Happy Halloween month! It’s my favorite time of year: the crisp cool air, the beautiful colors of changing leaves, dark nights perfect for horror movie marathons, candy, pumpkin spice everything, apple pie, costumes, Halloween parties, all that shit! Last year I had a perfectly Halloweenish kaiju movie, the delightfully bizarre Frankenstein Conquers the World. This year I just have to follow up with its superior sequel, 1966’s terrific War of the Gargantuas!
Of course, just how much of a sequel it is will depend on what cut you’re watching, but we’ll get to that later. What’s important to know right now is that in spite of its wet-fart of a leading man, Gargantuas delivers a simple and satisfying sci-fi story and some of the absolute best monster mayhem committed to film. It’s a cult favorite in an already cult genre that’s secretly influenced some of the heaviest hitters in Hollywood. So put down that giant octopus, spit out those shredded shirts, and get the words unstuck from your throat, because we’re going to war with the Gargantuas!
First, the trailers. Here’s the original Japanese trailer, and the English language version. Both versions are essentially the same, but the English version has some kick-ass dubs and some ridiculously corny title cards.
Master monster maestro Akira Ifukube returns to deliver the score. It combines the creepier elements from his work on Frankenstein Conquers the World with his more traditional kaiju movie sound: wild, bombastic brass that gets particularly out of control when one of the Gargantuas starts horkin’ down people like they’re White Castle mini-burgers.
You can give the main theme a listen here, but the stand out tracks are the urgent and exciting Operation L theme and the fittingly melancholy monster battle theme. You can keep yourself in a monstery mood while you read with a full score suite here. And who could forget the bugfuck-insane lounge ballad “Feel in my Heart (The Words Get Stuck in my Throat)” with lyrics like “If I had a tiny microphone hidden in my heart / It would amplify my love for you.”
Gargantuas, like Frankenstein, was co-produced by Toho and Henry Saperstein’s company UPA. Also like Frankenstein, Gargantuas reunites director Ishiro Honda and special effects sultan Eiji Tsubaraya. This movie shows once again that these guys were the absolute kaiju kings.
The casting in Gargantuas is similar too. The human protagonists are a trio of scientists led by a Hollywood actor, with Kumi Mizuno playing the leading lady, and a Japanese actor rounding the trio out. Frankenstein’s Tadao Takashima is replaced by Toho sci-fi stalwart Kenji “Mr. Godzilla” Sahara in Gargantuas, and Sahara is solid as a supporting character. The Hollywood actor is where the transition gets rough. Frankenstein featured Nick Adams:
I went into it in more detail in my Frankenstein review, but Adams threw himself whole-heartedly into both of his Toho monster movie roles (he also starred in Invasion of Astro Monster), and it shows onscreen. Both of his performances are earnest, energetic, and just the right amount of hammy. But instead of Nick, Gargantuas is stuck with smirking, mumbly, walking perm Russ Tamblyn.
Tamblyn’s Dr. Stewart is a charisma void, delivering his lines with the absolute minimum effort and emotion. At times it seems like maybe he was going for a smooth cool-guy scientist, but it just comes across as smug sleepwalking. It’s maybe unfair to compare Tamblyn to Adams, but their roles are so similar it’s hard not to. What’s amazing is that his snoozer performance hardly even slows this movie down, that’s how bad-ass everything else is. So it’s kinda like Charlie Hunnam’s blah leading man in Pacific Rim!
Gargantuas throws us headfirst into monster action from the get-go. The film opens with a small fishing boat at sea, getting tossed around on a stormy night. The helmsman has things under control, until a giant goddamn octo-arm slithers in and starts slopping around! It makes some really cool and weird sounds while it manhandles the crewman. Before the octopus (sometimes named “Oodako”) can initiate any live-action hentai, the green gargantua Gaira shows up and wrassles its big squishy ass!
Gaira just throws the big cephalopod around until it decides to fuck off. The Gaira-Octo fight is an exciting way to launch into the story, but it’s also a fun nod to the deleted alternate ending for Frankenstein Conquers the World.
