Ishirō Honda’s adult vision for the denizens of Toho’s kaiju roster had been left by the wayside. Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster: “I frankly was having a hard time humanizing Godzilla the way Toho wanted anyway. I was even hesitant to let Mothra act as a mediator between Godzilla and Rodan in Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster.” However a project was coming down the pipe that would allow Honda to reintroduce some pathos into a kaiju movie. After Toho’s success combining kaiju with American movie monsters in King Kong vs. Godzilla the studio immediately planned to bring Frankenstein into their roster. A script that pitted Godzilla against the reanimated corpse was submitted in the summer of 1964. The original scriptwriter, Kaoru Mabuchi was then asked to alter the preexisting script named Frankenstein vs. Baragon. Takes Kimura ended up doing the final draft. The new script carried over most of the same characters and a nearly identical plot, but swapped out Godzilla for a brand new kaiju.
The new kaiju was a subterranean tunnelling creature was named Baragon, a portmanteau of the Japanese words for rose (bara) and dragon (ragon). He’s a quadruped with leathery, elephantine skin. His back ends in a prehistory inspired staggered integument that bares a resemblance to the shells of armadillos and other cingulates. Baragon’s chief defining feature is his head. The design consisted of a snub-nosed, rounded, expressive face not dissimilar to the face of a dog in some ways. He has big cartoony eyes, large rhinocerotic horn, and proboscidean ears. It’s a strange, borderline comical combination for a more serious movie. However the strange amalgamation of real world animal characteristics does lend the kaiju a certain evolutionary-freak-show feeling that tips right over into potentially unexpected realism.
The movie’s Frankenstein ends up looking a little like someone dressed in a Ray Harryhausen inspired costume. The grey skin and square head combined with the creature’s towering height and ragged fur clothes make him look like a neolithic Ascapart. This vision of Frankenstein, named as such in the film (But also in the novel really: “I learned from your papers that you were my father, my creator; and to whom could I apply with more fitness than to him who had given me life?”), is hardly the articulate monster of Mary Shelley’s novel, instead the Toho version is neanderthalesque both in looks and mental capacity.
However these creatures allowed for the Toho crew to experiment a bit. The made-up man playing Frankenstein meant that Ishirō Honda could humanize and characterize the monster in ways he couldn’t with men in unexpressive rubber suits. Eiji Tsuburaya and Yasyuki Inoue also had a unique opportunity granted by the film’s scale. The monsters in Frankenstein vs. Baragon are smaller than Toho’s typical kaiju, allowing the special effects team to make larger, more detailed models than normal. There was even a colossal 1/12-scale boat for one scene.
The film opens in a laboratory during World War Two. A Nazi squad breaks into the lab and departs with Frankenstein’s heart. The still beating heart gets passed to Japanese forces and ends up in Japan. As the heart is about to be studied, the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. We then wind up in the present day, where a feral kid is terrorizing the rebuilt Hiroshima. The kid is eating small animals, including rabbits and dogs. An American scientist and his Japanese assistant find the boy in a cave by a beach. They take the boy to a hospital, surprised to discover he’s Caucasian. Even more surprising than his race is the boy’s freakish resistance to radiation.
Meanwhile we get a typical kaiju arrival’s scene. A factory collapses and a dinosaur with a glowing horn emerges from the earth.
The scientists begin to grow concerned as Frankenstein simply grows. It seems protein makes the irradiated reanimated child grow. At some point they identify the kid as the regrown Frankenstein, stemming from Viktor Frankenstein’s stolen experimental heart. The scientists are told the best way to find out if this theory is correct would be to cut off one of the kid’s limbs and see what happens. While one scientist is about to do this, reporters with flashing lights and cameras show up. The stressful stimuli freak out Frankenstein and he loses his mind, slipping into a rage and escaping.
Baragon continues to wreak some havoc while Frankenstein eats more food and grows. At first the government thinks Frankenstein is causing the damage Baragon is. The army consequently starts hunting Frankenstein, despite the fact that he hasn’t actually hurt anyone. The two monsters end up fighting in a fairly typical Eiji Tsuburaya fight scene. They throw each other and leap around in a nice blend of fast and slow moments. Tsuburaya’s scenes had really been honed by this point; he’d really mastered the tone and speed of the scenes. Not only that but the integration of human scenes with monsters conveyed a smoother sense of scale than any other kaiju movies to date. Eventually Frankenstein gets the drop on Baragon, but he ends up falling into a volcanic crevasse and dying.
The American release actually had an alternate ending that never saw the light of day. Instead of Frankenstein falling into a volcanic crevasse he fought an octopus. The octopus defeated Frankenstein and dragged him into the ocean. The American distributor decided it preferred the pathos of the original ending and shelved the octopus scene.
1965 wasn’t just going to feature new Toho kaiju, the team would also put out another kaiju movie with a multitude of Toho kaiju. The era of multiple kaiju had arrived, and the studio wasn’t about to work backwards. Immediately after finishing Frankenstein vs. Baragon Ishirō Honda jumped on the newest entry in the Godzilla series, The Invasion of the Astro-Monster. Despite the fairly serious tone of their last project it was this Toho movie that would drive the final nail into the coffin of serious kaiju films. The story essentially picks up where the last Godzilla film left off. Astronauts arrive from earth on Planet X where they meet “The Controller of Planet X” who asks to borrow Godzilla and Rodan to fight their planet’s “Monster Zero.” Monster Zero is quickly revealed to be King Ghidorah, driven from earth to space in the last film. In exchange for help from earth’s kaiju, the aliens will give earth a cure-all medicine.
