Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Random Movie Report #53: War of the Gargantuas

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Though they’ve run out of Godzilla films for the time being, Classic Media has once again graced us with another double release of classic kaiju flicks, and this time they’ve been kind enough to put them both in the same package. I reviewed RODAN much, much earlier, so I’ll jump to the bottom half of this double feature. WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a decidedly offbeat Toho entry; though it was again directed by Ishiro Honda with effects by Eiji Tsubaraya, and officially a sequel to the studio’s earlier FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (which I still haven’t managed to see), it stands on its own as a darker and more melodramatic monster movie than Toho was known for. The story of two brothers who happen to be giant beasts, it’s almost a classical tragedy with a wonderful weird atmosphere.

A strange green humanoid giant (suit-acted by Haruo Nakajima, who was also Godzilla in most of the original series) has been sinking ships and eating people along the Japanese coastline. Scientists and officials suspect the gargantua, an apelike creature that was raised by Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) and his assistant Akemi (Kumi Mizuno, whom you may remember from INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER) before fleeing into the mountains and seemingly leaping to his death. Dr. Stewart and Akemi are convinced that this monster can’t be the same creature, as their pet gargantua was a gentle being. Learning how to repel the monster with light, the military lure it into a trap and try to kill it with maser tanks (an elaborate sequence frequently recycled in later, cheaper flicks), only for the innocent gargantua to come hurling onto the scene in defense of his brother.

It seems the gentler brown gargantua (named “Sanda”, and played by Hiroshi Sekita) sustained some injury during his escape and disappearance, and some of his self-regenerating cells drifted out to sea, feeding on plankton and growing into the fiercer, carnivorous green gargantua (named “Gaila”.) Sanda’s natural instinct is to care for his brother and he helps him recover in a secluded valley, before realizing that Gaila has been feeding on tourists. Having grown protective of humanity during his own upbringing, with a particular fondness for Akemi, Sanda turns on his brother and the two battle across the countryside, while Dr. Stewart tries to persuade the government to find a way to spare the good monster.

I’m not entirely sure how this lines up with FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, except that the former did revolve around a misunderstood giant who died tragically. It’s not the same monster as Sanda in appearance or backstory, but perhaps this creature is meant to be some offspring of the previous one (the Japanese title translates as FRANKENSTEIN MONSTERS: SANDA VS. GAIRA). The film treats the fact of the monsters’ existence as a given for everyone involved, and doesn’t dwell much on origins.

Despite, or possibly because of this, it’s easy to jump in, and the film has a spry pace. It starts with Gaila fighting a giant octopus in the middle of a storm and doesn’t slow down; this may be due to the influence of American producer Henry Saperstein, and especially Reuben Bercovitch who developed the story with an eye towards hooking US audiences, especially on television. As tricky as some of the backstory is, it doesn’t get in the way of the main action.

This is one of Toho’s darker and more horrific monster movies, though it lacks the seriousness of the original GODZILLA. Gaila’s habit of eating people whole (leaving their bloody clothes behind) is more gruesome than the usual building-smashing carnage most kaiju favor, and since he hates the light, he appears only at night or when the sun’s blocked by clouds or fog. The visuals are dark and murky, almost too a fault, but cinematographer Hajime Koizumi maintains the richness of color and detail that Toho was known for at the time. Eiji Tsubaraya’s miniatures are as intricate as ever, and the monster suits are particularly good, leaving the actors’ eyes visible. Both suit actors do a good job imparting emotion and expression, and Sanda and Gaila end up being more developed as characters than the human cast.

The humans in a kaiju movie are almost never as interesting as the monsters, but the characterizations seem unusually thin on the ground here. Russ Tamblyn, taking over for Nick Adams, does his best but doesn’t have much of a character to work with; Dr. Stewart is concerned for Sanda and has a tendency to repeat himself on this subject, Akemi does little else as well, and the other scientists and generals tend to run together (even though one of them is Kenji Sahara.) It doesn’t help that the subtitling this time around is awkward and laden with misspellings, though I recall the dubbing not being too bad. I also have to say the pacing finally flags near the end, though Sanda and Gaila’s final struggle is suitably apocalyptic.

WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS doesn’t quite fit in the same universe as the other monster movies Toho was making at the time; it feels just a little different, a deliberate stylistic departure for Honda and company. It’s worth watching for that, but also because it’s simply a well-done kaiju eiga with a unique story. It’s good to see this make its way onto DVD, and I hope Classic Media’s work in this genre isn’t done just yet.

Story by Reuben Bercovitch
Screenplay by Ishiro Honda and Kaoru Mabuchi
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: B+

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