Gamera, The Showa Era - Part 1

Tokusatsu legend, passed down through generations of kaiju fans, goes something like this: After you conquer all the classic Godzilla films, it is time for you to watch the Gamera movies. The legend had always eluded me, though. I started watching Godzilla films when I was around 12 years old, things were much harder to find for me at that time. Lurking in the background for years and years, was Daiei's flying turtle, begging me to be seen. Were the Heisei-era films of the '90s as good as I've heard? Some say those are among the greatest kaiju films of all! What really happens in the original Gamera? How friendly is he to children? These kinds of questions would run through my mind for years and years. Who and what is Gamera?

With plenty of holiday time to relax and have fun, I decided that the time for me to inherit the legend was now. There would be no more myth and mystery to the Gamera series for me. I was determined to watch as many of these as I could. Sure enough, I found myself watching one a day. I have truly, and wholly, fallen in love with Gamera, and in particular, this Showa series of films. I feel that they must be seen to be believed, hearsay is simply not enough.

Here, I'm going to take you through my experience, opinion, and delight of the Gamera movies, splitting the Showa series into a sort of front half and back half. This is the front half, consisting of the first four films in the series that started in 1965.

Gamera was born out of the collapsed production of another kaiju film that would sadly never see the light of day. Daiei Films and director Noriaki Yuasa were forced to shut down production of a film known as "Giant Horde Beast Nezura" (usually referred to as just "Nezura"), after rats used for the film were found to have a severe set of health problems. Apparently, they were genuine sewer rats. That story is fictionalized and presented in a recent biopic known as Nezura 1964. You can also see a great account of what still exists of the original Nezura here, including surviving photos. At the time Nezura was shut down, props and miniatures were completed and ready to be destroyed by kaiju. In a pinch, Daiei president Masaichi Nagata created a new giant monster to use existing. This one would be a giant, fire-breathing turtle, almost certainly inspired by the success of Godzilla ten years prior.

Before anyone would even see a photograph of Gamera, here he was to save the day and use existing film assets. These are both things that will run fairly deep in the Gamera series.

One thing that I think worth mentioning is that Daiei was absolutely no slouch in the Japanese film department. It's easy to get the impression that they were in the business of knock-offs if you examine only the Gamera series. Toho's projects have always been more visible (to me, at least, thanks to sites like Toho Kingdom). Daiei was a major studio, and Nezura was probably going to be a pretty good movie. Albeit, a dangerously made one. So too, is the original Gamera film, a pretty good movie!

Gamera, The Giant Monster (大怪獣ガメラ, 1965)

Filmed in black-and-white after Nezura's cancellation necessitated budget cuts, Daikaiju Gamera is very much like the third monochrome Godzilla movie I always wished had existed in my dreams.** Unearthed from Antarctic ice by a US/Soviet skirmish in the first five minutes, Gamera makes a strong first impression and carries it through the film.

It's long, long been debunked that monster screen time is the deciding indicator of quality or entertainment. That said, one of the greatest strengths of the Showa era Gamera movies is that there are a ton of scenes with him. This turtle is everywhere! As scientist Dr. Hidaka, lady friend Kyoko, and journalist Aoyagi embark on a quest with the rest of the world to stop Gamera's rampage, there's no shortage of scenes with our new turtle friend. And yes, I did say rampage, Gamera is almost strictly a villainous force here. I say almost, because one of the defining scenes of the film suggests otherwise.

Relatively early on, a child, Toshio, is forced to give up his pet turtle out by the lighthouse. It's quite sad, but as soon as Toshio turns around, so appears Gamera! I love this so much, had it not been for Gamera's introduction in the ice, I think this would have been a delightful little ambiguous origin for him. It still invites a childlike curiosity, watching Gamera appear over the cliff after a heartbreaking goodbye. As Gamera smashes the lighthouse with Toshio on it, he actually catches the boy and sits him down safely before disappearing. This invites just enough in the audience, as they wonder how intelligent Gamera is, and if he's truly a malevolent monster. The film itself does not close this thread, but I think that's alright. Toshio is clearly endangered by Gamera, but I was wondering the whole time if the solution would lie with the boy. It's an effective, clever little sub-sub plot.

The actual solution for Gamera starts to show signs of "Gamera weirdness", the only way I can think to call it. I won't describe it in detail, since the suspense of what the plan turns out to be is part of the the film. But, it's an interesting and relatively peaceful solution (I think?) to get rid of the guy. I was surprised, so hopefully you might be too.

