Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1966)

2. Gamera vs. Barugon
Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon / 
War of the Monsters

There’s a certain experimentation to the Godzilla films of the 1960s. Before a formula set in, Godzilla starred in a satire about commercialism, a Bond-style spy movie, a space epic, a youth-oriented comedy, and a kid’s fantasy flick. Being the first of his kind, that level of genre-experimentation befitted Godzilla. Gamera, however, wasn’t the first of his kind. The giant turtle blatantly owned his existence to the King of the Monsters. Despite a blue print being available to them, Daiei decided to do something somewhat strange with the second Gamera film, “Gamera vs. Barugon.” Like the most iconic of all kaiju, Gamera battles another monster in this sequel. A series of unexpected screenplay decisions, however, wind up making Gamera a secondary character in his own movie.

After a short recap of the first film, we switch to the present, this time in full color. The Z rocket carrying Gamera through space collides with a comet. Freed from his prison, and apparently able to survive in space, a pissed-off Gamera returns to Japan, vengeance on his mind. After a rather spectacular attack on a dam, Gamera disappears from the film for nearly an hour.

Instead, the plot turns to a trio of treasure hunters. The group is headed to New Guinea in search of precious stones. Heroic Keisuke is hoping to finance his own airplane company. Kawajiri wants to help out his crippled brother. Sleazy Onodera, meanwhile, is in it only for greed. Upon arriving, the natives, including beautiful princess Karen, tells them to stay away from the accursed Valley of Rainbows. Deciding the “Valley of Rainbows” doesn’t sound that scary, the group journeys ahead anyway. The other two shouldn’t have trusted Onodera, as he murders Kawajiri, leaves Keisuke for dead, and makes off with a giant opal. An opal that, after being left under a heat lamp all night, hatches a giant monster named Barugon. The surviving Keisuke, along with Karen, makes it back to Japan just in time for the monster to attack. Oh yeah, and Gamera shows up too. Eventually.

The most notorious element of the “Gamera” franchise is the strange monsters the terrible turtle faces off against. If Gamera himself didn’t set that precedence, Barugon certainly does. Not to be confused with Toho’s almost identically named Baragon, Barugon proves much stranger then a floppy-eared dinosaur. From a design perspective, Barugon is somewhat awkward looking. The actor inside has to shamble around on his hands and knees, limiting the monster’s motion. The large, flat head barely moves, save for an occasional blink. He’s not the most unique design, looking pretty much like a big lizard with a horn on his head.

It’s the monster’s powers that truly distinguish him. Barugon has three primary superpowers. He can leap large distances, the suit awkwardly sailing through the air on visible strings. A long, tube-like tongue shoots out of his mouth, striking like a battering-ram. From that tongue, Barugon can shoot a mist that freezes anything nearly instantly. For most giant monsters, that would be enough. Yet Daiei felt the need to incorporate one more, frankly baffling, power into Barugon’s arsenal. From the spines on his back, the giant lizard can produce a rainbow. A deadly rainbow that explodes all it comes in contact with. The scene where Barugon first deploys this weapon and explodes a horde of missiles is unforgettably weird, easily topping the moment where Gamera first took flight in part one.

While Daiei effects supervisor Noriaki Yuasa could never top Eiji Tsuburaya, “Gamera vs. Barugon” does feature some charming monster effects. Gamera is back with a slightly redesigned head, a more angular jaw and yellow eyes, making him more threatening. The early moment where he smashes a dam looks great, the water sweeping away workers and equipment. Barugon’s rampage on Osaka is equally impressive. The scene where a lake and bridge freeze before our eyes is especially memorable, as is a jet freezing in mid-air. Barugon toppling Kobe Tower and turning Osaka Castle into a big, white ice cube will definitely please kaiju fans. The monster is shot from low, tight angles, emphasizing its size. The movie surprisingly, considering the sequels, avoids anthropomorphizing the creatures too much, Gamera and his foe behaving fairly animalisitcally.

