Daikyojû Gappa / Gappa the Triphibian Monsters / The Giant Beast Gappa
USA / Japan, 1967
Review by Sam Bett
Posted on 08 February 2009
At first it seems a mistake to find the title Monster from a Prehistoric Planet ascribed to a film about several monsters from a twentieth-century South Pacific island. The original Japanese title, Daikyojû Gappa, literally means “The Enormous Beast Gappa,” with Gappa the name the islanders have given to the monsters that haunt and protect their island. Why insert “prehistoric planet” into the title? Probably, the translation was chosen just to make the film sound grander and more enticing. The ironic result of this English title, however, is that it subtly highlights the film’s dated portrayal of indigenous people and women. While these violations of political correctness may be jarring at times, the film’s many monster attacks offer a chance for laughter, and even a sense of retribution. This way of viewing Monster from a Prehistoric Planet may be anachronistic, but it typifies the ironic way that many modern viewers enjoy schlock cinema.
The film begins with a research vessel funded by the fictitious Japanese magazine Playmate drifting into the stormy bay of a South Sea island. The expedition has come specifically to gather exotic specimens for the central attraction of its Disney-style resort “Playmate Land:” a massive zoo containing species from all over the globe. After witnessing the island’s volcano erupt like a sixth-grade science fair project, the vessel’s curious crew dons their pith helmets and rushes ashore. Here we begin to surmise the secondary implications of “prehistoric planet.” The Japanese, dressed head to toe in khaki and toting radios and field equipment, are the stereotype of civilization. The islanders that promptly ambush their research party, clad in animal skins and shaking spears, are depicted as belonging to a forgotten, primitive world. The notion of social superiority is reiterated when the panicking islanders suddenly rejoice upon hearing that their visitors are Japanese. Their grizzled chieftain recounts how the Japanese came to the island “many moons” ago and promised to return. Now that they have, the local gods are pleased.
Yet the lionized crew promptly abuses its authority. Despite warnings from their local guide Taki, an island youth played by a Japanese boy in blackface, the crew tampers with a giant stone idol, violating a local taboo. The idol crumbles, revealing a sacred cave. Deep inside, past gargantuan ribcages and underground lakes, the crew finds a dinosaur egg that hatches and gives us the first monster-moment of the film: a drowsy baby Gappa taking its first look at the world. The expedition quickly encages and ships the infant beast back to Japan. Before departing, however, a few crewmembers patronizingly offer to take the islanders along and save them from their dangerous island.
Prewar Japanese colonialism revisited? Perhaps in spirit. The island chieftain’s recollection of an earlier Japanese visit could be a reference to a World War II era reconnaissance mission by the Japanese military. Though the members of the Playmate Expedition do not claim Gappa Island as their own, they do plunder its resources and disrupt its community very much like the way the Japanese military invaded several parts of Asia during the war. Yet the efforts of the crew also point to postwar Japan’s vigorous agenda of reconstruction. When Monster from a Prehistoric Planet was released in 1967, the Japanese economy had shaken itself from the rubble of defeat and entered a period of jolting prosperity. The tourist industry was thriving, and real life resorts like “Playmate Land” were being constructed across the country. Japan had a reason to brag: It was now the symbol and model for progress in Asia. Surely there were many who were uneasy about this breakneck progress. The monster invasions of this film and other contemporary Japanese monster movies may vary in how seriously they portray their disasters, but they all share a focus on the possibility of some monstrous, invasive force interrupting Japan’s social and economic development. Corralling such a disaster safely within the confines of progressively goofier monster movies provided Japanese audiences with a means of collective catharsis, while the neat resolution tagged at the end saved them from having to rethink their country’s behavior.
Like many monster films, the disaster here begins when the monster baby is stolen. When the Gappa parents awaken to find their offspring gone, they smash out of their cave and fly through the sky on their rocket-boosted feet to Japan, where they tear apart the coast in their search. While the acting and plot of Monster from a Prehistoric Planet deliver plenty of cheesy moments, these battle scenes offer the films most skillfully composed schlock. Among the best is a scene in the middle of the first rampage, when a quiet establishing shot of a swanky tatami-matted banquet hall is violated by a Gappa foot that crashes squarely through the roof, crushing tables and a stage of traditional dancers. The conspicuous symmetry of the frame recalls Ozu, yet the absurdity of the stomping foot is like the beginning of an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or the mother zombie’s hand in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive.
Even more bizarre is when one of the baby Gappa’s parents emerges from the ocean with a balled-up octopus clutched in its mouth. This may seem like just another strange detail, but it serves to cleverly differentiate the adult Gappa, which are almost identical—although they appear onscreen together throughout the film, they look too similar, and can be easily mistaken for each other. Having one parent clutch an octopus in its beak allows for the camera to cut between close shots of each monster while still insisting on the presence of not one but two monsters ravaging the city. This physical difference also reminds us of the gender difference of the two Gappa, underscoring their relationship as parents whose violence is driven by a sense of defense and protection for their young.
While these monster attacks may be thrilling, the film makes a few unpleasant decisions regarding characterization and dialogue. The fate of the island boy Taki is one of them. Although no islanders take up the Playmate Expedition’s offer to return to Japan, young Taki finds himself brought there midway through the film when he is rescued from his erupting island home by a United States Navy submarine. Next time he appears, he is outfitted in a t-shirt and jeans. He’s in blackface as before, but his makeup varies from scene to scene, drawing unwelcome attention to itself. To make matters worse, as far as we know Taki never goes home. Even when the Gappa family flies back to their island at the close of the film, he’s left on Japan.
Perhaps most disturbing are a pair of exchanges between expedition photographer Koyanagi and journalist Tonooka. Before finding the Gappa egg in the island cave, Tonooka tells a faltering Koyanagi that if she can’t take the excitement she should “go back to Tokyo and learn to cook. Marry some little office worker. Have babies. Stay at home and wash diapers.” Exasperated, Koyanagi replies, “I’m not quitting!” Yet at the end of the film when the soundtrack has changed from timpani and startled trumpets to soothing major chords, she regurgitates Tonooka’s prior threat and confesses, “I decided to quit my job. I guess I’m just an ordinary woman. I should stay at home, marry an office worker and wash diapers.” After persevering for so long, what makes Koyanagi so self-defeating? Is this really 1967? Perhaps it wasn’t just a dinosaur egg after all that made American editors choose the phrase “prehistoric planet.”