Thoughts on GAMERA: The Showa Era, Part 2 (spoilers)
Continuing my review of Daiei’s original Gamera series…
Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (Gamera tai Uchuu Kaiju Bairasu) came out in 1968, not long before Toho’s multi-kaiju epic Destroy All Monsters, and indeed Viras was later released in the US under the ripoff title Destroy All Planets. (You can’t do that! Where would we keep all our stuff?) Here’s where the kid-friendly formula that defines the rest of the series is definitively set in place. We get the debut of the theme song so memorably mocked on MST3K (“Gamera is really sweet / He is filled with turtle meat”) and the mantra that “Gamera is a friend to all children,” as well as a cuter, friendlier-looking Gamera, who fights off an invading alien ship from the planet Viras before the credits. Like every movie from this point forward, the lead duo consists of a Japanese child and a white American child — in this case, Boy Scouts named Masao and Jim, who go tooling around in a mini-sub and meet a friendly Gamera under the sea. (The rear-projection screen used for the rest of the series is really scratched up, by the way. It’s incredible that they couldn’t even bother to fix or replace a lousy screen.) When a second alien ship arrives and traps Gamera using a “Super Catch Ray,” Masao calls to Gamera for help, and Gamera actually nods in response and helps the kids escape. Yes, now Gamera explicitly comprehends human language.
The Super Catch Ray lasts only 15 minutes (not so super), which the aliens use to probe Gamera’s memory — which means an unbroken 10 minutes of stock footage of Gamera’s battles from the previous three movies. Once he breaks free, the aliens Super Catch the kids as hostages against Gamera, which works long enough to implant a mind-control device and send Gamera on the attack, which is all stock footage from the first two movies, even though the first was in black-and-white and used a noticeably different Gamera suit. The kids wander interminably around the spaceship and try to sabotage it without success, due to the ship’s rules about not obeying thought commands that harm the ship — until later when they’re suddenly, inexplicably able to harm the ship and free Gamera using the same stupid prank they played on the sub earlier, reversing the polarity to make the controls work backward. (Pro tip: Nothing actually works that way.) Before then, though, there’s a bit where the kids use Masao’s wrist radio that he built because he’s really good with gadgets to contact the military and courageously express their willingness to sacrifice their lives to save Earth, but the UN will have none of that and insists on surrendering the whole human race to spare two kids who would probably die along with everyone else anyway.
So Gamera wrecks the ship, and a “harmless” caged monster the kids found onboard — sort of a gray upright squid thing — is actually the boss monster (and is literally no kidding called “Boss”), who absorbs its crew’s life energy to grow to giant size and fight Gamera. The fight culminates with Boss Viras goring Gamera clear through the plastron in what looks like an instantly fatal impalement, but Gamera is able to jet into the sky and freeze Viras to death in the upper atmosphere, despite the facts that a) cold is Gamera’s own weakness and b) Gamera has a huge gaping hole in his belly. But Gamera is fine because he’s the hero and there are more sequels coming, which would vary in little other than the setting and the specific gimmicks of the monster.
Gamera vs. Giant Evil Beast Guiron (Gamera tai Daiakuju Giron, aka Gamera vs. Guiron or Attack of the Monsters) was released in March 1969, less than a year after Toho’s Destroy All Monsters. This one opens with a halfway decent educational lecture about astronomy and the planets (aside from a misstatement about nebulae being the size of galaxies). Our boy heroes, Akio and Tom, see a flying saucer land but are unable to convince their mother. Akio’s a dreamer who imagines a superior alien civilization with “no wars or traffic accidents.” He and Tom find the flying saucer and get abducted into space, with Gamera showing up to try to rescue them (the first time since the original that he hasn’t appeared in the opening scene). But the saucer outpaces him and deposits the boys on an alien planet that turns out to be menaced by Space Gyaos — a silver repaint of the Gyaos suit from two films earlier, because they couldn’t afford another new monster — but it has its own defender kaiju, Guiron (pronounced “gear-on”), basically a giant walking knife with a face. Gamera took a whole movie to bring down Gyaos, but Guiron only needs two minutes to literally slice Space Gyaos to pieces, in a rather gory sequence including graphic amputation and decapitation (well, as graphic as it can be with a rubber monster and purple “blood”), with Guiron actually laughing sadistically.
