Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 14, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1980)

8. Gamera: Super Monster
Uchu Kaiju Gamera

With the bankruptcy of Daiei, the Gamera series was brought to an abrupt end. The remnants of the studio eventually fused with the Touma Shoten publishing company, birthing a new Daiei. With the revival of the company, a revival of its trademark franchise was only a matter of time. Either the budget or the public’s appetite for giant flying turtles (Or, most likely, both) had run dry. The “Gamera” series has always been shameless about its use of stock footage. However, the would-be comeback film, “Gamera: Super Monster” pushes that attitude to unheard of new lows. It’s less a movie then a clip show, a best-of reel were nearly every monster appearance is recycled from an older film.

The plot, as it is, starts up when an evil space warlord named Zanon decides he wants to conquer Earth. However, first he must remove Earth’s protectors. No, not Gamera. The Superwomen, a trio of cape-wearing superheroes who can fly, change size, teleport, and turn their van into a bitching space ship. Unfortunately, whenever the women transform, it attracts the attention of Zanon’s laser beams and the female agent he sends to Earth. Instead, Gamera, who may or may not be a little boy’s pet turtle, has to protect the planet. In order to defeat the titanic terrapin, evil lord Zanon sends all of Gamera’s former enemies to battle him, hoping to best the flying turtle.

The cheapness of “Gamera: Super Monster” extends even beyond its liberal use of stock footage. The film shamelessly rips off other film and television series that were popular at the time. Right from the beginning, this is obvious. A space vessel, nearly identical to a Star Destroyer, passes over the camera in a shot ripped directly from “Star Wars.” Even the music is designed to bring to mind George Lucas’ genre-busting blockbuster. The rip-off game doesn’t end there. The Superwomen trio was obviously inspired by the Christopher Reeves “Superman” series, still climbing box office charts at the time. Their capes and flight are indebted to American superheroes, while a set they wind up on is like the low budget version of Richard Donner’s crystalline Krypton sets. The Superwomen also owe much to the Japanese superheroes that are perennially popular on television. Before transforming into their costumes, the women do a dance, cocking their arms at odd angles and spinning around. The trio’s van and cars don’t measure up to Kamen Rider’s motorcycle, instead being ordinary vehicles that undergo unconvincing transformations. In other words, the parts of “Gamera: Super Monster” that aren’t literally recycled from older movies are figuratively recycled from older movies.

The film’s derivative nature speaks to its massive laziness. We never actually meet the evil lord Zanon, the villain kept completely off-screen, only heard as an ominous voice. His female agent, the improbably named Giruge, is deeply incompetent. For most of the film, she nearly waits around for the Superwomen to transform in front of her. She does nothing to aide Zanon’s monsters. (Of course not, that would require new scenes be filmed.) Her proactive actions boil down to kidnapping the child protagonist, ineffectively, and one ridiculous kung-fu fight set on a playground. Giruge’s character arc - to be defeated by the heroes, abandoned by the villain, and converted to the side of good - is the kind of juvenile writing you’d find in countless Japanese manga. Perhaps this was intentional since the movie directly references manga early on.

The Superwomen aren’t the most impressive superheroes ever committed to film either. Each has a human identity. Kilara, the vaguely butch leader of the team, runs a pet shop. Marsha is a car salesman, allowing for some blatant product placement from Mazda. Mitan is a school teacher. When no one is looking, they do their little dances, switching into unflattering off-white body suits and red capes. The heroines’ flying ability is displayed early in the film. However, whenever they reveal their powers, they attract the villain’s attention. So, in a clumsy money-saving measure, the superheroes spend most of the movie in their citizen identities. Most of the time, they move around in their unimpressive vehicles, which they pilot with electric keyboards. The Superwomen dominate the first half of the movie, making you wonder when Gamera will show up.

For all the unrelated crap in the movie, “Gamera: Super Monster” is still a Gamera film. As you’d expect, the film has a child protagonist. Keiichi appears to be a lonely child, with few friends, who spends a lot of time in his room alone, practicing songs on an electric organ. His mother comes off as a control freak, forcing him to neglect hobbies he loves. After Keiichi adopts a turtle from Kilara’s pet shop, an animal he dearly loves, his mom passive-aggressively talks him into getting rid of the reptile. The movie is too thinly written to address the melancholies of childhood in any meaningful ways. Basically, the most interesting thing about the film is barely in it.

Which leaves us with Gamera. The movie, oddly, hints that Keiichi’s freed pet turtle is also, somehow, Gamera. This bit of whimsical magic realism is barely addressed. Gamera, when not brought to life through scenes from the earlier, better movies, is realized as an awkward hand-puppet. “Super Monster” is mostly free of hilarious bizarreness that makes the earlier films so much fun. Save for two moments. In Keiichi’s dreams, he sees Gamera flying along side Space Cruiser Yamato and the Galaxy Express 999. As in the famous anime space ships. As in cartoons. A rubber kaiju suddenly interacting with animated spaceships is a bizarre, amusing moment that appears without explanation or further elaboration. The movie needed more oddball touches like that.

It’s tempting to call “Super Monster” a best-of reel. It does, after all, feature the fight scenes from the previous movies, usually in their entirety. However, even the stock footage is handled clumsily. The new electronic musical score drains the crazy combat of much of its energy. The fights are awkwardly re-cut and presented in an odd order. Because the footage is untouched, Gamera flies to an alien planet midway through the film just to battle Guiron before flying back to Earth. By the time the fight with Barugon is recycled, the movie is nearly over, leaving little room for the footage to breathe. Gamera fans will have to watch the dam sequence from “Gamera vs. Barugon” for a third or fourth time. The movie at least has the sense to recycle the original film’s footage on a black-and-white TV.

The movie attempts to provide the series with a conclusion. Gamera sacrifices himself at the end to destroy the evil Zanon’s star ship. Giving the heroic turtle a proper send-off is appreciated. Yet “Super Monster” is a less then dignified film for the kaiju to exit on. Midway through Gamera’s Tokyo rampage, he overturns a poster for a “Godzilla” film. It’s a mean spirited jab at Gamera’s rival monster. And a wholly unearned one. “Gamera: Super Monster” is laughable and cheap but not in the fun, energetic way. The flying, fire-breathing turtle would end his classic era on a whimper.
[Grade: D]

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