Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 7, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1965)

I had never planned on doing a "Gamera" Series Report Card and certainly not concurrently with my Godzilla Report Card, which I've been planning for years. However, after receiving all the Gamera films for Christmas last year, film-by-film reviews were pretty much inevitable. Running it side by side with Gamera's far more famous kaiju rival seemed like a natural decision as well. Ultimately, this will be a different sort of project. The Godzilla Series Report Card has been about revisiting films I haven't seen since I was a kid. At the start of this project, I've only seen one or two Gamera movies. What wonders does the flying turtle hold and will he match up with the radioactive dinosaur? Let's find out.

1. Gamera
Daikaiju Gamera / Gammera the Invincible

It’s hard to say just how popular the “Godzilla” films were upon original release. The performances of the individual films have long been obscured by the iconic stature of the whole series. There is one good way to measure the popularity of Toho’s world famous King of the Monsters though: The number of knock-offs, rip-offs, and would-be successors to the throne the character generated. While many of these resulting daikaiju films like “Gappa the Triphibian Monster,” “The X from Outer Space,” and “Daigoro vs. Goliath” never earned many fans, Daiei’s “Gamera” series has gained its own cult following. While never becoming as world-renown as Godzilla, Gamera stands as the most persistently popular rival to the Kaiju King’s crown.

The first “Gamera” film mostly eschews the political commentary that characterizes the original “Godzilla” film. While in the Arctic, zoologist Dr. Hidaka and accompanying journalists Aoyagi and Kyoke interview the local Eskimo population. The elder Eskimo reveals a strange stone tablet, supposedly from Atlantis itself, seemingly showing a giant turtle swimming among the waves. At the exact same time, the American air force shoots down an experimental nuclear fighter jet over the Arctic. The resulting explosion cracks the ancient ice, freeing a giant turtle. It’s a good thing Dr. Hidaka and his young friends just happen to be there to witness that. Quickly dubbed Gamera, the giant turtle rampages through Japan.

The “Gamera” films are mostly distinguished from the “Godzilla” series by their increasingly ridiculous content. While far more somber then its sequels, the original “Gamera” is certainly possessed of an oddball sensibility. Godzilla is an extension of the classic dragon archetype, a fire-breathing dinosaur. While there are mythological precedences for giant turtles, Gamera is still a weird critter. The titan terrapin’s rampage is motivated by his hunger for fire. The monster sucking flames into his mouth, shown by running fire-breathing footage backwards, is certainly a memorable sight. Most infamously, Gamera can fly by spurting fire from his leg holes, his shell twirling like a top. The monster slowly starting to spin into the air is certainly a bizarre, unforgettable image. Amusingly, the characters are shocked by the revelation too, unable to connect the recent flying saucer sightings to earlier reports of a giant turtle.

Despite its sometimes goofy story turns, “Gamera” is the entry in the series most committed to horror content. Gamera wracks up a body count, smashing a lighthouse, wrecking a freighter ship and exploding an airport watch tower by spinning into it. The starkest scene of violence is the obligatory attack on Tokyo. Aside from smashing through countless buildings, Gamera also tears open a roof and breaths fire down on the helpless people inside. Moreover, the movie focuses on the collateral damage of the kaiju’s rampage, the bays emptied of fish and boats set ablaze. These darker scenes stand out against the sillier elements, causing the film to stand awkwardly between sci-fi kaiju flick and harsher giant monster horror.

Also contrasting badly is a subplot involving a little boy named Toshio. The boy, raised by his widower dad and older sister, is socially isolated and obsessed with turtles. For no known reason, Gamera pauses from his rampage to rescue the little boy from the destruction. While Gamera would later be established as Friend to All Children, his behavior is far more antisocial in this first film. The inexplicable rescue just spurns on Toshio’s obsession. The little boy pleads with the grown-ups around him that Gamera isn’t really mean and begs him to be nice. Considering the monster viciously murders hordes of people, Toshio’s pleas come off as truly tin-eared. Maybe if the kid’s obsession was played out as something more sad or pathetic, it would work. Instead, the audience is clearly meant to sympathize with the monster-loving kid. Furthermore, the scenes of domestic melodrama involving Toshio and his family really drag the movie down.

Like any good kaiju flick, “Gamera” is packed with some strong special effects. The military is typically powerless against the kaiju. Missiles harmlessly bouncing off Gamera’s shell is a good moment. There’s an obvious weight to the buildings, trains, and boats Gamera smashes through. The titular turtle himself is a sometimes awkward creation. The design is not as streamlined as Godzilla or his foes. Gamera waddles through buildings somewhat sluggishly. However, I do like some of the little touches concerning the monster. His eyes shift from side-to-side, granting him some personality. Unlike Godzilla’s animated fire, Gamera sprays real plumes of flames from his mouth.

Aside from the grim Tokyo destruction scene, my favorite moment in “Gamera” is when the monster interrupts a swinging party. Upbeat guitar music contrasts quite nicely against the scenes of destruction. The movie’s campy streak pokes its head out again during the climax. The scientist of the world work on something called “Plan Z,” a plot to destroy the turtle that isn’t elaborated on. The army tries to lure Gamera towards a spot with a line of blazing fuel. This is hampered by an incoming typhoon. The wind blots out the flame! The rain dampens the bonfire! Oh no, what a dramatic inconvenience! In an equal moment of contrived plot mechanics, a volcano suddenly erupts, drawing Gamera back in. When Plan Z is finally revealed, it nearly trumps Gamera himself as the film’s goofiest element. How do you stop a giant, fire-breathing, flying turtle from Atlantis? Stick him in a huge rocket and shoot him into space. Whoa. This finale conveniently leaves Gamera alive for the inevitable sequel.

While the Toshio subplot is a bit of a drag, the other human aspect of the movie works slightly better. Junichiro Yamashiko has an adventurous tone to his performance as Aoyagi. I especially like his dialogue on the airplane, concerning how a giant turtle is old-hat compared to a flying saucer. Yamashiko has solid chemistry with Harumi Kiritachi’s Kyoke Yamamoto. There’s no romantic tension between the two but the actors’ mutual charm makes their scenes likable. Aside from the monstrous turtle, Eigi Funakoshi is the film’s star as Dr. Hidaka. Funakoshi is fairly grave but has just enough of a twinkle in his eye to make the professor a likable hero. I also like a small moment involving an old man and his wife bemoaning the modern, monster-infested state of the world, the same way the elderly complain about the kids’ loud music or crowded trains.

Maybe the biggest difference between the “Gamera” series and the “Godzilla” series is that Godzilla was never planned as a franchise star. Gamera, on the other hand, was positioned as an on-going kaiju action hero from the beginning. The first film is an entertaining monster-fest, lean enough at 78 minutes not to overstay its welcome. At the same time, it feels like an obligatory opening chapter. Gamera has to go on a solo, villainous rampage in the first film because that’s what Godzilla did. The movie doesn’t end with a “Gamera will return in “Gamera vs. Barugon” message but it might as well. Still, kaiju eiga fans with moderate expectations, like me, will lap it up, even if it’s no classic. [Grade: B-]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I don't know if I can make it through another dozen Gamera movies but I did enjoy this. Your review is of course spot-on and doesn't leave a lot of room for me to expand on other than...Yes, "Plan Z" RULES!!! and that the opening scenes with the U.S. Military plotting Gamera's movements is just about the worst acting I've ever seen. But of course, I loved those scenes. (6/10)