WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Back in the late 80s, the world of cinema was all about discovery! Video stores were at their peak, and several cable networks often featured late-night (or all-day) monster movie marathons, including USA Network, TNT, and TBS (The Superstation!). USA reveled in trash cinema with its weekend showings of Troma films on USA Up All Night!, TBS introduced yours truly to the joy of killer animal flicks, and TNT gave me my first taste of kaiju films!
It was during this veritable Golden Age of monster movie television programming that I came across a rare gem called WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. While I most definitely enjoyed the monster action, it didn’t instantly become a favorite. Having revisited it, I honestly can’t quite figure out why this movie didn’t etch itself into my kaiju-crazed mind. It is easily one of the best films in the genre!
The film begins with a fishing boat being attacked by a giant octopus. (A callback to the tentacled terror from the ending of FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON perhaps?) As the mighty Cephalopod tries to grab itself a snack, the crew of the ship is rescued by a giant ape-like kaiju. But it’s soon discovered that their savior was actually the octopus’ competitor, as Gaira (a.k.a. Gaila, the “Green Gargantua”) sinks the vessel, then dines upon the handful of survivors.
However one lucky sailor actually manages to make it to shore. After being hospitalized, and tells authorities that a giant monster sank his boat and ate the other crew members. For some reason, despite the obvious existence of other giant monsters, authorities seem hesitant to believe the man’s story. That all changes once Gaira strides out of the ocean and straight toward Haneda Airport.
Shortly after devouring a shrieking woman and hilariously spitting her shredded clothes out onto the tarmac, Gaira flees the scene. Since this kaiju has had a mostly nocturnal existence beneath the sea, the sudden blinding rays from the sun sent the man-eating monster sprinting for the safety of the ocean depths. With this knowledge in hand, the people of Tokyo are told to “turn on all the lights” in order to keep this new menace at bay.
The Japanese government, eager to find a solution to this new problem, seeks out the aid of a one Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn), who five years prior to current events, was studying a strange ape-like creature at his lab. Said creature was a brown-haired primate that was supposedly related in some way to Frankenstein’s Monster. (As seen in FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON.)
The creature escaped from captivity, and now the authorities believe that it is the culprit. However, Doc Stewart, his colleague Dr. Yuzo Majida (Kenji Sahara!), and his gorgeous assistant Akemi (Kumi Mizuno) are certain that Gaira is definitely not their cuddly escaped science project.
To prove their point, they travel to the Japanese Alps to investigate reports of a giant creature living a life of solitude in the mountains. In the meantime, Gaira gets a bit peckish and wanders into Tokyo for a late night snack. Upon attacking, and killing an American singer (Kipp Hamilton, ironically singing a song called “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat“), Tokyo lights up like a Christmas tree.
The sudden increase in illumination startles the hungry monster, who retreats inland toward the heavily forested mountains of central Japan. With an opportunity to attack and possibly kill the elusive monster, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces roll out and prepare to engage Gaira with conventional weaponry (tanks, artillery, machine guns, etc.) and newly designed Mazer Cannons!
In a major plot twist, the Mazer Cannons prove to be devastatingly effective against the green meanie! And just when the JSDF is about to deal the final blow, Gaira gets unexpected aid from his brown-furred “twin,” Sanda! The creatures escape and seem to be forming a bond, until the kindly Sanda discovers that his “sibling” is a fan of the other “other white meat.”
Enraged, Sanda attacks Gaira and eventually touches off a monster battle royale in Tokyo. The two wounded monsters punch, bite, claw, bodyslam, and grapple their way to sea, as bombs and mazer blasts ignite all around them. The JSDF’s fusillade, combined with the might of the Gargantuas’ struggle actually causes a volcanic eruption that engulfs the two monsters, thus ending this somewhat sequel to FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON.
WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a film that kaiju fans should love, but it seems like it is often overlooked. In many of the conversations I’ve with fellow monster movie buffs, this title rarely, if ever, gets brought up, and I’ve never really understood why. Personally I think its an unqualified success, mainly because its kaiju stars are more like fully realized characters than special effects setpieces.
Sanda, the monstrous protagonist of the film, is gentle, docile, and risks life and limb to save people. This is due in part to his stay with Akemi and Dr. Stewart, who nurtured Sanda during his brief stay with them. Gaira on the other hand is totally feral and bestial, and sees humanity as a source of food. Having survived on his own in the harshest environment on Earth, it’s no wonder that he is the complete antithesis of his “sibling.” Gaira, while clearly the villain, is a tragic character that you can almost feel sorry for.
