How ‘Frankenstein Conquers the World’ Confronts the Monstrous Legacy of Hiroshima & Nagasaki

Frankenstein Conquers the World marks a departure from Honda’s usual kaiju-fare of the mid ’60s; however, it also marks a welcomed return to his horror aesthetic. Frankenstein features many graphic images that are intentionally brief and bloody, thereby leaving a lasting impression. The same is true for Honda’s use of close-ups, especially on the titular monster but also on Baragon. Fog and dark jungles are another hallmark of this film; the atmospheric dread is comparable to Honda’s Matango (1963) at times. Speaking of dread, the mood is enhanced by Akira Ifukube’s eerie score.

Director: Ishirō Honda
Producers: Tomoyuki Tanaka, Henry G. Saperstein, Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson, Reuben Bercovitch
Writers: Takeshi Kimura, Jerry Sohl, Reuben Bercovitch
Cinematography: Hajime Koizumi
Editor: Ryôhei Fujii
Cast: Nick Adams, Kumi Mizuno and Tadao Takashima, Koji Furuhata, Haruo Nakajima
Runtime: 94 minutes
Japanese Distributor: Toho 
Japanese Release Date: August 8, 1965
U.S. Distributor: American International Pictures
U.S. Release Date: July 8, 1966

Not to say that Frankenstein is pure spectacle. As with all the best Frankenstein adaptations, Honda recognizes the inherent loneliness of a Monster trying to find his place in the world. The director achieves these moments throughout the film, most notably in the harbor when the giant forlorn Frankenstein is unable to participate in the teenage dance aboard the ferry. Pained, yet resigned, Frankenstein sinks back under the water.

In fact, this Monster (FYI, Mary Shelley’s creature is always referred to as Frankenstein in this movie – never the Monster. That’s my own habit!) is not only an outcast among the Japanese youth, but also among previous depictions of his creation. Born from an everlasting beating heart created by a Dr. Frankenstein in Third Reich Germany, the heart is transported to Hiroshima for experimentation. The atomic bomb is dropped soon thereafter and after fifteen years, the heart has grown into a full-fledged human due to the radiation effects.*

A tragic layer is thus added to the creation story, cutting to the quick of contemporary fears of atomic misuse. Viewed as a child of post-war Japan, Frankenstein suffers from the radiation sickness that plagued countless others born in the shadow of Hiroshima. Sadako Sasaki comes to mind. It is a monstrous legacy, one which the adults must confront their own complicity in; Frankenstein is a direct representation of their alliance with Nazi Germany.

Ultimately, Frankenstein Conquers the World continues Honda’s search for meaning in the unique social challenges facing post-war Japan. This is done with horror on a smaller scale, as opposed to Gojira (1954). While the film occasionally suffers for it (the Baragon sequences feel underwhelming and obligatory), this intimate approach provides staying power overall.

*A note I find worth including: the film was released in Japan on the 20th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks; probably not a coincidence.

by Vincent S. Hannam

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