Monster from a Prehistoric Planet/Gappa: The Triphibian Monsters/ Daikyoju Gappa (1967/1968) -**˝
One of my favorite things about exploitation movies is the way that ripoffs beget ripoffs, ultimately forming genealogical chains worthy of the Old Testament, in which curious little eddies can often be seen. Case in point: the Nikkatsu studio’s sole contribution to the kaiju eiga genre, Monster from a Prehistoric Planet/Gappa: The Triphibian Monsters/Daikyoju Gappa. This movie resembles nothing so much as a Japanese take on Gorgo, which was really just an anglicized take on Godzilla: King of the Monsters/Gojira, itself merely a Japanized version of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which in turn was made to cash in on the box office success of the 1952 re-release of King Kong. And with each new retelling, enough new kinks were added so that, by 1967, the tale had attained an almost baroque level of twistedness.
Monster from a Prehistoric Planet has a team of scientists and journalists dispatched to a tiny South Pacific island by the publisher of Playmate magazine (Keisuke Inoue). This Japanese media mogul is about to open a theme park called “Playmate Land,” which is to have a South Seas focus. Playmate Land will be located on a small volcanic island off the Japanese coast, and is to be stocked with all manner of tropical plants and animals; it is in order to round up said organisms that the scientists and reporters have been sent off. However, right from the beginning, there are indications that Playmate’s expeditionary force has more on its hands than it bargained for. One night, while Daize the obnoxious comic relief character (Yuji Okada) is fishing on the deck of the team’s ship, he sees what appear to be the glowing eyes of an enormous sea monster trailing the vessel. There’s naturally no sign of any such thing when he fetches his reporter boss, Hiroshi Kurosaki (Tamio Kawaji, from Story of a Prostitute and Youth of the Beast), and lead scientist Dr. Inoue (Tatsuya Fuji, from In the Realm of the Senses and the Stray Cat Rock series) to take a look.
When the ship makes landfall on tiny Obelisk Island, the team encounters a tribe of stone-age primitives who have apparently had contact with the Japanese before. The tribe’s headman seems to believe (mistakenly) that Inoue is a sailor he met some years ago, and that now that he has “returned,” something called Gappa will no longer be so angry. At first, Inoue, Kurosaki, and photographer Itoko Koyanagi (The Friendly Killer’s Yoko Yamamoto) believe that Gappa is the islanders’ name for their volcano, and that they worship the mountain as a god. But a young boy disabuses them of that notion fairly quickly, and at Kurosaki’s request, leads him and Itoko to the real Gappa. Gappa turns out to be a huge stone statue, which Kurosaki and Itoko repeatedly describe as being “just like the statues on Easter Island,” despite the fact that the only thing it has in common with that island’s famous Moai is that it is large and made of stone. Kurosaki goes to take a closer look at the statue, despite the boy’s protests that Gappa will become angry if it is approached too closely, and when he does, a great earth tremor topples the statue and reveals the entrance to a huge cavern behind it. Kurosaki, Itoko, and the boy go inside, and discover an egg at least three times the size of a man. After another tremor, Kurosaki sends the boy back to his village to get Inoue and the others, who arrive at the cave just moments after the egg hatches into something that rather resembles a cross between a lizard and an owl. The creature is swiftly caged and taken back to the ship. Sure, they may not have picked up the toucans and crocodiles they were sent out for, but Kurosaki and company plausibly figure a baby Gappa will impress their boss back home even more.
There’s just one problem, though. Right after the Playmate crew’s ship leaves Obelisk Island, Ma and Pa Gappa come home to their cave, and discover that there’s no sign of their baby beyond the fragments of its egg. The adult monsters (which look like enlarged, horned and crested versions of their offspring, and stand somewhere in the 50-meter height class favored by Toho for its kaiju) begin searching the island for the missing hatchling, and when they can’t find it, they take out their frustration by wiping out the islanders, sparing only the little boy who showed Kurosaki and Itoko to the statue. Then they take to the sea to continue the search.
An American submarine soon stops by, and its lookout notices the wreckage of the islanders’ village. The submarine’s crew take the boy aboard, and then proceed on to their next port of call, which turns out to be somewhere in Japan. It’s a good thing, too, because Japan is going to be needing that kid pretty soon. The Gappas, being at least part bird, turn out to have tremendous homing abilities along with super-acute hearing, and have little trouble zeroing in on their baby’s plaintive squealing. The ensuing city-smashing takes cues not only from Godzilla and Gorgo, but from Rodan and Mothra as well, with the Gappas using the winds kicked up by their flapping wings to supplement the destructive power of their brute strength and flaming blue breath. We’ve got all the usual melting tanks, exploding F-104Js, and falling buildings, along with an attack on a medieval pagoda that bears a suspicious resemblance to the Osaka Castle scene in Gigantis the Fire Monster/Godzilla Raids Again and a hilarious animated tidal wave caused by the Gappas’ crash-dive into one of the less famous Japanese bays. Finally, after much wanton destruction, the little boy from Obelisk finally gets in touch with Itoko, and convinces her that the only way to save Japan is to return the baby Gappa to its parents. The maudlin monster family reunion is one of the all-time great bizarre moments in cinema history.
You know, considering how close to complete obscurity this movie is, a surprising number of later kaiju eiga contain echoes of it. The most striking of these is the evolution of Itoko’s character from a tough career woman into a sappy, quasi-hippy monster-hugger, a transition that would later be made by the psychic Miki Saegusa in the Heisei Godzilla movies. The incredibly schmaltzy moralizing of the final scene also prefigures the endings of such latter-day kaiju eiga message-movies as Gamera vs. Zigra and Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster.
These days, those of you who actually wish to see this minor entry in the giant monster genre have an astonishing range of choices open to you. Kaiju Productions’ letterboxed video version, which goes by the name Gappa: The Triphibian Monsters, is probably the way to go for those who take their monster rampages seriously (director Haruyashu Noguchi made full use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in most of the blowing-shit-up scenes, and a lot of this action would surely be lost to panning-and-scanning), but who find the hopelessly inept dubbing of most Japanese monster movies to be a big part of their charm. AIP-TV’s version, called Monster from a Prehistoric Planet (a pretty stupid title, considering the fact that the Gappas come from Earth!!!!), isn’t too bad though; if I remember correctly, they at least resisted the temptation to edit the movie half to death the way they did with their now-mostly-forgotten versions of the Gamera flicks. Finally, for the true kaiju eiga purist, some distributor out there has even taken it upon themselves to offer a subtitled version! Did you ever think you’d live to see such a thing as that?