While the human heart of the story lacks any one extremely strong element, the cast turn in likable and enjoyable performances. Some have commented that Toshio is annoying and trying to get himself killed, and I firmly disagree. I the film has a little extra human spirit, it lies with him. Gamera's destructive scenes are genuinely well done, and his ability to fly as a UFO comes as a fun surprise for the characters in the story. It's a well paced, fun watch, with a lot of hits and clues for what's to come in the series. Standalone, I could easily recommend just this one as a great monster movie.

** (Editing note: I never got around to seeing Varan, the last Toho black-and-white kaiju movie. I always thought it was in color? The point is, I love black-and-white stuff!)

Gamera vs Barugon (大怪獣決闘 ガメラ対バルゴン, 1966)

Directly following the ending of Daikaiju Gamera, and the success of the film in real life, Gamera vs Barugon sees the return of Gamera (in color!) and the appearance of a deadly new monster awakened by some asshole treasure hunters. Maybe don't steal the fucking thing the native islanders tell you explicitly not to do. This aspect of the film is frustrating. While the treasuring hunting island expedition is ultimately presented as bad, and the wrong thing to do, it still doesn't excuse actors in makeup to appear as dark-skinned "savage" type natives. I hate to bring that up right away, but if you're anything like me, you'll hate seeing it right away!

With that elephant in the room mentioned, Vs Barugon is the last gasping breath of (relative) convention and normalcy in the Gamera series. This film has a longer, more drawn-out plot, no children characters, and neither Gamera nor Barugon are portrayed as particularly heroic. Gamera is still a fire-breathing, flying monster to be feared, even if he's now a familiar face to us. Very different from the pacing of the previous and future Gamera films, Vs Barugon has the framework to come out as an inarguable classic, and only kind of misses the mark. Yuasa did not return to direct the film as he did for the first, and will for all future installments. Instead, Shingeo Tanaka, another Daiei director, steps in. Yuasa would direct the special effects for this film, his presence is felt, but Tanaka's influence seems to have resulted in a notably darker movie. This works for and against it at different times.

The plot of the movie is somewhat fixated on a rather unpleasant character, Onodera, played by a Koji Fujiyama. He's practically the human main character, despite actual heroic lead Keisuke, played by Kojiro Hongo. Hongo would continue to appear in subsequent Gamera films, as different characters. Keisuke's arc from treasure hunter to actual good normal person is a satisfying one to play out, but the movie is plagued with scenes of Onodera being a complete, flat-out asshole criminal. Emphasis on criminal. He's a totally shitty guy, who meets an appropriate fate at the hands of Barugon, a monster he helped unleash. It's not wrong to have a human villain, but Onodera lacks the depth to justify his screentime. You will watch him scheme...again...and again...and beat a woman, more scheming, more money. On and on it goes. It should work, and in a lot of ways it does, but when you're engaged with other parts of the film, he drags it down. It doesn't help that the introduction of the characters, the plan, being on the island, unleashing Barugon, takes over 20 minutes. It's a little long where the original (and most movies in the series) started with a boom.

Barugon, Gamera's first kaiju opponent ever, is a hell of a monster. Shooting death-ray rainbows out of glowing spikes on his back is already great. I love the contrast between how deadly Barugon is and the delightful beauty of a rainbow. Not to be lacking in powers, he's also equipped with a deadly extensible tongue and subzero ice breath. Gamera is fire, and Barugon is ice. Interesting! Barugon has no relation, of course, to the Toho monster, Baragon. The similarity in names has tickled kaiju fans for years. It's worth noting that Frankenstein vs Baragon was 1965, just 8 months prior. Coincidence?

I have a random comment here, but, how is Gamera able to be frozen when he's perfectly fine in space? Gamera will freeze another monster in the atmosphere as a tactic in a future film, I wonder if he got the idea from fighting Barugon. These are the fun and amusing thoughts you'll start to have as you watch the Gamera movies.

