When it comes to giant monsters, one name comes to mind: Godzilla. And when only one name comes to mind, you can be sure other people will try to piggy-back on that success with rip-offs of their own -- like Daiei studio's entry into the giant monster genre, Gamera.
As rip-offs of Godzilla go, Gamera has had a really good run. The original series of Gamera films ran seven films strong (from 1965 to 1971). Gamera was popular enough that when Toho sucessfully revived Godzilla in the eighties, Daiei followed suit with the excellent Gamera, Guardian of the Universe. That's more than other Asian studios can say, as proposed remakes featuring monsters like Yongary, Gappa, and Guila have yet to materialize.
The concept of Giant Monster Gamera, the first Gamera movie, is that Gamera is a giant monster. There's more to it than that, of course. Over the Arctic, a US plane shoots down a Soviet bomber. The bomber crashes, and its payload of nuclear weapons explode. From the shattered ice comes Gamera, giant turtle of destruction. Later in the film, Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi) suggests that Gamera was originally native to Atlantis, but we're not sure where he got that little pearl of information.
"I have brought Colonel Sanders...
he wants to use Gamera for his
new KFC Popcorn Turtle nuggets."
Being a giant monster, Gamera is instinctively drawn to Tokyo, Japan. Once there, he decides to kick back and watch Japanese game shows for a while. Ha, just kidding. Gamera goes on a rampage, destroying buildings and the Tokyo Tower.
The greatest sin that Giant Monster Gamera commits is that it is entirely too straightforward and dull compared to other giant monster movies of the time. Heck, after 1963 Toho never made a Godzilla movie that featured fewer than three monsters, at least not until they rebooted the series in 1984. And even 1966's Ultraman TV series was shot in color.
What Giant Monster Gamera does have going for it is are some pretty good special effects. Gamera is a pretty interesting monster, especially once we find out he can fly by pulling in his arms and legs and expelling fire out of the holes in his shell. Giant Monster Gamera also started the trend of having a small child form a bond with the giant monster. The later Gamera movies would be infamous for giving the impression that small childeren had unlimited access to all levels of the Japanese government and military. In the beginning stages of this trend, though, the story of little Toshio (and his pet turtle Chibi, who Toshio thinks may have somehow transformed into Gamera) is just a subplot.
Gamera fans will be happy to hear that the first Gamera film is available in not one but two forms from Neptune Media. Neptune's tapes are the finest presentations of Gamera films we've ever seen, and we're not just saying that because they sent us free screener copies. We're saying that because we want them to send us more tapes. Seriously, these are the copies for kaiju collectors, with beautiful slimline clamshell cases and cool extras on both versions.
"I'm Walter Cronkite, and this
has been another episode of
'That Was The Way We Got Stomped.'"
The two releases from Neptune are Giant Monster Gamera, which is the original Japanese version of the film with subtitles, and Gammera the Invincible, the US version of the film, which is dubbed into English and has extra footage featuring English speaking actors. Both films are widescreen, though we think the aspect ratio they chose is too harsh and cuts off the top of the original image.
It's tough to say which one we like better. Gammera the Invincible has some truly amusing scenes added for US audiences, especially one where three men on a TV show discuss whether or not a giant turtle can actually exist. The host is flamboyantly gay, the TV station's science editor looks and talks like The Daily Show's Louis Black, and the visiting scientist keeps yelling about how Pliny and Paradise Lost have something to do with turtles.
The downside to Gammera the Invincible is that the US scenes break up the flow of the original Japanese plot, making it difficult to keep track of the coming and goings of Toshio, Hidaka, the reporter Aoyagi, and all their various hangers on. The U.S. version also includes the Gamera song, with the lyrics (and we quote): "Gamera... Gamera..." As hard as it to believe, the pop music in the Japanese version is actually better than that in the US version.
In this version he's called Toshio, but
we prefer to call him Kenny because
there aren't many South Park jokes you can make with the name Toshio.
Hopefully Neptune will issue similarly good versions of the later Gamera films. After the first couple of sequels the budgets became pitfully constricted and the scripts became nonsensical, but they featured some of the coolest monsters this side of Gigan. They might not have been as much fun as Ultraman or earlier Godzilla films, but they delivered on colorful monster action.
Giant Monster Gamera may actually owe its success to its budget limitations. Other critics have suggested that the forced use of cheaper black and white film made the special effects look more convincing, but we'll go one better and say that the monochromatic look actually lends the film a more serious tone than it might otherwise have had. Gamera's grayscale visage is more frightening than his look in color (those eyes are pretty creepy) and vintage horror buffs know that it's tough to deny the creepy feelings associated with black-and-white films like Night of the Living Dead and Village of the Damned.
Gamera is the only serious competitor to Godzilla for dominance of the world of giant monsters because, similar to Godzilla (1954), the original film has stood the test of time in its originality and its entertainment value. Now that we can finally watch this film in its original form, we can see that more clearly than ever.
The extra "m" is for "mangled," as in: "We mangled the spelling of Gamera's name because we thought American audiences would pronounce it 'Gaym-rah.'" Go back!
But when we checked our tape of the MST3K episode that featured Gamera, the amount of vertical information contained in MST3K's copy of the film is identical to Neptune's tape, though the MST3K version is obviously badly cropped on the left and right. So maybe Neptune's framing is correct. It should also be mentioned that the MST3K episode features a third version of the film, credited onscreen as merely Gamera. It is the original Japanese cut of the film, but with different English dubbing than Gammera the Invincible. Also, in Gamera, Toshio's name has been changed to Kenny. Go back!