The Amazing Colossal Frankenstein in Japan

In the closing days of the Second World War, a squad of Nazis seized the still-beating heart of Dr Frankenstein’s creature from a Frankfurt laboratory. Handed off to a Japanese submarine by its Nazi custodians just before being bombed by Allied forces, the heart was transferred to a laboratory in Hiroshima, where speculations about its potential medical benefits for humankind were brought to a premature halt by the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Thus begins one of the more unusual variations on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818; revised 1831).

Toho producer Tanaka Tomoyuki, who launched what would become the Godzilla franchise and oversaw all of their tokusatsu (“special filming”, i.e. special effects-based movies) output, first raised the possibility of importing Frankenstein’s legacy to Japan in 1961. Following up on The Human Vapor [Gasu ningen dai 1 gō] (1960), a riff on H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1897) featuring a man who could disperse his body into an invisible gas, Tanaka commissioned a sequel – Frankenstein vs. the Human Vapor – in which the Human Vapor recruited the aid of Frankenstein’s monster to revive his deceased girlfriend, although the project was cancelled before the script had been completed.

The following year Toho were approached by an American producer to make King Kong Meets Frankenstein, based on a treatment by Kong’s creator Willis O’Brien. Toho agreed but dropped Frankenstein from the picture in favour of their own creation, to great success – the resultant King Kong vs. Godzilla [Kingu Kongu tai Gojira] (1962) transformed Godzilla from the featured menace of two 1950s monster movies into the star attraction of a multi-movie franchise. Toying with the possibility of following up with Frankenstein vs. Godzilla, Toho ultimately decided to keep Frankenstein separate from their most famous creation, reworking the ideas from this script into what would become Frankenstein Conquers the World [Furankenshutain tai Chitei Kaijū Baragon] (1965), more accurately translated as Frankenstein vs. Underground Monster Baragon.

Fifteen years on from the opening sequence, Honda Ishirō confronts his audience directly with the legacy of Hiroshima, with doctors observing in resigned despair as a young woman who lost her parents in the original blast slowly succumbs to a lingering death from radiation poisoning. Running through all of Honda’s kaijū films from Godzilla [Gojira] (1954) on is a consistent theme of pacifism and compassion. The choice to have the prologue’s WW2-era Japanese scientists more interested in the medical benefits of Frankenstein’s heart than in weaponisation is telling – although it could be argued that this is a whitewash of the less ethical medical experimentation carried out in Japan at the time, it does effectively set Honda’s aspirational tone for the motivations of his contemporary scientist heroes. While horrified by the aftereffects of radiation, his scientists hope that the opportunities presented to study human cells will allow them to derive future benefits to humanity from the midst of tragedy. The most prominent members of this team are Dr. James Bowen (Nick Adams, dubbed by Naya Gorō), an American doctor who felt a responsibility to come to Japan due to his own country’s part in the bombing; Dr. Togami Sueko (Mizuno Kumi), a respected female scientist whose role as a love interest for Dr. Bowen is de-emphasised by the script’s determination to treat her as an equal partner; and Dr. Kawaji Ken’ichiro (Takashima Tadao), who begins to reveal a less-than-ethical side later in the film (possibly intended to invoke the darker side of Japanese war-time research).

Intrigued by tales of a feral Caucasian boy (Nakao Sumio) living off small animals in the streets of Hiroshima, our trio of scientists discovers the boy cornered in a cave and take him back to their hospital. There they discover that the boy – whose flat ridged forehead evokes the classic screen designs of Frankenstein’s monster, but could equally well suggest Neanderthal ancestry – is resistant to radiation, possesses enhanced strength, and is growing at a rapid rate. Dr. Togami – the only member of the team the boy will trust – becomes central to the process of raising and socialising him, in addition to encouraging his compliance with various tests. Due to his strength and uncertain temper, the boy is kept locked up in a large cage, although as he continues to grow at an alarming rate they have to keep building bigger cages to contain him. When Mr. Kawai (Tsuchiya Yoshio), the former Imperial Navy officer who brought Frankenstein’s heart to Hiroshima, turns up and suggests that the boy might have grown from the radiation-infused organ, Dr. Kawaji travels to Frankfurt to consult with Dr. Riesendorf (Peter Mann, dubbed by Kumakura Kazuo), the German scientist from the opening sequence. Asked whether there could be a link, Dr. Riesendorf says there’s only one way to know – cut off an arm and a leg! If they grow back, the answer is yes. Kawaji is disturbingly willing to accept this as a necessary action, completely oblivious to the ethical concerns raised by Dr. Bowen & Dr. Togami, whose objections he seems to consider as the pointless whining of spoilsports. Sneaking off to perform the double amputation behind their backs, he’s interrupted by the arrival of a cavalier television crew, whose ill-advised decision to shine bright lights into the boy’s face enrages him sufficiently to prompt his escape – leaving behind a still-briefly-living hand in one manacle (although this proof of Frankenstein’s legacy in no way lessens Kawaji’s drive to cut bits off the now-gigantic boy).

