Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has learned the secret of great filmmaking: Always add a giant octopus. Even to romantic comedies. No, make that especially to romantic comedies.
"We must work to turn tragedy into eternal peace and happiness in the future."
There may be two titles on the DVD case, but Frankenstein Conquers The World/Frankenstein Vs. Baragon is only one movie. You can watch it three ways, however. This release from Toho and Media Blasters includes the original Japanese theatrical version; the international version, which is very similar to the original (except for a giant octopus); and the American version.
With Frankenstein vs. Baragon, director Ishiro Honda kicked off what he'd hoped would be a new Toho series that combined kaiju, or rubber suit monsters, with classic horror. As near as I can tell, there was only one more film in the series, War of the Gargantuas. The first co-production between U.S. and Japanese moviemakers, it features American star Nick Adams as a doctor in Japan to find a cure for radiation sickness in Hiroshima victims.
Facts of the Case
A Japanese sub carries a strange cargo from Germany. When the package arrives at Hiroshima Army Hospital, it turns out to be a living, beating heart.
"It's Frankenstein's heart…It will never die," the requisite mad scientist tells a surprised naval officer. The heart is to be used in experiments to create soldiers who will never die.
Years later, Dr. James Bowen (Nick Adams, Invasion of Astro-Monster) is doing research to save survivors of Hiroshima, who are battling the effects of radiation poisoning. He's particularly concerned by the case of a girl orphaned by the A-bomb.
Meanwhile, his colleague Sueko (Kumi Mizuno, Invasion of Astro-Monster) sees a strange-looking boy. When he turns up outside her apartment, she throws food to him. He grabs it and runs off.
Jumping forward to a year after the girl's death, Bowen and Sueko make a trip to visit her grave, but their trip is interrupted by the discovery of the strange boy's cave. Since she's fed him and he might remember her, Sueko goes into the cave to coax him out, accompanied by Bowen. It turns out that the boy was exposed to heavy radiation as a baby but was not poisoned. It also turns out that the boy is rapidly growing into a giant.
At the Akita Oil Fields, the newspaper article about the strange boy causes a worker to remember the strange heart he saw when he was in the navy. He's interrupted in his memories by a destructive earthquake caused by some sort of burrowing creature.
That's the basic setup for all three versions. Each of the two versions for non-Japanese consumption adds a huge flaw: the international version puts Frankenstein's monster in a fight with a giant octopus after Baragon is defeated and, even worse, the American version (Frankenstein Conquers the World) clips out the death of the girl suffering from radiation poisoning. Otherwise, the changes are minor.
Could the strange-looking boy be Frankenstein's monster, revived by the atomic blast at Hiroshima? Will there be a fight between Frankenstein's monster and the burrowing creature? If you've ever seen a Japanese monster movie, you know the answer to both questions is "yes."
There's a serious theme underlying Frankenstein vs. Baragon: the scientists are trying to save lives still threatened by the tragedy of Hiroshima. This concept is handled awkwardly; just after Bowen talks about his doubts over dinner with Sueko, the story abruptly jumps ahead a year or so. Still, the Hiroshima tragedy and moral decisions permeate the story throughout, brought in large part by Dr. Kawaji (Tadao Takashima, Son of Godzilla), who wants to perform experiments on the boy-monster.
Chances are good you'll be reflecting back on director Ishiro Honda's Gojira as you watch Frankenstein vs. Baragon. That's not always a liability; a party boat scene that echoes the one in Gojira effectively shows that Frankenstein's monster is just a frightened creature rather than a destroyer, since he walks away rather than smashing the boat. The scene also foreshadows a similar attack by Baragon on a chalet full of partiers; the lizard goes ahead and destroys the place. Honda also references Frankenstein with a twist at one point, showing the monster fighting off Baragon with flaming torches.
The movie isn't always that inspired, though. A scene in which the monster boy is driven berserk by rock music on TV and pitches the set out the window and a scene in which he attacks Sueko because he's fascinated with her necklace just seem weird. On a first viewing, it seems ridiculous to see a giant human fighting a monster in the final battle, but when watching the scene again while surveying the alternate versions, I got used to it.
The acting is mostly earnest and serious. Koji Furuhata, who only has one other role listed on IMDb, plays the role of Frankenstein's monster with humanity. His second thoughts about attacking the party boat and his astonishment when watching activity in a tiny (to him) town register believably. He's also thoughtful; the monster tries to put out the fire that starts while he and Baragon are fighting.
The commentary was a bit of a surprise because it was in Japanese, with English subtitles, as an interviewer discusses Frankenstein vs. Baragon with Sadamasa Arikawa, chief cameraman and director of special effects. Most of the comments explain the look of the picture, the way the perspective effects and composite shots were put together. At one point, Arikawa remarks about the significance of a blue set, but doesn't explain it, but there are few gaps of that sort. The commentary goes with the "giant octopus version" seen internationally.
If you want to see the changes without watching the whole thing three times, the "Extra International Footage" segment shows the final fight scene with giant octopus added, and two scenes that were altered are included under "Deleted Scenes" (the scenes that were merely deleted just show more of the tanks rolling—yawn!). The photo gallery here is great—with lobby cards and posters from around the world, and U.S. publicity material. One quibble, though. Instead of tantalizing us with photos of the pages in the booklet with the Japanese version in the photo gallery, couldn't they have included a translated hard copy of the booklet?
The Japanese and international prints held up fairly well, although I saw lines and spots on the American print. The composite shots in Baragon's attack on the chalet don't look very convincing in any version, though. Ambient noise, dialogue, and that martial monster music come across reasonably well in all versions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The message about using the lessons learned from tragedies to make the future brighter is a good one, but a call for peace might not register for some viewers when it comes amid monster movie mayhem. If you never mix messages and monsters, this isn't the movie for you.
Even if you're open to the message, Frankenstein vs. Baragon doesn't convey its message as eloquently as Gojira, so the sight of Frankenstein's monster wrestling with a giant lizard that looks kinda like Fred Flintstone's Dino may distract from the allegory.
I'll also quibble with the blurbs on the package. When the movie is an allegory about peace and humanity, it'll hardly do to have a blurb like, "TWO ATOMIC HEAVYWEIGHTS BATTLE FOR THE RIGHT TO DESTROY!" Blasting blurbs like this aren't needed; people who want to watch Frankenstein vs. Baragon will pick it up regardless of the cover copy.
And what about that stupid American title, Frankenstein Conquers The World? Wouldn't it be more accurate to call it, Frankenstein Scares People and Beats Up a Big Lizard? Maybe the title had something to do with the producers' international box-office hopes.
Frankenstein vs. Baragon retains the allegorical structure of Gojira. It's meant to make viewers think about the consequences of war and atomic bombs, not just to entertain. I was surprised at Frankenstein vs. Baragon. While the allegory may not be as perfect as Gojira, it's better than you'd think, given the title and description.
Despite the quibbles, Media Blasters did a good job of keeping the heart of Frankenstein Conquers the World/Frankenstein vs. Baragon beating on DVD. Not guilty.
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Studio: Media Blasters
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