Monster Manual: Gamera, A Retrospective Part I

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Gamera! Friend to all children, guardian of the universe, and the only real competitor out there to Godzilla’s title as “King of the Monsters.” I’ve been a huge fan of the original mutant turtle for twenty years, and it’s high time I paid tribute to the big lug. Godzilla may always be number one in my kaiju-loving heart, but tonight, we’re dining on turtle soup. In part one of this three-part retrospective, we’ll look back on the early misadventures of the world’s one and only giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle.

So who- or what- is Gamera, anyway? He’s probably one of the most ludicrous kaiju creations in the history of the genre, and that’s saying something. An enormous, tusked bipedal turtle who feeds on heat energy (even going so far as to inhale flaming petroleum!), Gamera flies by tucking his limbs into his shell and spinning like a saucer, performs gymnastics, plays the xylophone, repairs spacecraft with expert precision, channels the “mana” energy of the entire planet into a gigantic death ray, and for some inexplicable reason always goes the extra mile to protect children. A chilling metaphor for the abuse of nuclear weapons he is not; Gamera is, rather, a perfect example of the wonderful silliness that the giant monster genre can delve into. That said, Gamera movies can be a real hoot, and, as in the case of the stunning ‘90s reboot trilogy, surprisingly good, and a great gateway into the genre for those who’ve never seen a kaiju flick other than Pacific Rim or Godzilla.

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The Origin of a Particularly Silly Species:

The 1960s were the height of the Kaiju Boom, as every major Japanese film studio (not to mention more than a few foreign ones) attempted to bring their own giant monsters to the screen. Indeed, all of the critters featured in my Obscure Kaiju Countdown first reared their so-ugly-they’re-still-kinda-cute heads during that decade. Daiei Motion Picture Company was no different, and in 1965, Giant Monster Gamera (later released stateside as Gammera the Invincible) spun his way into theaters across Japan. Directed by Noriaki Yuasa (the man who would helm nearly every Showa-era Gamera flick), the film tells the story of the titular giant chelonian, who is freed from his icy prison by the detonation of an atomic weapon when a Soviet fighter is shot down over the Arctic. After trashing a Japanese research vessel, Gamera heads across the Pacific and begins wreaking havoc across Japan, defying the attempts of the Japanese military to destroy him, eventually landing in Tokyo for the climactic rampage. Only the wonderfully far-fetched “Plan Z” can stop him- an operation so ludicrous that it must be seen to be believed. What’s that? You don’t mind the spoilers? Fine, fine; Gamera is lured onto a missile base, where he’s locked into an enormous (and cartoony-looking) rocket and launched off into space.

The American release that followed the next year not only added an extra “m” to the big turtle’s name, but quite a bit of new footage featuring American actors, as well, probably in response to the success of 1954’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters and its added scenes of Raymond Burr. This version happens to be available to watch on Hulu, if you’re interested- but the second American version is probably more infamous, thanks to the new dub changing the names of several characters, inadvertently creating the bane of many Kaiju fans’ existence: Kenny.

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One of the major subplots in Gamera is the tale of young Toshio, a strange and possibly disturbed young boy obsessed with turtles, to the extent that his teacher at school is concerned enough to come to the boy’s family with the news. Toshio later transfers that obsession to Gamera, even going so far as to loudly proclaim Gamera’s innocence to the authorities (“He’s just lonely! He needs a friend!”). While he does have half a point- Gamera rescues Toshio from a collapsing lighthouse (which he actually destroyed), but given the context of the rest of the film, Toshio’s unwavering belief in Gamera being a sweet, misunderstood creature becomes disturbing, especially considering how many people are undoubtedly killed by the creature’s rampage. The Sandy Frank dub, in changing Toshio to Kenny and playing him as loud and obnoxious, codified what would become one of the most dreaded tropes in the Kaiju genre: “The Kenny,” the shorts-wearing know-it-all brat protagonist that consumes most of the film’s runtime with his increasingly irritating hijinx. Most of the films to follow would feature some take on The Kenny, for better or worse.