Meanwhile, a giant burrowing creature has begun to ravage the countryside but has gone almost completely unnoticed, with only Mr. Kawai believing that the damages are attributable to anything other than earthquakes. Baragon (Nakajima Haruo) has got to be one of the silliest creatures to come out of the workshops of special effects director Tsuburaya Eiji. Imagine a giant armadillo with a face like a pug. Add some floppy batwings for ears, a bizarre design choice which looks ridiculous and would be terribly impractical for a burrowing creature. Slap a curved horn in between its eyes. Season with flame breath and a kangaroo-like ability to make powerful spring-loaded leaps and you have Baragon. Somehow this creature remains completely undetected and the deaths caused by its rampages are blamed by both authorities and media on the Frankenstein boy (played in his giant form by Furuhata Koji), with only Bowen and Togami willing to believe Kawai’s initial sighting of the creature (which pre-dated the boy’s escape). Pursued by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, the boy eventually encounters Baragon 75 minutes into the movie and a fight ensues, leading – thanks in no small part to his greater manoeuvrability compared to a man in an armadillo suit – to his inevitable victory.

And then – with 4 minutes of running time remaining – a giant octopus turns up from nowhere! Their fight takes them over a cliff edge into the sea, where they disappear from human sight, and the movie ends. Or, at least, that’s what happens in the version I watched. Originally, the movie ended with Baragon and the Frankenstein boy being swallowed up by a volcano, but American producer Henry G. Saperstein wasn’t too impressed by this and requested that a new ending be shot with an octopus for the American release. After laboriously bringing the production team back together to build a new set and film the new ending, the eventual American distributors ended up cutting the new ending and going with the original. Back in Japan, the octopus ending was accidentally retained for an alternative version aired on television, now referred to as the international version and marketed overseas under the alternative title Frankenstein vs. the Giant Devilfish. While I willingly concede that this alternative ending doesn’t belong in the original film, I can’t help but feel affection for it as one more piece of crazy layered on top of a film riddled with craziness.

Much to my delight, The War of the Gargantuas [Furankenshutain no Kaijū: Sanda tai Gaira] (1966) – whose title literally translates as Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira – opens with the return of the giant octopus! (Well, it’s probably a different one, but I don’t care – I’ll happily take this pseudo-continuity with my preferred ending as an excuse for more cephalopod action.) A tentacle sneaks into a ship’s bridge behind the helmsman (Yamamoto Ren), who turns in time to whack it with an axe. Larger tentacles burst through the windows to envelop him, but retreat when a shaggy green biped (Nakajima Haruo) rears above the waves. Handily dispatching the octopus, the looming green creature immediately turns on the ship. Only the helmsman survives to tell the tale – all that’s left of his fellow crew members are the torn and bloodied remnants of their clothes drifting on the waves.

In an odd step away from maintaining continuity, the central three scientists of the original have been replaced with three new characters, although as far as the script is concerned they must be the same three individuals since they share the same history and interpersonal relationships. The American scientist is now Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn); the female scientist, although still played by Mizuno Kumi, is now named Dr. Togawa Akemi; and the third scientist (minus the dubious ethics) has become Dr. Majida Yuzo (Sahara Kenji). Dubious of the surviving sailor’s identification of his assailant as Frankenstein, due to the uncharacteristic level of violence and cannibalism, Dr. Stewart & Dr. Togawa visit the Japanese Alps to confirm a sighting of the original creature’s giant footprints. While they are away, an appalling nightclub rendition of “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” by a terrible American singer (Kipp Hamilton) is interrupted by the appearance of our jolly green giant, who expresses his aesthetic appreciation by attempting to jam the singer down his own throat (a scene which would later be homaged in the Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated episode “Battle of the Humungonauts” (2010)).

