War of the Gargantuas
Frankenstein Conquers the World
Godzilla vs. Gigan
I often complain about the classic Japanese giant monster films having too little action. Most of these movies give us stock characters (at best) and cool monsters, but then they neglect the monsters, forcing us to watch the characters for far too long. War of the Gargantuas half-way ameliorates this problem, but it still doesn’t quite work. This one has stock characters and cool monsters, and it gives us frequent giant monster action from beginning to end, but all of the action is boring. The movie takes a shot at providing a good story, too, but the characters that it depends on are far too flat to care about. This is an above average-entry in the Japanese tradition of giant monster flicks, but above-average is not good enough.
War of the Gargantuas begins with an awesome giant octopus attacking a boat, but then something even stranger happens. A gigantic humanoid monster comes, scares off the octopus, and takes the boat for himself. A survivor claims the monster was “Frankenstein” (occasionally referred to as “Gargantua”), a giant creature created in a lab for research purposes and later freed into the mountains. Of course, the thing that doesn’t make sense is the fact that the monster appeared from the ocean. Also, Frankenstein (why did they have to name him that?) was a friendly monster who wouldn’t want to attack anybody. Later, the real Frankenstein (who the military names “Sanda”) clears his name by showing up to put a stop to this new guy’s (“Gailah”) bouts of destruction. When the scientists who created him realize this, they do everything they can to save him from the military, whose answer is to kill everything.
The monsters are the best thing about this movie. Save for the brief opening appearance by the giant octopus, the two Gargantuas are the film’s only monsters, and they are refreshingly unique. The Gargantuas look like enormous versions of humans taken three steps down the ladder of evolution. These guys are ugly; they’re hairy and flat-headed, and they have pulled-back lips like permanently angry gorillas. At one point a boat of fishermen look down into the water to see the Frankenstein standing on the ocean floor and looking up at them. The sight is truly frightening, much more so than even Godzilla could have been, partly because this monster’s face is just so hideous. The Garganutas are a nice change of pace from the giant lizard template, ever-loved as it may be.
It’s too bad director Ishirô Honda didn’t give these monsters anything more interesting to do. There is one good attack scene in which the military mercilessly attacks Gailah with maser cannons, burning him to a smoking, blackened crisp (though he doesn't die). The scene is notable both in that it is one of the few semi-successful military assaults against a giant monster in Japanese cinema of this period, and, more pertinently, it simply looks so painful. However, the rest of the monster’s raids are monotonous. He shows up, destroys some stuff, eats a person or two, and retreats into the ocean. He repeats this until Sanda starts popping up to fight him off, at which point a new pattern emerges: Galiah shows up and destroys some stuff, Sanda shows up, the two fight for a minute, Gailah retreats into the ocean, and Sanda goes back to the mountains. And many of the monsters' fights take place away from the city, making them that much less fun to watch. In the meantime, the military tries to figure out what to do. This goes on for pretty much the whole movie.
This wouldn’t be so bad if there was more of a human element in the film, but this is an area of the giant monster subgenre that War of the Gargantuas does not improve upon. There are two main characters: Dr. Stewart, Sanda’s creator, and Akemi, Dr. Stewart’s assistant. Their involvement in the first half of the movie consists of trying to figure out how their Frankenstein now lives underwater (before they realize this is a new Gargantua), and their role in the second half consists of trying to convince the military that Sanda is a good guy. Throughout all of this, neither character expresses any emotion beyond minor disappointment. It is impossible to feel for them because they hardly seem to feel anything themselves.
Speaking of disappointment, this movie ends so abruptly it may give you whiplash. Akemi is in the hospital recovering from some wounds, and Dr. Stewart is monitoring the Gailah/Sanda/military situation. A final battle occurs, of course, and the second it’s over, so is the movie. No word on how well Akemi is recovering, and no hint of Akemi or Dr. Stewart’s feelings about how the battle ended. I guess this makes it a good thing that the characters were never developed because in that case we would really be angry that we don’t get to see their responses to the outcome.
Maybe I’m more picky than most, but I expect more out of my giant monster movies. I’m not so naïve as to demand a good story from them, but if that can’t be delivered, I at least need the attacks and the fight scenes to be fun. War of the Gargantuas has some good things going for it, like its original monsters and frequent monster raids, but it fails to transcend the subgenre’s general inability to create either excitement or tension (much less both). There are a couple of pretty good scenes, but for me, that’s still not good enough. Sorry, 1960s Japanese monster movies. Try again.