Thoughts on GAMERA: The Showa Era, Part 1 (spoilers)
With my supply of accessible kaiju films from Toho run dry, I’ve decided to tackle Daiei’s Gamera, the most successful knockoff/rival of Godzilla. I remember seeing the Gamera films they spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and being aware that they tended to be more kid-oriented than a lot of the Godzilla movies, but then, the Godzilla movies of the late ’60s and ’70s were often quite juvenile and silly themselves. I recently happened to discover that Shout Factory TV’s streaming site has nearly all the Gamera movies available for free, and in the original Japanese, so I decided to give them a try. The only one missing from there is the last film to date, 2006’s Gamera the Brave, but that one is available through Netflix DVD rental. Thus I’m able to cover the entire Gamera series comprehensively and in chronological order, which is more than I was able to do with Godzilla or Mothra.
Daikaiju Gamera (Giant Monster Gamera), generally called simply Gamera and originally called Gammera the Invincible in English (with the second M added to clarify the pronunciation), was released in November 1965, not long after Toho’s solemn Frankenstein Conquers the World and a month before Invasion of Astro-Monster, the second film to portray Godzilla in a relatively heroic vein. So this was an era when lead kaiju were becoming sympathetic, though Gamera’s a more ambiguous monster in his debut than he would become later on. This film is something of a throwback to the early kaiju formula with only a single giant monster against humanity. Not to mention that it’s shot in black and white, the only such film in the Gamera series. (Gamera’s name, by the way, is a blend of kame, the Japanese word for “turtle,” with elements of the name Godzilla/Gojira. This series made little secret of being derivative.)
The opening is sort of a blend of Gojira and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: While lead scientist Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), his pretty assistant Kyoko (Harumi Kiritachi), and plucky reporter Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashita) are investigating “Eskimo” legends of giant turtles from Atlantis called Gameras (which is geographically questionable in a couple of different ways), a Cold War dogfight breask out overhead. (We see a US military command center whose characters speak in badly structured and even more badly acted English, with Japanese subtitles on the sides of the screen. Although they wouldn’t be subtitles if they’re beside rather than below — paratitles? Anyway, I gather the English-language version reshot these scenes with recognizable American actors, and dropped in a few other scenes with them as well.) This leads to the crash of a bomber from an anonymous country, one that builds its nukes poorly enough that they detonate on impact, awakening the glacier-entombed Gamera. The terrible terrapin destroys the ship Hidaka and his two colleagues had recently disembarked from, and there’s a bit of solemn reflection about how close they came to dying, though it doesn’t last. Hidaka is convinced that Gamera must have died of radiation poisoning soon thereafter, but there’s a spate of flying saucer sightings, and then Gamera shows up at the lighthouse home of Toshio (Kenny in the English dub), a boy who’s unhealthily obsessed with turtles, to the point that he gladly rushes toward Gamera and courts certain death, not for the last time in this film. Oddly, when Gamera smashes the lighthouse and endangers Toshio, the monster then catches the boy and lowers him to safety, convincing Toshio that Gamera is friendly. Tell that to all the people that Gamera later kills while smashing up Tokyo in order to feed on the resulting flames. (Toshio is, in fact, convinced that his tiny pet turtle Chibi has turned into Gamera. Someone get this boy into therapy, stat.)
Dr. Hidaka is less along the lines of Gojira‘s Professor Yamane — “We should keep it alive so we can study it for the good of humanity” — and more along the lines of the 1998 American Godzilla‘s Nick Tatopolous — “Why, yes, I will gladly contribute my zoological expertise to killing this unique and irreplaceable scientific discovery, no big deal.” His big plan, after discovering that Gamera feeds on fire and nuclear energy (a concept that the Heisei-era Godzilla films would later adopt), is to use a freeze bomb that the military has conveniently just invented, and that somehow only works for exactly ten minutes to the second, no matter what the environmental conditions. The freeze bomb covers Gamera with, um, a faint coating of frost, I guess, and immobilizes him long enough for the military to undermine his position and blow him onto his back, where the scientists gleefully assume he will now starve to a slow, horrible, agonizing death, hooray. Lucky that Gamera can fire jets out of his shell holes and turn into the “flying saucer” seen earlier.