While looking for the two kaiju on earth the astronauts begin to suspect The Controller is on earth. Eventually he reveals himself, apologizing for his secretive arrival. He facilitates the discovery of Godzilla and Rodan then absconds with them. The two monsters drive off King Ghidorah on their first try, which leads to one of the most notoriously goofy moments in kaiju history. Godzilla, satisfied with his victory, dances a victory jig. The dance was a reference to a manga by Fuji Akatsuka called Oso Matsu-Kun. The protagonist of Oso Matsu-Kun would celebrate his victories by striking a particular pose in midair and shouting “shie!” This humanized gag stood out to audiences, and remains one of Godzilla’s most iconic moments.
Planet X then wages war on earth. They arrive with ultimatums and three remote controlled kaiju. The army can’t even begin to combat the combined force of King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Godzilla. Eventually, using a special sound, the army destroys the remote controls that are driving the monsters, who drive the Xliens away, then team up to drive Ghidorah back into space.
The film had some improved matte-work, boasting a nearly flawless sync, an incredible accomplishment for the time. Several oversized models were used to create some of the better close-up shots of destruction seen in a Godzilla film. The Invasion of the Astro-Monster, which directly translates to The Great Monster War, was released that winter to glowing response. Eiji Tsuburaya received yet another Japan Technical Award for his work on the film. It was released in American in 1970 as Monster Zero. The American version was fairly faithful, missing only a little over seventy seconds worth of footage. The movie was part of a double bill with The War of the Gargantuas and was generally well received by those who saw it. Years after the fact this would remain one of the best remembered Godzilla films, largely due to its lighter, sillier, kid-friendly tone. Perhaps one of the best known films from the era, the movie was even sampled extensively for an MF DOOM album released under the new stage name King Gheedorah. The space setting, ships, collection of monsters, aliens, and great effects really struck a nerve with the children who saw it.
Which is a fitting legacy for what would be the last Toho Godzilla film to employ the entirety of the original special effects team. Many of the smaller but important members of Toho’s team had their contracts run out, perhaps most notably Akira Watanabe, who’d been the art director and was a key figure in the design of every Toho kaiju. The rest of the team started to split up as Toho brought in new blood. Eiji Tsuburaya and Ishirō Honda would start to focus on more and more non-kaiju projects. The next Godzilla film Toho would release saw Eiji Tsuburaya’s right hand man, Sadamasa Arikawa, taking over the role of special effects director. Smaller players like Yasuyuki Inoue would start to take over more duties too, changing the creative fabric behind the franchise.
Eiji Tsuburaya would begin to spend more and more time on his increasingly popular kaiju-driven TV shows, Ultraman and Ultra Q. Both shows would routinely reuse suits and sets from Toho’s films to create a smaller-budget vision of giant-monster heroism and combat. Tsuburaya Productions was doing far better with their new character then they’d ever hoped. The Japanese media labelled the sixties as Japan’s first big “Monster Boom” and Tsuburaya’s show and ensuing merchandise was carrying his studio to new heights. Ultraman also afforded Tsuburaya the opportunity to really delve into his kid-friendly vision of what kaiju could be. From the heroic space-aged police named the Scientific Investigation Agency to Tohl Narita’s brilliant design of the titular character, the series was a well realized version of Tsuburaya’s visions. The design of Ultraman drew on some of the most iconic heroes in history, from Greek statues to the Zen sword master Minamoto Musashi. That was then blended with the look of Kannon, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion (also known as Guanshiyin Bodhisattva).
Harmony and elegance was the goal. The character was given silver skin to harken to his futuristic idealism, and red lines to conjure up images of the red planet. A human nose and mouth was refined and reduced the final design’s cartoony mouth and slender dorsal fin, which also had a science fiction look to it that matched the character’s roots. This popular follow up to Ultra Q would cement the franchise’s status. The series became such a pop culture touchstone it spawned yet another genre in Japan, which would lead to series like Kamen Rider. The franchise would become a massive one, including Ultra Q, Ultraman, Ultra Seven, The Return of Ultraman, Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro, Ultraman Leo, Ultraman 80, Ultraman: Towards the Future, Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero, Ultraman Tiga, Ultraman Dyna, Ultraman Gaia, Ultraman Neos, Ultraman Cosmos, Ultra Q: Dark Fantasy, Ultraman Nexus, Ultraman Max, Ultraman Mebius, Ultraseven X, Ultra Galaxy Mega Monster Battle, Ultraman Golden, Ultra Galaxy Mega Monster Battle: Never Ending Odyssey Ultraman Retsuden, Neo Ultra Q, Ultraman Ginga, Utraman Ginga S, as well almost as many movies, a handful of kids shows, some animated shows, and a number of manga series.
With such a legitimate pop-culture phenomenon on his hands, it’s easy to see why the vision of Eiji Tsuburaya was slowly being passed along to a new generation of Toho employees, even if the transition happened at the height of the team’s prowess.