I segue away from Godzilla for a bit to discuss another kaiju film from Toho that doesn't feature the Big G. Born from the same deal that gave rise to King Kong vs. Godzilla, Frankenstein Conquers the World is a rather unusual kaiju film. For one thing the monster is human (or, partly human at least). For another, he's Frankenstein's monster. Yes, as in the one that appears in Mary Shelley's seminal novel. Well, sort of.
I first heard of Frankenstein Conquers the World long before I saw it. When I was a little kid obsessed with dinosaurs I became a huge fan of Godzilla and so dedicated a large amount of my time to researching the films he and other Toho monsters had appeared in. I did this even if I had no ability to watch them (it was the 1990s and a large portion of Toho's library, including most of the Heisei series, remained unavailable in the West). I remember running across on one website a detail that immediately caught my eye: that there'd once been a plan for Godzilla to fight Frankenstein's monster.
The idea seemed wholly bizarre to me. I mean, I knew of Frankenstein's monster to be sure, but the guy was only slightly larger than your average human and Godzilla was fifty meters tall! Curious, I pushed a little harder and learned, much to my surprise, that Toho had actually gone forward with their plan, albeit with a few alterations, and had featured Frankenstein's monster in his own feature film: Frankenstein Conquers the World, known in Japan as Frankenstein vs. the Subterranean Monster Baragon.
The story behind Frankenstein Conquers the World is an interesting one and starts quite a few years before it's eventual release. Alongside its kaiju films, Toho was also known at the time for producing a number of similar but smaller-scale horror films featuring human or parahuman antagonists. One such film was The Human Vapor, which featured as its villain a lovestruck cancer patient who, in a military experiment, acquired the ability to transform into a gas. Although the film ended with the character's death, it was popular enough that Toho considered making a sequel, which would have pitted the Human Vapor against Frankenstein's monster (still human sized).
Not longer after these plans were made however, Toho purchased the rights to the script King Kong vs. Prometheus by the American John Beck, which was to feature King Kong against an enlarged Frankenstein's monster. As I detailed in my review for King Kong vs. Godzilla, Toho decided to swap out Frankenstein's monster for Godzilla but they saved the idea of using a super-sized version of the former for later. After the film's success, Toho brought the idea out of storage and scrapped Frankenstein vs. The Human Vapor in favor of pitting Godzilla against Frankenstein's monster instead.
The script for Frankenstein vs. Godzilla resembles the final story of Frankenstein Conquers the World in a lot of ways. The explanation for the monster's reanimation remains the same, the film's conclusion is fairly similar, and some of the ideas which were dropped were later used in the film's sequel, War of the Gargantuas, instead. However, Toho was ultimately dissatisfied with the script, which had the JSDF trying to lure Godzilla (who was still a villain at this point) into a fight with a human-eating Frankenstein's monster. So the idea was scrapped and Mothra was chosen as Godzilla's new opponent instead.
In 1965 though, with the backing of the American company United Productions of America, Toho resurrected the script, swapped out Godzilla for the new monster Baragon, and hired Ishiro Honda to direct. The result was the rather unique and peculiar film Frankenstein Conquers the World.
Our story begins at the end of World War II, as the Allies launch their invasion of Germany. The German military command, which had been conducting experiments on the corpse of Frankenstein's monster, orders the remains' transfer to Japan, in the hopes that they will evade capture by the Allies. Such is their luck, however, that the materials arrive in Hiroshima, just in time for the atomic bomb to be dropped right on top of them. As a result, all official knowledge of the project is lost.
Fifteen years later, in 1960, an American doctor named James Bowen (played by Nick Adams) runs a clinic in Hiroshima to treat those afflicted with radiation sickness, assisted by Sueko Togami and Kenichiro Kawaji. Bowen, who regrets that he is unable to save many of his patients and feels some responsibility for their suffering, is intrigued when he spots a feral boy living in the city's streets, living off of small animals. A year later, Bowen and Togami come into contact with the boy when they intercede on his behalf against an angry mob. To their surprise, the boy not only appears European (rather than Japanese) but is also highly resistant to the harmful effects of radiation.
Some distance away, in the Akita prefecture, Captain Kawai (who delivered the heart of Frankenstein's monster to Hiroshima sixteen years earlier) carries on a far more mundane life working in an oil refinery. In the middle of a routine night, however, an earthquake occurs, shaking the refinery's foundation. Before the event's end, Kawai capture sight of what seems to be a glowing monster, which disappears into the ground as soon as he sees it.
Back in Hiroshima, Bowen and Togami, take the feral boy into custody, convinced he may provide a means to a curing radiation sickness. Their research runs into problems, however, when they discover that the boy, no longer starved, is growing at an alarming rate. Upon hearing word of this, Captain Kawai visits the laboratory and puts forward his theory that the boy is connected to his mission at the end of World War II.
Curious, Bowen heads to Germany to get in contact with Doctor Riesendorf, who was the head researcher on the Frankenstein project. Riesendorf not only confirms Kawai's story, but also explains that Frankenstein's monster had incredible regenerative capabilities which made it functionally immortal. Coldly, Riesendorf suggests cutting the boy's arm or leg off to see if it grows back, a method which Bowen and Togami refuse but which Kawaji believes could be fruitful. Ignoring Bowen's directive, Kawaji sneaks to the cell within which the boy is being kept in order to sever one of his limbs. His plan goes awry, however, when the TV crew he's brought to film his experiment alarms the boy with their bright lights, causing him to break out of the cell and escape.
Panic follows as the boy, now known as Frankenstein, continues to grow in size and is spotted throughout the countryside. Bowen and Togami try to convince the JSDF he is not a threat while Kawaji argues the opposite. Meanwhile, the mysterious monster Kawai spotted in Akita reappears, eating several people, for which Frankenstein is blamed.
As a sequel to the original Frankenstein, the film works rather well - better in some ways than many American takes on the source material, since it actually plays on a lot of the same themes that are often forgotten. Frankenstein is a curious, child-like monster, much as the monster was at the beginning of Mary Shelley's novel and he is as fearful of others as they are of him. Bowen's pursuit for the secret cure to radiation sickness draws some intentional parallels with Frankenstein's pursuit of the secret to life.
What's interesting about Frankenstein Conquers the World is that, despite its rather outlandish concept (the reanimated heart of Frankenstein's monster grows into a fifty-meter tall immortal titan), it's actually one of Toho's more grounded kaiju films. The reactions to Frankenstein are, in most respects, perfectly believable and you get a genuine sense for the kind of danger a monster like him would represent. And so, while it's a bit of a peculiar film, I have to say I enjoyed it quite a bit and would recommend it both to those looking for a new take on Mary Shelley's most famed creation as well as anyone looking for hidden gems in Toho's library.