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  • Ravi Swami

"War of The Gargantuas", Dir:Ishiro Honda, 1966

The success of Japanese "Kaiju", or giant monsters-on-the-loose films of the 1960's led to the emergence of two giants of the genre, Toho and Daiei, creators of "Godzilla" and "Gamera" respectively, hard on the heels of the international (ie U.S) success of the original "Godzilla", and the need to satisfy a growing appetite for these films, mainly amongst younger viewers, resulted in films that were rushed out, often re-using costly visual effects shots from earlier films with newer effects sequences added to support thin storylines with increasingly bizarre scenarios.

"Destroy All Monsters", also directed by Honda, and a film that I'd earmarked for viewing, suffers from this as the freewheeling plot is simply an excuse to stage fights between a series of monsters seen in other films - it has its moments though, with some superb miniature work at the start, during a brief expository prologue and some imaginative, if derivative, design in the form of the "SY-3" pursuit jet.

The net result of this is that I can often doze off during a film due to a combination of repetition and plodding pace that is often the hallmark of these films.

"War of The Gargantuas" is actually a sequel to an earlier film "Frankenstein Conquers The World", though as usual I settled on it randomly and with a recommendation from a friend, and perhaps a little apprehensively for the above-mentioned reasons.

The film is a little unusual since it is not actually a wholly Japanese film - by 1966 Toho had entered into a rather unusual co-production agreement with a U.S producer, Henry Saperstein of the U.P.A Studios, more well-known for producing the "Mr Magoo" cartoons and several stylish animated short films - it seems like a rather incongruous combination but perhaps Sapersteins' thinking was that there was a great opportunity to make films for a family audience along the lines of the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen, but with a faster turnaround due to the use of "Suitmation", ie a performer in a rubber monster suit, over the more time-consuming and meticulous stop-motion process that Harryhausen had patented as "Dynamation".

Furthermore an even more interesting fact is that Saperstein had acquired some unmade scripts by Willis O'Brien, creator of the original "King Kong", arguably an inspiration for "Godzilla", and who was also Harryhausen's mentor. These scripts outlined plans for a film based around the Frankenstein monster on the loose in New York and fighting a duplicate Frankenstein along with an assortment of other creatures.

O'Briens' Frankenstein script effectively forms the basis for "War of The Gargantuas" and its prequel "Frankenstein Conquers The World", and in doing so the menagerie of Toho monsters are absent, possibly to define it as a U.S co-production as distinct from a wholly Japanese Toho Studios "home" production and the legal / copyright ramifications of that.

Featuring a U.S lead in the form of former Hollywood musicals star Russ Tamblyn, replacing Toho regular, Nick Adams, from the earlier film, I found the film to be a more satisfying entry into the giant monster genre, with better pacing and a mood and performances of the two "Gargantuas" that elicits genuine sympathy for these misbegotten products of cell research in a manner that harks back to the plight of the monster in Mary Shelley's original.

Speaking of the "science" in these films, it's very often a cobbling together of contemporary real-world science and fanciful ideas bordering on the improbable, but with inadvertently accurate predictions, like cloning, since there is the suggestion that one of the Gargantuas has evolved from the cells of the other and that destroying it might unleash hordes of similar Gargantuas and pose an even greater threat to the world.

It's easy to forget the era and general mood of the times that these films emerged - although WWII had ended a decade or so previously, the world now lived in the shadow of nuclear holocaust and a general feeling of dread about the mysteries of nuclear energy and mutation that could result - remove that context and the films lose a lot of their power to terrify, something "Gargantuas" manages to avoid due to the way in which the monsters are depicted.

From a visual effects standpoint the film also scores highly, with some great split-screen shots to show the monsters sharing screen space with real people and providing a sense of their great scale, and an opening featuring a giant octopus which is as a good as anything produced in Hollywood at the time.

It's also not without a sense of humour - a scene set in a rooftop restaurant features a singer who is so bad and a song that is so terrible that her subsequent fate seems like an inevitability.

Overall, this is certainly a high point in both the Japanese giant monster genre and the career of the prolific director Ishiro Honda, who started out with the intention of making documentaries before the success of "Godzilla" shackled him forever to the genre and it's a film that I can imagine he would have been proud of.


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