The film’s problem is not its effects but rather it’s bizarrely structured screenplay. “Gamera vs. Barugon” has something like a five act story. Gamera’s reappearance, the trip to New Guinea, and Barugon’s emergence take place before the story gets going, creating an extended, bloated first act. A plot to stop Barugon is cooked up and executed only for it not to work. Then another plot, reflecting the monster’s rainbow ray back at him with a ridiculous giant mirror, also doesn’t work. Gamera flies away to another country at the beginning. Whatever he does over there isn’t shown. Even Barugon, the true monster star of this show, spends large portions of the film pinned under man-made rain storms. The action moves in fits and starts. Most of the Gamera series run around eighty minutes. “Gamera vs. Barugon” stretches on for 100 minutes, longer then the Showa era formula can support.

Much attention is paid to Onodera’s villainy. We get extended scenes of him beating on innocent people, furthering his goals. The character’s villainy is exaggerated to cartoonish levels. When he hears a giant diamond is being used to lure the monster to water, he steals a car and goes after it. With a kaiju behind him and the military in front, he makes off with the diamond. Would even the most intense avarice overwhelm reason? Onodera’s over-the-top evilness is obviously focused on to make his eventual demise more satisfying. Indeed, it is, as Barugon scoops him up with his tongue and munches him down soon afterwards. Yet the bad guy’s death takes place in the middle of the movie, leaving the human story to limp along without him. As ridiculous as he was, at least Koji Fujiyama’s super-sleazy performance made Onodera interesting.

Even the monsters suffer from the shaky screenplay. First off, I have to question the logic behind Barugon’s abilities and weaknesses. Having Gamera, a fire-fueled monster, fight an ice spewing monster makes some thematic sense. What doesn’t make sense is that an ice-powered monster would be weakened by water. Gamera, of course, isn’t in most of the film. After finally reappearing to challenge his rival, the turtle quickly gets frozen, not thawing out for another thirty minutes. And, honestly, would Gamera freeze that easily, considering he breathes fire? Gamera is reduced to a deus ex machina, swooping in to stop Barugon after the human’s latest plot fails. The reason that plot fails? It basically boils down to everyone agreeing that it won’t work again. Nitpicking the science of sixties sci-fi film might be fruitless but it took me out of the film anyway.

When the monster fights do break out, they’re at least fun. The first scuffle between Gamera and Barugon is very short lived, the monsters wrestling a little before the big turtle gets frozen. Aside from the goofy monsters and annoying kids, the “Gamera’ series is also well known for its surprising gore. A poke to Barugon’s neck causes purple blood to pour out. Later, far more blood oozes from the monster's back. The final fight climaxes with a lake filling with the enemy creature’s blood. That final battle is plenty satisfying. Gamera body slams Barugon into a bridge in-between clawings, bites, and tumbles. The conclusion, Gamera tearing Barugon’s throat out and holding him underwater, is surprisingly cruel. With its gory action and complete lack of kids, this is easily the most mature of the Showa-era Gamera series.

It’s not surprising there are no high-pitched kids in the movie. The sporadic monster action and focus on human cast members is bound to bore younger viewers. It might bore grown-up viewers too. Kojiro Hongo’s performance as Keisuke is mostly fine. He is generally likable and has good chemistry with the lovely Kyoko Enami. However, some of Hongo’s cries of anguish border on melodramatic. Enami isn’t bad either but her character has little to do beside drop broad exposition about the monsters. Speaking of broad exposition, the movie makes the regretful decision of including an omniscient narrator. Throughout the film, a disembodied voice will chime to explain things happening off-screen. Maybe they should have, I don’t know, just shown those things?

Ultimately, it’s hard to say who “Gamera vs. Barugon” was designed for. Gamera fans are going to be disappointed by his lack of screen time. Monster fans looking for kaiju rumbles are going to have to sit through a lot of stuff that doesn’t interest them. As a drama, the movie proves somewhat overheated. It’s an ambitious effort but ultimately one that doesn’t quite work. Leaner, goofier pastures await Gamera, a mode he’s probably better suited too. [Grade: C+]

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