The darker tone of the film helps stage the monster scenes as being a battle between the deadliest titans in the world. You feel bad that Gamera came back after all the work done in the first film. Barugon borders on being some kind of eldritch horror with a seriously freaky set of roars that include booming low growls and cat-like hissing. Baragon's scenes of destruction are thoroughly devastating and exciting to watch. He's definitely among my favorite of Gamera's opponents, though the next one could be his greatest adversary of all. Vs Barugon also starts a trend of having a surprising amount of violence in the fighting. Barugon bleeds purple blood quite a bit, and Gamera really doesn't like him. Gamera himself takes a small backseat to the humans and Barugon, but still manages to have two thrilling battles with him.

This could be seen as perhaps the best Gamera film, depending on what you come to like or dislike about the series. I would say it's the best of a more conventional style. It works very well, but the devil is in the details. Some may find scenes of the military and science community trying to get rid of Barugon a bit repetitive, but I find them creative. The movie does end up having a solid message about the nature of greed and desire that it's able to tie in with the monster's behavior. After this, Gamera is going to begin a transformation that will stick with him forever...

Gamera vs Gyaos (大怪獣空中戦 ガメラ対ギャオス, 1967)

This is one of the movies of all time. This is it. Vs Gyaos features the return of Yuasa's directing, and a new personality for the series that would become its most iconic. Vs Barugon was apparently a bit of a disappointment at the box office. I believe that may be in part to circumstance, as 1966 ended up being an undeniably cracked year for kaiju films and tokusatsu productions. Most notably, it had to contend with the premieres of Ultra Q and Ultraman on television, possibly the greatest toku creations of the 1960's. Regardless, this shifting of gears resulted in Gamera becoming a kind of superhero himself, friend to all children, and defender of Earth. While many are polarized over Godzilla's turn into a hero in the 60's and 70's, I would argue it's an absolutely awesome, career defining move for Gamera. It's something that's stuck to him like glue ever since.

Vs Gyaos has just about everything going for it. While Gamera has changed into his heroic form, in my eyes for the better, the film still has some sense of story and pacing that keeps it slightly grounded. This makes it among the best of the old and the new. You'll marvel at Gamera safely returning a child home and protecting him from Gyaos, but child characters (and the child-like logic that ensues) have yet to completely take over the series. Vs Gyaos is a metric ton of fun no matter how you look at it.

The most notable feature about the story is the battle for the freeway construction. Yes, you heard that right. In the film, a small village forms a resistance against the construction of a freeway that would relocate their livelihoods. Yuasa had this to say, on writer Niisan Takahashi.

"Takahashi-san's screenplay shows Japan as it was during that time, when building the infrastructure was so important. At the time the thinking was 'we have to make freeways, no matter what'. Nowadays, it's ecological issues. Gamera must always reflect modern problems in society."

This is something I appreciate in the film, and will return a handful of times. However, I feel this theme falls a bit flat here, and sounds a bit better in description than onscreen. It's shown quickly that the resistance to the construction company is just a ploy to try and get more money. In the end, after all the monster fighting, the village leader pretty plainly spells that he was being a greedy assmunch (a theme returning from Barugon!) and that things like money don't really matter. Especially when you're facing destruction from a giant evil vampire bat! I'm only barely abbreviating here. It's a bit shallow and straightforward, but it's still better for taking a swing at it. Kaiju solving people problems (often through destruction) is a genre staple, so I'm happy to see it here.

If that sounds boring to you, don't worry. Gyaos wastes little time in having a volcano erupt and getting Gamera on screen, and teasing Gyaos' great powers. Gyaos himself is a malevolent, conniving beast. Where Barugon was an ancient monster awakened by man's greed, Gyaos is just there to start messing shit up for everybody. This villainous nature is perfect as the new Gamera's foe, his opposite. I find it funny that they discover Gyaos is unable to turn his neck, as a weakness. It seems more like a limitation of the costume, but if you can make it part of the story, do it!

Action scenes are electric here. Gamera and Gyaos have a brutal set of bouts, with Gyao's ability to shoot a deadly beam that can cleanly cut through anything causing some major problems. Gyaos gets close to cutting Gamera's arm off wholesale! He can also slice through planes and buildings, lightsaber style. When Gyaos goes on his full rampage, it feels devastating, but still kind of fun with all the wild and creative effects. Gyaos just sounds evil too, take a listen.

Trying to describe every quirky scene, comedic moment, or bizarre situation could take up a whole book. A more lighthearted tone and wonder sometimes clashes with the level of violence and destruction, but this is honestly one of the best things about the Gamera series. It can get so extreme in either direction, and you'll never really know what's coming. The whiplash is a feature, not a bug. This is an overwhelmingly difficult call, but if you watch only one Gamera movie, I recommend this one.

