Saturday, July 26, 2014

Gamera - Showa Series!

Some years ago I picked up a bargain-rack collection of old monster movies which included rough versions of English-dubbed Gamera movies, the first six or so of the old series. I'd always heard that the Gamera movies were a lot of fun, more light hearted than some of the other Kaiju flicks which I was more familiar with.

A few weeks ago, I found a collection of the first eleven Gamera movies, these in the original Japanese and the production values are great. So I sat down to enjoy Gamera as it should be seen, and I have to say they are a hoot.

Gamera from 1965 is in black and white, giving it a more old-fashioned feel than its date suggests, but that's to a good effect overall as the black and white evokes the best of the early Godzilla movies, especially when the fire-breathing Gamera, after being awakened by nuclear bombs in the Arctic, starts plowing through the streets of Tokyo. Several scenes seemed specifically designed to suggest scenes from Godzilla. the Gamera movie is a proper Kaiju, a menacing monster in a largely scientific setting with an ending which is decidedly clever if wildly improbable. His relationship with a little boy is evident but not much developed. They jet Gamera into outer space after trapping him in the nose-cone of a rocket.

Gamera doesn't stay in orbit long, as his rocket is hit by a meteor which sends him back to Earth, this time he's the good monster. The story in 1966's Gamera vs. Barugon is pretty intense showing the search by three men for a jewel hidden by one of the men's brother years ago during WWII. The jewel is actually an egg which hatches unleashing a terrible monster with frosty breath and a weird devastating rainbow ray. The monster action is okay, but it's the rather intense action on the human level that elevates this story. The fights between the men reminded me of the roughneck fisticuffs in the early Bond movies.

It's in 1967's Gamera vs. Gyaos that we first meet the giant turtle's arch enemy, a batlike bird-lizard who is able to emit a sonic ray from his twin throats which can slice through any substance, Gamera's skin included. The battle is a brutal one, which of course Gamera wins. The human story this time deals with the people displaced by the struggle where a road is going through some prime farm country. We get our first annoying kid in this one, and the bond between Gamera and children is properly developed.

1968's Gamera vs. Viras is my least favorite of these wonky movies. The boy heroes are downright prats who are infamous among their peers and parents for their pranks. They get themselves stranded on a spaceship and after much hullabaloo require Gamera to save their creepy little skins. There is practically no interesting human side story in this one. as we follow the two boys as they ramble around in boy scout uniforms yelling "Gamera" every couple of minutes. They end up saving the day, but mostly by happen chance. The enemy this time is a giant squid-like alien who is not all that compelling really.

1969's Gamera vs. Gurion follows a similar model. Two boys, somewhat less annoying than the previous pair end up on a spaceship but this time ride the thing to a whole other planet where they encounter a space monster who is the Swiss Army knife of Kaiju. Able to use his bladed head as a cutting tool and able to shoot out suriken blades from his temple Guiron is a fun monster, though hardly credible. He and Gamera battle to entertaining effect on the alien world while the two boys try to avoid getting eaten by the lovely aliens who covet their brains. That last creepy detail really adds a bit of oomph to this one.

The most touching aspect of this movie though is the dilemma of the little sister who is left behind when the boys are swooshed away by the spaceship. She tries to tell the adults, who mostly disbelieve her and her sadness at her loss and her helplessness is very touching in a movie which is largely a romp.

1970's Gamera vs. Jiger gives us some more annoying kids, but this time inside a plot which is properly dense enough to hold interest. For the 1970 World Fair, an idol is removed from "Wester  Island" but that removal unleashes a horrible monster who seeks to reproduce (inside Gamera of all places). Jiger is a monster with plenty of tricks who gives Gamera a real contest. The clever way Jiger is defeated is above average for a movie of this period and this one kept me entertained throughout.

Far less effective is 1971's Gamera vs. Zigra which seems mostly to be an allegory about the devastation man is wreaking on the environment. In a bizarre flip of circumstances, the seafood-reliant Japanese culture is faced with an enemy who eats land-creatures, especially humans. There's a lot of jumping around, but there's not nearly enough plot in this one which features a few clever battle scenes, but little else.

The final Showa Gamera movie doesn't arrive until 1980. Gamera: Super Monster is a real grab bag of gimmicks and re-used footage which doesn't add up to much of a movie, though it does have a few diverting moments. A spaceship named "Zanon" arrives (in the then popular Star Wars slow reveal style) and threatens to destroy the Earth which is defended by three babes in skin-tight super-costumes referred to only as "Space Women". So trying to cop scenes from Star Wars and Superman is the way this movie tries to stay relevant as it uses all of Gamera's previous enemies and footage there of as fodder to fill out the screen time.

It's a sad ending to a series which had some really fun moments. But despite its high spirits, Gamera movies were so uneven that it's amazing anyone thought them worthy of revival. But they did, and that's the focus of the next post.

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