Thursday, April 10, 2014
Series Report Card: Gamera (1968)
Gamera vs. Viras
Gamera tai Uchu Kaiju Bairasu /
Destroy All Planets
It was inevitable. By the fourth film in the series, the Gamera franchise has already risen highly in ridiculousness. Considering this, it’s surprising that it took so long to introduce aliens. Aliens were a somewhat common presence in the Godzilla series by this point. Outer space, in general, is an easy spawning ground for crazy monsters. From here on, the Gamera series wouldn’t look back, his enemies being almost entirely extraterrestrial in nature.
Considering your perspective, “Gamera vs. Viras” is either the most ambitious Gamera film or one of the smallest. The aliens approach Earth in the opening minute, expounding on how the planet’s resources make it an ideal target for invasion. Before the spherical saucer can even enter the atmosphere, Gamera is there to nip that shit in the bud. He rips apart the space ship, the aliens shouting in terror as it explodes. A second ship follows shortly after, however. The second UFO traps Gamera in a force field, scans his memories, and clamps a mind-control device on the back of his neck. Now controlled by the invaders, Gamera rampages across Japan. At least until his human buddies free him, allowing the giant turtle to fight back against the aliens. Their ship destroyed, the aliens fuse together into the giant Viras, a squid-like monster, battling Earth’s turtle protector one-on-one.
On paper, that sounds like a bigger story then any of previous films. However, there’s a significant snag present. “Gamera vs. Viras” makes prominent use of stock footage. When Gamera is locked in the Laser Dome of Isolation, the aliens read his thoughts. This plays out, on-screen, as stock footage from the previous two movies. We see most of Gamera’s battle with Barugon and quite a bit of his first scuffle with Gyaos. For ten entire minutes, the movie is dominated by reused scenes. In the original American cut, it’s even more, a whopping twenty minutes! I don’t exactly welcome this but at least there’s an in-story excuse.
All that stock footage is also the reason the story seems so small, despite stomping all over the country. New scenes take place in two locations: On the beach and aboard the alien spaceship. I suspect the amount of stock footage was a money-saving measure so the movie could feature those far-out spaceship sets. They’re nice sets, for sure. The long white hallways are broken up by red, laser walls. The aliens communicate through flashing, multicolor panels. The flying saucer is an innovative design, a series of connected black-and-yellow spheres. It’s a fun prop and one the film makes the most off. Ultimately the effects can’t quite measure up to the similar work seen in “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero.” I’m not sure how much of the money saved is up on the screen.
Even if it winds up making the film feel cheaper, the condensed story actually helps the pacing. The focus has shifted entirely to the kiddies by this point. Most of the named cast are literal Boy Scouts. Masao and his American friend Jim wind up occupying most of the screen time. Masao is a bit of a boy genius, inventing a Dick Tracy-style radio watch, with which he communicates with his older sister. Near the beginning, Masao winds up out-smarting a group of scientists when he reserves the absurdly simple controls in a submarine. Hilariously, the same prank works on the alien’s ship later on. Jim mostly winds up being Masao’s sidekick but it is interesting that the film has an international cast. Both Toru Takatsuka and Kurl Crane are better actors then expected, sharing decent chemistry. The scenes of the boys exploring the alien spacecraft have a fun, “kids on a mission” feel to it, predicting flicks like “The Goonies” or “The Monster Squad.”
James Rolfe refers to as “Gamera Fun Time!” While piloting the submarine, the boys wind up swimming beside the giant turtle, a sequence that goes on a little longer then it should. The obnoxiously peppy “Gamera March,” which also plays over the opening credits, is featured throughout. Despite both kids being fairly proactive protagonists, in the last act, they are reduced to running around and shouting “Gamera!” over and over again. Yeah, that gets annoying real quick.
Which brings me to the aliens. The Viras threat, the Virasians?, spend most of the movie in human form. For no discernible reasons, while disguised as humans, the aliens dressed in doctor’s scrubs. They float through the hallways in slow-motion. They stand in the shadows, displaying inhuman, yellow, glowing eyes; a genuinely eerie effect. At one point, one of them launches his hand across the room, Mazinger-style. Despite having all sorts of alien technology at their disposal, Viras still can’t keep two pre-teen boys under wraps. Both kids wiggle out of the shackles they’re put in.
When the Boss Viras reveals his soldiers’ true forms, he does so by decapitating them in sequence with his tentacle, a hilarious, bizarre moment. The monster has an agreeably odd-ball design, in line with Gamera’s previous enemies. Viras is grey and resembles a squid, with a tiny beak and a head that splits off into crown-like spikes. The spikes can combine into a large spear which Viras uses to impale his enemies with great prejudice. Like the Constructicons and Megazords later would, the human-sized Viras (Virai?) combine in order to blow up to Gamera-size for the final show down.
The final battle is when “Gamera vs. Viras” comes alive. It features some truly unforgettable images. Viras springs himself over his opponent’s turtle-y head, repeatedly. The two monsters bounce the spaceship debris back and forth like a soccer ball, recalling “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster.” Gamera blunts his opponent’s spike with a giant rock. He tries to drag the heroic terrapin into the ocean but Gamera doesn’t have it. My personal favorite moment is when that battle goes underwater. Gamera grabs Viras’ tentacles and swims to the surface with him. The best way I can describe this is it looks like Gamera is using his enemy as a jet-ski. It’s amazing. Soon afterwards, Viras impales the turtle. You’d think this would slow him down. Nope. Gamera spins into the heavens, Viras still stuck in to him. Hilarious, unforgettable moments like these is why I stick with this series. How Viras is defeated is a little disappointing but, after a show like that, I can’t much complain.
Despite wrecking a city and probably killing a bunch of people, the movie still ends with the kids enthusiastically waving goodbye to Gamera as he flies away. “Gamera vs. Viras” is badly hampered by its over-reliance on stock footage. The most disheartening thing is that, if the movie wasn’t so chock-full of recycled scenes, it would probably be one of the best Gamera films. One of the most entertainingly bat shit kaiju fights ever committed to film is buried under reused footage. As it is, “Gamera vs. Viras” is mostly saved by its bonkers final act, some hysterical images, and a speedy run time. [Grade: C+]