Immediately after giving Oodako a sea-worthy swirlie, Gaira goes apeshit on the boat, which must have been a very fast, very short emotional rollercoaster for those poor fisherman. The ship model is big and detailed, the churning, stormy ocean is great, and Gaira himself looks bad-ass in the wind and rain. We don’t see all of Gaira’s rampage; the movie gives us a breather to show us the title card and the credits, then jumps ahead to the lone survivor babbling madly in the hospital.
So in the original Japanese cut, the Gargantuas are called Frankensteins. I love this partially because I know that at any given time, the existence of this concept is psychically giving humorless English majors the loudest, most fiery rage-diarrhea possible.
As fun as it is to imagine lit professors furiously and uncontrollably liqui-turding in their pants over wacky pluralization, the Gargantuas are called Frankensteins because they actually are that monster’s weird, cellular offspring. The Japanese and English language versions handle connections to the previous movie strangely. The trio of scientists are new characters, unrelated to their Frankensteinian counterparts. Flashbacks show them caring not for a human-sized Frankenboy, but a ridiculously adorable little Kidgantua.
So you could argue that the Kidenstein and Boygantua were being observed by two different science-threesomes, except that Gargantuas references the living severed hand scene from Frankenstein! It all sort of reminds me of how Evil Dead II confusingly opens with an abbreviated, altered recap of Evil Dead. It’s odd to have an immediate retcon like that, so the English version tries to smooth things over by replacing references to Frankenstein with Gargantua. Basically the Japanese version is a loose sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World, while the English version is more of a standalone movie, but it still has some minor ties to the previous film. Ultimately, which version you watch doesn’t really matter.
A scuba team is sent out to assess the survivor’s shipwreck, but all they find are an undamaged ship and ripped-up clothes. They grill the lone survivor for the “real” answers, and he awesomely tells them “If I were going to tell a lie I’d think of something more believable than a gargantua!”
The survivor recounts what happened through a flashback. We see Gaira swim after the sailors, who are frantically paddling for shore mid-monsoon. This is done with a terrific composite shot and a big awesome Gaira prop hand that flops down on top of the actors. It all looks great, and we get to see one of the few man-eating Toho kaiju grabbing late night yum-yums like a true dollar menunaire.
People start believing the survivor when Gaira pops up off the coast of a small fishing village. The townies are trying to pull a wrecked ship ashore when they get a full, pants-shitting view of the Gaira’s big ugly mug poking out of the ocean.
It’s enough to finally mobilize our intrepid sciencers. They tell the press they don’t believe this ugly green menace is their peaceful, people-loving babby monster from back in the day, and speculate that it may be a second creature. Dr. Stewart and Akemi (Mizuno) head into the Japanese Alps to follow up on reports of gigantic footprints, and Dr. Majida (Sahara) investigates Gaira’s beach-side stomping grounds. Stewart and Akemi sure as shit find some huge footprints (conveyed by a surprisingly weak matte painting), while Majida finds a hunk of monstery schmutz and has it analyzed.
But before our heroes can put their heads together and figure Gaira out, he’s running amok at an airport! And I mean literally running: much like Frankenstein in the previous movie, the Gargantuas can dash and leap around their mini-worlds. It’s an incredible visual, especially compared to classic lumbering monsters like Godzilla.
The airport also boasts some terrific evacuation shots. People actually look scared and frantic: they run, knock over tables, jump over stairs, and don’t accidentally smile when they’re on camera. The quality of an evacuation scene is one of my favorite ways to measure the production values of a kaiju movie. If they cared enough to make the evacuation look good, usually the rest of the movie is on point… at least on a technical level.
It gets cooler though: Gaira’s not here to remind us of our hubris or warn us about nuclear weapons, homeboy is here for snacks. With some more inspired compositing and use of the big prop hand, Gaira fists an office window and grabs an administrative assistant appetieaser.
Then we see where the bloody, shredded clothes come from! Gaira loves to chomp on dudes and ladies, but he spits out their duds like sunflower seed shells!
The clouds part and the sun shines through, scaring the piss out of Gaira. He sprints for the coast and cannonballs spectacularly into the ocean. Tokyo is left in shock and the press hammers Stewart and Akemi for answers. Our heroes manage to ditch the papparazzi and catch some beauty rest before their hearing the next day. Meanwhile, at a swanky rooftop nightclub in Tokyo…
This lady sings, and it’s pretty brutal. After her performance, the lights go down and Gaira pops up!
