Friday, April 30, 2010

REVIEW: War of the Gargantuas

フランケンシュタインの怪獣 サンダ対ガイラ
(Furankenshutain no Kaijū: Sanda tai Gaira)

Released: 1966

Ishiro Honda

Russ Tamblyn
Kumi Mizuno

Kenji Sahara
Kipp Hamilton

Running time: 87 min.

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

A fishing vessel trawls the waters of the Pacific, a storm raging through the night sky. The lone pilot sits aloft his perch, guiding the ship through the treacherous waters. But something lurks in the depths. A tentacle slithers its way through a window and into the pilots quarters, sneaking its way towards him, getting closer and closer. It starts to wrap its tendrils around his leg, but he reacts with the precision of a leopard, hacking at it with a bladed weapon. The tentacle quickly retreats, and the pilot looks out the window to see his attacker face to face. Unfortunately, it’s a colossal squid named Oodako (retreating from its battle with King Kong in ‘King Kong versus Godzilla’?), and it’s several times larger than his vessel. It’s tentacles attack, grabbing the pilot and pulling him towards its maw. But before it can consume its tasty treat it releases its grip. But why? The pilot investigates, and out in the waters of the Pacific, a battle rages, between the giant squid and a large green skinned creature known as Frankenstein. Frankenstein makes short work of the squid, and then the vessel, leaving the pilot as the loan survivor.

Thus begins ‘War of the Gargantuas’ aka ‘Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda versus Gaira’, the semi-sequel to ‘Frankenstein Conquers the World’ aka’ Frankenstein versus Subterranean Monster Baragon’, both helmed by tokusatsu kaiju master Ishiro Honda. Though no direct references are made to the previous film, its fairly obvious they operate in the same universe. In this Frankenstein incarnation, the oceanic green skinned Frankenstein, named Gaira, lives to breed destruction, although he, much like a Gremlin, has an aversion to bright light. With the help of American scientist Dr. Paul Stewart (played by Russ Tamblyn from West Side Story!!), his sexy assistant Akemi (Kumi Mizuno) and his fellow scientist Dr. Yuzo Majida (kaiju regular Kenji Sahara), the Japanese Self Defense Force plots to protect Tokyo from this destructive force. They blame Stewart and his friends for this monster, as they, on one of the few references to the previous film, helped create it. But their Frankenstein was friendly, not violent. After a trip to the Japanese Alps, they discover that there are in fact two Frankensteins, the evil Gaira, and the loving Sanda. Soon the two beasts do battle, leveling everything in their wake!!

One of several kaiju films with American actors in the lead, its obvious from the get go that this is an Ishiro Honda film. Friend to Akira Kurosawa, even when making films with men in rubber suits, he’s able to emote enough sympathy for the giant Frankenstein creatures, even as they level Tokyo and its surrounding area, that the films take on a transcendent quality, and helps to make them the cross cultural hits they were. If you’ve seen ‘Crank 2’, you’ll find inspiration in this film for the kaiju-eque fight Jason Statham has in the electrical plant. You’ll also find American singer Kipp Hamilton singing her hit single ‘The Words got Stuck in my Throat’ as Gaira tramples through the city. This is the kind of film a good monster movie should be, and its part of the reason that Hollywood and its god-awful renderings always fail. Yes, there are giant monsters that do battle and trash lots of stuff, and the special effects are quite amazing, but when the evil monsters are vanquished there is no moment of glee and cheer. The attacks upon them are long, drawn-out and brutal. Honda always tried to put some kind of social commentary in his kaiju films; mostly dealing with humankind’s creation of weapons of mass destruction and how they negatively affect society. Here, the Frankensteins are obviously both manmade, so he never seeks pleasure, nor asks the audience to seek pleasure, in their destruction. He also manages to elude our expectations by having the scientists create a lot of plans and strategies that would be typical of a more crowd pleasing venture, and then having them fall apart or fail miserably. If there is anything to cheer about in this film, it’s Ishiro Honda and his classic and lost art of filmmaking.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.