In any case, Gamera is one of the most fun classic Kaiju movies. It’s in black and white, which somehow always makes a giant monster movie feel better. Gamera looks neat, he has some really inventive abilities, and Plan Z is so wonderfully comic bookish that, even having seen the movie half a dozen times, it still makes me chuckle when I see those two halves of the rocket swing up into place. I personally consider it one of the must-see examples of the golden age of giant monster movies. Luckily for us, unlike most of the me-too-monsters of the 1960s, Gamera would return for a second venture just a year later…

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The Showa Years

Gamera vs Barugon (also known as War of the Monsters) came out in 1966, and like the Godzilla movies of the time, this one introduced a second monster for Gamera to tangle with. Hatched from an opal-like egg stolen from an isolated South Pacific island by a greedy jerk named Onodera (who leaves his “friends” there to die) after it’s left under a heat lamp (intended to cure Onodera’s athlete’s foot!), Barugon climbs up out of the bay and begins terrorizing the city. Gamera, meanwhile, has been freed from the Plan Z rocket ship thanks to a collision with a meteor even more unlikely than Plan Z itself! He quickly flies back to Earth- yeah, he can survive in the vaccuum of space, no biggie- and ends up being attracted to the heat of Barugon’s rainbow beam (don’t ask). Barugon, with his freezing mist breath, makes a pretty tough challenge, getting the better of Gamera in their first encounter. The rest of the film follows the endless attempts of the military to kill Barugon, including using an enormous mirror to reflect his own rainbow back at him. After what feels like years, Gamera un-freezes himself and returns for Round 2, finally winning after dragging Barugon by the throat into a lake and drowning him!

Gamera vs Barugon is not a particularly child-friendly film; in addition to the graphic monster-on-monster violence, there’s also a scene in which the thief Onodera brutally beats up a crippled man and his wife, the gruesome but well-deserved death scene of the aforementioned thief (one of the few instances of a Kaiju actually eating a human being on-screen in the history of the genre), and not a Kenny in sight. Gamera is initially still seen as a threat in this movie, destroying Kurobe Dam in his first appearance and being treated with as much fear by the human cast as in the first movie, but it’s obvious that this was the beginning of a heroic turn for the big turtle. Hey, maybe Toshio was onto something after all! It’s a slow-paced film and focuses far too much on the military’s never-ending and hopelessly useless plans to stop Barugon, but the monster action is pretty good, even if it is brief. Barugon would be a pretty menacing kaiju if it weren’t for his adorable puppy-dog eyes.

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Gamera’s most popular and iconic foe would rear his ugly, shovel-shaped head in 1967’s Gamera vs. Gyaos (also known as Return of the Giant Monsters). This, the third entry in the series, is also probably the most fun. Gyaos, who looks like a crappy kid’s drawing of Rodan with a hilariously oversized noggin, is a nocturnal kaiju who fires laserlike sonic beams from its mouth and can match Gamera move-for-move in the air. The story of Gamera vs. Gyaos is pretty lightweight, and this film finally codifies The Kenny (Eiichi, a chubby-cheeked brat who actually rides on Gamera at one point), but when it comes to pure, wacky, monster-on-monster action, this is the height of the Showa-era Gamera series. Even the military’s amusingly fruitless efforts to stop the monsters, a highlight of the early Gamera flicks, reach their pinnacle here: a rotating platform that keeps Gyaos too dizzy to take until the sun comes up. Gyaos is a really fun opponent, and audiences must have agreed; as you’ll find out in the next installment of the retrospective, Gyaos would keep coming back for more even after the ‘90s reboot. Godzilla has King Ghidorah; Gamera’s got Gyaos.

The next film, 1968’s Gamera vs. Viras (Destroy All Planets in the US), would pit the flying turtle against alien invaders. This is probably my least favorite movie in the series- Viras, a squidlike creature formed when the aliens merge together into a singular gigantic entity, just isn’t a very interesting foe, although the way Gamera defeats him is very, very amusing (spin cycle!). Upon reflection, Viras could’ve been much cooler- imagine if the tentacled abomination had been treated like one of Lovecraft’s elder things! This one also doubled up on Kennys- boy scouts, no less! The aliens even discuss Gamera’s “love of children” as a potential weakness!