Theorising that a creature living the dark ocean depths must be sensitive to bright light, the Self-Defence Forces manage to drive the creature off from further urban attacks by asking everybody to turn on their lights and start bonfires, but after cornering the creature in the mountains with portable lasers and electrified water, it’s suddenly rescued by its slightly taller fuzzy brown counterpart (Sekida Yû), clearly establishing that the original creature was innocent. Apparently a tissue sample left behind by the wounded original was washed away into the ocean and, in the intervening five years, grew into Aqua-Frankenstein (Aquastein?). After a pause to inform the public of the names which have been arbitrarily assigned to the two creatures – Sanda (or Brown Gargantua in the American version) and Gaira (or Green Gargantua) – the authorities resume their attempt to kill both creatures, taking a stance on the nature vs. nurture debate with their assumption that if Gaira is a vicious cannibal, this must also be true of Sanda (despite the lack of any Alpine cannibalism incidents since he first disappeared). This illogicality aside, the SDF are at least willing to accept that blowing them up is not an option if they want to avoid inadvertently growing a whole new crop of creatures.

Unfortunately the illogicality stretches beyond the reasoning of the authorities into the script’s conception of the creatures’ strengths and vulnerabilities. (Yes, the entire concept is nonsensical, but that just means that internal consistency is even more important.) After rescuing Dr. Togawa from a fall, Sanda discovers human remains next to Gaira and attacks him, setting off the climactic battle across the Japanese countryside. At this point it’s suddenly revealed that Gaira – previously successfully driven off by bright light – is no longer bothered by bright light, especially fire (which hurts Sanda but not him – why??). Instead, he is now actively attracted towards light sources, viewing them as indicators of where to find food (which causes the authorities to ask everybody to switch their lights off again). There’s a brief moment in which it seems that Gaira may carry a genetic memory of Dr. Togawa’s kindness towards the young Sanda, but nothing is ever made of this in dialogue so it’s possible I’m seeing a greater depth where none was intended. The battle between Sanda and Gaira eventually leaves the land and returns to the sea, where the two of them are bombed (er, whatever happened to not wanting to grow new creatures from the fragments?!?) and disappear into the smoke of a conveniently appearing undersea volcano (!!) which rises during their battle before sinking again.

Tsuburaya’s creature designs here are far more successful than in the previous film. Although Sanda bears little resemblance to his original caveman appearance, his Bigfoot/Yeti (Gargantuafoot?) appearance isn’t too far-fetched as an extrapolation and looks far more impressive. Gaira’s green colouring brings him closer in appearance to earlier filmic conceptions of the Frankenstein monster, with his furriness evoking the fuzzy vest first seen in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Far less successful is the replacement of American actor Nick Adams with Russ Tamblyn. Adams was a struggling actor who was friends with James Dean and Elvis Presley but never managed to find his breakthrough role. Frustrated with his lack of success in America, he moved to Japan shortly after filming Die, Monster, Die! (1965) to make three films: Frankenstein Conquers the World; Invasion of Astro-Monster [Kaijū Daisensō] (1965), the sixth Godzilla film; and spy thriller The Killing Bottle [Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Zettai zetsumei] (1967). He made an effort to learn the language and understand Japanese culture, forming a strong working relationship with Mizuno Kumi, his co-star in all three films and likely also (according to persistent rumours) his girlfriend. He has a good rapport on screen with his fellow cast members and was generally remembered as a pleasure to work with. Tamblyn (West Side Story, Twin Peaks), on the other hand, despite – or perhaps because of – his higher profile, clearly believes he’s above the material or any need to integrate with the local culture. He gives a thuddingly uninterested performance, is utterly unbelievable as a romantic interest for Mizuno, and presents an overall impression that his character would like everybody to go away and let him get on with exploiting Sanda in the lab for selfishly motivated research. His performance is so thoroughly at odds with the demands of his role that his very presence is a leaden weight dragging the entire production down.

Thankfully the performances of the Japanese cast are much stronger, most notably Mizuno Kumi who is the female lead of both films and does most of the hard work in rescuing the sequel from Tamblyn. She had previously worked with director Honda Ishirō on Gorath [Yōsei Gorasu] (1962) and Matango (1963), returning for one more monster movie with Ebirah, Horror of the Deep [Gojira, Ebira, Mosura Nankai no Daikettō] (1966). She would later come out of retirement to appear in Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla [Gojira tai Mekagojira] (2002) and Godzilla: Final Wars [Gojira: Fainaru Wōzu] (2004). Many of the other cast members – far too many to go into here – have appeared in multiple films directed by Honda Ishirō and his close friend Kurosawa Akira, but of particular interest is Tsuchiya Yoshio, who had the important supporting role of Mr. Kawai in Frankenstein Conquers the World. Tsuchiya played the hotheaded villager Rikichi in Seven Samurai [Shichinin no Samurai] (1954), which was filmed at the same time as the original Godzilla (1954). He would often pop over to the Godzilla set to watch it being made during his breaks and insisted on a role in the sequel Godzilla Raids Again [Gojira no gyakushū] (1955) to compensate for missing out. Between 1957 and 1970 he appeared in nine more of Honda’s films and a range of significant works from Kurosawa such as Throne of Blood [Kumonosu-jō] (1957), The Hidden Fortress [Kakushi toride no san akunin] (1958), Yojimbo [Yōjinbō] (1961), Sanjuro [Tsubaki Sanjūrō] (1962) and Red Beard [Akahige] (1965). Perhaps the most interesting screen credit on his CV is Funeral Parade of Roses [Bara no Sōretsu] (1969), a loose adaptation of Oedipus Rex set in Tokyo’s gay and transgender underground, in which Tsuchiya played the pivotal role of Gonda. He particularly enjoyed playing aliens and wrote multiple books on his lifelong interest – UFOs!

