Gappa, The Triphibian Monster (Daikyojû Gappa)
Japan (1967) Dir. Haruyasu Noguchi
The kaiju (giant monster) movie has been the associated property of studio Toho in Japan ever since Godzilla roared onto the big screen in 1954, kick-starting a legendary franchise and spawning many running mates and imitators on native shores and beyond. Interestingly rival studio Nikkatsu waited until a whole thirteen years before entering the kaiju market
It might not have been their brightest idea, considering the studio’s fortunes were in decline and following Gappa’s release and the firing of the prolific director Seijun Suzuki a few months later, Nikkatsu was on the brink of bankruptcy. Thus, this would stand as its only kaiju film and even using a former Toho SFX director, the strains on the company is evident on screen.
Borrowing liberally from the plot of 1961 British movie Gorgo, we follow an expedition to the remote Obelisk Island which the megalomaniac owner of Playmate Magazine Mr. Funazu (Keisuke Inoue), wants to turn into a luxury resort. Whilst on the island, journalist Hiroshi Kurosaki (Tamio Kawaji) and photographer Itoko Koyanagi (Yoko Yamamoto) ignore requests to enter a sealed off cave.
Hiroshi and Itoko witness an egg hatching and a baby Gappa creature pops out. Again defying the warnings from the natives about upsetting their protector God, Gappa, the crew take the baby back to Tokyo with them, along with native boy Saki, who tries to dissuade them, but don’t bank on the baby’s parents to come after them and wreak havoc across Tokyo to get their offspring back.
Nikkatsu’s commitment to making Gappa their monster franchise is challenged right from the beginning as a jolly, almost nursery rhyme like pop song about this apparent legendary creature accompanies the scrappy opening credits, signalling that perhaps they weren’t taking this as seriously as they could have. Then again, at this point of his career Godzilla had become a kiddie friendly hero preferring to save Tokyo from invading monsters as opposed to trampling on it himself.
Also this was when the Swinging Sixties where at their most swinging and all sorts of Godzilla imitations had already made their mark, such as Rodan, Gamera, King Ghidora, Mothra et al with the concepts behind them increasingly leaning towards the fantastic. In some ways Gappa is a nod back to the early remit of the Kaiju flick with a contemporary presentation, but it lacks the all-important earnestness as well as some lamentable missteps in its human characterisations.
Mr. Funazu for example is a pig headed media magnate who believes his wealth and position affords him the right to demand anything he wants, and shouting at people is the way to get it. This also happens to include his adorable young daughter (a bit young for man clearly in his 50’s but who am I to judge?) who is missing her recently deceased mother, thus has an empathy with the kidnapped baby Gappa.
Old man Funazu is having none of it, insisting that all creatures have no feelings and since the Gappa is his possession (I don’t recall any money changing hands) it will be treated as he sees fit and the angry parents can go whistle. Not even the daughter saying she doesn’t like her daddy anymore changes Funazu’s mind, so what chance do two giant rampaging beasts that breath atomic fire and are impervious to military fire have?
Quite a lot as you might assume. Not only are Mr and Mrs. Gappa skyscraper dwarfing behemoths, they can also fly and fully function underwater too, making them a triple threat. However their negotiation skills are negligible given they don’t speak any known human language so stomping over Tokyo and blowing up the army until Funazu sees sense and releases their baby is their main bargaining position.
And of that wasn’t enough, despite the other men not being so ruthless or myopic about other sentient beings, they expose themselves with some casual sexism instead. During the cave exploration when Itoko start to get nervous, Hiroshi suggests maybe she quits being a photographer and becomes a housewife instead! Miraculously the threat of a life with dirty nappies is enough to encourage Itoko to woman up and stop moaning.
Can it get any worse? Yes, it can. I mentioned native boy Saki earlier but what I didn’t mention as that this Japanese boy has been blacked up! And the rest of islanders are all dressed like stereotypical spear wielding, bare foot, and loincloth sporting jungle savages who speak in broken sentences. And not a hint of irony or pastiche is to be found but it fits neatly in with the rest of this lazily scripted hokum.
Despite these regrettable embarrassments, the film is on message about how humans can be a self-absorbed bunch and the assumed sense of entitlement of the powerful and elite makes us no less monsters than beasts supposedly beneath our civilised ken. It is simply laid out for the younger audiences to absorb, the apparent key demographic Nikkatsu was aiming for.
Naturally, the Gappa are the stars of the show, remaining largely obscured by shadows and night time settings until revealed in all their rubber glory in the final act. Possessing beaks and chicken like feet, their appearance is otherwise reptilian; the male Gappa is taller with a larger pointed crown on its head whilst the baby is without these features. The destruction of Tokyo is a by-the-numbers rampage, complete with electricity pylons, aircraft, tanks and skyscrapers falling to the Gappas’ raging might.
It would be remiss to suggest Gappa, The Triphibian Monster is the worst kaiju film ever made as this is demonstrably untrue – even Godzilla has a few stinkers in his lengthy canon and not just of US creation either. Gappa falls short because of its lack of originality and ambition, arriving too late to be effective, not to mention rehashing a story already six years old. Dedicated kaiju fans however should be able to enjoy this as the fifth-rate kitsch curio that it is.