Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1967)

3. Gamera vs. Gyaos
Daikaiju Kuchusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu / 
Return of the Giant Monsters

I don’t know how, at the time, “Gamera vs. Barugon” was received. However, I can’t help but see the direction “Gamera vs. Gyaos” took the series in as a reaction. The previous film doled out the monster action in brief intervals. “Gamera vs. Gyaos,” on the other hand, has Gamera appearing before the opening credits. Gyaos shows up not long after that. The monsters battle three times but each duel is lengthy. The entire plot is motivated by and focused on the kaiju. Compared to the lengthy, human-focused run time of “Barugon,” this one gets right to the action and stays focused on it, wrapping up quickly at 86 minutes.

What plot the film does have signals another important change for the “Gamera” series. The story begins with a series of underwater earthquakes reawakening the volcanic Mt. Fuji. As the lava flows, a giant bat-like creature named Gyaos is awoken at the mountains base. The same volcano attracts the fire-eating Gamera. It’s not long before the two monsters are at each other’s throats.

The movie briefly features a human-focused plot, revolving around a highway company building through a village. The locals resist the road company’s offers, continually holding out for more money. Eventually, the grandfather patriarch of the village relents, realizing his greed. While I appreciate the writer’s attempt to incorporate a serious theme into this silly kaiju movie, “Gamera vs. Gyaos” isn’t fooling anyone. This one is all about the monsters.

Aside from two giant monsters naturally being rivals, something else gets Gamera pissed at Gyaos. The green light and laser beams emerging from Gyaos’ mountain side lair attracts the attention of a sleazy journalist. It also attracts Eiichi, a little kid who loves Gamera. Both walk into the cave and are, naturally, attacked by Gyaos. After chomping down on the photographer, the winged monster prepares to eat Eiichi. The titan tortoise comes to the little boy’s aide, protecting him from the carnivorous beast. The first film hinted at it briefly but this is the movie that would solidify Gamera’s status as Friend to All Children. His rough edges have been completely dulled away, avoiding any city destruction, even standing still while the authorities grab Eiichi off his back.

Why is a giant, fire-breathing, lava-eating, rocket-propelled turtle so attached to a little kid? The film supplies no answers. Little kids love giant monsters. I guess the feeling is mutual. The kid-friendly focus extends even further then that. Eiichi is the one that names Gyaos, deciding the big bat’s roar sounds similar. (It doesn’t.) Eiichi also cooks up both plots to exterminate the monster. His mention of Gamera’s spinning inspires the first, absolutely absurd method. Later, Eiichi is the only one to think of pitting the two monsters against each other, setting a forest ablaze to attract the big turtle. The weirdest part of this is that the military goes along with the small boy’s plan.

Barugon started the tradition of Gamera fighting bizarre monsters, a trend this film gladly continues. Gyaos is obviously inspired by Toho’s Rodan, as both are flying monsters awakened, and ultimately destroyed, by an erupting volcano. The similarities mostly end there though. Gyaos moves rather awkwardly, his wings flapping stiffly, his mouth opening mechanically, his neck unmoving. Perhaps anticipating these complaints, the movie incorporates the stiff monster suit into the plot. Gyaos has two spines and no moving neck, forcing him to turn his whole body to look around. Despite the inflexible suit, Gyaos is still a far more memorable design then Barugon. His big wings and sloping, axe-like head make an impression. Daiei and future directors agreed, bringing Gyaos back for four future sequels, making him Gamera’s only reoccurring opponent.

The design alone isn’t what makes Gyaos memorable. By this point, it was standard practice for kaiju to be armed with a projectile weapon. Gamera breathes fire. Gyaos shoots a laser beam that can cleave through practically anything. Early on, he slices a helicopter in twain, the passengers falling to their deaths. Jets, tanks, buildings and, most hilariously, a moving car, are cut in two by Gyaos’ weapon. Helping along the hilarity, the film’s scientists actually take time to explain what Gyaos’ laser beam is. Turns out, it’s a condensed super-sonic sound beam. Go figure. Gyaos is a man-eater, devouring humans whole several times, making him a weirdly credible threat. Gyaos also sprays a yellow fog from his body, which you just know smells like poo-gas.

Cheesy as the film frequently is, the effects in “Gamera vs. Gyaos” are actually pretty good. The villain monster’s rampage through Nagoya easily rivals Toho’s work. Gyaos tears up the city, buildings exploding from his beam. Since a Japanese landmark got spared last time, the Nagoya castle winds up crumbling spectacularly. My favorite moment involves him slicing the top of a train off or the monster’s rampage being visible in the background while people panic in the foreground. Like Rodan, Gyaos also tears cities apart by generating massive winds with his wings. Even the cheesier special effects wind up being endearing, like Gyaos and Gamera transitioning into a stiff model. Or how about a guy getting blown away on visible wires? Weird, fun stuff.

The loopy, surprisingly excellent effects peak during the monster fights. The first rumble has Gamera memorably curling into his shell and rolling towards his opponent. The second battle features Gamera getting lifted through the air and Gyaos getting dragged into the ocean. Like the last film, the movie shows no fear of flowing monster blood. We find out what color Gamera’s blood is, a rich, cyan liquid spraying from his arm, head, and neck. Nearly loosing his arm early on is what takes the big turtle out of the second act. Gyaos, similarly, bleeds a liquid roughly the color and consistency of Pepto Bismol. We see a lot of that during the final fight, Gamera ripping up the monster’s wing and neck. The action is theatrical and over-the-top.

I mentioned earlier how a six-year old devises one of the plots to defeat the monster. Probably the film’s most notorious moment is the result. A scientist suddenly decides Gyaos has to be disoriented by spinning him around. A building with a spinning roof is quickly re-purposed into a massive Lazy Susan. That, alone, isn’t silly enough. In order to attract Gyaos to the building, they cook up a batch of artificial blood and pool it in the roof. This is a goofy plot development but watching a giant bat monster spinning around until he’s dizzy is a real doozy. If this appeals to you is a matter of taste, I suppose. I, for one, can appreciate the charms of an intoxicated, massive vampire bat.

The kaiju are clearly the stars but “Gamera vs. Gyaos” does feature a decent human cast. Kojiro Hongo is back from the last entry. He isn’t given much to work with but it’s nice to see a familiar face. Amusingly, the road company wants to continue building even against the threat of big-ass critters. That’s the Japanese work ethic for you. Little Eiichi is the true human star of the film. Future sequels would double-down on the high-pitched kids. Eiichi manages not to be horribly annoying because, at least, he actually does move the plot along. Naoyuki Abe is fairly broad in the part but never goes too far over the top. It would have been nice to see more of Reiko Kasahara as Eiichi’s put-upon older sister. She seems talented but doesn’t have very much screen time.

With its goofball plot, impressive effects, amusing monster fights, and memorably mean villain, “Gamera vs. Gyaos” is one of the best of the Showa era. It features all the things we love about these silly movies without many of the things that annoy us about these silly movies. Gamera fans looking to introduce newcomers to the series might start with this one. Assuming your friends are cool enough to appreciate a flying, fire-belching turtle and his blood-sucking rival. [Grade: B]

No comments: