Today, July 8, is the 160th anniversary of Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in Japan to begin the process of “opening up” the island nation to trade with the West, thus beginning a process that eventually, after some serious tears in the relationship, gave us giant monster movies, anime, and J-pop, among other things. On the occasion of this anniversary, I’ve decided to focus on a landmark film which marked the first significant cinematic collaboration between the U.S. and Japan, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965). While it wasn’t the first co-production between the two countries (I believe that would be TOKYO FILE 212, from 1951), nor is it the first Japanese movie to import an American star (more on that below), it was the first such film to make a real dent on the international market.
Nick Adams, a name actor in Hollywood who’d been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for TWILIGHT OF HONOR (1963) and a TV star known for the western series, “The Rebel” (1959), in which he’d played the ex-Confederate Johnny Yuma, was recruited by producer Henry Saperstein to go to Japan to play one of the starring roles in a new Toho science fiction/monster production, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, which was directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, the team responsible for numerous Godzilla movies, starting with the very first, GOJIRA, in 1954, and other giant monster films, like RODAN and MOTHRA.
FRANKENSTEIN went into production after the success of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and marked an attempt to go into a new direction for the kaiju (giant monster) genre. The giant monster protagonist in this one would be human and sympathetic and would be played by an actor (Koji Furuhata) filmed on smaller-scale sets. There would be an additional giant monster, a horned dinosaur-like creature called Baragon, and played by an actor (Haruo Nakajima) in a rubber suit, whose job it is to provide the larger threat that Frankenstein would have to confront, in order to prove his essential goodness. This Frankenstein is created after the original Frankenstein monster’s still-beating heart was transported from Germany to Hiroshima in the closing days of WWII and subjected to the atomic bomb blast of August 6, 1945. This reference to Hiroshima and the war was also something new in a kaiju movie and far more explicit than any subtle references that might have been made in past films.
The original GOJIRA had been transformed into GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, by extensive reediting and the addition of scenes newly shot in Hollywood featuring an American actor, Raymond Burr, in the role of a reporter visiting Japan, skillfully edited into the original footage. This practice was repeated in 1963 when new scenes with veteran supporting actors, none of them as big a name as Raymond Burr was, were added to KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. The idea of paying for a real Hollywood star and bringing him to Japan to shoot the film from the start, and thereby insure greater success for the film in the U.S. and the international market, seems to have been proposed to Toho Pictures by Henry Saperstein. In fact, according to the credits, the original idea and screenplay for the film were provided by the Americans. Nick Adams was, by all accounts, extremely well liked by the Japanese cast and crew and wound up making two additional films in Japan, including the very next Godzilla movie, INVASION OF THE ASTRO-MONSTER, aka MONSTER ZERO (released in Japan in 1965, but not released in the U.S. until 1970).
In FRANKENSTEIN, Adams plays Dr. James Bowen, a doctor who’d felt obligated to go to Hiroshima after the war and work with victims of the bombing while also studying the effects of radiation on cellular tissue. He has an attractive female partner at the hospital in Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) and they spend lots of time together on their own. Bowen even wears a kimono when he arrives for dinner at Sueko’s apartment on what appears to be their first date.
The third member of their team is Dr. Yuzo Kawaji (Tadao Takashima), who is even more zealous about studying the effects of radiation on cell tissues than Dr. Bowen.
Early on, the characters encounter an odd-looking feral boy who cannot speak and has been living on his own, killing people’s pets and eating them in order to acquire the constant supply of protein he needs to live.
When he is caught, the three doctors take on the responsibility of caring for him and studying him. He is always hungry and the more he eats the more he grows, until they have to craft a large barred cell for him in a hospital warehouse, fearful of what might happen should he grow violent.
Eventually, the lights from a TV crew’s attempt to film him enrage him and compel him to break out, killing two members of the TV crew in the process. From then on, the doctors and the police in various districts embark on a search for Frankenstein, as he’s been named by them, with the hopes of keeping him alive for further study.
In the course of the search, another monster, Baragon, a dinosaur-like creature that burrows underground, causes severe property damage and a number of fatalities that get blamed on Frankenstein. Eventually, the doctors are menaced by Baragon and they’re saved by a last-minute intervention by Frankenstein, who clearly remembers them and gets them out of harm’s way before he launches into a staggering bout with the monster that ends with both of their deaths.
Adams dubs all his own lines in the English dub, while the Japanese actors are all dubbed by familiar American voice actors, who did the dubbing for many of the Japanese monster movies that were shown in the U.S. in those years. In the Japanese cut, Adams’ lines are all in Japanese and dubbed by a Japanese actor, even the English phrases that sprinkle his speech to code him as an American (“Good morning,” “Very good,” “Thank you”). In the Japanese trailer for the film, Adams is tagged as “the Charm of Hollywood.”
His one line in the trailer is spoken in English by him (“We don’t know yet whether he caused all that destruction or not”), with a Japanese subtitle.
There’s a funny story related by a FRANKENSTEIN co-star, Yoshio Tsuchiya, that Adams reportedly asked if it was possible that Toshiro Mifune dub his voice for the Japanese version, to which Tsuchiya replied, “Sure, as long as you get Henry Fonda to dub my voice in the English version.”
Adams’ character is respectful of the Japanese and is clearly motivated by a sincere desire to help. Early on, we see a grateful young patient of his present him with a gift of an embroidered pillow that she’d made for him, eager to finish it before she dies. Later on, in a scene cut from the English dub but shown in the international Japanese-language version, Dr. Bowen and Sueko visit the grave of the girl and stop at a shrine along the way.
The three doctors act as a team throughout, taking all the same risks together and presenting a united front to the police forces who resent their recommendation that the giant boy be kept alive. Eventually, they split over this issue, when Dr. Kawaji decides that it would be better to kill the boy before he causes real damage and take his heart and some of his tissue to continue studying him. Just before he can take action, though, Baragon attacks and the big finale begins, with Frankenstein even saving Kawaji’s life.
One of the great things about this film is the way the battles between Frankenstein and Baragon are staged. I’m guessing that the actor who plays Frankenstein (Koji Furuhata) had a background as a professional wrestler (although I can find no confirmation of this) and treats each bout like a wrestling match, as if done by a wild man with no actual training in wrestling. The actor is very physical and does all his own stunts. Despite Baragon’s being played by a man in a rubber suit, the battles seem real. At no point did I have trouble suspending my disbelief.
Adams actually has a more interesting character in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, where he plays one member of an American-Japanese astronaut team investigating a mysterious new planet in the solar system and interacting with an alien race which declares peaceful aims but has a hidden agenda involving Godzilla and Rodan. Adams’ character has a romance with an attractive female alien (played, again, by Kumi Mizuno) that turns sour when her alien bosses brand her a traitor. But this is a film that deserves its own entry.
Adams’ third film in Japan was THE KILLING BOTTLE, part of a series of spy films that also included the film (KAGI NO KAGI, aka KEY OF KEYS) that Woody Allen dubbed over to create the comedy, WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? (1966). THE KILLING BOTTLE has, to my knowledge, never been released in the U.S. in any form. I’d love to see it, even in a Japanese-only edition. Kumi Mizuno is in this film as well. Adams reportedly had an affair with her while in Japan, which led to the breakup of his marriage to Carol Nugent, who had accompanied him to Japan.
There is a follow-up film called WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), which was designed as a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN and features two humanoid giants, one of whom attacks and eats humans, while the other tries to stop him. It’s implied that the two giants were born from the cells of the now dead Frankenstein. Eventually the two battle each other amidst spectacular miniature sets. IMDB says that Adams was signed for this movie but died before it could be made. Adams died on February 7, 1968, while GARGANTUAS was made in 1966, so that can’t be the reason why Adams didn’t make it. In any event, Russ Tamblyn (Riff from WEST SIDE STORY) took the role Adams was supposed to play and reportedly turned out to be much less popular among his Japanese co-workers than Adams had been.
FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD was released in Japan on August 8, 1965, two days after the 20th anniversary of the Hirohima atomic bomb blast. It was released in the U.S. on July 8, 1966, the 113th anniversary of Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan (and 47 years ago today). GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO was released on July 29, 1970, two years after Adams’ death (by prescription drug overdose), on a double bill with WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. I missed all three of these films during their initial release and I don’t understand why. The first Japanese science fiction film I got to see in a theater was LATITUDE ZERO (1968), on a double bill with the John Wayne western, RIO LOBO (1970). It starred Joseph Cotten , Cesar Romero, Patricia Medina and Richard Jaeckel and will be dealt with on this blog in a future entry. The first Godzilla film I got to see in a theater in its initial release was GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1976), which played on a double bill with the Sonny Chiba martial arts epic, THE KILLING MACHINE.
Adams made a film in 1965 called YOUNG DILLINGER which was the last film directed by Terry O. Morse, who’d directed the English-language scenes with Raymond Burr for GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, which makes Nick Adams the only actor to have worked for both of the directors responsible for GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (Ishiro Honda, director of GOJIRA, also directed FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO).
The Tokyo Shock DVD edition of FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD also includes the Japanese “international” edition of the film (FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON), in Japanese with English subtitles, and the Japanese theatrical cut. The English dub is 85 minutes, the international edition is 93 minutes and the Japanese theatrical cut is 89 minutes. Most of the extra length in the international edition is due to an extended ending featuring a giant octopus that suddenly shows up on the mountain to battle Frankenstein after he’s finished off Baragon. An octopus that’s miles from its ocean habitat, however, required far more suspension of disbelief than I could muster. It doesn’t work and I’m glad it’s not in the English dub. There are other, better scenes in the Japanese-language version that aren’t in the English dub, though. There is additional dialogue between the Japanese characters in the wartime scenes, including the assertion by the scientist in Hiroshima who accepts Frankenstein’s heart that the Japanese want it to help them in their final war effort by using it to create soldiers who wouldn’t die from being shot. In the English dub, the scientist (played by Takashi Shimura) simply states that “if we could just solve this mystery [of Frankenstein’s beating heart] lives could be saved.”
There is additional dialogue in the dinner scene between Nick Adams and Kumi Mizuno, including a setup for a joke that has a punchline much later in the film that loses its impact without the earlier setup. Finally, there is a whole sequence, mentioned earlier in this piece, where Adams and Mizuno visit a temple and a shrine and the cemetery where their patient has been buried.
Finally, back to that very first import of a Hollywood star to make a Japanese movie. The movie is FUTARI NO HITOMI (aka GIRLS HAND IN HAND, 1952) and the star was former child star Margaret O’Brien (MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, LITTLE WOMEN), who’d been let go from MGM not long beforehand after she’d entered adolescence and gained some height. The film paired O’Brien with Hibari Misora, who was the same age as her and was the reigning recording star in Japan in the postwar era. (Misora would go on to star in a series of lavish color musicals in Japan that went from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s.) FUTARI NO HITOMI was about an effort by a Japanese Christian minister and his American guest (O’Brien) to build an orphanage for Misora and her young charges that will allow them to keep their pets. O’Brien speaks most of her lines in English, but also bravely makes regular attempts to communicate in Japanese with Misora, who speaks no English. All the interior scenes were shot sync-sound. Here’s a shot from a cute little dance number that Misora and O’Brien do together (notice the culture-reversal in costume styles):
Here’s a link to my IMDB review of it:
P.S. Since doing the above entry, I’ve covered Nick Adams’ second Japanese monster movie in American Stars in Japanese Films: GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO.