28 November 2013

REVIEW ALL MONSTERS! - HIROSHIMONSTER

The whole movie is so completely nuts that trying to select a single element and declare "this is the most interesting part" is totally useless, but certainly one of the things that is particularly interesting about Frankenstein Conquers the World is the window it provides into how Japanese pop culture shifted in its relationship to the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki over the course of a decade. Its release date was specifically tied to the 20th anniversary of those events, in August, 1965, which puts it eleven years after Godzilla, a film which treated the national trauma of that event and its aftermath with heavily allegorical abstraction in the form of a giant rampaging monster. Frankenstein Conquers the World - or Frankenstein vs. Baragon if we want to play a bit more fair by the Japanese title - has absolutely no interest in allegory: it doesn't just name drop the Hiroshima bomb in almost every scene of the first hour, it actually depicts the Hiroshima mushroom cloud in its prologue. And from here it launches into a phenomenally weird and warped story that is, throughout all of it, just as much of an allegory as Godzilla itself, though that allegory makes a whole lot less sense.

The plot is a decade-spanning bit of all-encompassing weirdness, that begins with crazy-eyed Nazi scientist Dr. Riesendorf (Peter Mann) investigating a living heart that keeps beating despite not being in a body. His experiment is smuggled out via U-Boat to Japan for safekeeping, where it studied by a nameless Japanese scientist played by the great Shimura Takashi, in what amounts to a cameo role that I wouldn't even bring up, except that it was Shimura's last role in a daikaiju eiga, and I wanted to give us all a chance to bid him farewell. What matters about this scientist is less what he discovers, and more that his lab is in Hiroshima, and it is 5 August, 1945.

15 years later, Hiroshima has recovered quite a bit, and has become the adopted home of Dr. James Bowen (Nick Adams), and American humanitarian who feels that his government's use of the A-bomb was morally unsound. He works to further understand the effect of radiation on the human body, including its thereapeutic uses, alongside Drs. Kawaji Yuzo (Takashima Tadao) and Togami Sueko (Mizuno Kumi); but when we first meet them, they're more consumed by the strange mystery of a teenage boy (Furuhata Koji) running amok through the streets, devouring animals raw. It isn't until a full year later that they finally catch up with him and make two hugely important discoveries: one is that despite his Japanese features hidden underneath a heavy brow, the boy is a full-blood Caucasian, and the other is that he absorbs and processes radioactive energy to fuel unusually fast growth, rather than growing sick and dying from it. Eventually, Bowen, Kawaji, and Togami conclude that the boy is related in some way to the amazing regenerative heart that was recovered from Germany, the heart taken from Dr. Frankenstein's famous monster, created so long in the past. The boy is, in fact, becoming Frankenstein's monster, though whether this is because a run of the mill feral boy found and at the heart, or if (my preferred reading) the heart generated for itself a human body - we learn soon enough that it's no thing at all for Frankenstein to regrow body parts that have been severed - is left pointedly unclear. The main point is that he comes into existence through a horrible, nuclear-inflected perversion. The notion of a genetically European pseudo-human terrorising Japan as he eats living creatures with particular savagery, thriving on the same radioactivity that poisoned so many Japanese citizens, is plainly symbolic of something, though the film is frankly too crazy to figure out what, exactly, it wants to symbolise.

Also, I take this costume to be symbolic:

Whatever political implications accrue to Frankenstein Conquers the World, the actual experience of watching is involves bathing oneself in one of the very strangest daikaiju eiga that Toho ever made: crawling disembodied hands, a wildly out-of-nowhere new backstory for the most famous monster of world literature, animal-eating, the plan to address the common movie scientist complaint, "don't kill the rampaging monster, we have to study it!" with the promise that its hand will just grow into another monster, anyway. Weirdest of all is when the film decides to incorporate the back half of its Japanese title, Frankenstein vs. the Subterranean Monster Baragon. There's not a goddamn thing about this scenario as it is developed over the first hour that suggests that there wasn't enough story; I don't know if somebody at Toho thought that audiences would rebel if the only building-sized monster was a human with some facial make-up. But along comes a giant prehistoric reptile, anyway, the aforementioned subterranean monster Baragon, and he is one of the most unbelievable monsters that the almost always-reliable Tsuburaya Eiji ever developed: big googly eyes, giant ears, a cartoon grimace, and the whole effect is way the hell more cute than anything else (it basically resembles a rubber, malicious version of Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon, with a nose horn). I kind of love Baragon, but not without irony; it is, in fact, the single thing that pushes a movie with some real narrative problems into a place that it's bad enough to be fun.