But before Gaira can chow on this lady, the emergency lights flip on, freaking him right the fuck out again. He drops the girl, and just bolts out of town all together. Emergency broadcasts warned Tokyo residents to make like Motel 6 and leave the lights on for Gaira, so he makes a beeline for the boonies. Japan’s self-defense forces aren’t about to let a man-eating monster off scot-free, so they chase him through backcountry roads like the weirdest possible alternate universe version of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
The army chasing Gaira is exciting and fun, mostly due to Ifukube’s kick-ass music and welcome shots of life-size military vehicles trailing the monster. The miniature vehicle shots look great too, except when they also feature distractingly obvious mini-drivers. Hilarious micro-men are worth it though, because those miniature vehicle shots mean we also get to see the huge-ass maser tanks in action!
The maser tank is the most iconic piece of fantasical tech in Toho’s sci-fi and fantasy oeuvre. Prior Toho films like The Mysterians and Mothra feature similar, less mobile energy weapons, but Gargantuas marks the debut of the maser tank, which would go on to appear in Toho creature features (in various incarnations) for decades to come. Futuristic super-weapons have a tendency to pull me out of these movies, but I’ve always liked masers. Gaira however, super does not.
The forest assault on Gaira marks one of the only times the military has made a dent against a Toho monster. They manage to light him up (literally, he catches fire!), but not surprisingly this way pisses him off, and he starts throwing tanks through houses spectacularly. The JSDF keeps the heat on Gaira by electrifying the nearby river and hammering him with maser fire. Gaira tries to crawl away through the forest using the woods as cover, but the masers just slice through the trees, bringing them down in a clean horizontal sweep, roasting Gaira’s rump. It’s one of the coolest sequences in all of giant monster moviedom, and sets up Nakajima to do some masterful suit acting.
By the end of their confrontation, Gaira’s bleeding and flopping around on all fours in pure agony. Nakajima’s body language comes through terrifically, but thanks to the simple design of the Gargantuas, his face is able to emote too. You can even see the actors’ eyes! It goes a long way to giving the creatures life and personality. As we watch the fight go out of Gaira, we hear a weird roar from over the hill. The JSDF collectively bombard their bloomers with boo-boo: “Another one?!?!”
Sanda! Sanda’s a turbo-pimp with a heart of gold and he’s even bigger and bad-asser than Gaira. He dashes in, scoops up his decrepit brother, angrily shoos away the JSDF with his free arm, then proceeds to give them the most withering shit-eye I’ve ever seen, human or not.
Sanda and Gaira shamble off to safety, and it’s not long before Stewart and friends are hot on their trail. They’re convinced that Sanda is their friendly kidgantua all growed up and that Gaira can’t survive for long away from water. Why Dr. Stewart thinks that Gaira will die without splashing around every few minutes is beyond me, but it gives everybody an idea of where to start searching for our titular mon-stars. While the humans scramble around for clues, we get a peek into what’s going on with Gaira and Sanda.
Oh surprise, Sanda proves once again he has a fucking heart of gold and does his best to care for and comfort his battered brother. They desperately hide in the forest from search choppers, and Ifukube’s score amplifies their monstery plight. While the army gives the monsters panic attacks, Stewart and pals find Gargantua samples further up the river. After analyzing the tissues, they realize Gaira and Sanda aren’t just siblings of the same species, they’re identical on the cellular level. Based on that and their run-in with Frankenstein’s living severed hand in the previous movie, they theorize that Gaira is actually a hunk of Sanda that got sloughed off and grew into a whole new monster. It’s why Gaira is littler, shittier, and loves being in the water.
Our scientists also realize that if you try to blow up a garg with conventional firepower, you’re just going to scatter their cells and create a shitzillion more of them. The army says “that’s fine, we’ll just napalm both the fuckers to death and call it good,” which bums out all three scientists thoroughly. Stewart and Akemi take a hike (literally!) to clear their heads and encounter some amazingly dweeby 60’s college kids singing their way up the same trail. An ominous fog rolls in, so Stewart and Akemi decide to head home, while the bevy of dorks march on… into the grasp of Gaira oh shit!
