Sunday, January 30, 2011

Random Movie Report #85: Gamera vs. Barugon

Gamera vs. Barugon DVD cover and Amazon link
The Gamera series has always been under appreciated, the poor cousin to the more lavish Godzilla films of the same period (even though their success ended up influencing Toho’s series.) However, the Shout! Factory DVD releases of the classic films are making them look quite a bit better. Viewed in widescreen with quality transfers, they’re not quite as ratty or cheap as they seemed, and GAMERA VS. BARUGON in particular stands out. An unusually dark, serious, and annoying-little-kid-free entry in the series, the first sequel and first full-color monster bout for the jet-powered turtle is a romp which can stand up with some of Toho’s better kaiju epics.

When last we left Gamera, he had been lured into a rocket and fired off to Mars (seriously.) A meteor strikes his capsule, releasing him, and he flies back to Earth, making short work of a dam and heading to a volcano to recharge his flame-powered batteries. Meanwhile, an air pilot named Keisuke (Kojiro Hongo) quits his job to join with a group of men who are planning to retrieve a valuable opal from an area around New Guinea, where Keisuke’s now-disabled brother Ichiro (Akira Natsuki) hid it during the war. Ignoring the warnings of the natives, who insist that the area is cursed, Keisuke, sailor Kawajiri (Yuzo Hayakawa), and criminal Onodera (Koji Fujiyama) recover the strange egg-shaped jewel, only for Onodera to double-cross his friends and run off, keeping the jewel for himself. Kawajiri is killed by a scorpion’s sting, and Keisuke is injured in a cave-in. He is nursed back to health by the natives and a Japanese doctor, none of whom are happy to learn that the jewel has been taken; an oddly light-skinned native, Karen (Kyoko Enami), volunteers to go to Japan with him to try and recover it.

The reason for this is that the jewel is actually the egg of a monster named Barugon, and when Onodera lets it be exposed to the light of an infrared lamp on the voyage back home, it hatches, blowing up the ship and releasing a giant reptilian beast on Osaka. Barugon has quite the diverse arsenal of abilities, with freezing breath, a giant tongue, and a devastating rainbow beam it can project over great distances. Gamera is attracted by the energy the new monster gives off, and the two quickly start to battle it out, but our newly-heroic turtle is frozen and pushed onto his back. It looks like it’s up to the Japanese military, Karen, and a newly repentant Keisuke to find a way of defeating Barugon once and for all.

This is the only film in the original Gamera series not to have any child protagonist, and the tone overall is much darker and more adult than the rest of the series, even the first. I hate to join the “darker is better” crowd, but in this case the approach yields good results; the central story is very strong and I really like the theme of redemption. Keisuke’s venture seems harmless enough at first, but between greed and disrespect for native traditions it’s a venture that’s bound to yield bad results. It helps that Onodera is a genuinely scummy character, at one point leaving Keisuke’s brother and his wife to die helplessly in the path of Barugon’s rampage. Director Shigeo Tanaka brings a nice sordid atmosphere to the human scenes, and Hongo is particularly good at showing his character’s remorse. Chuji Kinoshita’s score also adds to the vaguely oppressive atmosphere.

The downside to such an approach is that Gamera himself does not get a lot of focus; indeed, the fact that he’s basically the good guy goes unremarked-upon. Still, the film doesn’t skimp on monster action, and while some of the effects are a little threadbare, VFX director Noriaki Yuasa does create some imaginative setpieces. It’s genuinely interesting to see the monsters do battle in a frozen cityscape, and Barugon is a wonderfully strange first foe for the equally eccentric jet-powered turtle to confront. The addition of color allows for an interesting trend in the series to surface; Gamera’s battles are a lot bloodier than those of Godzilla or other Toho monsters from around this time, but Yuasa keeps things kid-friendly by giving the monsters bright dishwasher-soap-colored blood.

For whatever reason Daiei decided not to stick with the “mature” approach for the rest of the Gamera movies, leaving this as an unusual but effective change of pace. It’s weirdly touching, and the human story gives us just enough of a connection for the monster action to work that much better. GAMERA VS. BARUGON is probably the best of the original series, and it’s great to see it finally get its due.

Written by Nisan Takahasi
DIrected by Shigeo Tanaka

Grade: B+

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