Toho is perhaps best known for their Godzilla series. Beginning in 1954, there have been 29 films to date (30 if you count that one with Hank Azaria) and the King of the Monsters has undoubtedly become Toho’s mascot, if not the mascot of the giant rubber-suited monster movie subgenre entirely.
But before Toho’s monster movie efforts completely deteriorated into nothing but Godzilla flick after Godzilla flick in the early 70s, the studio was all about churning out crazy, weird and awesome monster flicks starring new city-smashing behemoths, with nary the Big G in sight.
Selected here, are five of my favorites.
King Kong Escapes (1967)
King Kong Escapes has a bit of history to it. As the follow-up to Toho’s more legendary King Kong vs. Godzilla, the studio wanted to make a film that not only capitalized on their newly acquired license to the King Kong character granted by Universal, but also promoted their joint-produced King Kong animated series with Rankin/Bass (which was the first US-Japanese co-produced cartoon in history). So King Kong Escapes is actually a loose live-action adaptation of that King Kong cartoon that nobody remembers.
A maniacal terrorist leader in a black cape named Dr. Who (no, not THAT Dr. Who) has constructed a robot duplicate of King Kong dubbed Mechani-Kong to mine the precious and dangerous Element X from deep beneath the earth. Sadly, Mechani-Kong isn’t up to the task, so Dr. Who finds it’s just easier to travel to Mondo Island and kidnap the genuine article. King Kong and Mechani-Kong duke it out over a pretty girl while scaling Tokyo Tower and everything works out in the end.
First Mothra, now this. Tokyo Terror can’t catch a freakin’ break.
King Kong Escapes isn’t exactly what I’d call a great movie, but it has a leg-up on many other Toho monster flicks, including the Godzilla series, by being very fun and very exciting. Most Toho flicks take long, exhaustive breaks from the monster action to focus on the duller (and less expensive to film) drama of the human cast. While we do get plenty of this, the humans’ plotline is structured more like a James Bond action/adventure or, yes, a Saturday morning cartoon show. Dr. Who is a very goofy and theatrical villain (dubbed by famous voice actor Paul Frees in the English language version) and the extended amount of screen time away from the giant monkey fighting the giant robot monkey is actually fairly enjoyable.
Just another Tuesday in Japan.
Frankenstein Conquers the World might be a bit hard to swallow for some viewers, mainly because the title protagonist, Frankenstein, isn’t a guy in an animal or dragon costume, but just a dude with a flattop fighting guys in animal/dragon costumes. As such, it sort of loses the illusion of titanic size in a way similar to Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman. But what Frankenstein Conquers the World lacks in certain effects, it makes up for with the best origin of any Toho monster ever.
In the depths of World War II, mad scientist Baron Frankenstein struggles to finish his new man-monster; so far completing a heart that can survive without the rest of the body. But because Nazis are assholes, they confiscate the heart of Frankenstein’s monster to see if it can be used for military applications. They then hand the heart over to their Axis chums, the Japanese, who take it to a research facility…in Hiroshima. Hiroshima is blown to smithereens by the atom bomb, but the subsequent radiation gives the heart super-regenerative properties, which not only allow the monster of Frankenstein to grow a new body, but to grow a hundred feet tall! Then he fights a mole-dinosaur-thing called Baragon because sure, why not.
If you compare Frankenstein’s origin to any other Toho monster, you will never find anything more batshit insane or elaborate. Godzilla was just a frozen dinosaur mutated by atom bomb testing. Rodan was just a hibernating un-hatched teradactyl egg. King Ghidorah is just a dragon from space. But Frankenstein? I’m not even sure how to qualify that origin.
What is it with you people and tentacles?
The movie-itself also boasts two endings; one where Frankenstein kills Baragon then falls into a hole and disappears, and another where Frankenstein kills Baragon then gets dragged into the ocean by a random giant octopus for no good reason. Whichever version you prefer is okay with me.
America builds the atom bomb, Japan builds a flying submarine. Touché.
Toho’s giant monster films hadn’t been very big on political and social commentary since the series started with the original Godzilla (which boasted subtle commentary that can be summarized succinctly as, “What the HELL, America? WHAT THE HELL?”). Audiences weren’t so much craving thought-provoking subtext from their movies about guys in rubber suits kicking over Lincoln Logs and firing cartoon energy rays at each other. Then, in 1963, Toho decided to get political up in their joint and they created Atragon. The results may surprise you.
Captain Hachiro Jinguji just won’t. Let. It. GO. World War II may be over for the rest of the globe, but not for him. Abandoning his infant daughter, family and friends, Jinguji has spent the better part of twenty years sequestered on an uncharted island with a group of likeminded ultra-nationalistic Naval officers, building the Atragon: a flying submarine with a drill on it that will most assuredly defeat the Allies! Jinguji wants to give his creation to the Japanese military (now a piddly self defense force), but strictly under the condition that it be used to help Japan and ONLY Japan. Incidentally, the people from the highly advanced subterranean civilization of Mu have come to conquer the Earth with their fleet of high-tech submarines and a sea serpent called Manda. Will Jinguji stop being such a dick and save the world?