So the boys meet two women who are the last survivors of this world, Tera, which is in the same “Counter-Earth” position as so many other sci-fi worlds, hidden on the opposite side of the Sun. (Never mind that orbital perturbations would’ve caused such a world to collide with Earth billions of years ago, and that even if they hadn’t, we could detect it by its gravitational effect on the other planets and asteroids. So much for the good astronomy.) The mighty “electronic brains” that gave them their advanced civilization (free of wars and traffic accidents!) also created monsters that destroyed their world. Okay. So is this the origin of the first Gyaos too? Anyway, the boys invite the space babes to come to Earth with them, but the ship only holds two, so the women plan to eat the boys’ brains for rations. But Gamera shows up in the nick of time. The women sic Guiron on him, and Gamera fares pretty badly, but the boys manage to escape and eventually accidentally cause Guiron to go on a rampage that leads to the bisection of the saucer and the death of one of the Teran women. (Note that Tera is now no longer free of traffic accidents.) Guiron’s rampage ultimately endangers the kids too, until Gamera returns to save them. Gamera defeats Guiron in a rather silly way (that conveniently kills off the other space babe), then he — oy — uses his fire breath to weld the ship back together so he can fly the kids back home. Akio moralizes that we must stop looking to other planets and clean up our own damn wars and traffic accidents. And 47 years later, we’re still working on it. Sorry, Akio, we let you and Gamera down.
1970’s Gamera vs. Giant Demon Beast Jiger (Gamera tai Daimaju Jaigaa, aka Gamera vs. Jiger or Gamera vs. Monster X) is the first Gamera movie to come out in a year without a Godzilla film; Toho’s only kaiju release in 1970 was the obscure Space Amoeba. However, it came out just a few months after the inane Godzilla film All Monsters Attack, which had a lot in common with the Gamera series, in that it centered on a child lead and relied entirely on stock footage for its kaiju sequences. We’re well into the doldrums now.
Jiger is built around the real-life Expo ’70, the Osaka World’s Fair. They’re bringing in a statue from “Wester Island” as part of their cultural display, ignoring warnings about a curse. Gamera tries to stop the statue from being airlifted away, but grownups ruin everything, so they shoot at Gamera long enough to get the statue away. (Evidently they forgot how he’s been saving the world annually for the past four years.) Naturally, this unleashes Jiger (rhymes with tiger), a vaguely ceratopsian kaiju that comes after the statue and trashes Osaka. Gamera comes to the rescue, but Jiger impales him with a spike at the end of its tail, and Gamera collapses, seemingly dead. The kids convince the grownups to x-ray Gamera, and they find a shadow on his lung, leading to the deduction that — eww — Jiger implanted her larva inside his lung. The tail spike was an ovipositor. Which… oh, good grief… means that Gamera has been forcibly impregnated by a monster’s appendage. We’ve just crossed over into a whole other genre of Japanese fantasy fiction…
Anyway, as usual, the adults mutter and shake their heads uselessly while the kids take the initiative, using a mini-sub (another one?) to go Fantastic Voyage on Gamera, finding a way to kill the baby Jiger and stumbling upon the solutions that the stupid adults are too hidebound to see, including how Gamera can use the ancient statue to contain Jiger using the sound it makes when wind blows across it. Although that wouldn’t be gory enough for this series, and instead Gamera just impales Jiger in the skull with it.
So anyway, the theme of this movie seems to be “Adults are stupid, kids, so just ignore them and do what you want, no matter how dangerous it is.” Such wholesome, educational entertainment for the youth of Japan.
Finally we come to Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (Gamera tai Shinkai Kaiju Zigra, aka Gamera vs. Zigra — no generic alternate US title), arriving in July 1971, just seven days before Toho’s release of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the trippiest and most Gamera-esque of the Godzilla films (with Godzilla as a kid-friendly champion of Earth against a very weird-looking monster, and with Godzilla actually flying via jet propulsion at one point). Gamera was a Godzilla knockoff from the start, and the Godzilla series started to shift to a kid-friendly mode before Gamera did, though it didn’t actually start focusing on child protagonists until All Monsters Attack. So it seems that Gamera had become popular enough by 1969 — or the Godzilla series was struggling enough by then — for the influence to begin flowing back the other way.
I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison, though, since Hedorah was freakishly experimental, while Zigra is just another by-the-numbers Gamera film barely worth recapping. There’s another alien invasion (by a ship that looks like a bowl of gumballs) with another space babe (Eiko Yanami, who’s considerably babe-ier than the previous ones). This time the lead kids are kindergarteners with gratingly shrill voices, and the American kid’s a girl. Their dads work for Sea World, and the aliens are a sea-dwelling race that fouled their seas with pollution and now intend to conquer us before we foul our seas any further, so they’re really doing Earth a favor, just like the Mysterians (although they do plan to use us for food). The villain kaiju, the sharklike Zigra, actually talks — but Viras could talk too, through a thought-translator device.