Director Honda Ishirō, of course, is best known to the world as the director of Godzilla and the majority of Toho’s science fiction output, but he was more than capable of working in other genres – he simply lacked the opportunity after Toho decided he was a safe pair of hands to put in charge of special effects extravanganzas. His work as an assistant director on Kurosawa’s Stray Dog [Nora inu] (1949) enabled him to make the transition to full director, and he came out of retirement to work with Kurosawa again on his final five films – Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), Dreams [Yume] (1990), Rhapsody in August [Hachigatsu no rapusodī] (1991) and Mādadayo (1993). Screenwriter Kimura Takeshi was a member of the Japanese Communist Party whose scripts tended to draw out the political angles of his scenarios and were generally more cynical about the state of humanity. Joining Toho’s monster stable with Rodan [Radon] (1956), he considered Matango to be the pinnacle of his career (with good reason). Unfortunately he became dissatisfied with his treatment by the studio not long after – he considered all of his work from Frankenstein Conquers the World until the end of his screenwriting career to be nothing more than work-for-hire, using the pseudonym Mabuchi Kaoru to separate himself from the work. (I expect that this goes some way towards explaining the cavalier attitude to internal consistency in The War of the Gargantuas.)

Sanda’s original opponent Baragon would later join the Godzilla franchise as one of the inhabitants of Monster Island in Destroy All Monsters [Kaijū Sōshingeki] (1968). Frankenstein’s illegitimate offspring Sanda and Gaira weren’t quite so lucky, although they would both appear again on Japanese TV as minions of Hell in Go! Godman [Ike Goddoman] (1973) and Go! Greenman [Ike! Gurīnman] (1973-1974). American audiences remained unaware for sometime that there were two Japanese Frankenstein movies, as all references to either Frankenstein Conquers the World or indeed Frankenstein himself were stripped from the re-edited and re-dubbed The War of the Gargantuas. Germany, on the other hand, went Frankenstein mad after the local success of Frankenstein: Der Schrecken mit dem Affengesicht (aka Frankenstein Conquers the World), slapping the Frankenstein name haphazardly on almost any Japanese movie with a giant monster. Following on from the sequel Frankenstein: Zweikampf der Giganten, six more of Toho’s offerings were marketed as Frankenstein films: Ebirah, Horror of the Deep became Frankenstein und die Ungeheuer aus dem Meer; King Kong Escapes (1967) posited an unlikely family connection in King Kong: Frankensteins Sohn; Son of Godzilla (1967) was reframed as Frankensteins Monster jagen Godzillas Sohn; Destroy All Monsters became Frankenstein und die Monster aus dem Weltall; Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) took on a supernatural tinge as Frankensteins Kampf gegen die Teufelsmonster; and Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) became the similarly lurid Godzilla gegen Frankensteins Höllenbrut. Two other studios also found their creatures appropriated into Germany’s bizarre little world of Frankenstein. Nikkatsu’s Gappa the Triphibian Monster (1967) was renamed Gappa: Frankensteins fliegende Monster, while two of Daiei’s rival Gamera movies were also inducted into the club: Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967) became Gamera gegen Gaos: Frankensteins Kampf der Ungeheuer, while Gamera vs. Jiger (1970) was rechristened as Gamera gegen Jiggar: Frankensteins Dämon bedroht die Welt.

So there you have it – more than most people are ever likely to want to know about the intersection between Mary Shelley’s creation and Japanese monster movies. I’m indebted to David Kalat’s A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series (Second Edition) (McFarland & Company, 2010) for drawing my attention to Germany’s Frankenstein mania; for documenting the hypocritical double standard among American audiences who praised the acting in Kurosawa’s films while criticising the supposed “bad acting” of the exact same actors in Honda’s films; and for general background knowledge which has no doubt informed this piece.

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