If there was ever a niche genre of film that I could simply watch whenever I want, without needing to be in a certain mood, it would have to be the iconic Japanese genre of daikaijū eiga. I love the emphasis on practical visual effects, the raucous musical scores, and the pure fantastical qualities of the concepts presented in these films. One of the titans of the genre is Toho, the company behind the legendary Godzilla franchise. Begun and initially helmed by producer Tomoyuki Tonaka, director Ishirō Honda, special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, and composer Akira Ifukube, this long-running science fiction franchise became the international face of the genre. But these men were also at work on other projects in the genre that weren’t attached to the Big G. In 1966, the crew at Toho would produce one of the most unique daikaijū eiga committed to celluloid, the tale of two Frankenstein monsters (yeah, you read that right) wreaking havoc across Japan known as the War of the Gargantuas.
War of the Gargantuas was released in Japan as a sequel to 1965’s Frankenstein Conquers the World. Absurdity like these titles doesn’t come as often as it should, so take a minute to soak that up. However, I will be tackling this film as it was presented in the United States, as a stand alone film, but while having watched with the original Japanese language track.
Ishirō Honda and resident Toho screenwriter Takeshi Kimura’s script is something that is rare in the genre; a thoughtful script that balances pulpy B movie fun with a rather serious concept handled with dignity. And the concept isn’t the matter of people dealing with these monsters, such as in the 1954 classic Gojira, but it’s the relationship between the two creatures of the film. One gargantua called Gaira, played by the legendary late stuntman Harou Nakajima, is presented as “bad” as it tears across Japan and massacres the masses, and the other gargantua named Sanda, played by suit actor Yû Sekita, is presented as “good” as it attempts to care for Gaira, but turns on the beast once it realizes the character and villainy of Gaira. And that sort of character work is what makes this film work so well.
It’s a true tragedy in the way only Honda could envision it. But here, it is taken to a pseudo-Shakespearean level that is just delightful to watch unfold. Honda knows how to balance the drama with the sci-fi fun, making for a film that is a blast whether you take it seriously or not. It’s a win-win scenario that shows how brilliant Honda was as a director. Takeo Kita’s earthy art direction and Hajime Koizumi’s moody cinematography elevate the drama with overwhelming effectiveness. And if that wasn’t enough, Akira Ifukube provides an equally moody and ballsy score to sit and stew beneath the film with his characteristic expressions of might and tragedy encompassed in his explosive orchestral pieces, now aided with a kitsch sci-fi staple; the theremin! With brash marches, searing horn work, and misty strings, Ifukube crafts a cold, yet powerful soundscape that compliments the story and visuals perfectly.
The acting is very serviceable. Mind you that since I saw the film in Japanese, I was not treated to the infamously bored dubbing of Russ Tamblyn. But to be fair, if I had to dub a film three times over, I’d be fed up with the damn thing as well. But his onscreen performance is exceptional. The man was in Robert Wise’s The Haunting, so I don’t think getting the chance to star in a Toho tokusatsu flick was ever out of the question for the man. The whole cast is effective. Not notable, but they carry out the script to the point of being able to enjoy the duality of the film.
The effects in this film, helmed once more by the impeccable Eiji Tsuburaya, are lovely as always. The miniatures are lovingly crafted, as per usual in the Showa era of Toho monster films, the sets are detailed and enhanced by the cinematography, and the pyrotechnics are impressive and still effective even after all of these years. The suit work is a joy, now that there is more character to be had with these titanic creatures. Nakajima and Sekita perform their roles as Gaira and Sanda respectively with an animalistic zeal that is just a riot to view. And to boot, the suits are far more flexible due to the humanoid nature of Tôru Narita’s designs for the monsters. So you get to see Nakajima sprint the freaking mile in this film. Gaira and Sanda’s no-holds-bar fighting by the film’s end is a kinetic display of fury that actually has weight to it thanks to the drama of the script, and the flexibility of the suits. Hell hath no fury like a goddamn Gargantua embroiled in melodramatics. But not everything about this film ticks quite right.
It’s almost required by international law that monster film screenplays come with craters of caveats. So while it is nice to see such a brazenly unique concept of giving the monsters characters of depth, the rest of the script is more or less just schlocky theatrics. Experiments, shallowly ruminating on these creatures’ existences, and even a pop tune (albeit with an amusing finale) are all there and handled as you would expect. I wouldn’t have it any other way as these films aren’t known for their scripts, but it’s best you are aware of this before picking up the film. Another thing to note is that Ifukube’s score is a bit more repetitive than usual. As a byproduct of Ifukube’s utilitarian philosophy regarding film music, this score repeats several themes ad nauseam with little to no variation. The themes are strong, but their effect diminishes when your ears are hammered by them until the film’s closure.
But when all is said and done, War of the Gargantuas stands up as a titan of tokusatsu cinema. With typically detailed and superb effects work, a robust yet repetitive soundtrack, fine acting by both people and creatures alike, and a visual mood that harkens back to darker Toho outings such as 1956’s Rodan, War of the Gargantuas is a triumph for the founding fathers of Godzilla. It’s a unique experience that serves as both a bout of daikaijū fun, and a surprisingly enjoyable and investing tale of tragedy, handled with care by director Ishirō Honda. Highly recommended for both fans of daikaijū eiga and for those who like their B-movies a little smarter than the average flick.