The budget’s so low that the earthquakes the aliens use to subdue humanity are all off-camera. The battles between Gamera and Zigra are lackadaisical and by the numbers. The standout moment — strictly for its silliness — is when Gamera has immobilized Zigra and uses a rock to play his theme song xylophone-style on Zigra’s back spikes, then does a victory dance. Oh, boy. (The other standout moment, from a strictly male-gaze standpoint, is when the alien woman, pursuing the kids, tries to blend in by stealing human garments — and the first people she comes across are some women in bikinis.)
There’s nothing wrong with gearing films for young audiences, but these last four relentlessly formulaic films didn’t have anything special to offer, aside from startling amounts of simulated gore and maimings in the monster fights. One consistent thread is how vulnerable Gamera is, how routinely he suffers serious, bloody injuries like impalements and deep lacerations and screams in horrible agony. There’s often an element of that in Godzilla films too, but not to this casually gory extent. Gamera’s vulnerability may have been meant to make him more identifiable for children, but the degree to which the filmmakers torture him gets kind of sadistic.
Daiei Film went bankrupt in 1971, putting a (perhaps merciful) end to the Gamera series for some years. When a publishing company bought out the studio, they made one more Gamera film in 1980, titled Space Monster Gamera (Uchuu Kaiju Gamera) but known in English as Gamera: Super Monster. Annnnd… it’s a clip show. Aside from a few shots (including a sight gag of Gamera’s foot knocking over a placard for a Godzilla movie), all its Gamera footage is recycled from the previous seven movies.
And that’s not all that’s recycled, since it opens with a space battle “scene” (in the sense of the camera literally just panning over concept paintings of a space battle) and a blatant ripoff of the opening Star Destroyer shot from Star Wars. The arrival of this evil space ship Zanon at Earth is detected by three ordinary women who are actually a team of cape-wearing alien superheroes! They transform and fly to their sky base (i.e. a blob of orange video-effect fuzz), whereupon they…do nothing, since Zanon announces that it can detect and destroy them if they use their powers, so they immediately change back to normal and give up. Wow, what a tease. Then we cut to a bunch of kids in what seems to be an extended commercial for the Weekly Shonen Jump manga, which is odd, since that manga was from a different publisher.
It’s strange to introduce a superhero team whose whole function in the story is to be ineffectual. But I quite liked the lead Spacewoman Kilara, played by a wrestler-turned-actress known as Mach Fumiake. She’s impressively statuesque, beautiful in a strong-looking way, and has a charisma that reminds me of Lynda Carter, only with better acting. The other two Spacewomen are extraneous, though. Kilara’s human disguise is a pet-shop owner who befriends the boy protagonist Keiichi, who really likes turtles and Gamera, though not as psychotically as Toshio in the original. When Zanon starts sending kaiju to attack Earth, Keiichi gives Kilara the idea to summon Gamera, but it’s unclear whether they’re summoning the pre-existing Gamera or using some superpower to fulfill Keiichi’s wish that his pet turtle would turn into the manga character Gamera. A lot of this movie has the same ambiguity as Godzilla vs. Hedorah — is this real or just the boy’s daydreams? There are even bizarre bits where the boy dreams of Gamera matted onto animated footage of Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express 999, theme music included. I guess the stock footage from Gamera’s previous fights wasn’t enough padding.
Kilara actually gets to do some superheroing when Zanon mind-controls Gamera to wage the same stock-footage rampage he waged when he was mind-controlled in Viras (good grief, it’s a rerun within a rerun!) and Kilara intervenes to free him. There’s also a subplot where Zanon crewwoman Giruge (Keiko Kudo) tries to find the Spacewomen, and it’s your pretty standard Japanese plot of the evil henchwoman who ruthlessly tries to kill the heroes, then is shown mercy in defeat, is shamed by the heroes’ kindness, and sacrifices herself to save them. It’s almost touching, but rather routine. And one wonders why this huge Star Destroyer knockoff doesn’t have more than one crewwoman to hunt their enemies. Anyway, once all the kaiju are killed (again), Gamera sacrifices himself to destroy Zanon, and they don’t even have the budget to show it — just shots of the Gamera puppet closing in on the Star Destroyer and then a bright flash of light as seen from the surface. And Keiichi asks if this means we can all live in peace now, and Kilara assures him that we can. Does that mean the Spacewomen have previously put an end to all wars and traffic accidents?
I have to admit, I actually liked this film better than the previous several, though that’s mainly because of Mach Fumiake (and because I did chores and exercised during the stock-footage fights — too bad you can’t fast-forward with streaming video). It’s really dumb and weird and contrived and cheap, but parts of it are more entertaining than most of its predecessors.
Gamera: Super Monster was deliberately made as a one-shot, since the revived Daiei wasn’t up to making a whole series. Hence Gamera’s noble offscreen sacrifice at the end. Godzilla’s own revival would be just four years away, but Gamera would have to wait until 1995 to be rebooted. And what lies ahead for Gamera could not be more different from what’s behind.