Dr. Stewart, Akemi, and the Tokyo Tech AV Club all run for their lives, but Akemi gets tripped up and finds herself dangling off a cliff. Stewart, in a turdish and truly Russ Tamblyn-esque fashion, slowly and half-heartedly ambles over to start helping her, while MOTHER FUCKING SANDA LEAPS DOWN THE CANYON TO SAVE HER BECAUSE HE’S A BETTER PERSON
As he gets into position to catch Akemi, Sanda takes a bone-crushing boulder to the leg, knocking his ass into the river below, and he still saves Akemi. Dr. Stewart was literally not willing to jog to save her life. Sanda’s devotion to saving Akemi solidifies their theory that he’s “their” gargantua. He carefully places her back at the top of the cliff so she can escape with Stewart.
Starting with Sanda’s baller rescue, the movie tears out all the stops and shoots them out of a laser cannon into an exploding cocaine-Ferrari factory. Which is to say, shit has gotten real, and just gets realer and realer until the credits roll. Sanda shambles home with his busted leg, physically hurt but ultimately feeling pretty cool about life, most likely excited to communicate the day’s events to his new friend Gaira in some way. This all changes for the absolute worst when he gets home.
Sanda finds out the hard way that his twin/clone/son/pal is a people-chomping dickhead. Garia’s laying there on the riverbank in a food coma, surrounded by bloody, spat-out clothes and he just barely acknowledges the livid Sanda with a lazy look that clearly says “what are you gonna do about it, pussy?” Unsurprisingly, Sanda’s non-verbalized answer is “bash your rotten fucking guts in with this tree.”
They battle on the riverbank, and it’s no surprise when Gaira starts biting and fighting like a dirty asshole. After tusslin’ around a bit, Gaira sprints out of there, and Sanda limps after him as best he can. We get a whole series of awesome effects shots as Gaira tramples through the countryside and trashes small towns, while the army and Sanda trail him. Our heroes try to convince the military that they have eye-witness evidence that Sanda’s a stand-up dude, but the JSDF just isn’t buying it. Stewart and co. do however manage to warn them that Gaira no longer fears light, since past experience and context clues have taught him that light=delicious people.
Sanda, in his desperation to catch up with and stop Gaira, accidentally (and awesomely) blasts through a bridge. It prompts one of my favorite lines in the movie: the JSDF colonel finds out and gets up in Majida’s face, “You still wanna wet-nurse that monster?”
So both gargantuas end up in Tokyo. The city is on lock-down, with the lights out and nearly everyone evacuated or hunkered down in safe zones. Akemi and Stewart are still in the city, and Akemi insists on going to find and help Sanda to repay the big galoot for rescuing her ass. Stewart agrees to go with her, and they sneak out into the city, dodging military police and weaving through darkened streets packed with abandoned cars. It’s awesome, and makes the city evacuation feel more real than in most kaiju films.
Akemi and Stewart eventually push their luck too far. The army doesn’t spot them, but fucking Gaira does! This is way worse because there’s like an 80% chance the army didn’t plan on murdering and eating them. Our heroes duck into some kind of funky underground shopping center and/or surprisingly well-furnished subway terminal to evade the hungry green giant. They’re feeling pretty smart and cool about their hiding spot until Gaira goes “Hey you know what? Fuck all this chase-around stuff, I’m a huge-ass monster! I’m-a just blast my fist through the ceiling and getcha!” And he does just that.
Just when it seems certain Gaira will get to chew on a sexy lady, Sanda arrives on the scene and calls him out! Gaira drops Akemi a couple dozen feet onto concrete, which, yikes man. Stewart grabs her unconscious bod and hobbles off to safety. It didn’t go as smoothly this time, but that’s another life-save from Sanda.
But this is it! This where it all goes down! Gaira vs. Sanda is possibly my favorite giant monster fight of all time, and I’ve seen a lot of giant monster fights. The gargantuas don’t have any flashy energy beams like Godzilla and his friends, but their lighter suits let them brawl the bejeezus out of each other and the beautifully intricate city set around them. We’ve also spent the duration of the movie learning what makes these characters tick. They really are characters instead of mindless monsters; they have motives and personalities that have reached a lethal critical mass. Yû Sekida as Sanda and Nakajima as Gaira act their asses off in their monster suits. You can see how betrayed and sad Sanda is to battle his own brother, and you can practically smell Gaira’s dickish fury.
