Monday, February 28, 2011

Random Movie Report #87: Gamera vs. Gyaos

Link to the Double Feature DVD on Amazon

After a short experiment with entirely grown-up characters, the Gamera series veered back sharply into kiddie territory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and one of the things I realized going over GAMERA VS. GYAOS is that the series, however derivative, managed to be pretty fresh. Some of its approaches to the giant monster battle genre were appropriated by the Godzilla series in the following decade, and while this entry contains more than its fair share of borrowings, it manages not to feel like a retread. Instead, it gives the giant flying turtle his definitive adversary, and comes off as an effective spectacle done on the cheap.

A series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions rocks the Pacific Rim, and the eruption of Mt. Fuji lures Gamera back to Japan. The upheaval also results in a green glow emitting from a mountain near a remote village in northern Japan, where a development company is trying to build an expressway over the objections (and demands for money) of the townsfolk. A mysterious ray from the glowing mountain destroys a survey helicopter, and eventually an inquisitive boy named Eiichi (Naoyuki Abe) discovers (and names) the culprit: Gyaos, a supersonic, prehistoric flying monster with traits of bird, lizard, and vampire bat. Gamera comes along to save the day, but finds himself vulnerable to the creature’s supersonic beams, which cleanly cut through just about anything they come in contact with. The military tries to develop its own ways of combating the creature, focusing on its aversion to bright light, which is ultimately revealed as a vulnerability to the sun’s rays. Of course, knowing its weakness is one thing; taking advantage is another.

You can see a formula for the series already emerging; a new monster appears, Gamera challenges it but is wounded, and the humans work out a weakness and set up elaborate plans to try and defeat it, which inevitably must serve only to delay or inconvenience the monster until Gamera’s ready for a rematch. It’s not a bad formula, to be sure, and it’s one thing that the Godzilla series would adopt now and again.

It is, for one thing, an opportunity to show off the new monster. Gyaos has become Gamera’s signature adversary, chosen to headline the revival of the series in 1995, and in a series filled with weird monsters, he still stands out. The sleek, sinister, cartoonish design of the creature is inspired, and there’s something nicely horrific in his habit of eating people alive and emerging at night to feed. The “sonic beam” is also an interesting effect, splitting cars and helicopters in twain with a surgeon’s precision. The series tradition of brightly colored goriness continues apace as well, Gyaos bleeding bright pink and having the ability to regrow severed limbs.

The monster’s nocturnal dining habits mean this is a moodier film than you’d expect, with nice visuals of dark wooded mountains. The cinematography for this picture actually won an award, and it does help the film carry its low production values. The picture simply has a dark atmosphere that is unusual in a kids’ kaiju movie.

Of some note is the subplot involving the developers, though only some. It’s actually framed in an interesting way, with the developers determined to finish the highway but the villagers determined to get the best price they can for their homes, and having the project foreman Tsutsumi (Kojiro Hongo) be the dashing male lead almost gives the story a pro-big-business slant. As much as this plot gets buried by the whole giant bat monster business, it does get a resolution eventually, one that’s expectedly pro-niceness and pro-compromise and so on. As plainly for kids as the series was, it’s interesting to see the various attempts at social comment that pop up.

GAMERA VS. GYAOS more or less does what it says on the tin, but is distinctive enough to be memorable. As derivative as the Gamera series can be, it’s also unique, and Gyaos is another strange entry in a wonderfully weird rogue’s gallery. Shout! Factory has again given this film better treatment than it’s ever had in the English speaking world, and the picture holds up stronger for it. This is a series I’m glad I have the opportunity to revisit.

Written by Nisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Grade: B

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