In the war between Japanese monsters, Gamera has always played second fiddle to Godzilla — a flying turtle versus “The King Of The Monsters” — much the same way Gamera’s studio, Daiei Motion Pictures, tried to upstage its bigger, better known rival, the Toho Company. But with the release of Shout! Factory’s pristine widescreen Japanese-language prints of Gamera’s first two titles, 1965’s Gamera, The Giant Monster and its follow-up, Gamera Vs. Barugon, it’s time to give the malevolent terrapin a second shot.
The character of Gamera was developed specifically to challenge Toho’s dominance in the Japanese kaiju (giant monster) market and they had a lot of catching up to do— by the time Gamera, The Giant Monster was released in November 1965, there had already been four Godzilla films, with one (Invasion Of Astro-Monster aka Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero), following a month behind.* How the solution to fight Godzilla turned out to be a giant flying turtle — one of the least likely candidates for giant-monster status ever — is as weird as Gamera himself. According to the Japanese documentary, “A Look At Gamera” on the Gamera, The Giant Monster DVD, Daiei president Masaichi Nagata was on an intercontinental flight between the U.S. and Japan when, according to Gamera writer Nisan Takahashi, he “saw a vision of a tortoise flying between the clouds” and instructed his staff to create what he saw.
Gamera, The Giant Monster starts with the titular creature being unearthed from an Arctic grave by an errant atomic blast. Like Godzilla, Gamera was later softened to be a kid’s mascot (one of his nicknames is “Friend To All Children”), but here he’s unhappy to have been woken out of cold storage and immediately goes on a rampage, destroying a research ship and killing its crew with his claws and flaming breath. Gamera improbably makes his way to Japan — ostensibly following Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), his assistant Kyoko (Harumi Kiritachi) and reporter Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashita) — where, lured by the glow of a lighthouse, he inadvertently saves the life of turtle-loving boy Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida), who, coincidentally, has just lost his own pet tortoise. Efforts to freeze Gamera and knock him on his back only infuriate the big galoot, who, pulling his head and feet inside his shell, shoots flames from inside the shell and rotates away, flying saucer-style. Gamera is addicted to energy sources of all kinds — electricity, explosives, even lava from a volcano — and wrecks Tokyo in his efforts to grab a nosh. But Dr. Hidaka and Professor Murase (Jun Hamamura) come up with a “Plan Z” to shoot Gamera into space without killing the “colossal chelonian” and making Toshio, who manages to turn up in the most unlikely locations throughout the film, cry.
If one can get past the concept of a flying turtle and overlook the deeply annoying Toshio and his insistence that Gamera isn't all that bad, this origin film is surprisingly fun. The story is silly, but the action sequences and miniature work is top-notch, as is the widescreen black-and-white photography, which looks more realistic than the more expensive color sequences in Gamera Vs. Barugon. And Gamera himself is the meanest turtle you’ll ever see, with a fierce facial design that works best in close-ups; the filmmakers wisely keep away from too many long shots that reveal the creature’s man-in-suit origins. The film was made on the cheap, (black-and-white film stock was less expensive), but Gamera looks great, particularly on the new 2.35:1 anamorphic HD transfer created for this release; it’s a shame that Shout! chose not to put the film out on Blu-Ray. Bonus features include an informative if somewhat dry commentary by kaiju expert August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master Of Monsters, trailers, posters, a Japanese press kit and the comprehensive 24-minute Japanese documentary, which details the hardships behind the production and maintenance of the Gamera franchise, which continued through to Daiei’s bankruptcy in 1971 (and was subsequently resurrected by other companies in the ‘80’s and ‘90s). The film was released as Gammera The Invincible in the United States, with a recut that included — much like the first Godzilla film in 1956 — American actors like Brian Donlevy and Albert Dekker. Unfortunately, according to Joe Cascio at DVD Drive-In, the only surviving 35mm scope print of the American version is in the UCLA film library and they wanted way too much money from the DVD producers for its inclusion.
Gamera, The Giant Monster was such a success that Daiei quickly rushed a sequel, Gamera Vs. Barugon, into production— it was released less than six months after the original. Serious money was spent on the film, which is in color and features more expansive physical and optical effects; the original film’s director, Noriaki Yuasa, was replaced as helmer only because Daiei wanted him to focus on the direction of the special effects alone.
Gamera, who we saw shot off in a rocket headed to Mars at the end of the first film, is freed by a meteorite and immediately heads back to Japan (of course!) to attack and destroy Kurboa Dam. The story takes a lengthy detour to New Guinea, where a group of treasure hunters goes after a precious opal that was hidden in a cave during World War II. One of the hunters, Onodera (Koji Fujyama), turns on the others and steals the giant gem, not realizing that it’s actually the egg of Barugon, a terrible monster that appears every thousand years. When accidentally exposed to infrared radiation, Barugon hatches and attacks Tokyo with an extendable tongue that shoots out frozen gas. Gamera goes after Barugon, who’s able to blast a literal rainbow of energy from his back, and the two attack one another, with Gamera ending up frozen for nearly the rest of the story. Another treasure hunter, Hirata (Kojiro Hongo), teams up with island native Karen (Kyoko Enami) to try to kill Barugon by luring him with the light of a diamond into deep water, which is poisonous to him. Fortunately, Gamera turns up and the two monsters battle it out.
This film had a significantly larger budget and allowed for bigger battle sequences, particularly the impressive mid-piece brawl between Gamera and Barugon, where the latter freezes all of Tokyo— and later Gamera himself. But Barugon manages to seem even goofier than Gamera; the creature has a definite man-in-suit appearance and his eyes, which blink left-to-right, are largely blank, as if they're painted on. The miniatures are good, but the increased clarity of the newly-minted HD print inadvertently allows us to see a number of the wires supporting Barugon, particularly during an underwater fight sequence. The big problem here, however, is the lack of Gamera action. Gamera turns up in the first big scene, disappears for half the film, fights Barugon and gets knocked down, then doesn’t make an appearance until he conveniently thaws in the climax. Most of the run-time is devoted to Hirata and Karen trying to stop Barugon and Onondera — who, in his commentary, August Ragone calls one of the most hateful characters in all of Japanese cinema — constantly attempting to steal from them. The fight sequences are great, but there’s just not enough of the Big Guy here.
As with the previous film, Shout! Factory’s DVD of Gamera Vs. Barugon looks fantastic, with a clean and sharp HD print and the original Japanese language track subtitled in English. The film never played theatrically in the U.S. — it was dumped straight to TV by American-International Pictures TV — and was cut by 13 minutes to boot. Extras include another commentary by August Ragone, this time accompanied by Japanese kaiju expert Jason Varney — be warned: the two spend a lot of time detailing the credits of the entire cast — along with trailers and publicity galleries.
On September 21, Shout! is set to release two more Gamera sets— 1967’s Gamera Vs. Gyaos paired up with 1968’s Gamera Vs. Viras and 1969’s Gamera Vs. Guiron as a two-fer with 1970’s Gamera Vs. Jiger. And there’s hope that, with Mystery Science Theater 3000 now being distributed on DVD by Shout!, that their takes on the Gamera films will make it to future sets of the show (see below). Unlike the Godzilla franchise, which is spread out across three different video distributors with varying degrees of success, it’s good to see Shout! taking good care of the biggest, baddest turtle in the monster business.
*As a kid weaned on monster movies, I always wondered why Gamera never got to fight Godzilla, not realizing at the time that this would be akin to D.C.’s Superman fighting crime alongside Marvel’s Spider-Man.
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