Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gamera: The Giant Monster

"S.O.S. Gigantic turtle sighted. Height, approximately 60 meters."
"A competent if uninspired rehash of the first Godzilla picture."
-Stuart Galbraith IV [Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! p.30]-
"Gamera was born on the 10th anniversary of the first Godzilla, and we swore we'd never imitate him  - we had respect for Godzilla."
-Noriaki Yuasa [interviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! p.73]-

Galbraith isn't wrong, but there's more than enough to Gamera: The Giant Monster (1965) to really distinguish itself, set itself apart and essentially establish its very own personality.  The infusion of a child's heart has a lot to do with that and shouldn't be overlooked by Galbraith is discounting this Gamera origin picture.

Who knew? There probably wasn't a soul, including director Ishiro Honda, that expected Gojira (1954) to become a cinematic classic. More importantly, it's fair to say, Honda never expected his giant beast born of World War II's nuclear aftermath would rise to become legend and develop a thriving franchise some twenty-eight films later. It's remarkable just how profound the impact or imprint of Gojira's giant-sized footprint as a film has been across the planet. Godzilla, without question, is immediately synonymous with Japan and Japanese popular culture. He's arguably the most iconic and classic of all science fiction characters to ever be.

In the spirit of competition, like Apple to Microsoft, or Fed Ex to the USPS, Toho competitor Daiei Studios was looking to make its own mark on the monster circuit and jump into the kaiju-sized fun. If a giant lizard could stomp all over Tokyo, why not a turtle? Thus, Gamera became Daiei's answer to the Toho kaiju conundrum.  Gamera may not be considered the King of the Monsters, but the terrific, tower-sized terrapin concept along with a great name and a host of special fighting attributes managed to win its way into the hearts of children everywhere and arguably become the number two kaiju classic of all-time (though an argument could be made for the beloved Mothra).

Who could be as big and bad as Godzilla? Who could match that monster-sized power?  Incredibly, the Showa-era, Arctic-born Gamera carved a fairly impressive niche for itself within Japanese pop culture.  Over the decades it too has fashioned a sizable lot of collectibles to be sought after second only to the BIG G.

So, the spirit of competition was alive and well in Japan, and as one of the characters noted in Ishiro Honda's Matango (1963; a.k.a. Attack Of The Mushroom People), and I'm paraphrasing, generations take an idea and "improve upon it." Well, the Japanese are masters of this game in almost any field and Gamera, within the kaiju realm, while maybe not improving upon the concept, certainly gave kids of all ages and fans of the kaiju genre another monster-sized option, another alternative or at the very least, just more good old-fashioned monster fun. Gamera would prove to be an impressive thing in his own right. About the only thing we need now, as a fan of both Godzilla and Gamera, is a monster smack down between the two legendary creatures in the spirit of King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962). Unfortunately two different studios owning the rights to their respective properties has made that something of an unlikely event, but what an event it would be.  A boy at heart can dream.

Well, in a year amplifying my affection for the kaiju picture thanks to Pacific Rim (2013), Gamera was Daiei's answer to the kaiju craze of the 1960s stateside and globally Daiei Studios - a strikingly cool, yes, fire-breathing, flying terrapin to match Toho's Godzilla blow for blow. So Gamera, for me, wasn't so much an alternative to the Godzilla franchise, but rather a worthy complement for the ages.

As noted earlier, one of the elements Daiei introduced and successfully infused into its craft was the inclusion of children into the world of Gamera.  Whether that effort was entirely intentional and pointed particularly in this origin picture or not is a moot point.  Kids responded to the child character in Gamera: The Giant Monster and from that point forward it was a foregone conclusion that Gamera was a friend to children everywhere.  That element was a major plot point and became essential to the franchise going forward.  That original concept, in turn, inspired Toho to begin influencing its own Godzilla franchise with a similar child-friendly approach.

Personally, I have strong memories of those sweet, little Japanese boy scouts who loved their Gamera notable in Gamera Vs. Viras (1968). Gamera was their hero and as a kid he was mine too.  For whatever reason my child-like mind was more than willing to separate the devastation and carnage attributed to Gamera with the mere fact that his intentions were noble and good for a creature. There was no real ill intent.  Kids pick up on that.  Well, Daiei ultimately, by intention or accident, understood or channeled the minds of children and genuinely captured the imagination of the very young, so much so, as I said, Toho began infusing that child like spirit into its own Godzilla films. Look no further than All Monsters Attack (1969; a.k.a. Godzilla's Revenge), or Godzilla Vs. Megalon (1973) to name just two.  Godzilla even got a child of his own in Son Of Godzilla (1967).  So kids were indeed part of the focus in both franchises moving into the 1960s and 1970s just for sheer survivability of the franchise.

Clearly a Boston Red Sox Fan.  I like him. Congratulations to our 2013 World Series Champions -the Boston Red Sox! Closer Koji Uehara and Set Up man Junichi Tazawa would be proud.

