The Plot: In the midst of the cold war, a group of Japanese scientists venture to the Antarctic in order to flesh out the story of an ancient beast called “Gamera”. Gamera is a giant turtle monster who breathes fire and is long since thought to be merely a legend. Dr. Hidaka, his assistant Kyoko Yamamoto and their press agent Aoyagi are enjoying this expedition into the Antarctic when a Soviet plane holding an atomic bomb is shot down by American forces near where our scientists stand – the icy ground cracks open and the great beast Gamera rises from his slumber. Standing 190 feet tall and holding the ability to project fire from his mouth, the beast seems unstoppable. All known ammunition seems to simply power this beast even more, with each attempt at destroying him failing worse than the last. Will our scientist team figure out the secret to this great turtle or will he completely destroy the great Island nation!
The Kaiju film is a significant genre within the realm of Japanese cinema that I unfortunately haven’t explored fully up until this point. My good friend Jordan from the B-Movie Film Vault was always the resident Kaiju fanatic and expert with any of my film friends. I suppose I never delved heavily into the genre because it seems rather intimidating. The genre itself is so expansive and was such a massive craze that, going off of an intellectual guess, I would have to say there are close to 100 of these films floating around. With Godzilla himself, the most well known of these giant monsters, starring in over 25 titles by himself. As intimidated as I may be, I’m not against launching into any film genre. When I was contacted by Shout Factory to check out their latest release, the original Japanese version of Gamera: The Giant Monster, how could I resist? I couldn’t and I’m glad I took the plunge, because where I may not find Gamera to be a spectacularly well made film – for what it is, it is a glorious bit of naïve fun. It is a retro throwback to the days of limited budgets, big films and low grade special FX. It seems as if it has been forever since I last sat down with an oldschool giant monster movie, but now it seems I’ll have to get acquainted with the genre all over again. I had never actually seen a Gamera film up until this point (but had heard the line “Gamera – A friend to all children!” many times before), so if you are a die-hard Kaiju fan then I apologize if I come off as lacking in knowledge. Although this may not be my first Kaiju feature (have seen Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters and a few others), we all have to start some place!
The first thing I took notice of with Gamera: The Giant Monster, aside from some of the cheesier special effects (I’ll get to all of that shortly), was the very familiar origin story. With Gamera being born from nuclear power, unleashed at the hands of the United States (with the Soviet Union this time out) – the fear of nuclear power and the feelings of anger, confusion and resentment that the Japanese population must have felt throughout the post-war period seems ever present in this feature. However, it’s interesting how Gamera delivers a message that is quite positive despite these fears that society may have had in the new era of the cold war. From the threat of nuclear devastation being substituted with a far more dangerous adversary, throughout the film we see the Japanese, United States and Soviet Union ultimately come together in the hopes of saving all of mankind. While this may not be the defacto theme that runs throughout the entire film, it’s certainly an interesting and positive outlook from a film that at first seems bleak and dark. As we push aside these curtains, we discover that people are the same from all over and that helping one another is the ultimate push for peace. Despite the silly effects and the ultimate goal of being a ‘scary’ show for the kiddies, there are some really admirable traits at work in Gamera.
Gamera IS a monster movie though and it delivers on those expectations, big time. The monster actually makes his first appearance within the first five minutes of the film proper! In a scene that is instantly memorable and considered to be one of the finer moments of the classic Kaiju era, we see Gamera escape from his icy prison by the glacial ground cracking open and steam erupting from the center of the ice. We then see Gamera himself as snow, or broken ice shards, cover his body. When he’s finally on solid ground he of course moves on to destroying the closest man-made object he can find which just so happens to be a massive ship. Slaughtering his first group of innocent people, Gamera proceeds to stomp, smash and bite his way through Japan over the next eighty minutes. The inevitable show down with Tokyo would absolutely be the highlight of the film, where we see Gamera absolutely demolishing a grandiose set of miniatures. Smashing over a building at one point and pouring the debris atop a high-rise with several passing cars that proceed to flip and crash. There’s a lot of great destruction at foot in Gamera, but there’s some even better special FX that I just can’t help but mention.
Now, when you’re dealing with older film fare such as this, you have to be a bit forgiving. In fact, you have to really be forgiving. While younger viewers might sit down and watch this film and see the black wires holding up the airplanes and think ”Wow, how did anyone ever fall for this?”, I recommend that they go back just ten years ago and look at what was considered “cutting edge” in terms of CGI and digital effects and see how well it stands up. In fact, I’m sure Avatar is going to look infantile in twenty years. However, some of the special FX work in Gamera… well, you can’t help but smile when you see it! The previously mentioned wire work, the obvious miniatures and the rubber suit of Gamera himself – it’s just so quaint and fun for me as a film fan. There’s so much fun to be had watching this guy in a rubber costume smashing up a set while explosions are shot at him, go off around him and explode on his own chest. While watching, you see the film in the context of its story and you also see it as this piece of work that so many people slaved upon and their results were no doubt highly successful at the time of completion; however we as an audience now are so familiar with the duplication of these effects that it gives us an insight into their creation. While this might take some audiences out of the film – I think it makes it lovable in a way. The way it crafts all of these simplistic effects, from hand drawn animation (when we see Gamera flying through the air) to the pretty humorous shots of airplanes flying through the air, it all seems so endearing to me.
The first and only film in the Gamera series to be shot in Black & White. It was done in this way due to financial reasons as well as the crew simply being more familiar with B&W.
Made as a direct reaction of the success that the Toho film company had with Godzilla, Daiei wanted in on the action so thus Gamera was born.
The initial story was inspired by Masaichi Nagata, the former president of Daiei. When he was returning home from the US on an airline trip he looked out the window and saw a vision of a tortoise. When he came back into the offices, he said he wanted his vision to become a reality.
Although it probably doesn’t hold the weight that the original Godzilla does, it’s a fun Kaiju film that has influenced so much of pop culture. Although that in itself doesn’t reflect the quality of the film, I do think it has some bearing on our judgment of the film. ShoutFactory! really delivers with their presentation of the film and also packs along some pretty sweet special features. Amongst them a 12-page booklet featuring an interesting write-up from director Noriaki Yuasa, written shortly before his death. Also on the disc is an excellent commentary track from August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters and expert on Japanese film. His commentary track is slam-packed full of information on all things Gamera. Last but certainly not least is the Gamera retrospective, which is a short documentary focusing on the filmmakers who helped compile the series. Coming in at roughly twenty minutes, there is a lot to grab from this featurette