Home > Reviews > Thoughts on Toho’s Frankenstein duology (spoilers)

Thoughts on Toho’s Frankenstein duology (spoilers)

As I mentioned in my last Godzilla review post, I thought I might try to track down some of the films Toho made in the ’60s and ’70s about other kaiju. The available selection is piecemeal, but I’ve managed to track down a number of them. I’ll begin with the loose duology based on Frankenstein, which were the first kaiju films co-produced by an American studio. I hadn’t been able to find a copy of the first film through rental or the library, but I finally figured out how to use the statewide interlibrary loan system and found a copy in Cleveland. And while the English dub of the second film is available at Hulu and elsewhere, my local library had a copy with the Japanese audio as well. So, yay, libraries!

Frankenstein Conquers the World, aka Frankenstein vs. Baragon (full title Frankenstein vs. Subterranean Monster Baragon), came out in 1965, between the first two King Ghidorah films in the Godzilla series. It was originally based on (or plagiarized from) a treatment for an American King Kong vs. Frankenstein movie, then planned as a Frankenstein/Godzilla match-up to follow King Kong vs. Godzilla, but the plan to make Godzilla the hero didn’t make sense at the time, so they fortunately did the superb Mothra vs. Godzilla instead, eventually reworking their Frankenstein treatment with a new kaiju, Baragon, in Godzilla’s place, and Frankenstein as the hero. Confusing, no? (And yes, it should be Frankenstein’s Monster, but they call it Frankenstein here — or rather, Furankenshutain.) The film was partly financed by the American animation studio UPA, and it was plotted in part by American SF author Jerry Sohl, the writer of my favorite Star Trek episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.” To appeal to an American audience, Nick Adams was imported from the US and cast in the lead role (the first of his two consecutive kaiju-film appearances, followed by Invasion of Astro-Monster).

The film begins in 1945 with German soldiers confiscating a beating heart in a trunk, loading it on a German sub, and delivering it to a Japanese sub. During the transfer, an Allied bomber sights sub, sinks same, but second sub scarpers safely. The sub’s Captain Kawai (Yoshio Tsuchiya) takes the cargo to a Japanese hospital, where a scientist (Takashi Shimura, who played Dr. Yamane in Gojira) explains to Kawai that it’s the indestructible heart of Frankenstein(‘s Monster), which they intend to study in hopes of using its regenerative properties to make soldiers indestructible. (Implicitly, this is a rough sequel to earlier American or British Frankenstein films, with Frankie’s immortal heart explaining his ability to come back to life over and over.) Unluckily for them, the hospital is in Hiroshima and it’s August 6…

Cut to 15 years later, and the Hiroshima International Institute of Radio Therapentics [sic]. There we find Dr. James Bowen, played by an English-speaking Adams with his dialogue dubbed in Japanese by Goro Naya. (In the English-language version, Adams redubbed his own dialogue.) He and his colleagues, Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) and Dr. Ken’ichiro Kawaji (Tadao Takashima) are studying victims of radiation exposure and trying to develop cures, but the mood is somber as many of their patients face slow but certain death.

Bowen and Sueko discover a feral “waif” child that’s been wandering around Hiroshima killing small animals for food — something that was sadly common after the bomb, but odd over a decade and a half later. Sueko gives him food, which comes in handy later when the authorities corner him in a cave and Sueko and Bowen are able to bring him in peacefully to the Institute of Misspelled Therapeutics, where they find that he’s pure Caucasian (though he’s played by Sumio Nakao with green contacts and a Frankensteinian beetle brow and wig) and inexplicably resistant to radiation. He’s nonverbal but intelligent, and he’s quick to anger but not inclined to hurt people, especially Sueko. They determine that he was seen years earlier around the ruins of the hospital from the opening sequence, but how could he have survived being abandoned from infancy?

