Sunday, April 13, 2014
Series Report Card: Gamera (1971)
Gamera vs. Zigra
Gamera tai Shinkai Kaiju Jigura
Daiei continued to crank out Gamera movies on a yearly basis, racing neck and neck with Godzilla for the hearts and minds of Japanese children. However, studio misspending and executive shuffling led to Daiei going bankrupt in 1971, abruptly bringing the Gamera series to an end. How abrupt was it? A script existed for an eighth film in the series, “Gamera vs. Garasharp,” and pre-production was far enough along that storyboards exist. Seems to me the people working for the studio weren’t even aware of Daiei’s impending fate. So with no prior planning or expectations, “Gamera vs. Zigra” would be the final Gamera film of the Showa era.
After the more grounded approach of “Gamera vs. Jiger,” “Zigra” returns the series to outer space. Rather literally as well, as the film opens with a flying saucer attacking Japan’s moon base. On Earth, oceanographers Dr. Wallace and Dr. Ishikawa have no such concerns, worried more about their responsibilities at an aquatic wildlife theme park. Their six year old kids, Kenichi and Helen, are even less careless. That all changes when the doctors and their children witness the UFO landing in the ocean. The four are abducted by the alien, Zigra, and his brainwashed human servant. After hypnotizing the fathers, Zigra and friend set about conquering the world, a plot that mostly involves brainwashing more people and threatening radio broadcasts. It’s a good thing that the denizens of Earth have Gamera on their side. But will it be enough?
Proving once again that space is the place, the plot’s sci-fi silliness injects some much needed energy into the starting-to-sag series. To quote the film’s characters, “Gamera vs. Zigra” is groovy. The movie has a lot of fun with its human villain, the mysterious Woman X, another sinister space-babe in a tight-fitting suit. At first, she reasons that it would be easier to conquer Earth just by Killing All Humans. However, Zigra convinces her that a subtler approach is needed. Marching onto land, the woman hypnotizes a group of teenage sunbathers with her flashing eyes. Now clothed in a slinky bikini, providing even more eye-candy for the dads in the audience, she goes about conquering minds at the film’s Sea World-style setting. The most amusing moment in a film full of ludicrous bullshit is a chase scene. Now clad in a mini-skirt and go-go boots, Woman X chases the kid heroes around the park. They repeatedly get the drop on her, locking her behind doors and leaving her in the dust. When the chase attracts a crowd’s attention, humorously, the woman knocks the entire group unconscious with her eye rays. About thirteen adults go limp. By the way, all of this is set to a swinging seventies score, composer Shunsuke Kikuchi’s funkiest work yet. It is, in as few words as possible, fucking hysterical.
Zigra. The monster resembles the goblin shark with its lilac-colored armor and pointed horn on its head. Zigra’s long fins and beak-like mouth also brings a bird to mind. The film seems to acknowledge this when it has Zigra fly through the air late in the film. To up the chances for the series’ trademark gore, Zigra is also covered with sharp edges, on his fins, face, and back. Most ridiculously, the fish-like monster even stands up and walks around on his hind fins.
However, oddball monster designs are par the course for the Gamera series. What truly makes Zigra special is the way he acts. This is a giant monster with a serious superiority complex. He wants to conquer Earth because he considers the planet’s ocean to be unworthy of humanity. Also, because humans are delicious and he wants to eat all of us. He reasons it’s fair for a sea creature to eat land creatures since land creatures eat sea creatures. Sound logic. First appearing as a disembodied head, Gamera frees Zigra when he blows up his space ship. Exposed to the ocean’s different pressure, Zigra grows to giant sizes. This seriously pisses him off. We know all of this because Zigra can talk. He speaks in a booming, reverberating voice, often dictating verbose monologues. My favorite is when he declares himself beautiful and plots revenge on humanity. By giving their monster a little more personality, Daiei created one of Gamera’s most entertaining enemies.
Once again, the series pairs up a Japanese kid and an American kid. However, the formula is shaken up a little bit. Instead of two sons, it’s a little boy and a little girl. The two act like brother and sister, despite not being related. They even live together, their mothers harping on them for different reasons. Amusingly, the two disagree on Gamera’s nature. Kenichi, of course, believes Gamera to be Friend to All Children while Helen is more skeptical. This attitude changes when Gamera swoops down to save the kids from Zigra’s giant fin, scooping their boat up. When put down on land, the kids encounter a strange man dressed in rags. Kenichi immediately deduces the pair has traveled back in time. Amusingly, the old man proves otherwise when he pulls a radio out of his pocket. Just to add to the fun, this character never appears again.
A little too much of “Gamera vs. Zigra” is focused on the plight of the kids’ parents. Upon being taken aboard the space ship, Woman X drops a load of exposition on everyone, explaining the aliens’ motivation. The fathers are knocked unconscious by the woman’s glowing eyes, spending a large portion of the film in a catatonic state. Eventually, the kids realize they can wake their fathers up with super sonic sound. Is that the second or the third time sound has been used as a weakness in this series? The dads go down in a bathysphere to investigate the monster, the kids once again stowing away. The monster puts them in peril, leaving them to die. Too much time in the film’s middle section is devoted to this subplot. The way it resolves is disappointing too, the humans more-or-less tricking the monster into saving them. Worse yet, the humans don’t even end up reviving Gamera, that duty falling to a convenient lightning storm.
When Gamera awakens for the final round, the movie’s pace perks back up. The turtle’s shell protects him from Zigra’s energy waves, something he probably should have realized sooner. In the ocean, Zigra has the advantage, swimming around, slicing up Gamera’s belly. Once the fight reaches land, the tide turns. Gamera blunts Zigra’s nose-horn by sticking a big rock on it. Pinned to the ground, Gamera picks up another rock. He taps the rock against Zigra’s back spines, playing them like a xylophone. Naturally, he plays the Gamera theme song! Afterwards, the film’s soundtrack joins in, Gamera going into a spastic dance, swinging his arms back and forth, roaring repeatedly. Down for the count, Gamera sets Zigra ablaze with his fire breath, the shark monster burning to ashes in minutes. It’s not as gory a defeat as some of the series’ other enemies but it’s still strangely satisfying.
Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster,” another kaiju movie with an anti-pollution message. Considering the Godzilla film laid that message on thick while “Zigra” just tacks it on at the end, I don’t think this was an intentional emulation. Instead, environmental concerns seemed to, ahem, be in the air at the time.
It’s difficult to grade the Showa Gamera movies on any conventional metric. Even the best films in the series are most valuable for their campy imagery. “Gamera vs. Zigra” is not as smooth as “Gyaos” or as out-of-this-world as “Guiron.” However, it’s a noticeable step-up from the maudlin “Jiger” and features some delightfully screwy moments. As far as moments to take the classic series out on, a giant turtle playing music on a giant shark’s back isn’t bad. It isn’t bad at all. You might even call it groovy. [Grade: B]