The War of the Gargantuas is really the story of unfulfilled potential, dreams dashed and a sinking back into slimy obscurity. While the film ostensibly focuses on the titular gargantuas (and rightfully so because who doesn’t love watching grown men in ratty-looking hairy ape suits push each other around), it is the sad tale of Giant Octopus that lingers long after the last model tank has been thrown and the last smug line has been spoken by a clearly unhappy Russ Tamblyn.
After jobbing to King King in King Kong vs. Godzilla, Giant Octopus (Oodako) so impressed producer Henry Saperstein that he demanded Oodako be given a role in Frankenstein Conquers the World which he was making with Toho. Scenes were shot where at that end of that film, Oodako appears and drags Frankenstein under the water, presumably killing Frankenstein. A very strong (if also quite jolting since it really makes no sense in the context of the rest of the movie) reappearance and sets the stage for an epic grudge when Frankenstein returns in the following year’s The War of the Gargantuas. (Despite this, alarm bells should have gone off with Oodako and his agent since that sequence never was actually used in the American version Frankenstein Conquers the World.)
While Oodako opens The War of the Gargantuas menacing a boat, this doesn’t signal his ascent as serious threat so much as telegraph that his career is likely finished, as this has all the markings of a warm up match for a newer, meaner Frankenstein, designed to show the audience this isn’t the dimwitted overgrown goof of the first film. A green Frankenstein rises out of the sea and proceeds to manhandle Oodako straight onto lists of forgotten kaiju. One last bit of humiliation saw Oodako’s final appearance in any media come in a video game played on something called a Sega Pico.
Despite disappointing fans of the crabby cephalopod, The War of the Gargantuas still has much to recommend from a monster mayhem standpoint, even if the story does feel like it was just sort of made up as the movie went along. Frankenstein is terrorizing folks in the sea and everyone is busting Dr. Stewart (Tamblyn) and his staff’s balls about it because they raised Frankenstein in their lab in the previous film.
Stewart and company can’t believe it’s their Frankenstein since he was mostly friendly and didn’t eat people. In fact, when last seen, their Frankenstein was up on the mountains, not doing laps in the Sea of Japan. Stewart and his colleagues split up to investigate with he and the lady doctor (Akemi) their monster has a crush on searching the mountains and Dr. Majida checking things out in the sea.
Guess what? There are two Frankensteins! (Helpfully, the Japanese Ministry of Defense announces on radio that the green sea-oriented monster will be called Gaira and the mountain dwelling brown Frankenstein is Sanda.)
But why is Gaira always stomping about and eating civilians while Sanda has retired to live in the mountains, apparently content with the peaceful life of a vegetarian monster? Why is Sanda able to live underwater, but is deadly allergic to sunlight? And most curious of all, why is West Side Story star and Oscar nominee for his work on Peyton Place actor Russ Tamblyn anywhere near all this silly sushi? Two words: evil clone! (Okay, that doesn’t explain Tamblyn’s appearance, but even with the vagaries of film stardom, there’s still bills to pay, right?)
Perhaps exacting his revenge for having to appear in this, Tamblyn projects an air of not giving a crap about anything happening onscreen (this is backed up by the comments of some involved with the movie that he was “difficult” to work with) and completely fails to sell the rubbish reason for all that is transpiring: Sanda must have gotten scraped up near the sea, left some of his cells hanging around, those cells combined with proteins in the sea and resulted in an evil version of him that loves water and hates bright light. Dr. Stewart would have seemed less stupid if he just said he didn’t know what the hell was going on.
The film though uses this vaguely science-y mumbo jumbo as a critical plot point because if chunks of the monster can spawn another monster, the military can’t just blow up the damn thing! No one seems the least bit concerned about chunks falling off the monsters when they are fighting each other and being body slammed into buildings. And Sanda proves to be such a klutz that he breaks his leg falling down a cliff trying to help Akemi so that if the theory were accurate, hundreds of monsters would be ready to spawn just by him walking around and tripping in the mountains before lunch!
Like its predecessor though, The War of the Gargantuas overcomes what can barely be called a premise because it simply delivers what it promises and does so with deadly seriousness. The monsters are so ugly and rudimentary, they are much scarier than fancy big name monsters like Gigan or Ghidorah. And you get to see plenty of them trashing Japan as well as each other.
The story threatened to turn interesting on a level beyond watching Gaira grabbing helicopters out of the air and throwing them to the ground to explode when the good Sanda saved the evil Gaira from being killed by humans and helped him hide and heal, but also tried to communicate that he shouldn’t eat people either. Would Sanda face an existential crisis when he realized that Gaira was his own creation, but stood opposed to everything he believed? Or would he start hitting Gaira in the head with a tree when he noticed some human left overs nearby?
Though these two mixed it up admirably for 90 minutes, ultimately Gaira and Sanda would fare little better in the long term than Oodako, apparently being killed by an erupting undersea volcano at the end of the film, their later careers confined to a few appearances on two obscure Japanese TV series and some stock footage in a couple of later Godzilla films. All three though should take comfort that real kaiju fans appreciate their efforts and their collectible figures now routinely sell for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market if you can find them.
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