Where was Gamera to go from here? Onward and upward?


Gamera vs Viras (ガメラ対宇宙怪獣バイラス, 1968)

Gamera has taught us well that money and greed are the enemy. Unfortunately, the Gamera series is going to start feeling serious budget cuts. Viras was done at less than one-third of Gyaos. And goodness gracious, does it show. This is one of the only Gamera films I consider to be weak. It's still got a platter of must-see moments, but otherwise drags through anything other than the very beginning and finale fight.

At the same time though, Viras is the point where the transformation of the Gamera series is complete. This is the film that introduces the famous theme song! Gyaos also had a song, but this is THE series anthem. So begins full-on child protagonists, bizarre logic and writing, and fight scenes that wouldn't be out of place in a gag manga. These are mostly good things. For these reasons, I would still advise against skipping this one if you're going through multiple movies.

An alien spaceship made of honeybee patterned rotating orbs monitors the Earth, wanting to conquer it for its supply of Nitrogen. (Side note: The noise on the ship sounds almost exactly like Ghidorah's cry. It distracts the hell out of me!) There are no visible beings on the ship, not that it matters, because Gamera immediately comes to blow up the ship and introduce the title card. This opening is so sick. Sadly, the film won't carry that drive. Two boy scouts sneak away from their troop to play with a submarine, where they meet Gamera and play together. Yes, Gamera can play with kids and have fun. He's sweet like that. Unfortunately, the aliens return right then, and they're after Gamera. Catching the boys and Gam-Gam in a ray shield, the aliens analyze Gamera's mind and memories for weaknesses. This results in a ten-minute sequence of stock footage from Gamera's previous fight. If you watch this right after Gyaos, have fun seeing it again! You have my formal permission to pull out your phone in this scene. This is very blatantly ridiculous, but it actually gets crazier.

The aliens abduct the boys and bring them aboard their ship. This is the actual majority of the film, and while it's a little fun to watch them discover weird things (everything) about the ship, the set is bland and seems like just one room used over and over. The Virians are one-dimensional evil aliens (an element that would improve later), with no regard or even real mention of the nitrogen plot ever again. I do like the effect for their evil glowing eyes though, it is kind of creepy!

Exploiting Gamera's love of children (this is the movie they clearly say in plain language that Gamera loves all kids), they order him to follow them around. They use this leverage to attach a mind-control device to Gamera's neck. Why bother with using the boys to control Gamera when you have an actual mind control device you can just shoot at him? Maybe they needed him to sit still for five seconds, but they had him frozen in a shield earlier... so, whatever.

With Gamera under control, they use him to attack the Earth. This is done at first with more footage from Barugon. I swear, Viras might be 10% Barugon by runtime. I'd love to see the math there. Meanwhile, the kids find a human-size squid monster in a cage, and assume its some kind of helpless captured animal. This is actually Viras, which is a fun little idea, sort of disguising the lead villain monster, but it doesn't go much further.

Gamera then proceeds to destroy Tokyo with black-and-white footage from the original. The sheer audacity of this makes it my favorite part of the film. I'm empathetic to the budget cuts, I'm sure if they could have done them, there'd be new scenes. But they didn't even try to colorize it all or make any attempt to mesh all the disparate elements together. Would you believe this isn't the only time this will happen?

The fight with Viras is one of the funniest ones in the series. It's a shame that Viras isn't be giant-sized until the end of the movie, but they make up for it by having Gamera completely kick Viras' ass! It's almost completely one sided, but it's so good you won't even care. I've omitted the frankly, boring parts from my summary here, but when Viras is amusing it is very entertaining. It just comes a lot further and farther between than almost any other Gamera movie, which makes it stick out to me. Give it a try, it's okay to fast-forward through that one part.

If any anecdote here has inspired you to check out these movies, the best (but most expensive) way is the Blu-Ray release by Arrow Video. To be truthful, this is the only release that seem to have any kind of acceptable video quality. I believe these can also be streamed on Arrow Video's subscription service. If you marathon them like I did, you might be able to get in done in a free trial period!

This wraps up the first half of the series! What will happen to Gamera as we creep into the 1970's? More aliens, male pregnancies, telepathic sharks, and so much more! See you next time!

Gamera, The Showa Era - Part 2

- James