Though most of his filmography consists of schlocky sci-fi monster films, Ishiro Honda was a director with quite a knack for genuine horror movies. The original Godzilla is a very dark and grim picture, while his 1963 effort, Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People is a very surreal and effective horror film. War of the Gargantuas sits on the line between a horror film meant to frighten audiences and the typical giant monster flicks of the ‘60s, which were more about sci-fi action than scares. In my opinion, this is one of the things that makes War of the Gargantuas so memorable; one of Honda’s strongest offerings.
War of the Gargantuas
Frankenstein may be dead, but his cells have been scattered across the seas and mountains of Japan. Regenerating into two shaggy behemoths dubbed Gargantuas, scientists Dr. Stewart (Russ Tamblyn), Akemi (Kumi Mizuno), Dr. Majida (Kenji Sahara) and Dr. Kita (Nobuo Nakamura) have their hands full trying to corner and kill the stealthy beasts. But while the green Gargantua of the sea known as Gaira (Haruo Nakajima) is a man-eating fiend, the red Gargantua of the mountains known as Sanda (Yu Sekida) is strictly a gentle giant. When the fate of Tokyo comes into play, the Gargantua brothers will duke it out to determine whether the city’s population should be left on or off the menu.
As a sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World, War of the Gargantuas is a bit confused. There are vague references to the previous film, but the word “Frankenstein” is used less to describe the original monster and more as a means of describing Sanda and Gaira (whereas we in the West call them “Gargantuas”, the Japanese call them “Frankensteins”). There are scenes and characters that emulate the previous film, such as the stable of scientists consisting of an American, a female love interest and a Japanese third wheel, almost making it feel like a remake. Though it functions in spirit as a follow-up to Frankenstein Conquers the World, it’s sort of left up to the audience to connect the dots between films.
Getting that out of the way, War of the Gargantuas works just fine as a standalone kaiju flick. Honda implements a distinct edge of horror to the film right from the beginning, as the menacing giant octopus Odako (making his third and final appearance) slithers his tentacles through a boat, trying to snare the helmsman. In a great twist, when Gaira shows up to “save” the boat and defeat Odako, he immediately turns around and devours all the crewmen; chewing them up and spitting out their clothing like sunflower seed shells.
This is all in the first five minutes, immediately setting the more violent tone of the flick. While most giant monsters in Toho films stomp through cities ambivalent toward the people beneath them, Gaira is more frightening because he’s all about plucking up the screaming masses and popping them like M&Ms. And I have to say, the scene where the fishermen look over the side of their boat and see Gaira just below the waves, reaching up at them is incredibly effective.
Because Gaira has an affliction to bright lights, nearly all of the film takes place at night, once more giving the film the darker atmosphere (both figuratively and literally). While it makes the film less colorful, that lack of color has the setback of making the color-coded Gargantuas a little tough to distinguish when they’re both grey silhouettes. It also shrouds the details of the costumes, which under most circumstances probably wouldn’t be a problem, but in the case of War of the Gargantuas there’s something very special about the monster outfits.
Unlike practically every other kaiju in Toho’s rogues gallery, the eyes of the actors can be seen through the Gargantua suits. This seemingly insignificant detail creates a better sense of acting chemistry and emotion between the monsters; far preferable to the Cookie Monster “googly eyes” that a lot of Toho’s kaiju are adorned with. I’m also very fond of the Gargantua suits beyond just the visible eyes; they’re extremely asymmetrical, gnarled and deformed-looking. These monsters actually look like freaks of nature and not streamlined comic book characters. In that regard, they work as successors to the Frankenstein monster.
If War of the Gargantuas has any failings, I think it suffers in terms of story flow. The protagonists spend an agonizingly long time trying to determine which Gargantua is which (is it the good one or the bad one?) when we as an audience can already tell them apart by color. And by “agonizingly long time” I’m talking the better part of an hour, here. The showdown in the forest with Gaira seems to stretch on forever, even with some really exciting action sequences pepping things up (Gaira’s fur catching on fire as he’s shot by Maser Tanks being pretty incredible). Sort of like The Fox and the Hound, not enough time is spent developing the “brotherly friendship” of the title characters before they have their falling out. Really, Sanda and Gaira are only pals for, like, five minutes and then they’re at each other’s throats. And the ending, well, it is a very abrupt and convenient plot resolution that feels entirely random and contrived.
So no, War of the Gargantuas isn’t perfect, but even when the plot is spinning around dizzily, uncertain of its own direction, there is lots of monster carnage to see you through it, so chances of getting bored during this flick are slim. It’s easily one of the more distinct entries in Toho’s kaiju library, which is why it has so much more lasting power than many of their non-Godzilla entries. I mean, if Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated is willing to do an homage to it, then that ought to tell you something.