Captain Kawai, now working at an oil rig in Akita, witnesses its collapse in an “earthquake,” though we get a glimpse of a burrowing kaiju with a glowing nose horn. Later, he reads the news reports about the Boy (as Sueko calls him, even though he’s grown up and is now played by Koji Furuhata), who’s continued to grow at an accelerating rate, is now nearly two stories tall, and is rather cruelly being kept chained in a cage, with the shackle digging into his growing wrist. Kawai tells Bowen’s trio about Frankenstein’s heart, suggesting that the boy could’ve regenerated from it. Dr. Kawaji goes to Frankfurt to find the German scientist from the opening scenes, who advocates chopping off the boy’s arm or leg to see if it grows back, thereby proving he’s Frankenstein reborn. Horrifically, Kawaji thinks this is a peachy-keen idea, though Bowen and Sueko are morally opposed. But they’re too busy flirting over dinner, so Kawaji sneaks in to conduct the amputation experiment himself. (Sheesh, couldn’t you limit it to a small toe, say?) He has pangs of conscience and is interrupted by a TV crew whose bright lights enrage the Boy, causing him to break out of his cage and escape, stopping to peer into Sueko’s second-floor window and have a bonding moment before the cops drive him off.

Investigating the cage, the reporters find the shackle unbroken — and then are horrified to find Frankenstein’s severed hand crawling under its own power. They alert the scientists, who take it to the lab for study. Bowen has been urging the military and the media not to kill Frankie, since studying his regeneration and radiation resistance could be essential for science — much the same argument that Dr. Yamane used to argue against killing Godzilla in 1954. But with the hand, err, in hand, Kawaji argues that keeping Frankie alive is less essential. Anyway, Frankie manages to elude pursuit and live off wild game and raided livestock. He’s reached 20 meters and somehow his clothes have grown with him, though they eventually get tattered and replaced with skins. (It’s never explicitly stated that Frankie’s growth is the result of the heart’s radiation exposure in Hiroshima, but it stands to reason, since Frankenstein never became a giant before. If so, this would be the first kaiju-film appearance of the idea of radiation creating gigantism, an idea the Heisei era would return to.)

Finally, Baragon makes his first full appearance. He’s a weird kaiju, with lizard legs, a sort of armadillo-ish back, batlike ears, and a goofy, big-eyed face with a glowing nose horn. Frankenstein gets blamed for Baragon’s destruction and the military’s hunting him in full force, but the hand has died from insufficient nourishment as it grew, so the Three Scienceketeers need him alive again. Captain Kawai once again shows up to provide plot-advancing exposition, having realized that the glowing monster from the Akita earthquake is behind the carnage. Somehow, he deduces that it’s an ancient dinosaur that survived the cooling of the Earth (one of the dinosaur-extinction theories at the time) by moving deep underground. The scientific community scoffs, suggesting this wasn’t intended at the time to be in continuity with the Godzilla series, despite Baragon’s later cameo appearance in Destroy All Monsters. So Frankenstein is still being hunted, and only our three heroes are left to attempt to contain Frankie by finding where he’s most likely to go (Mt. Fuji, for a cool climate like his native Germany — indeed, it was snowing in the opening despite it being August) and airlift food there to keep him from roaming.

But Kawaji still has a more aggressive agenda, and his plan to kill Frankenstein and sample his remains happens to enrage Baragon, who goes on a rampage, endangering Sueko. Frankenstein comes to her rescue and the marquee fight is underway. It’s more fast-paced and acrobatic than your usual kaiju fight, since Furuhata is unencumbered by a heavy rubber suit — though Baragon (played by Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima) is pretty lively too, prone to wire-assisted leaping. During the fight, Kawaji is endangered and Frankenstein saves him, gently carrying him back to Bowen and Sueko. The battle leads to a massive forest fire which provides a dramatic backdrop for the climactic battle, until Frankenstein snaps Baragon’s neck and then the ground (weakened by Baragon’s burrowing) collapses and sucks them both into the Earth. Kawaji learns his lesson and assures Sueko that Frankenstein cannot die, but Bowen has inexplicably had a change of heart too and ends the movie by saying he’d be better off dead because he’s just a monster. Huh? (The English dub goes with a slightly kinder “He couldn’t live in this world.”)

