After scoring a surprise hit with their bonkers Marvel Comics adaptation, Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned (1980), Japan's Toei Animation mounted a second comic book based monster mash with Mystery! Frankenstein Legend of Terror, released as plain old Frankenstein on English dubbed video. Though ostensibly adapted from Marvel's 'Monster of Frankenstein' the plot more closely resembles Mary Shelley's original novel albeit with substantial alterations. For one thing, for some reason Toei saw fit to relocate the story to North Wales, specifically the mountains of Snowdonia. Why? Who knows? More eccentricities follow but for now let's meet our excitable narrator, Chief Inspector Belbo (voiced by Jouji Yanami) who claims his tale will "conclusively prove the existence of the monster Frankenstein!"
We open on the laboratory where a ranting Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Nachi Nozawa) reanimates a hulking patchwork corpse as part of his plan to 'conquer death' only to recoil in terror from the Monster (Hosei Komatsu) he has created. Upon destroying the lab and mutilating hapless assistant Skel (Kei Tomiyama), the Monster flees into the night. A remorseful Frankenstein seeks solace in the arms of his devoted wife Elizabeth (Minori Matsushima) and bright and loving daughter Emily (Mami Koyama). Unfortunately the Monster stalks his every move, hides a dead dog in his bed and hangs a boar's head above his bathtub. With monster sightings around town, Chief Inspector Belbo investigates, yet wonders why the creature is targeting a respectable man like Victor Frankenstein. On top of that a now one-eyed Skel threatens to expose Frankenstein's secret unless compensated handsomely. Meanwhile, sweet Emily is having fun in the mountains with her beloved Grandfather (Ichiro Nagai) and Phillip the goat-herding boy (Yoku Shioya) when she happens across the Monster. Fans of the 1931 Boris Karloff classic expecting the Monster to fling Emily into the nearest lake are in for a surprise...
Although styled to appeal to mainstream western tastes Toei's Frankenstein remains distinctively Japanese. The anime benefits from the steady directorial hand of veteran Yugo Serikawa who made numerous fairytale and children's literary adaptations for Toei including the incredible Nobody's Boy (1970). Lavishly detailed animation imparts a nice brooding gothic tone to several sequences worthy of Hammer or Universal with Toyoo Ashida's monster design resembling a fusion between Karloff's classic look and the martial arts freaks featured in his later film Fist of the North Star (1986). For all the blood and grue on display along with scenes of intense psychological horror (e.g. when Victor hallucinates his steak dinner is a bloody severed limb) this is conversely probably the most sentimental Frankenstein film. Scenes with Emily frolicking in the mountains with Phillip and her Grandfather recall Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki's adaptation of Heidi (1974). Which was probably deliberate given anime of that sort, often revolving around blonde blue eyed heroines in European locales, were hugely popular in Japan at the time.
No, Emily does not fall victim to the Monster. Instead she befriends him, teaches him how to bake bread, be nice to animals, that sort of thing. Far from a saccharine deviation from the Frankenstein movie norm, the altered plot stays true to Mary Shelley's original themes. Shelley's novel is often mistakenly thought to be anti-science when it is actually against irresponsibility in science. Victor Frankenstein proves himself able to create life but it his lack of paternal responsibility that turns his creation into a monster. Emily proves a brave and intelligent young heroine who essentially does what her father failed to do which is teach the Monster right from wrong. The anime tweaks elements from past Frankenstein films into a fable about how monsters are bred from fear, intolerance and misunderstanding. It is goofy and melodramatic but sincere and makes disarming use of Christian imagery in a scene where the Monster is moved by the sight of Christ on the cross, noticing parallels with his own plight. Other scenes are simply memorably odd as when the Monster rampages through a wedding ("Who is that? Did you invite him?") until chased away by irate, flame-wielding chefs. Yes, chefs. There's a lesson for all monsters. Don't mess with Welsh caterers. In spite of the odd misstep the narrative is well structured, suspenseful, even eerie in parts. Things end in suitably tragic fashion with a, shall we say, unconventional face-off between monster and creator that probably traumatizes poor Emily for life.