For honestly, a huge chunk of the middle of Frankenstein Conquers the World is just redundant and uninspired monster movie boilerplate: the scientists furrow their brows and wonder how to stop the monster, the monster steps on things. Only the hypnotic oddness of what the film does to the Frankenstein mythos keeps it from dragging altogether, especially since the makeup Furuhata was covered in so unmistakably takes its cues from the famous design for the monster in Universal's Frankenstein, and it's impossible not to be freshly reminded of the connection every time he shows up onscreen. Far better when the film is stuck in the random-ass opening third, with the most open acknowledgement that "yeah, we used to be buddies with the Nazis, what of it?" that I've ever personally scene in a Japanese movie, the magically bad science, the strangest deviations from Mary Shelley of any film nominally based on her characters that I am aware of. Even the ending bit is more fun, no matter how dubious Baragon is, and how it eventually reveals its secret attack movie to be jumping really far from a standstill. It's goofy as shit, but the right kind of goofy.

The strangeness of the movie is even stranger in light of the fact that it was the first Japanese daikaiju eiga co-financed by an American company: Henry G. Saperstein, owner of UPA (a company known to me almost solely for its groundbreaking limited-animation cartoons in the '50s), helped Toho finally get the project after the ground, after years and years trying to get a "giant Frankenstein" movie produced (a process extending even further back than King Kong vs. Godzilla, which began life as exactly such a picture). Not only was Saperstein on board with the random loopy weirdness of the film Toho was making, he wanted to be even odder: he insisted on a final battle between Frankenstein and a giant octopus, a sequence that was shot and cut (restored, a long while after, in what is currently called an "international cut"), apparently because even that was too much of a non sequitur for screenwriter Kimura Takeshi and director Honda IshirĊ to stomach. For something apparently meant for an American audience - hence Nick Adams as the closest thing to an individual lead - it's remarkably Japanese in its narrative logic and world-building, and the English dub changes virtually nothing, except in that it removes just a hair of the WWII material, and a few random shots here and there.

Other than the joy of staring, amazed, at something that probably should not exist, the best thing I can think of about Frankenstein Conquers the World is the generally strong quality of the effects work, including the single best process shot of Tsuburaya's career up to that point.

This is counterbalanced by things like the charmingly dippy Baragon and a stunningly awful boar, but in general terms, the effects work is as good as anything in any Toho kaiju to that date. Plus, the odd spectacle of seeing a recognisable human as a kaiju makes this rewarding as a novelty. It's got the monster spectacle goods, which the least it could do for us.

Beyond that, though, it's something of a slog: the three leads aren't really interesting, and the plot lacks anything that modestly resembles momentum. Frankenstein is an intriguing off-kilter character, but that's only enough to make this essential viewing for a kaiju junkie, and nothing else about the plot or the filmmaking (Honda was unusually checked-out this time around) is good enough to let the film emerge from the background radiation of its genre.

1 comment:

Sssonic said...

There is something almost admirable about Toho's take on the Frankenstein Monster, which is to say if you were to ask me "what would the Frankenstein Monster be like as a Toho Kaiju?", my answer would almost assuredly be next to identical to what is given to us in this movie. Likewise, Baragon feels so very, very Toho, right down to his existence owing less to any particularly-creative force and more to the ultimate choice to NOT use Godzilla as Fraknenstein's opponent, thus requiring a suspiciously similar replacement (though now that you've mentioned it, I will never NOT see the Toothless similarity now; that is adorable and wonderful).
It's a shame the movie as a whole can't quite rise to meet either of its monsters, despite its promisingly-bizarre opening, but it manages to be a pretty enjoyable romp even so; the Big Fight between Frankenstein and Baragon benefits tremendously from Frankenstein's full mobility, and as you say the Special Effects are pretty damned good.

Also, fun fact: this movie proved so popular in Germany that, after its release, literally EVERY LAST TOHO MOVIE to make its way there would be re-titled and redubbed to suggest the involvement of Dr. Frankenstein in some way, shape, or form.