Monday, February 23, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966)

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TRAVIS:

In our review of FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARGAON, we talked about its fabled lost ending of Frankenstein grappling with a giant octopus that was added due to US producer Henry Saperstein's insistence. Though the tentacled beast didn't make the final cut, Saperstein still had octo-fever for the sequel, and thus THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (or FRANKENSTEIN'S MONSTERS: SANDA VS. GAIRA in Japan) opens with the monstrous sea creature attacking a ship. But he ain't the only danger from the depths as he's soon dispensed by Gaira, a green, hairy humanoid of Godzilla-like proportions. He soon starts to make appearances on land, knocking over buildings and grabbing helpless humans to chow down on. The military responds and almost have him against the ropes with the use of the Maser Cannons (the laser-heat weapons that make their Toho debut here and would later appear throughout the Godzilla franchise). Gaira's nearly about to meet a bloody, roasty death when suddenly another Gargantua pops up to save him! Sanda (the taller, brown brother of Gaira) rescues Gaira from being killed, but after he revives his green sibling, he discovers that 'lil bro has been feasting on people, and that doesn't make him happy at all! And so the third act lives up to the film's title as Sanda and Gaira wrestle and toss each other around from the forests to the cities to the seas in this war of the gargantuas!

Though it's typically acknowledged that this is a sequel to FvB, GARGANTUAS itself doesn't make this quite clear when watching it. Various plot synopses always say that Sanda and Gaira were formed from the discarded cells of Frankenstein, yet no one in the film states this outright. In fact, the only direct reference to FvB made is in a scene shot only for the American version where a character mentions the disembodied yet still animated hand that fell off of Frankenstein. Otherwise, with all the talk throughout GARGANTUAS about how the monsters' cells could regenerate into new monsters, we're left to guess about the continuity between the two movies. It's probably made even more confusing as both films feature the same type of scientist protagonists: a Japanese doctor willing to side with the military's decisions, a female doctor with a maternal instinct for the heroic creature, and a Caucasian doctor who acts as a mediator between the two of them. Heck, Kumi Mizuno even plays the lady role in both flicks even though they're different characters! If all this is rattling your brain, try to think of the relationship between FvB and GARGANUAS like the one between Ang Lee's HULK and the Marvel cinematic universe-focused INCREDIBLE HULK: the sequel has passing acknowledgment of the first one yet softly reboots to tell its own story.

And if that still has your head swirling, just focus on the outstanding performance of Haruo Nakajima as Gaira. Nakajima is of course most famous for his iconic work as the original (and longest running) Godzilla suit actor in the G-series, but he also portrayed many other kaiju in his career as well as performed regular human bit parts and stunt work in more “reputable” films (try to spot him as a bandit in Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI!) Aside from the King of the Monsters, Gaira is his best role, showing a violent ferocity that really makes Gaira a kaiju to be hated. He grabs defenseless women to snack on and doesn't give a crap! How malicious! Credit is also due to Yu Sekida for his fine job as the docile Sanda. I really enjoy the scene where Sanda finds bloodied human clothes next to the resting Gaira, and Gaira barely gives him a shrug about Sanda's angry bewilderment over this horrific discovery. As they say, it's not Shakespeare, but Nakajima and Sekida are great at conveying such emotions in their silly creature suits. Did the offspring of Frankenstein impress you, Luca?

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LUCA:

At this point I don’t even think it’s a matter of “soft rebooting” as much as it is the screenwriters not really giving a shit from movie to movie. As you say, Travis, Mizuno Kumi is a doctor who seems to have had a history with Frankenstein, but she is NOT Dr. Togami from BARAGON, as she is called Akemi here. Her repeated implorations that the military take care not to hurt Sanda, aka the original Frankenstein (as he is a gentle creature that she knows well… somehow) also bump into some continuity headaches, since “retreating into the mountains” isn’t exactly what Frankenstein did at the end of last movie – and that’s even if we discount the amazing devil fish finale. Yes, we are in definite Showa IDGAF territory here, where sequels of movies were based solely on the previous entry’s revenue and not planned ahead by franchise-minded studios. Mind you, I’m sure Toho was franchise-minded as hell, but they’d just give the go-ahead to whatever did well in any given month, it seems. In this day and age of blockbuster universe-building it’s quite fascinating to see a sequel script written by someone who apparently only saw the previous film months ago, perhaps while on medication and while road works were being performed outside.

Russ Tamblyn! That’s probably the biggest Hollywood name after Raymond Burr Toho ever got their hands on! Even though he takes on the role of “international audience draw” previously inhabited by Nick Adams in BARAGON, the actors actually both give a very different interpretation of “concerned, well-educated white man”. Though Tamblyn gets to be a bit more of a man of action than Adams, attempting to save Akemi as she dangles from a cliff in a scene rather reminiscent of the old 1933 KING KONG, there is a bit more of an academic edge to him than his predecessor exuded. Adams seemed a dashing doctor in the field, whereas Tamblyn gave me the impression of being a scruffy academic. This is probably because Adams looks like a bit of a Captain America, whereas skinny, curly-haired Tamblyn in his oversized lab coat looks basically like pre-serum Steve Rogers. He’s a bit of a smug bastard too, whereas Adams seemed to genuinely want to help people. This might of course be the result of Adams getting a proper introductory scene consisting of day-to-day activity at his Hiroshima hospital, whereas Tamblyn gets thrown in the thick of it as the audience POV follows Gaira rather than the humans at the start.