Galbraith commented further rather amusingly.  He wrote, "while Gamera gleefully roasted adults he had a strong affection for little kids, and little kids ate it up." Right? Hey Gamera, that was just my mom and dad you squashed, but no worries. Galbraith noted that Daiei pictures lacked much of the Toho quality of execution, and that may indeed be true (see Director footnote on why), but that it understood the mind of a child. "The later Gamera films, while never quite up to the level of Toho's monster movies, knew what kids were about, how their minds worked, and what they wanted to see; these films had a child-like logic about them, and only make sense when viewed from that standpoint." [p31].


So the Japanese may be great borrowers of ideas and concepts, but they adapt better than any culture, improve upon it and make it exceptional. This strength was evident in the creation of Gamera and then the ongoing survival of the Godzilla franchise by Toho, both of which were ultimately inspired by American monster movies.  But Japan took fantasy, sci-fi and kaiju to new heights by turning to suitmation as an acceptable fiscal alternative to the effects-heavy world led by the likes of Ray Harryhausen.

So Daiei had its monster baby and another legend was born. Whereby, Godzilla was awakened from the depths of the sea from nuclear war, Gamera, in turn, is unearthed from the ice relative to a Cold War-era nuclear incident.

There is clearly a mythological component (one suggested in Gojira as well) to Gamera.  Gamera is suggested to be a Chelonian (Chelonii -turtle) creature from the great civilization of AtlantisGamera is also, according to mythology, to be one of many here in this origin tale.  Eskimos fear the great beast called Gamera.  Scientists believe this mythical creature may exist but are also concerned about the potential for World War III and nuclear fall out following a crash and detonation in the Arctic ice evidenced by the trawling boat known as the Chidori Maru (an allusion to the real-life fishing trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru or Lucky Dragon No.5 exposed to nuclear fall out and well covered in my Gojira review).

Similarities in set up aside, what sets Gamera: The Giant Monster apart from Toho's Godzilla is the inclusion of a child named Toshio.  Through Toshio, a character with genuine personality, children experience the kaiju picture through the eyes of innocence and connect to the film on a level that Gojira never entered.  The Toho origin remained at arm's length for children as Godzilla was a rampaging monster born of the atomic bomb and hell-bent on destruction without reason or remorse (originally).

Toshio draws turtles, dreams of turtles and even brings them to school where he gets in trouble.  Do you remember getting a turtle and wanting to keep it when you were a child?  I did.  My brother and I even attempted to remake our infant swimming pool into the plastic mold of a genuine but small paludarium to create a natural habitat for our locally imprisoned pond turtle.  Ultimately the turtle was always released to back to the brook behind our home from whence it came.

Toshio's baby turtle is Pee-Wee and he too sets it free, but comes to believe it may have transformed into Super Turtle Gamera.

In this origin picture the great Gamera, despite initially putting Toshio into harm's way through its violence, ultimately saves the falling Toshio by catching him.  About that death-defying moment, who's counting Gamera?  It is here the legend begins.  Gamera is a friend to all children.  This influence on child-centric stories would continue and grow more pronounced in the Gamera series.  As a kid we loved it.

It is through the child's eyes that we develop empathy for Gamera and other kaiju, but we never had the same affection for Godzilla as kids until much later.

Toshio declares, "Wherever he is, I bet he's feeling lonely. Gamera's not bad.  Honest. He's a gentle animal. Gamera's lonely and he doesn't have any friends.  He's probably hungry and looking for food, too."

Toshio prays Gamera doesn't do anything "bad" but that couldn't be farther from the truth.  But discarding the body count and building demolition, Gamera isn't really evil, but rather, more or less, a force unleashed, like Godzilla in a sense but with an affection for small children. Toshio is a central component to the film's story and is essential to its charms as much as kaiju Gamera.

In this origin picture we witness Gamera jams frequencies, spin in flight like a saucer, crawl up hill sides like a real turtle, breath fire, but also grow stronger through fire consumption.  Yes, a fire eater. In fact, all manner of nuclear weapons or weapons of any kind only serve to nourish and feed Gamera or as the doctor notes "elate it."  Gamera eats all manner of inorganic matter, like minerals and fossil fuels (oh the irony).  It's the doctors and scientists who fill the audience in on Gamera.  Have you noticed the doctors and scientists get all the respect of the military in Japan kaiju films?

Thus it's time for an alternate plan.  Operation Deep Freeze.  A top secret government bomb has been tested to freeze its target.  Unfortunately it lasts just ten minutes "to the second."

With Gamera frozen, or at least slowed like a small fly or bee in the Fall, the mountainside where he is perched is detonated and he falls on his back.  The doctor notes turtles are unable to right themselves while on their backs. Is this a fallacy?  It is true that some species can starve to death if unable to right themselves.  Some species have shells and/or necks that are more convenient for such a maneuver, but it can happen. Certain elemental variables and age also play into such terrapin-shelled reptile tragedies. So the plan is to allow Gamera to starve and perish.  It's really not a great plan.  The army laughs.  Clearly Gamera has the last laugh pulling in its arms, legs and head and going supernova saucer with fire blazing from its body.  That is one heck of a trick.