So the scientists of the world get together and decide to use a mysterious “Z Plan” that’s conveniently being developed on a nearby island to deal with Gamera. (That’s twice that the authorities have just happened to have a convenient anti-Gamera technology already lying around.) They keep him contained at a burning oil refinery (after his obligatory Tokyo rampage) by sending in more tankers of oil, giving Toshio another chance to attempt to sacrifice himself to his terrible turtle god. For some reason, this convinces the heroes to adopt the boy as their mascot rather than getting him institutionalized for his own safety. Then they use… umm… a trail of fire across the ocean (lucky there were apparently no currents) to draw Gamera to the island, whereupon they lure him into the “Z Plan” — which is a shell that closes around Gamera and then turns out to be the nose cone of a rocket that blasts into space. Yes, Gamera’s the Martians’ problem now!
All in all, I was underwhelmed. It started out promisingly dark, with a bit of anti-war sentiment, but then the kid showed up and it was downhill from there. Aside from the chelonaphilic brat, it was a pretty by-the-numbers kaiju movie, with substantially cruder special effects than Toho’s work. The action sequences were shorter, the miniatures looked very toylike, the buildings in “Tokyo” looked like cardboard (ever heard of slow motion, guys?), and the cooling towers at the geothermal plant Gamera trashed were clearly made partly of chicken wire. And Gamera’s final defeat was anticlimactic. Also, I’m sorry, but a turtle walking on its hind legs just looks silly, at least with this design. I’m not impressed so far.
The second film, Duel of the Giant Monsters: Gamera vs. Barugon (Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon, aka Gamera vs. Barugon or War of the Monsters in the US), came out only five months later, not long before The War of the Gargantuas from Toho — and just 8 months after Toho’s Frankenstein vs. Baragon, also featuring a quadrupedal monster with a nose spike. Hmmmm. Anyway, we get a quick narrated recap of the first film, ending with “…and then a meteor destroyed the rocket and Gamera flew back to Earth and destroyed Japan’s biggest dam.” Oh, well, so much for that happy ending.
But then Gamera wanders off to feed on a distant volcano — or maybe to destroy cities that don’t matter because they aren’t in Japan — and we shift to a totally separate story about a group of treasure-hunters trying to retrieve a giant opal that the brother of the lead character Hirata (Kojiro Hongo) found and hid on New Guinea during World War II. The local tribe is all “no, don’t go, it’s cursed,” but they go anyway, and the villain Onodera (Koji Fujiyama) steals the opal and tries to kill the others. Hirata survives and is warned by a local tribeswoman with the exotic name of Karen (Kyouko Enami) that the opal carries a terrible curse. Indeed, when Onodera reaches Japan, an accident with an infrared heat lamp hatches the opal, which is actually a Barugon egg, and Barugon grows to giant size in minutes and wrecks the port of Kobe before heading for nearby Osaka. Barugon’s a giant lizard with a chameleon-like tongue that shoots freezing vapors and back spines that emit a rainbow disintegrator ray, weirdly enough. The rainbow energy attracts Gamera, but Barugon freezes him (his one weakness) and gets away. Meanwhile, Onodera’s crime is found out by Hirata’s brother, but Onodera leaves the brother and his wife to die in Barugon’s rampage.
Hirata and Karen arrive and use her knowledge of Barugon lore to try to fight the beast, using a supersized diamond to lure Barugon, because he can’t resist their light. The plan is to lure him into a lake, since extended immersion in water will kill him. It doesn’t work until they figure out that… oh, boy… the infrared radiation from the heat lamp mutated him. Yup, low-energy, non-ionizing heat radiation — also known as warmth — supposedly had the same mutagenic effect as the high-energy gamma radiation from a nuclear bomb. I know we don’t watch kaiju films for the science, but oh, man. Anyway, they modify a “ruby death ray” (i.e. laser) to become an infrared diamond ray, using the infrared beam — which is blue for some reason — to lure Barugon into the lake. But greedy Onodera shows up to steal the diamond, foiling the plan. Will he pay for it with his life? Will Hirata devise another clever plan that also fails? Will Gamera thaw out just in time to save the day? Will Hirata end the film feeling all guilty about the destruction caused by human greed? Of course they will.
