KaiJune - Gamera: The Giant Monster
You would think that with a look at Kaiju films that I’d start with the king, the biggest, the best…
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got plenty to say about the big G, and I’m hoping to take a look at some of my favorite entries in the series over the months of KaiJune and KaiJuly…but today, we’re talking about what some might call the pretender to the throne, what some might call the Prince of Monsters, some might call the Guardian of the Universe and others still might call the Friend to all Children:
So join me as we go back to 1965 and take a look at the movie that started it all…ish…Gamera: The Giant Monster, or simply Gamera.
The funny thing is that by 1965, we’ve had 6 Godzilla films most of which were in color and in the most recent two Godzilla had begun his transition from heel to babyface or, in other words, from uncaring force of nature that was more disposed to kill humans than to helping them to more of a guardian of Japan…a more heroic monster stopping threats that we humans could not.
It was at this point that rival studio Daiei wanted a piece of the kaiju action. And so, they unleashed Gamera on Japanese cinema...in black and white.
Right there, we see our main difference between Godzilla and Gamera. The first Godzilla film, Gojira (or Godzilla...not the Americanized Godzilla: King of the Monsters with Raymond Burr), had something to say. It was a commentary on the destruction of the atomic weapons that had been dropped on Japan. It was a thoughtful piece that spoke to man’s cruelty to man as well as the repercussions of the awesome power that humanity had unleashed upon the world. Of course, we’ll talk about this more in depth when we discuss this film [Eventually. – Ed.].
Sadly, Gamera isn’t quite as deep. It tries to be…or at least I think that’s what they were going for…but ultimately…no. You see, the film opens in Alaska. While a Japanese scientist is looking to talk to an Eskimo elder about a stone tablet (I want to say about the lost continent of Atlantis but…well, let’s face it, by any account Alaska would be the way wrong place to be looking on that matter!), the skies are filled with fighter planes (said as nasally as possible), some from the United States, the others from an unknown or unidentified country (but come on, it’s the 60’s…so you know it’s the Soviets). This leads to a dogfight and the downing of the Soviet craft which, apparently, were carrying nuclear armaments. When these detonate…the giant turtle is awakened. Gamera rises from his icy resting place and really the only casualty from his awakening is the ship that brought the aforementioned Japanese scientist, his assistant and a reporter to this arctic location. Once the ship has been sunk, Gamera disappears beneath the waves only to surface again…in Japan. For no discernable reason. But yeah, we end up in Tokyo with Gamera doing what kaiju do best…trashing the place. Can the Japanese government, with the help of the rest of the world, find a way to rid themselves of this beast or are they doomed to perish?
Within the first 15 minutes of Gamera, it’s VERY easy to see why MST3K opted to make fun of this film and others in the series…well, that and Daiei is much looser with their licensing than Toho. Given when this was made, it’d be a little too easy to go after the effects and probably not entirely fair. And for as stilted as it is, even some of the acting gets a pass, as I’m learning in watching other kaiju films with American characters in them, they all seem to speak slowly and woodenly…probably so that the Japanese audience, for whom these films are initially created and their grasp on English can range from a minimal knowledge to near fluency (and I can say that from experience! Yay!) Instead, Gamera opens with what could possibly lead to a discussion of the Cold War and how it affects those countries not directly involved…such as Japan…but instead opts to follow the trend of the latter Godzilla films and turns simply into a ‘monster runs amok in Japan’ story. And where at least Godzilla had the reason of ‘nature’s wrath on mankind for the horrors and wounds his newfound power hath wrought’, Gamera is trashing Tokyo…well…because he’s hungry. I mean, sure, sometimes a rampaging monster is just a rampaging monster…but again, having the lead-in set up the potential for a message only to be rather simplistic…well, for some it might be disappointing. Lastly in the negative column, it has to be said that even in the first film, Gamera is indeed a Friend to all Children and, as such, we’ve got an insanely annoying kid showing up in places where he really, REALLY shouldn’t…for some reason convinced that Gamera is really a mutation of the pet turtle he was forced to get rid of. Toshio tries his best to ruin the film, but fortunately the focus falls more on the monster, the military and the Japanese-led international response. That doesn’t mean the kid won’t annoy you though…because he will…and as such set an unpleasant precedent that will plague the Gamera films throughout the Showa era.
Yet, this film spawned a franchise…so there’s gotta be something positive to it, right? Yes there is. First off, Gamera’s design really is classic. The giant turtle with inverted fangs could certainly fuel nightmares and really is a well thought out design. On top of that, his preferred method of long-distance travel is simply fantastic. Gamera tucks in his head and limbs, as a turtle does, and the ports where his limbs once were become jet engines, propelling the spinning turtle to his intended destination. For as wacky as it is, it really is cool in a crazy sort of way. Also, while in the previous paragraph I faulted the movie for not being particularly deep or topical, that’s not entirely true. The resolution of Japan’s problem with Gamera involves all the member nations of the UN contributing to the solution…including the United States and the then USSR. In some ways, you could say that this film displays Japan’s faith in this international body as something hopeful that would come together in times of need to aid and potentially save humanity. Reflecting on that in these jaded times, well, sure, it can feel a bit naïve but a bit refreshing as well. Who doesn’t want to believe in a humanity that can set aside its petty differences to tackle the larger problems that threaten humanity as a whole?
Ultimately, while flawed, the first Gamera film ends up proving to be fun. The effects at times are good for unintentional comedy, but at the same time, the suit effects and the creative use of animation provide an interesting alternative to what Toho was doing with the Big-G. While the subject matter doesn’t prove to be too terribly deep…and yeah, you’ve got an annoying child to deal with throughout the running time, when you come right down to it, this first film proves to be a satisfying creature feature: it’ll keep you amused while you much away on the popcorn just as Gamera munches away on energy sources.