Thursday, October 14, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Movie Report #79: Gamera the Giant Monster

Gamera DVD cover and Amazon link
The first picture was a dead giveaway, wasn’t it? Gamera has appeared at the club before, but just this past year, Shout! Factory began releasing the original Gamera films on R1 DVD. After years of languishing in poor transfers on budget titles destined to clog the shelves at Half Price Books, the king of monster turtles is finally getting the treatment he deserves. Though obviously conceived as a cash-in on Toho’s kaiju epics, specifically the Godzilla series, the Gamera films quickly found their own vibe and charm. The first film isn’t quite as charmingly absurd as later entries would be, but it’s still pretty entertaining and is a good introduction to this uniquely friendly beast.

The film opens in the Arctic, with a Russian bomber attempting to slip past America’s DEW system. It’s intercepted and shot down, unfortunately triggering its nuclear payload, which melts an ancient glacier and unleashes Gamera, a giant prehistoric turtle worshipped as a god by the local Inuits. The giant monster causes some local destruction before apparently disappearing from sight; shortly after, people in Japan start catching sight of a strange UFO, and local kid Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida) is rescued from a crumbling lighthouse by the monster. Sure, Gamera caused it to start crumbling in the first place, but Toshio is convinced the monster is the reincarnation of a beloved pet turtle he was forced to set free. In due time Gamera- who can not only breathe fire, but fly by tucking all his limbs into his shell and spinning on flame jets like an elaborate firework- sets about destroying the Japanese mainland. Scientists and generals are helpless to find a way to destroy the creature, and Toshio tries to persuade them that Gamera isn’t bad, just misunderstood. Eventually, a supremely goofy plan is hatched.

One of the major reasons Gamera stood out from a number of attempted Godzilla rivals is that Daiei studios directly went after the child audience. While Toho’s star was slowly transforming into a more sympathetic and kid-friendly character (1965, the year this was released, saw Godzilla doing his first fight for good in GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER), Gamera’s titled that way from the start. Sure, in this movie he’s mostly wrecking buildings and setting cities on fire, but the film takes care not to make his rampage too scary or too realistic. I think it also helps that there’s something almost human (or at least cartoonish) about Gamera’s look; he’s got large expressive eyes and a rounded shape that makes him look kind of jolly. In no time whatsoever (well, one or two movies) he would become the friend of children and battle really evil monsters, but solo he comes off as less aggressive than simply out of his element.

Daiei never had a lot of money to spend on these movies, but while the effects are a bit on the cardboard side, they’re well-shot and large-scale enough to get the mood across. Gamera, at least, is convincing and well-designed. I, like many other people, still don’t know just why the filmmakers decided to make him jet-powered, but it’s honestly an inspired touch of whimsy, similar to something Nintendo auteur Shigeru Miyamoto might have come up with 20 years later. (I am not entirely sure what tense that was.)

The human action is sadly a little boring, a common flaw with minor monster pics from this era. It’s not bad, but the fact that I can’t really recall any of the characters besides the kid and older scientist (Eiji Funakoshi) does not speak well. A slight disappointment on the DVD front is that this relese doesn’t include the more widely-seen American cut released as GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE; the rights to those and other English dubs of the original Gamera series are still held by other parties, and have only been available on the aforementioned budget discs.

The first GAMERA epic isn’t really spectacular, but it is one of the few really solid non-Toho kaiju epics from this period. A lot of it is down to Gamera himself, a unique and charming creation one can’t help but like. The film’s story and production values are just strong enough to provide a decent platform for the super turtle’s talents, and launch him off to a surprisingly lengthy and durable career.

Written by Nisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Grade: B

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