Speaking of Gaira, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS has a whopper of a sentence – most every Toho movie I’ve seen so far has included a sentence (or more) that is just so full of nonsense yet spoken with a straight face and thereby completely encapsulates the silliness of kaiju movies. In WAR’s case, this would be the following radio dispatch: “Attention! The Minister of Defense has decreed that the sea-Frankenstein will now be called GAIRA, while the mountain-Frankenstein will be called SANDA!” I’m just picturing a slow adult informed that two Frankensteins are attacking the nation he is the defense minister of, and his first concern is that people won’t be able to separate the two. One being green and one being brown is just not enough dammit! Travis, were you at any point confused between the two gargantuas/Frankensteins/please-use-either-at-your-convenience-cuz-the-movie-sure-does?

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TRAVIS:

Me being the kaiju fan, of course I had no problem properly identifying the gargantuas. Heck, I remember watching DESTROY ALL MONSTERS as a kid and getting mad that the English dub misnamed Baragon as the one attacking Paris when we clearly see Gorosaurus tearing down the Arc de Triomphe. Keep your monsters straight, people! Brad Pitt apparently didn't remember Sanda or Gaira's names, but they certainly left an impression on him! During the 2012 Oscars telecast, the program ran a montage of famous stars reminiscing about their most memorable movie watching moments. When it was Pitt's turn, he recalled seeing a film (“The Gargantuas” was his best guess at its title) where the good gargantua sacrificed himself to defeat the bad gargantua. So yes, fans of Brad across the world, you have Nakajima and Sekida to thank for inspiring him to be an actor.

Going back to the comparisons between GARGANTUAS and FvB, though I do like both movies, my choice narrowly edges towards Sanda and Gaira. Though Koji Furuhata gives a fine performance as Frankenstein and I always enjoy seeing Baragon in action, Nakajima and Sekida are simply too much fun to watch here. Especially when the wrasslin' starts as they really go at it since they're not constricted by clunky, stiff monster costumes. They even toss friggin' battleships at each other! Also, while FvB can be a fun grab bag of a Frankenstein tale, a Baragon flick, and whatever octopuses they can throw in, GARGANTUAS is a more traditional and collected story (as silly as it still is) that I can sit down and comfortably watch. Now, this is all personal preference, and as we've seen with the Godzilla films, there's a wide spectrum of tones for any viewer's accommodation. So if you enjoy the crazier FvB to the more conventional GARGANTUAS, go right ahead! It's all a fun monster mash!

However, I will concede that FvB is stronger than GARGANTUAS on two points. First, though you Luca read Tamblyn as an academic lead, I just find him boring. Say what you will about Adams and his “colorful” acting in FvB and ASTRO-MONSTER, but it fits in well with the genre, and he simply seems more at ease with the rest of the characters (I particularly love in FvB seeing him in a kimono while having tea with Mizuno then later in garish BBQ chef gear for their swanky party). Tamblyn may have climbed down a cliff to save Mizuno, but everything else he does seems so dispassionate. I always laugh when he awakens an unconscious Mizuno by stroking a rose against her face. It's supposed to be romantic, but his disinterest in the entire film makes him seem like a robot or alien figuring out human emotion and expression. Second, FvB's ending is really dramatic with Frankenstein slowly being pulled down to his death (sea animal or no sea animal). In GARGANTUAS, Sanda and Gaira continue their fight into the ocean until suddenly an underwater volcano erupts next to them, and they both disappear. The military assumes that they must have perished in the lava. The end. Man, I loved the war, but it really ends on a whimper. How do you feel about the various Toho-ensteins, Luca?

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LUCA:

I’ll take the other point of view on this, Travis, and say that FvB was my favorite Toho-stein. You’re absolutely right in that WotG is a more “classic”, collected kaiju tale, but that’s precisely what pushes me towards FvB and its wacked out nazi opening and sort-of-King-Kong-ish tale of a misunderstood monster who just wants to be left in peace to eat delicious protein-filled boar puppets. I will admit that seeing two guys fight in minimally restricting prosthetics rather than lumbering rubber suits makes for a more exciting, visceral battle scene BUT! Sanda and Gaira only really start to fight near the end of the film. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me so much (King Kong and Godzilla only have 1.1 fight scenes in an otherwise really fun movie), but I couldn’t help but be somewhat disappointed at what I thought was a unique opportunity in Toho’s monster catalogue. And Nakajima really kills it as Gaira, too! I love his interpretive dance lunges and swirls as he dramatically looks around to see if there aren’t any treacherous JSDF masers hanging about looking to fry a poor innocent sea-Frankenstein looking for delicious hikers. Also a big fan of his “wade like I’m up to my nipples in a septic tank” THREATENING LUNGE.

Oh god, how could I have forgotten weirdo Tamblyn stroking Akemi with a rose? I’m sure David Lynch saw GARGANTUAS and thought “Yes… this man…”! Don’t get me wrong though, Travis, I like Nick Adams better as well – just a more sympathetic and warm lead overall, not to mention his enthusiasm for cultural exchange as evidenced by his gastronomic cosplay. WotG being the final Toho Frankenstein makes the anticlimactic finale even more hilarious, cuz it portrays the JDSF as just these tired yet pretty accurate predictors of kaiju behaviors. “Oh, uh… underground volcano? *burp* Sorry. Yeah… yeah, that oughta do it for a few years at least.” And in this case, it did it for all time!

With Toho’s gargantuas inspiring movie stars like Brad Pitt and cult directors like David Lynch (it’s headcanon now), one is reminded of how these silly, formulaic movies despite their faults spoke to the imagination of kids worldwide. Are there any that you have a particular fondness for and we’ve not yet covered in this wildly kareening kavalcade? Give us a shout in the comments, particularly if you are Eddie Redmayne!

 

His TRUE ROMANCE character obviously digging deep into childhood memories!

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