Welcome to the five-week series I’m calling, “GaMAYra.” I have to start by saying that I’ve never (until now) seen a Gamera movie (that I can remember.) However, I was compelled to purchase Arrow Video’s spectacular box set of twelve uncut original Japanese versions of the films, spanning the years 1965-2006. This will be a journey for me, and I’ll be happy to share what I learn. You must forgive me if any of this is remedial information for you. I welcome your feedback along the way. What do I get right? What do I get wrong? Of course, you can’t tell me my opinion is right or wrong, but I don’t want to spread false factual information.
In the 80-page, trade paperback-sized book that comes with the oversized box set, Patrick Maclas provides a history of Gamera. Daiei Studios was founded in 1942 but was not very distinguished until studio chief Masaichi Nagata “travelled abroad and saw opportunities for Japanese film on the international festival circuit.” Suddenly the studio triumphed with films like Rashoman (1950) and Gate of Hell (1953.) However, it also dabbled in less-lauded science fiction and fantasy films such as The Invisible Man Appears (1949), Claws of Steel (1951), and Warning from Space (1956.)
Although rival studio Toho had been making Godzilla movies since 1954, it was not until the worldwide success of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) that Daiei decided it wanted a piece of the kaiju action. At first, though, it was not in the form of a giant flying turtle. They planned Giant Horde Beast Nezura, about a swarm of giant rats attacking Tokyo. When a lice and tick infestation shut down production, Nagata demanded that all his studio’s producers submit ideas for a new monster movie… one that had special effects to rival those in a Godzilla film. Producer Yonejiro Saito and writer Nisan Takahashi “won” with their idea, Attack on Tokyo by Fire Breathing Turtle. Those are the bones of the story right there and Daikaiju Gamera (Gamers: the Giant Monster) brings it to cinematic life.
As I review these films, I’m going to be tempted to compare them to Godzilla films. That’s natural; I’m more familiar with those. However, I’ll try to avoid judging Gamera based solely on “the other G." I’ll instead attempt to use the Toho films as points of reference. For example, one of the hallmarks of a Godzilla film, particularly the early ones, is the special effects. In most cases, the attention to detail of the miniatures is remarkable and buildings look real as they crumble. This isn’t the case with Gamera, at least in Gamera: The Giant Monster. Buildings are more one-dimensional pieces of cardboard that fall in one piece.
On the other hand, there’s an amazing shot of a building with its roof torn off. As the giant turtle stands beside it, we see its inhabitants moving on the top floor. It’s quick, so I don’t know how it would withstand tougher scrutiny, but it’s a rare highlight in the movie’s special effects. More often, Gamera knocks over something, like a radio tower, in one, stationery piece. We’ll see where the special effects go from here, but in Gamera: The Giant Monster, the quality is supposedly due to the lack of a budget on a tight shooting schedule, not the lack of talent among the filmmakers. Director Noriaki Yuasa refused to use the resources of the more experienced Tsuburaya Productions and forged onward himself
Kaiju films are as much about the plot formula as they are the giant beasts, and, on the surface, Gamera: The Giant Monster is no different. The titular creature is awoken from hibernation by a nuclear explosion. It goes on a rampage. Governments try to stop it. There’s usually one doctor, professor, or scientist (and his lovely assistant) trying to predict where the creature will go next and what will happen as a result. Sometimes there’s a comical sidekick along for the ride and sometimes he’s smitten with the beautiful assistant. There’s usually a child or children who want to befriend the beast. The movie ends with it retreating until the next time.
Here, Eiji Funakoshi plays Dr. Hidaka, who’s investigating reports of a giant turtle before it awakens. He’s accompanied by his lovely assistant, Kyoko Yamamoto (Harumi Kiritachi), and comical sidekick, news photographer Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashita.) About a third of the way into the story, they employ white-bearded Professor Murase (Jun Hamamura) to share his expertise. Unbelievably appearing out of nowhere the entire way is Toshio Sakurai (Yoshira Uchida), a young boy that believes the tiny pet turtle his father (Yoshiro Kitahara) and sister (Michiko Sugata) made him surrender, has transformed into the giant flying turtle.
Gamera: The Giant Monster flirts with some unique and interesting ideas that aren’t fully realized. For example, the nuclear explosion that releases Gamera is caused by a stealth-like jet that crashes onto the surface of his icy prison. As Dr. Hidaka talks about how, “the Cold War rages on,” much is made about not knowing from what country the jet originates. However, it's never mentioned again. Instead, there’s a more subtle joining of forces among Japan, the United States, and Russia in order to stop the monster.
Finally, let’s talk about Gamera itself. I haven’t needed to watch any of the films to know it was a flying, fire-breathing turtle. However, I did not know that it also eats fire, gaining sustenance and power from it and all kinds of energy... electricity, nuclear power, and fossil fuel. That makes it harder to stop, but also easier to lure to a trap on Oshima Island (if not for that darned typhoon headed in that direction.) I also did not know that Gamera flies by pulling its head and appendages into its shell, then spinning around and taking off like a rocket. Maybe Gamera isn’t your typical kaiju after all. In this state, he can shoot all around the world.
After watching Gamera: The Giant Monster, I’m expecting from future Gamera films something a little more unique… a little more bizarre. In fact, from the point that we're introduced to the way it can shoot into the sky and be mistaken for a flying saucer, the movie really picks up steam and becomes interesting. I love the way in which it's disposed at the end. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but I will say that it indicates this may evolve into a kinder, gentler series of movies with an unanticipated sci-fi twist. I can’t wait to find out!
Original Japanese Version Daikaiju Gamera
Released Nov. 27, 1965
RT 78 min.
Written by Niisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Starring Eiji Funakoshi, Harumi Kiritachi, Junichiro Yamashita, Yoshiro Uchida, Michiko Sugata, Yoshiro Kitahara, Jun Hamamura
US Version Gammera the Invincible
Released Dec. 15, 1966
RT 86 min.
Home Video Blu-ray (Arrow Video, Gamera: The Complete Collection)