However, the 1985 “international” version restores a long-lost alternate ending the filmmakers shot at the request of their American co-producers, who were oddly enamored of the giant octopus fight in King Kong vs. Godzilla and wanted to see a similar scene here, whether it made sense or not. Ishiro Honda and his team grudgingly shot the scene, but ultimately left it out of both the Japanese and American editions — and it’s easy to see why. After Frankenstein kills Baragon, suddenly a giant octopus shows up out of nowhere — yes, a sea creature crawling on land — and flails nonthreateningly while Frankenstein attacks it and wraps its tentacles around himself to mime being grabbed, until they both fall into a lake that suddenly happens to be there, before we segue back to the final conversation. It’s an absolutely terrible, pointless ending and it should never have been restored as anything but a deleted scene. If you see this movie on the Tokyo Shock DVD, do yourself a favor and watch the “theatrical” Japanese version rather than “international.” (Meanwhile, the original US version incorporated a few more added shots of Frankenstein inflicting destruction during his rampage, but apparently no widescreen prints of this material survive, so they’re missing from the reconstructed English-language edition on the DVD set, though included in low quality as bonus features.)

The alternate ending aside, this is a really impressive film. It’s the darkest, most somber kaiju film since the original Gojira, with a similar acknowledgment of the suffering caused by the atomic bomb. The fact that the monster is essentially human makes him unusually sympathetic and lends a darker quality to the discussions about hunting the monster down and killing it. Baragon’s inclusion seems kind of random at first, but it serves a purpose once Frankenstein gets blamed for its attacks, and though it’s a silly-looking monster, the big battle is quite effective. Akira Ifukube’s score is moody and effective, and makes heavy use of what was apparently the only bass flute in Japan at the time. It’s surprising to see such a solemn, dramatic kaiju film in 1965, when the Godzilla films were starting to become lighter and sillier.

The following year, Toho made a sequel under the name Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira, known in the US as The War of the Gargantuas. It’s an odd kind of sequel, though. Storywise, it’s a direct continuation of FCtW, with abundant references to that film’s events, and the lead trio are clearly meant to be the same characters. And yet all three leads are renamed and two are recast. Bowen is now Stewart (Russ Tamblyn, dubbed by Goro Mutsumi), Kawaji is now Majida (Kenji Sahara), and though the lovely Kumi Mizuno fortunately returns, she’s now Akemi rather than Sueko. (Some sources attribute the cast change to Nick Adams’s death, but that was two years after this.) They’re now based in Kyoto rather than Hiroshima. And the Frankenstein design has been changed to a full suit and mask that’s more apelike than before. There’s even a new flashback to Frankenstein’s childhood in which he looks more like a baby orangutan than a deformed human. It’s really weird that they made these changes, but it’s possible to look past the surface alterations and see the direct sequel it was meant to be.

It begins with the very scene the American investors wanted FCtW to end with, a battle between a Frankenstein and a giant octopus. They were really determined to get that octopus fight one way or another. This time it’s at sea, and the octopus attacks a smugglers’ boat before being attacked in turn by a hairy green ape-giant (not jolly at all), who then launches his own attack on the boat and eats all but one of its crew. (No doubt the redundant giant octopus was forced into what was meant to be a more straightforward scene of the sea giant destroying the boat.)  The survivor’s story of seeing “a Frankenstein” isn’t believed at first, but soon the creature attacks an airport, and the hunt is on. Much of the first half of the movie is the military hunting what they believe to be Frankenstein while our scientist heroes investigate, doubting the story. The Frankenstein they knew wasn’t a sea dweller like this creature, and there’s evidence of giant footprints in the mountains.

There’s an interlude where the green giant attacks an American singer (Kipp Hamilton) right after she sings a really dreadful song called “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat.” Now, this was a song I’d heard before in the Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated episode “Battle of the Humongonauts,” which I hadn’t realized was meant to be an homage to this film. I’d assumed the song had been written for the cartoon as a joke — I couldn’t believe anyone would write a song that bad in earnest. (Seriously, why couldn’t the monster have attacked Hamilton three minutes earlier?) Now I wish I’d seen this movie before that episode, so I could’ve watched out for more homages.