And both monsters actually have a solid motivation for duking it out during the climax. Typically, a giant monster battle is simply a territorial dispute. Here it’s more of a clash of morals. Despite being relatives (more like clones really), Sanda doesn’t allow the whole “blood is thicker than water” mindset stop him from being Japan’s (somewhat) savior. He sees humans as friends, not food, and is truly angry when he discovers his green-skinned twin thrives on human flesh.
Another fantastic thing about this kaiju classic is the group of men that were working behind the scenes. Godzilla’s founding fathers are all present and accounted for including Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, Director Ishiro Honda, Composer Akira Ifukube, and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya. Whenever these men got together, magic happened, and you can really see that in this film. Everything, from the camera work, to the lighting, effects, storyline, and music is just so well done.
The cast of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is made up of a lot of familiar faces, but sadly, they aren’t given much to do. And that’s one of the film’s few weak points: The human characters just aren’t very interesting. Kenji Sahara, (Dr. Yuzo Majida) who has had some very memorable performances in other kaiju films (e.g. the devilishly greedy Benzo Torahata in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA; the alien-possessed Makoto Obata in SPACE AMOEBA), is totally wasted here, playing a scientist that chimes in with some interesting theories and exposition from time to time.
The same applies to Kumi Mizuno (Daiyo from GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER; Miss Namikawa from INVASION OF THE ASTRO-MONSTER), who pulls double duty as the film’s eye candy and damsel in distress, and Jun Tazaki (the stalwart Captain Hachiro Jinguji from ATRAGON) who is thrust into another stereotypical role as a military leader.
In my opinion, the filmmakers should have just cut out American actor Russ Tamblyn (who is only here to make the film more digestible for us gaijin anyway), and had Kenji Sahara play his role. And if that wasn’t a possibility, then they should have hired Nick Adams to play the lead American character, because quite frankly, Nick Adams is awesome personified!
Though the human element in WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is lacking, there’s plenty of monster mayhem onscreen to make up for it. Usually in these types of films, the humans hog all the screen time in the first half, with the second half being devoted to the monster(s). Here, we get to see plenty of Gaira (and eventually Sanda) on an average of every seven or eight minutes, which is almost unheard of!
So why hasn’t this film gotten as much attention as all the other Toho kaiju classics? I think part of the problem lies in the designs of the monsters themselves. Gaira and Sanda are just a pair of gigantic ape-men. They don’t fly or have any special beam or energy attacks. They don’t hail from outer space. And the JSDF can, oddly enough, put a major hurtin’ on them with it’s super sci-fi weaponry. They are third-tier kaiju at best, ranking below the likes of Varan, Manda, and other Toho one-hit wonders.
Regardless, this movie deserves more love and a larger audience. For those of you who claim to be kaiju fans and haven’t seen this flick, shame on you. For those of you who would write it off as “kiddie fare,” shame on you too! This is, believe it or not, a brilliant dramatic piece about two quarreling brothers, that is merely disguised as a silly Japanese monster movie. And that, ladies and gents, makes it all the more special.
I adore WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, and think it it more than deserving of:
The Packaging: WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is part of Classic Media’s Toho Master Collection, and comes in a 2-disc set with RODAN. Both discs are housed in a collectible case that resembles a hardcover book, and showcases the original Japanese poster art for both films. It looks pretty nifty, but the downside is that there’s nothing present to keep the case closed.
Audio & Video: Both the American and Japanese cuts of the film are feature a good transfer in the movie’s original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Interestingly enough, the American version is the better of the two, mainly because portions of the Japanese version are too damned dark! Both versions of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS utilize clear, crisp Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Every monster roar, explosion, and beat of Akira Ifukube’s soundtrack sounds great!
The Extras: The WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS disc only contains two versions of the feature film. There are no special features – not even a trailer. However, on the RODAN disc (which also contains two different cuts of the film) there’s a feature-length documentary (approx. 70 minutes) called Bringing Godzilla Down to Size that’s worth a look!
Final Verdict: Odd packaging and lack of extras aside, this is a great release from Classic Media. Having two cuts of the film (in its original aspect ratio), plus an additional feature (RODAN) and a documentary, kind of makes up for the fact that there aren’t any trailers or interviews included on the disc.
Until a Blu-ray of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS comes along, this is the best way to watch the film. If you’re a fan of kaiju cinema and don’t yet own this movie, then I recommend this 2-disc set, and give it a rating of: