Frankenstein vs. Baragon – A Retrospective

frankenstein vs. Baragon poster

The ’60s were home to some fantastic movies. For kaiju fans, some of the all-time best were released in this era. King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, and Destroy All Monsters were all released in the ’60s. Even Gamera got his start here – his first film released in 1965. In fact, 1965 is an important year for this retrospective. Of course, it was the year Invasion of Astro-Monster (better known as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) came out. But, there was another film from TOHO that also released in 1965. It also featured Ishiro Honda as director, Akira Ifukube as the composer, and Eiji Tsuburaya as the special effects director. Even the two core actors – Nick Adams, add Kumi Mizuno, were the stars. This film is Frankenstein vs. Baragon, originally known in the US as Frankenstein Conquers the World.

Frankenstein vs. Baragon is a peculiar movie, similar, and yet different than the other TOHO science fiction movies. The Frankenstein monster in this movie is a tragic figure, eliciting sympathy from the viewer. Baragon is a fantastic creation. (After watching this, you will be even more disappointed that Baragon didn’t get to do anything in Destroy All Monsters.) The story moves at a solid pace, though gets a bit slow toward the end. But, there aren’t many negatives that can be said about this movie.

As with Honda’s films, the cast deliver excellent performances. Kumi Mizuno for example demonstrates her ability to fully involve herself in her role. Kumi has played quite a few roles in kaiju films. In Matango, she played the seductress. In Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, she played the island girl. In Frankenstein vs. Baragon, she plays a passionate doctor. She can portray different characters with ease, a true actress in her craft. Of course, Frankenstein vs. Baragon delivers a satisfying showdown, as any versus movie should have. With Bandai having released the first ever vinyl figure based on TOHO’s Frankenstein, the time was right to look back on this gem of a movie. Hopefully when you’re done reading this retrospective, you’ll be inspired to check out the movie either for the first time, or the first time in awhile.

frankenstein vs. baragon screen

The opening sequence is an interesting one. It takes places in 1945, at the end of World War II. A German scientist is experimenting on something…something that sounds like it’s making heartbeats. Soon, soldiers come in and take the crate away, much to the scientist’s dismay. The scientist gives it to the Japanese, whom take it to Hiroshima. Upon opening the crate, it’s revealed that the thing making heartbeats is indeed, a heart. In fact, it’s the heart of the Frankenstein monster. The idea here is to create soldiers that can recover right away from being shot. Frankenstein’s heart would allow for such a thing to be possible. However, the idea is cut short when the Allies launch the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. 15 years pass.

In a hospital, Dr. Bowen (Nick Adams), an American scientist, has dedicated his research to helping patients from radiation poisoning due to the A-bomb. He is joined by Dr. Sueko (Kumi Mizuno) and Dr. Kawaji (Tadao Takashima.) Sometime later, Dr. Bowen and Sueko come across what appears to be a homeless boy. He is found in a cave, where Sueko attempts to befriend him.

The boy is taken to a hospital, where many people are looking at him. He is growing at an alarming rate, and it turns out he is related to the Frankenstein’s heart incident. Although not explicitly stated in the film, it seems to be that the heart has regenerated itself into a new Frankenstein. Frankenstein eventually breaks out of his cage in response to the reporters angering him with their camera lights. He runs around looking for food. Meanwhile, a monster destroys buildings, and eats cattle. Frankenstein is blamed for these things. But, later, it’s discovered that another monster was indeed responsible. Frankenstein sees Sueko in danger from this monster, called Baragon, and rushes in. What commences is a duel between titans…

Frankenstein is one of the oldest science fiction stories. It’s compelling because it consists of science gone wrong, and tragedy. The Frankenstein monster is a tragic character, and that plays a part in TOHO’s film, but in different ways. Frankenstein is portrayed by Koji Furuhata. Unfortunately, not much information can be found about the actor. It’s a shame, because his performance as Frankenstein was excellent. It takes passion and talent to play a character who has no lines throughout the entire movie. Frankenstein does not talk here. He does grunt, roar, and make sounds, but doesn’t have dialogue. This kind of portrayal works within the movie, because the character is like a lost child. The relationship he develops with Sueko is engaging. There’s a scene where Frankenstein has grown to a monstrous proportion. He goes to Sueko’s apartment, showing that he considers her a mother-like figure.

Talking about the cast, I already mentioned how great of a character Sueko is. One scene in particular that’s worth mentioning is the conversation between Bowen, Sueko, and Kawaji. Bowen and Kawaji seem to be leaning toward the idea of amputating one of Frankenstein’s limbs to prove whether or not he is actually the Frankenstein. Sueko is passionately against the idea, and it’s perfectly delivered by Kumi.

Frankenstein vs. Baragon Cast

Nick Adams and Kumi Mizuno work really well together, here and in Monster Zero. The scene with them having a meal together really does sound like a sequence where two everyday people are talking. The trio of them and Kawaji were fun to watch. A few other TOHO golden era stars appear in the movie. In the 1945 sequence, Takashi Shimura (Dr. Yamane in Gojira) briefly appears as the surgeon analyzing Frankenstein’s heart. It was a quick sequence, but Shimura was excellent here. A more prominent role is given to the police chief. He was very good, but the scenes of him trying to explain that another monster was responsible for the destruction were a bit slow. These sequences felt like they belonged in the middle act, not toward the end. This brings us to Baragon.

There was another non-Godzilla kaiju film the year before Frankenstein vs. Baragon. That film was Dogora, The Space Monster. Dogora had one of the best human plotlines in the entire kaiju lineup. (While Nick Adams in Monster Zero has been called the best American actor in these films, one could make the case that Robert Dunham is the best thanks to his fun portrayal of Mark Jackson in Dogora.) However, and this is probably the only time you will hear this from a giant monster fan, the actual kaiju part took away from the story. The Dogora scenes felt shoehorned in. Why? The plot was about the people, and the monster could have easily been written out. I bring this up because Baragon falls into this in the beginning.

Baragon appears briefly in the middle act, but disappears for awhile afterward. You could argue that it’s ominous, but such a lack of Baragon and mention of him made it seem like he was an afterthought in a movie titled Frankenstein vs. Baragon. Now, the film does kind of make of make up for this in the final 25 minutes. Baragon gets fun screen time as he breaks some beach houses, and snacks on some chickens. The story also finally gives Baragon an important plot by having him “frame” Frankenstein for the destruction. The writing could have done a better job at incorporating Baragon earlier, but the climax is satisfying enough to avoid calling it another Dogora. That, and the fact that Baragon himself is a fantastic creature.

When you watch a “vs.” movie, you expect quality action. Japanese monster movies do not disappoint, and especially not in Frankenstein vs. Baragon. The battle is lengthy and full of the creative maneuvers these classic movies are known for. Baragon has a unique jumping ability that is fun to watch. What I like about this battle is how much personality there is – both in the characters, and how the fight was choreographed. Frankenstein takes note of Baragon’s tail, and grabs it, seemingly gaining the advantage. But Baragon, realizing what’s happening, swipes his tail to make Frankenstein tumble over. In another scene, Baragon burrows into the ground, only to appear on top of a hill, much to Frankenstein’s surprise. It shouldn’t come as a shock how great Baragon moves and acts in this battle, as he was portrayed by none other than Hauro Nakujima – the man who brought Godzilla and Rodan to life.

The camera work is really good in the movie. There’s a scene in the climax where Sueko is on the ground and Baragon is approaching. It’s a genuinely terrifying sequence, as Baragon approaches and roars when he’s right over her. The special effects are mostly excellent, as one would expect from Tsuburaya. Of course, most fans know about the infamous horse. Instead of using an actual horse, a miniature was used. Honestly, it’s not that bad. What is bad however is the brief scene where a miniature tank and doll representing a soldier appeared. That scene, and the one with the boar, are the main negatives in a film with otherwise fantastic special effects and camera work.

The ending is worth discussing for a couple of reasons. If you watch this movie via the Tokyo Shock DVD, you’ll notice the “theatrical” and “international” versions. The original theatrical version features what you would call the true ending. In it, Frankenstein kills Baragon (by actually snapping his neck) and roars in victory. But, the ground beneath them breaks open, engulfing them into the earth. In the international version’s ending, Frankenstein kills Baragon, but instead of the ground opening, something else transpires. A giant octopus appears, the same creature that tussled with King Kong in King Kong vs. Godzilla. Frankenstein tries to fight, but the octopus grabs and takes him to the bottom of the ocean.

As for which ending is more effective, the giant octopus one is too abrupt. However, it’s definitely more enjoyable as it adds a brief kaiju battle to end off the film. But, the original ending makes more sense within the context of a coherent story. Interestingly, the giant octopus would once again show up, this time in the film’s direct sequel, War of the Gargantuas. (Gaira had much better luck with the octopus than Frankenstein.)

Akira Ifukube delivers an excellent soundtrack. The opening, rather mysterious theme, sets the tone for what’s to come. Unlike many of the Godzilla films, the music here is more downbeat – fitting, because the story has a tragic element. The final battle against Baragon was dramatic, and the music was a major part of that. All of this works to the film’s benefit, because the story has an emotional core to it. Like Honda, Ifukube treats the happenings with the utmost respect, and it shows in the maestro’s music.

baragon

Frankenstein vs. Baragon is tragic, fun, and an engaging movie. The Frankenstein creature is one of tragedy, a misunderstood being whom doesn’t want to hurt people. Honda is masterful with monsters and creating compelling stories around them. Baragon unfortunately takes awhile to become part of the main story. He does get great screen time in the climax thankfully, and is a major part of why the final battle is so memorable. The core human cast is excellent – Kumi Mizuno and Nick Adams are engaging leads. This film is a fine example of the amount of passion that went into making these classic kaiju movies.

The Empire of the Corpses Review

The Empire of the Corpses saw release in Japan a year ago. Not too long after seeing a limited theatrical release in the United States, FUNimation released the Blu-ray. Empire is a truly interesting film. It a science fiction thriller with some horror elements. It finds a fine line between telling a realistic story while delving into sci-fi territory. Not only is it a must watch for anime fans; it’s a must watch for anyone who have enjoyed the classic universal monster stories.

Set mainly in an alternate 19th century England, Empire’s plotline is engaging from the start. The narration by John Watson sets the tone for what’s to come. The driving force behind the story is the search for Victor Frankenstein’s notes. This is an excellent backdrop and one could even see the film as a brilliant take on Frankenstein’s Monster. (In this film referred to as “the One.”) Even though Victor is long dead, his presence is felt because he’s the one who discovered how to reanimate a corpse. The military uses this discovery to reanimate the dead for battle. The dead are also used for chores among other laborious tasks. It’s an interesting status quo, and gives the film a Walking Dead feel.

Even though people have managed to bring back the dead, no one has managed to do what Victor did: give the dead a soul. This is the driving force behind Watson’s character arc. He’s managed to bring his friend and colleague Friday back. Watson is desperate to give him his soul; because, while the body of Friday is there, without a soul it’s an empty shell. This might sound well intended, but the ongoing theme is to destroy the notes so that mankind won’t have that kind of power. Watson however when he finally comes into possession of the notes he hesitates, which leads to the deaths of many. People cannot play God, and when they try disastrous results take place.

6

Watson is portrayed as a man bent on bringing his friend’s soul back, to the point where it consumes him. It’s interesting to watch, especially when the One arrives on the scene for the first time. He questions whether Watson will become like Victor, a haunting message. The writing is fantastic from beginning to end. There are however some things that may have been resolved too fast. The consequences for Watson not destroying the notes were brushed to the side quickly. The scene with Burnaby yelling at Watson that it’s the latter’s fault was excellent, but right after that they’re back to being friends. It’s understandable that Burnaby would put aside his hatred to help Watson stop the One, but the resolution was rather quick.

Speaking of Burnaby, the cast is strong. Burnaby is a great character and without him the film would have been more dreary than it needed to be. Hadaly was good, but the writing needed to develop her better. Her first big appearance is a deus ex machina moment, and then later the plot twist is a little much to take in. If the film had shown a flashback, it would have been better. Her “father” was Thomas Edison, which is fascinating but again the story needed to show her backstory for it to be more effective. Nikolai appears early on. Watson does’t at first trust him, giving the viewer an interesting dynamic. Nikolai made for a nice contrast to Burnaby’s personality. (They were very similar to Fai and Kurogane from Tsubasa.) It was disappointing what the writing did with Nikolai toward the middle act. It was a powerful and effective scene nonetheless. If it wasn’t apparent before, this scene made it apparent: the destruction of Victor’s notes was top priority.

Frankenstein has been portrayed in various ways throughout the years. This version in Empire does the Monster justice. Here we see that he is disgruntled with human beings. All of his dialogue is excellent. From his ominous arrival to the final act, he might be the greatest character in the film. His endgame plan has a classical, tragic appeal to it. He shares the antagonist role with M. M isn’t as interesting, but the writing still makes good use of his ideology, even if the dialogue is just thrown at the viewer in the climax.

The film moves at a great pace. There’s a lot of dialogue, especially in the final act, but there’s a good number of action sequences to balance it out. The soundtrack is standard, but it does have a thematic quality to it. It works well with the 19th century setting. The greatest theme might be the piano melody played by the One. (It sounded like something straight out of a Universal 30’s film.) The ending of the film could have been better. It leaves the viewer confused and unsatisfied. In contrast, the after-credits scene is upbeat and a fun homage. (If you thought John Watson was just a borrowed name, you’re in for a treat.)

maxresdefault

Overall, Empire of the Corpses is one of the best anime films from the last decade. The 19th century setting gives the story’s atmosphere a sense of elegance. The biggest aspect is that it’s also a sequel to the Frankenstein story. The driving force behind everything is Victor’s notes, which made for an excellent backdrop. Watson is a likable, flawed character. He’s a human obsessed with bringing back his friend’s soul from the dead, to the point where it jeopardizes the mission. The fallout of being obsessed with this was fascinating to watch. Themes are explored, such as free will.  The One is one of the greatest versions of Frankenstein’s Monster. Every scene he was in he commanded a presence. Even though the film could have used an additional 15 minutes to flesh out some things (the explosive climax throws too much at the viewer), it is nonetheless a must-see.

9/10