What role does nostalgia play in our tastes as film fans? During my October 2010 quest to visit and revisit some lesser known Japanese monster movies from days gone by I have had many occasions to jump into the deep end of nostalgia and drift away to the land of the daikaiju beasts. It is a place that formed my whole opinion of horror movies until I was about 9 years old. I learned to love, trust and identify with these monsters. Strangely they also helped allay the burgeoning sense of chaos that all 9 year old kids feel when they start to realize that authority figures are flawed and even nasty people at times. Now 30 years removed from those initial impressions, it has been really interesting to try and re-contextualize these big beasts both for myself and for the sake of a review.
War of the Gargantuas is actually a loose follow-up to “Frankenstein Conquers the World”. It starts with the emergence of a giant green man-beast from the ocean and the destruction of a smugglers ship. An investigation is launched and an American scientist, Dr. Paul Stewart played by Russ Tamblyn (later Doc Jacoby in Twin Peaks) is brought in because the creature is thought to be a Gargantua. Stewart and his assistant Akemi cared for a baby Gargantua in captivity some 5 years prior, before the beast slipped its iron chain and made for the Japanese Alps. The great green beast emerges from the sea again and attacks an airport but he scuttles off when the sun emerges from behind heavy cloud cover. Seems he is allergic to light, well sort of.
Despite the press furor Stewart becomes increasingly convinced that the green Gargantua is not the one that escaped from his lab 5 years ago. Later, when the angry green giant is cornered in the mountains and strafed with electric lightning lasers by the Japanese Army, Stewart’s theory is confirmed. A second giant, a brown Gargantua thunders out of the insufficient tree cover and pulls his green brother to shelter. The army starts to scramble. Faced with two massive humanoids they call for heavy artillery, even though Dr. Stewart warns that the creatures’ flesh maybe capable of regenerating a full new Gargantua from a very few cells. Luckily the two big galoots have a falling out, which leads to a fight that could only happen between siblings. It is a fight so big and biblical that the director felt that there was only one suitable way to end it…with quite possibly the greatest act of contrivance in daikaiju history.
So I had to work doubly hard to sandbag the warm reminiscences that this film set abubblin’ within me. This is because I watched it a week ago, in bed with a 102 degree fever. The instant recollection I had was that I had originally seen these Japanese giants when I was a young lad at home sick from school. That brought all my fondness to the fore. Missing long division and re-heated Turkey Tetrazzini and getting to hang out with two ultra –Sasquatch as they ravage the Japanese infrastructure, that is the way the world ought to work. If I were reviewing with those warm thoughts still percolating I’d give this movie 10/10. Trying to put a more professional face on this, there a few key points I need to hit about “War of the Gargantuas”.
“War of the Gargantuas” is not a full bore fun and silly monster movie like “King Kong Escapes.” A lot of this is because of a higher overall caliber of production. The modeling and the compositing (primitive though the techniques are by today’s standards) are excellent. The lighting design is also off-the-charts good, especially the night shooting and the battle sequences, which have the same grave, foreboding pitch that director Ishiro Honda pioneered in the original “Gojira”.
The tone of these night sequences allows the viewer to make a deeper reading of the battle of the behemoths. The isolationist giant is dragged from his beatific Avalon into the toxic gloom of his brother’s catastrophic paroxysm. It’s a well choreographed dance of destruction personifying man’s Yin and Yang fighting to an explosive, ridiculous and somehow poetically sound conclusion. Fear not lovers of all things screwy and guy-in-a-suit goofy, there is plenty of that to hang your hat on. There are also a handful of funny 60’s cultural references courtesy of Russ Tamblyn. The best of these is just before the big brothers go to war and it serves as a sardonic jabat civil disobedience culture: “Maybe the non-violent one will win, ha…ha.”
“War of the Gargantuas” is a movie that knows how to reward its audience. The Monsters get a lot of screen time and the story is simplified to the point of sheer stupidity to allow for that to happen. To make things even better the monsters are among the most unpleasant looking in the daikaiju catalog. As I said before, my loving childhood memories of these ugly Kabuki masked oafs made this a hard film to be objective about. With that prejudice acknowledged and as much as possible put to the side I think that “War of the Gargantuas” is worth a look. I no longer see their destructiveness as reasonable responses to a hypocritical adult world, but the big mauling Neanderthals may still be a good metaphor for how and why those human contradictions exist. Perhaps that is what I felt when I was 9 and it has just taken me 30 years to find the words. Maybe that’s the role of nostalgia; to keep past feelings around long enough so that you can sort out the other details of events, over time. But all you really need to know is that “War of the Gargantuas” is a solid, fun big masher movie.