Well, this one’s much better than its predecessor, and a lot darker and more adult as well (not that those automatically go together, but it happens to be both). The characters are richer and more emotionally involved in the story, there’s a lot more interpersonal conflict, and we see more of the human cost of the devastation. The effects are somewhat better too, though Barugon’s monster suit is kind of crude-looking, and its powers are sort of ridiculous. Points off, though, for the stereotyped tribal villagers, who cower in fear from a helicopter, warn of offending the gods, and are all made up to be dark-skinned except for the good-looking women (especially Karen, who’s the palest person in the movie). I wouldn’t call it a great movie, but it’s not bad.
Giant Monster Midair Battle: Gamera vs. Gyaos (Daikaiju Kuuchuusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu, aka Return of the Giant Monsters) came out in early 1967, between Toho’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and King Kong Escapes. Toho’s movies were getting more kid-friendly around this time, and this film follows suit, establishing most of what would become the standard formula going forward. It once again focuses on a young boy who really likes Gamera, namely Eiichi (Naoyuki Abe), who lives in a village that’s in the path of a superhighway construction project, with the villagers refusing to sell. At first, I thought this was going to be a story about ruthless corporations vs. the noble protectors of local tradition and culture, but instead, the villagers were just greedily holding out for more money and thus impeding the righteous cause of progress. Anyway, the construction is halted when a volcanic eruption awakens a bat-winged kaiju with a weirdly angular, anvil-shaped head and an ultrasonic death ray that slices through everything except Gamera’s shell. When Eiichi is endangered by the creature, Gamera comes to his rescue, and the boy names the kaiju Gyaos (pronounced basically “gyowse”) after its cry. (A graphic identifies it as a “Rhamphorhynchoides Monster,” after a type of pterosaur, so this is Daiei’s answer to Rodan. It even has a similar destructive-wind attack, as well as the cutting beam and a vapor spray that puts out fires, since light is its weakness.) Gamera is wounded by Gyaos’s ray, and borrows a page from Godzilla by retreating beneath the sea to heal. Note that Gamera’s motives have changed: Before, he was driven by instinctual hunger and incidentally saved one boy he happened to notice while otherwise not caring how much death he caused, but now he arrives on the scene specifically to aid a threatened child, then goes to greater lengths to ensure the child’s safety.
After that, it’s your usual sequence of scientific attempts to kill Gyaos, plus the titular aerial battle with Gamera, culminating with Gyaos cutting its own toes off to escape Gamera’s jaws. (Don’t worry, they grow back.) Studying the amputated talons confirms that UV light is deadly to Gyaos — although Eiichi already figured out that the beast was nocturnal. Basically the scientists and the military are dependent on this small boy to make all their key insights and discoveries. This includes the bizarre plan of using a fountain of artificial blood (which is colored pink like Klingon blood in Star Trek VI) to lure the man-eating Gyaos onto a revolving restaurant that’s been souped up into a giant turntable to make him dizzy and immobilized until the sun comes up and kills him. (So help me, I almost remember this part from Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s kind of unforgettable.) Naturally, the plan doesn’t work, requiring Eiichi to come up with one more brilliant plan so the grownups don’t have to: Set the whole damn forest on fire to hurt Gyaos and lure in the fire-eating Gamera. Of course, Gamera wins and drags Gyaos into the volcano, where the monster’s death is shown the same way Barugon’s was, by having its beam fire into the sky and then retract. (Even as a kid, that trope bothered me. A beam wouldn’t go backward when it turned off! But it’s surprising how many sci-fi animators over the decades have assumed it would.)
The brevity of that summary should illustrate how superficial the film is compared to the last one. The characters aren’t very memorable, and the plot is basically just there to bridge the action sequences. There’s a bit of a moral condemning greed again, but less so than last time. The effects aren’t quite as good either. Gyaos is a weirdly inorganic-looking monster, with its stiff, angular head and body; in flight, it looks more like a jet aircraft in shape than a living pterosaur. (I wonder, though, if it’s an inspiration for the MUTOs in the 2014 Legendary Godzilla. They also have unnaturally angular heads, and I felt they looked more like Gamera monsters than Godzilla monsters. Gyaos must’ve been the kaiju I was thinking of.)
We’re only three films in out of the seven in the original Gamera series, but the basics of the formula are in place now, and the next four are where it really solidifies. So I’ll cover them all together in the next post, along with the 1980 revival film.