Ifukube’s music amplifies every emotion: Sanda’s anguish, Gaira’s rage, and the military’s mad desperation to stop them both. The fight itself is fucking incredible. Gaira bites on Sanda, they throw each other through buildings, they chokeslam each other’s heads against the concrete, Gaira smashes the piss out a bunch of tanks with hunks of rubble, and both monsters crash from one neighborhood to the next until they end up in an industrial harbor. Between dust-ups, Sanda non-verbally pleads with Gaira to cut this shit out, but it just seems to make Gaira more vicious. I can’t imagine having to beat the shit out of my brother to stop him from being a murderous asshole at all, let alone have him wail on me like a maniac for trying to stop him. That said, things get even crazier in the harbor.
Gaira and Sanda are both beyond pissed and out for blood at this point. While they bodyslam each other through buildings, the maser tanks close in like circling vultures. The masers humor our heroes and focus their fire on Gaira, which drives the fight out into the water. The miniatures have been awesome throughout this entire film, but I love the nice big freighters Gaira and Sanda get to play with here, especially when they drill each other in the skull with them.
Sanda and Gaira continue their war well into the morning, drifting further and further out to sea, followed by JSDF helicopters. Akemi wakes up in the hospital, and she, Majida and Stewart overhear military radio chatter that the fight is still raging. The choppers bombard the piss out of both gargantuas, and in the throes of furious battle it doesn’t slow them down much. It does trigger an undersea volcano, which the JSDF bomb to hell in a last-ditch effort to fry the two grappling giants. Akemi and co. are told shortly after that the JSDF is reporting the gargantuas as dead. It’s impossible to confirm, but in the hellish heat of spewing magma and lethal ordnance, there’s no way anything could survive. Our heroes take this uncertain news pretty hard, and the movie closes on a last lingering shot of the smoldering, colorful, almost expressionist volcano.
The film must have been at least a moderate hit for Toho, as there were plans for a Godzilla/Gargantuas crossover movie. Needless to say, I am butthurt that never got off the ground, and I bet I’m not the only one! This movie has fans in high places. For starters, this was the movie that sparked Brad Pitt’s interest in acting. It’s probably a little less surprising that master monster masher Guillermo del Toro loves it too.
The most recent Scooby-Doo series parodied it (crazy heart-microphone song and all) with an episode called “Battle of the Humungonauts.” Tim Burton, already a noted Godzilla fan, lists it in his top 5 favorite movies and said:
“There’s a beauty to these films, the Japanese character designs — there’s a human kind of quality to these things, which I love. Monsters were always the most soulful characters… the monsters were always the emotional focal point.”
The Gargantuas also influenced one of the most brutal battles in Kill Bill Vol. 2. If you guessed that it was Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah’s knock-down, drag-out, beat-ass brawl in Buck’s trailer, give yourself a scratch-n-sniff sticker! Tarantino describes it as “The War of the Blonde Gargantuas,” and he had both actresses watch the movie for inspiration. Like any good gargantuas, they make sure to choke the hell out of each other and blast one another through walls. They even drop a big fat hint in dialogue right before the fight breaks out:
Director Ishiro Honda famously said, “Monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy.” That philosophy applies to just about every kaiju film he helmed, but War of the Gargantuas has it in spades. Sanda is the most sympathetic monster other than Gamera or King Kong, and even those guys never had to fight their own family. The original ending called for the volcano to destroy not just the gargs, but all of Tokyo with a river of molten lava. It would have been a more spectacular finale, and could have even turned the movie into a cautionary tale; if you try to bomb your problems into oblivion, you’ll just end up with bigger, badder problems.
The volcanopocalypse ending was cut for financial reasons, but I think it also helps keep the focus on Gaira and Sanda, who bring an almost Shakespearean level of monster-tragedy to the table. You definitely feel for the monsters, but the movie never gets lost in overwrought melodrama, and it never strays too far from its fun, pulpy horror-adventure roots. Gargantuas pulls off this impossible balancing act flawlessly, which is why it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, kaiju or otherwise.