Atragon is actually a pretty fascinating history lesson about Japanese society a generation after the end of World War II. Did you know they had flying submarines and used them to fight the mole people’s giant dragon? Man, we somehow skimmed over that part in my high school world history class.
We also skipped the chapter about freeze-rays that turned people into matte paintings.
Actually, no, it’s more about the radical shift in Japanese societal and political values following their defeat. In case you didn’t know, the Japanese didn’t take losing very well. Going from an isolationist civilization firm in their beliefs that they were a master race and their Emperor was a god manifested in the flesh…to an occupied nation forced to accept outside cultures into their daily lives and completely restructure their political system to resemble Western society…You don’t just adapt overnight.
Atragon, on the surface, may seem like a jingoistic film preaching the ideals and values of the older, pre-WWII generation whist decrying the younger, cross-culture youth movements and their crazy new ideas, but to repeat myself; you’d be surprised. The theme of Atragon is essentially, “get the Hell over it”. Though it does take some jabs at the post-WWII generation (a young lady needs to have the word “patriotism” defined for her because she’d never heard it before), it spends most of its time showing just how debilitating the stubborn, regressive mindset of the older generation (portrayed by Jinguiji) can be. By choosing his military career over his daughter, Jinguji has become completely estranged from his family and practically any concept of humanity. By the time the credits roll, the moral boils down to “Japan is PART of the world, so let’s all be friends”, which was a pretty ballsy maneuver on Toho’s part, considering how less than twenty years prior, a notion such as that would have gotten you killed in Japan.
War of the Gargantuas (1966)
Just like anime, every Japanese monster movie series is required to have a bathhouse episode.
War of the Gargantuas is the thrilling tale of unrequited love, sibling rivalry and the dangers of random undersea volcanic eruptions, all played by guys in brightly colored gorilla costumes. Despite being a loose sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World, War of the Gargantuas stands strongly on its own, only using certain pseudo-scientific aspects of the earlier film as a means to forge an origin for the two title monsters. While War of the Gargantuas isn’t exactly moving or intelligent or packed with social commentary, it *is* really awesome.
Frankenstein may be dead, but his regenerative cells have spawned two giant, hairy offspring. Sanda, the red Gargantua of the mountains, wishes to live in harmony with humanity. Gaira, the green Gargantua of the sea, just wants to fucking eat everybody. This becomes a point of contention between the siblings and soon a massive brawl breaks out, leveling…a Japanese city. I can’t remember which one off the top of my head. Probably Tokyo.
I just love that title; it ranks right up there with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Night of the Living Dead” as just one of those classic, highly evocative horror-science fiction titles.
Anyway, War of the Gargantuas is one of Toho’s most effects-heavy monster flicks of the era, putting a tremendous focus on the title creatures over the actions of the boring human cast. The Gargantuas aren’t really buddies for very long in the film and spend the lion’s share of the run time trying to kill each other. There is, of course, military interference of the maser tank variety (and a really cool scene where one of the Gargantua’s suits catches on fire accidentally) and the whole thing is basically just a lot of action and carnage.
Also just like anime, it ends with some random bullshit that doesn’t make any sense.
What makes War of the Gargantuas stick out to me, though, is just how comparatively brutal it is to all other Toho giant monster flicks. In other installments, the monsters are tearing up cities, but they could care less about the people populating them and you rarely saw much of the horrific aftermath or body-counts. Gaira, on the other hand, thinks people are just straight up delicious and spends his time plucking poor saps out the streets and gobbling them up, spitting their clothes out like they were peanut shells.
Just jump on their heads and they’ll disappear!
Alright, Matango might be a bit of a cheat, as while it’s certainly a monster movie, it isn’t a *giant* monster movie. But that’s not really important, as it’s a psychedelic holy shit-fest about people stranded on an island trying not to starve to death while they each transform into giant psychotic mushrooms. Basically, if Stanley Kubrick made a Super Mario Bros movie, it would be Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People.
In a parallel to Gilligan’s Island, a bunch of yuppies on a yacht find themselves shipwrecked on an uncharted island after a fierce storm. The island appears to have no food or wildlife; only endless forests of giant, weird-looking mushrooms that they’re afraid to eat. Eventually, their store of food begins to run out, tempers flare, everyone tries to kill each other and in the midst of it all, some douchebags eat the mushrooms anyway. Strange fungal growths begin sprouting all over their body and they lose their minds in a psychedelic trip. Eventually, they mutate into hideous mushroom monsters and menace the last remaining member of the yacht’s crew.
Matango is most assuredly a horror movie, but the weirdness and the costumes make it easily identifiable as a Toho offering. It’s a very tense film, as the shipwrecked crew argues over food and draws lines in the sand, but with the suspense heightened as strange creatures stalk them from the background. Like most horror films of its era, it keeps the monsters out of sight until the very end. But when the mushroom people come to life, things get damn trippy.
Okay, maybe not *this* trippy.
Matango is just a bizarre, surreal movie with great use of effects, lighting and especially sound (the weird, warbled laughter at the end). It’s the perfect movie to watch after ingesting massive quantities of…speed.