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Gamera vs. Guiron (1969; a.k.a. Attack of the Monsters) also involves aliens, but this spectacularly ludicrous movie is a return to form for the series. When a couple of Kennys spot an alien spacecraft that’s landed in the woods nearby, they climb aboard and, naturally, fly off into space with it. Gamera’s Child Endangerment Senses go off, and he’s hot on their trail, following them to the faraway planet Terra, where a pair of brain-eating space babes and their giant guard dog Guiron await! Guiron, who looks like the great granddad of Knifehead from Pacific Rim, has got to take the cake as the single silliest monster in the history of film. His head is a giant butcher knife, and he shoots shurikens from dimples on the side of his skull… and all this while looking completely wasted. Silly as he is, he’s a seriously tough customer, subjecting a spacefaring cousin of Gyaos to a particularly bloody variant of The Worf Effect just to show how hard a bastard he is before Gamera shows up. He even splits Gamera’s shell after a few well-placed headbutts (headchops?). But it gets even better- as the battle between monsters heats up, Gamera feels the need to show off his unusual capacity for gymnastics.

Next, Gamera took on the terrors of unplanned pregnancy in Gamera vs. Jiger, in which his titular opponent injects him with an egg, and the newest batch of Kennys have to go all Fantastic Voyage in order to snuff the baby out before Gamera is consumed from within. The plot involves the World’s Fair in Osaka and a mysterious statue, which is revealed to have been the only thing keeping Jiger in check with its high-pitched whistling- when it’s moved, Jiger awakens and makes Osaka her personal playground. Although I approve of the introduction of a female kaiju into the Gamera Rogues’ Gallery, I’m not a big fan of this particular film. Jiger’s dumpy character design could use an overhaul, and while the ovipositor is a cool idea for a Kaiju weapon, the rest of Jiger’s arsenal is an overstuffed hodgepodge (firing quills from her face, a pretty powerful death ray, suction-cup paws...). Interestingly, the US release retitled the film Gamera vs. Monster X, which might have mistakenly led some fans (meaning me) to assume that it involves a dream match between Gamera and the lovable Guilala from The X from Outer Space! In a perfect world...

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The final film in the Showa series was actually the first Gamera movie I ever saw- 1971’s Gamera vs. Zigra, and it is a doozy. I wouldn’t call it going out on a high note, exactly, but at least it’s memorable! Zigra, a giant shark-like monster from space, decides to show the people of Earth how much better he is than them by causing enormous earthquake and brainwashing a female astronaut into his own (laughably inept) henchwoman. While the astronaut lady plays Benny Hill with this film’s pair of Kennys (one’s a girl this time around), Gamera and Zigra duke it out. Zigra, who suddenly and without explanation gains a pair of legs when Gamera drags him out onto dry land, wins the first round (as usual- Gamera never seems to win his initial bout with any foe), but upon the big turtle’s inevitable second wind, goes down pretty easily. In a scene that rivals the aforementioned gymnastics bit from Guiron, Gamera grabs a boulder and plays his theme song a la xylophone on Zigra’s spine with it. That’s silly enough as it is, but in a moment of overwhelming self-indulgence, Gamera tosses the boulder away and does a self-congratulatory dance as his theme music plays triumphantly. Perhaps this suddenly inflated ego is why this would be the last Gamera movie for some time… well, that and Daiei going bankrupt that same year.

1980 would see the release of one last effort, Gamera: Super Monster, but this undercooked cinematic abomination is little more than half an hour of stock footage of Gamera’s previous adventures strung along to a weak excuse plot with knockoff Star Destroyers, and superhero alien women. It’s barely worth mentioning. Fittingly enough, it ends with the death of our dear friend Gamera. Still, as mentioned above, Gamera always takes a fall at the end of his first engagement, only to rise up stronger than ever after some time. His film career would be no different.

In part 2 of this retrospective, we’ll tackle the incredibly successful Heisei-era reboot that transformed Gamera from a silly Godzilla me-too into a real challenger to the Kaiju throne!