinosaur! And in some prints, also an octopus! That's the Toho way!

Also in the same Toho fashion, there were sequels to be made! Bizarrely, Germany was already releasing “new” Frankenstein pictures in their own markets by taking Godzilla films and re-titling as Frankenstein films. Through redubbing of the characters' dialogue, Godzilla was now the original monster created by Dr. Frankenstein, and other monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah were new creations of the doctor. Think EBIRAH's only alternative title was GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER? In Germany you could watch it as FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM THE SEA! Back in Japan though, Toho made a proper follow-up to CONQUERS, yet even the connections between those two movies are little odd. Universal may have made SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, but could audiences handle the twin, monolithic sons of Frankenstein? Prepare yourselves as we're thrust into THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS!

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