Gamera Countermeasures HQ continues to work around the clock. World scientists gather to develop Z Plan but must first lure Gamera to Oshima island, an international scientific paradise of global cooperation that would make Ishiro Honda proud.

Until then, Gamera is awakened an hungry for energy. Petroleum is its food of choice.

Gamera: The Giant Monster ends rather abruptly as Gamera is somehow lured quickly into a rocket ship and shot off to Mars to save the Earth. Wait what!? Hardly a tear is shed from Toshio but he does hope to visit Gamera one day.  Despite the rather sudden ending and unlikely logic associated with Z Plan, the film is rather satisfying. And let's face it, Toho isn't cornering the market on fantasy logic. Gamera is easily far more charming and likable than Toho's Varan The Unbelievable (1958) as an example.

As far as logic goes, aren't those brilliant scientists concerned about the fact Gamera can fly like a saucer?  In fact, he just flew all around the globe in this film.  Mars will hardly stop Gamera from returning to Earth. Not so brilliant are we now?

Daiei's answer to Toho's Kumi Mizuno.  Excellent choice.

Gamera: The Giant Monster is entirely black and white and Shout Factory does a splendid job of redelivering the picture to its intended glory.  It's fire-breathtaking and really took me back to my youthful days that were swirling with a fertile imagination thanks to kaiju classics like this one.  Dreaming the days away watching Saturday morning cartoons followed by grand pictures like this one on Creature Double Feature became irreplaceable moments in my lifetime.  Even The One To Be Pitied has a penchant, not for kaiju like me, but black and white films of the classic variety of almost any genre, and thus was drawn into the world of Gamera. Them! (1954) had the family engrossed just days later.  So they are fun for the whole family.

Technically, the effects work and suitmation is marvelous too.  There were some wonderful animated effects of people running and Gamera swirling through the skies that were seamless in their inclusion.  These effects have held up remarkably well and were a joy to watch over and above today's technical marvels.

The man-in-the-monster suit effects are stellar here as one has come to expect and love from these pictures.  They may have been ripe for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and the butt of many a joke, particularly the American cuts of these films, but as Saturday afternoon cinema for young teens and kids hardly anything was more perfect than Gamera: The Giant Monster. And the pictures should be viewed with these open-minded eyes.  It's easily a standout from the medium alongside Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961) and Gojira even if it's not a Toho baby. So these successfully delivered cuts of the original films by Shout Factory make for a proper, vintage kaiju cinema experience.  These aren't the poorly edited and diced American versions as good as they were when we were children.  The original cuts offer the intended flow of director Noriaki Yuasa's film.

Japan's Colonel Sanders takes charge.

In fact, Gamera: The Giant Monster (or Giant Monster Gamera) was actually shot with new footage featuring American actors and released in 1966, a year later, as Gammera The Invincible (1966).  Yes, Gammera.  Once again, the American market approached cutting the film in much the same was it approached Gojira and recut the film with actor Raymond Burr for Godzilla: King Of The Monsters (1956) two years after the original.  Oh the translation and communication nightmares.

For those who revel in the classic look of Gamera over the new Heisei pictures, one should take time to seek out Revoltech's gorgeous line of Gamera figures. X Plus has also released a line of Gamera's villains that are stunning in detail. They are all meticulously sculpted and painted.

One thing is certain, thanks to these simple, but well-conceived films, Gamera's popularity and its own ability to endure as a franchise proved there was room enough for two major reptiles on this great planet Earth. I'm forever grateful for their inclusion during my childhood.  This Gamera original captures the glory of Gamera, childhood and, well, a bevy of early era Japanese babes. The male kaiju fan will surely not be disappointed.  All of that plus I have this thing for turtles.

Gamera: B. Director: Noriaki Yuasa. Writer: Nisan Takahashi/ Yonejiro Saito.

Director footnote: Noriaki Yuasa [1933-2004]: The director helmed seven Gamera films. Yuasa also handled all of the special effects chores. Perhaps the over extension of his talents harmed the franchise technically, despite their beloved status as kaiju eiga classics. Nevertheless, Yuasa was also hamstrung by much more limiting budgets than even those associated with the Toho kaiju eiga masterpieces. One such example, Toho was able to count on the gifted efforts of suitmation actor Haruo Nakajima. At Daiei, Yuasa could not expend the funds for such a premiere suit actor in the role of Gamera. Instead he relied on several different faces to play the role of Gamera. Eventually, "from the second Gamera on, we had enough of a budget to pay someone specifically to play that role." He added, "We couldn't afford a star monster actor. We always had three different people." [Stuart Galbraith IV, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! p.70].

Gamera Films:
Showa Era:
Gamera (1965)
Gamera Vs. Barugon (1966)
Gamera Vs. Gyaos (1967)
Gamera Vs. Viras (1968)
Gamera Vs. Guiron (1969)
Gamera Vs. Jiger (1970)
Gamera Vs. Zigra (1971)
Gamera: Super Monster (1980)

Heisei Era:
Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe (1995)
Gamera 2: Attack Of Legion (1996)
Gamera 3: Awakening Of Iris (1999)

Millennium Series:
Gamera The Brave (2006)