Anyway, the musical score makes plenty of use of one of Akira Ifukube’s most memorable military marches, the “Operation L March” (part of which was reused in the Destroy All Monsters title theme two years later, and the entirety of which was reused in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah in 1994) as the Self Defense Force prepares and launches its assault on the green kaiju. The assault sequence features the debut of the iconic Maser Cannon tanks which would reappear in later Godzilla films, perhaps the strongest continuity link (such as it is) between the Frankenstein films and the Godzilla series. The kaiju is injured and almost defeated when a second, tan-haired giant with slightly more human features and oddly scaly skin comes to its rescue and helps it to safety. This creature’s musical theme is just a slight variation on Frankenstein’s theme, which tells us what the three scientists soon figure out: That this is the original Frankenstein, the one they cared for in the past. If you squint a little, you can almost buy that this is the mature, hairier form of the earlier adolescent Frankenstein, or that he’s undergone some secondary mutation since we last saw him. The military dubs the maneating green creature Gaira (from kai, meaning sea) and the sandy-colored one Sanda (from san, meaning mountain).

The scientists conclude that Gaira is a clone grown from some cells that Frankenstein shed from an injury in the lake where he was briefly seen in the first movie, which somehow explains Gaira’s aquatic nature. This means they can’t just blow up the Frankensteins without spawning hundreds. Our heroes try to convince the military that Sanda, at least, should be protected, but the general just wants to use napalm and chemical weapons to destroy both giants utterly. After a pastoral interlude, Akemi/Sueko falls off a cliff and Sanda/Frankenstein breaks his leg saving her. He returns to his clone-bro and sees something that enrages him — it took me a couple of viewings to figure out that it was the clothing of a pair of vacationing boaters we’d seen earlier, now eaten by Gaira. A furious Sanda beats Gaira with a tree and drives him away.

Gaira ends up attacking Tokyo and Sanda comes after him. The military intends to attack them both, and Akemi/Sueko gets hurt trying to warn him, whereupon Stewart/Bowen confesses his love for her. I think the scientists’ arguments got through, though, since the military only shoots at Gaira while he and Sanda fight in the streets and docks of Tokyo, smashing the surrounding buildings with implausible, Man of Steel-like ease. (These kaiju are a lot smaller than Godzilla and his peers, so it doesn’t seem they’d be heavy enough to smash buildings that effortlessly.) Eventually their battle carries them out to sea, and the filmmakers must’ve been running out of ideas at this point, because suddenly an undersea volcano erupts and apparently burns up both Frankensteins, though it’s ambiguous enough to leave room for more sequels.

Even aside from the bizarre and gratuitous changes, this film is inferior to its original. It’s basically just more of the same, but without the ambiguity, since the heroes are all on the same page, convinced that Sanda/Frankenstein is a good guy and it’s just another case of mistaken identity, and Sanda himself is more saintly and less of a tragic, tortured figure than the previous film’s Frankenstein. Changing the kaiju to full-suit monsters makes them less human and less engaging (though at least they have visible human eyes). And too much of the run time is devoted to military maneuvers and attacks on Gaira.

The 1970 English-language version severs all connections to Frankenstein — perhaps because American audiences would’ve been puzzled by the reinterpretation of Frankenstein’s Monster as a Bigfoot-like giant? Instead, it posits the existence of hypothetical giant cryptids called Gargantuas — swapping out Mary Shelley for Rabelais. (It’s amusing to see the surviving smuggler mouthing “Furankenshutain!” and hearing “Gi-i-aant!” dubbed over it.) Gaira and Sanda are unimaginatively redubbed Green Gargantua and Brown Gargantua. (Poor Pantagruel gets left out.) Stewart is now just an expert in giant creatures rather than a Frankenstein expert, and he’s introduced earlier in the film, with several early scenes reshot to include him. (This actually fixes a major continuity error in the Japanese edition, which has the reporters show up to question Stewart about Frankenstein mere moments after he was first contacted, as part of the same scene. Here, there are several scenes between the initial contact and the press conference.) I believe this version also hints at the possibility of a second giant much sooner than the Japanese version does, which somewhat undermines the suspense. It also abandons all uses of Ifukube’s “Operation L March” in favor of the frequent use of a stock music cue that I got really sick of listening to after a while. Unfortunately, it keeps “Stuck in My Throat.” I fast-forwarded through a lot of this version. And somehow, with Russ Tamblyn dubbing his own lines in English, it’s easier to notice how lazily he walked through the part. In keeping with his lack of passion, the bit where he confesses his feelings for Akemi ends up as “I thought I’d lost an assistant.” All around, the English dub is an inferior version of an inferior sequel. Too bad, since Frankenstein Conquers the World is one of the very best kaiju films I’ve seen.

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