25 June 2014

“Gamera Is Really Neat!” A Gamera Series Wrap-Up

I wrote this article specifically for Black Gate as a summary of the Gamera Blu-rays, so it repeats most of what my regular readers have already experienced over the past two week. (I think I have regular readers.)
The Japanese giant monster world of the 1960s and early ‘70s was about more than Godzilla. It was also about the Frankenstein Monster, dueling Frankenstein Monsters (a.k.a. “Gargantuas”), wrathful stone idols, burrowing Boston Terrier lizards, alien saucer-headed chicken thingies, King Kong, a robot King Kong, huge squids and crabs, Atlantean dragon-gods, and a gratuitous giant walrus.

Mixed up in there was a flying turtle who was the friend to all children, Gamera. This airborne Chelonia somehow managed to sustain a seven-film franchise during the Golden Age (plus a strange one-off in 1980), making it the most successful monster after Godzilla, and the only giant monster from a studio other than Toho to make a large impression on audiences outside its home country.

Gamera is Godzilla’s poor stepchild/competitor, but the spinning turtle has leaped into the Blu-ray ring right along with the recent influx of Godzilla films as part of the release of the U.S. Godzilla. Reaching North American shelves a month before Godzilla stormed onto screens, all eight of the Gamera films from 1965–80 are available courtesy of Mill Creek on two separate releases, presented in their original Japanese language soundtracks. Now people with little acquaintance with Gamera outside of memories of watching the AIP television versions in the late ‘70s and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffing episodes can witness all the full weirdness of this uniquely strange/wonderful/awful region of kaiju cinema.

This release will test many adults’ threshold for Japanese giant monster films. You’ll either devour the oddness and tolerate some of the poorer (actually, horrendous) installments, or you’ll check out before Gamera starts doing gymnastics routines while a children’s chorus sings the monster’s praises. Undiluted Gamera is simply not for everyone, although I can unreservedly recommend the five Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, which are available as a box set from Shout! Factory and should come as a packaged purchase with the Mill Creek Blu-rays. (The Mill Creek discs are inexpensive, so you really ought to shell out for the MST3K set as well.)

To provide some balance to all the Godzilla material I’ve written, and since I can never get enough of giant monsters, I spent two weeks running straight through the classic Gamera films on their Blu-ray discs—the first time I’ve watched the films in release order. I’ve returned with some of my sanity intact and a few observations on the individual films (I’ve written longer reviews of each elsewhere).

However, Gamera does require a bit of background first….

Gamera: A Brief History Full of Turtle Meat

Gamera was born in 1965 when the giant monster boom in Japan was approaching its height. Although Toho Studios had dominated the genre since its inception in 1954 with Godzilla, the other three major studios threw out their own entries. Daiei Film Co. Ltd. took the genre the most seriously. They not only created the period-set Daimajin trilogy (filmed consecutively in 1965 and released in 1966), but they made a low budget imitation of the original Godzilla featuring a mega-turtle.

22 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera: Super Monster (1981)

Gamera: Super Monster (1980)
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa. Starring Mach Fumiake, Yakeo Kojima, Koko Komatsu, Keiko Kudo, Stock Footage.

I normally wouldn’t include Gamera: Super Monster as part of the Showa era Gamera series. It hardly counts as a full movie. But it’s from Daiei Films (New Daiei), has director Noriaki Yuasa helming the amount of it that’s new footage, and Mill Creek and Shout! Factory both included it in their Gamera sets. So I have to acknowledge it.

This is nothing more than a clip show New Daiei threw together to make some fast cash. It consists of forty minutes of new film shot to hold together VFX footage from the previous seven movies in a vague semblance of a story about Gamera battling cosmic monsters that are under the control of the space pirate Xanon. It’s a crass endeavor, but at least it makes for fast viewing since you can speed through the monster recycling or the new footage, depending on your intentions. If you’ve never seen a Gamera movie before, you might find some entertainment in watching the monster battles, but the connective material weakens that as well. The original 2.39 aspect ratio of the original films had to get hacked down for this movie’s 1.85, so you’re not even watching the full images from the old films. You’re better off seeing the best of the original Gamera films (Gamera vs. Gyaos, Gamera vs. Guiron, Gamera vs. Jiger) than wasting time with this.

Okay, that’s done…

No, I should talk a bit about the new story around the clip show. Three “space women” hiding in civilian identities band together to defend Earth from Xanon’s attack. They do this by occasionally performing cheerleading hand moves, transforming into superhero costumes, and encouraging an annoying boy who thinks his pet turtle turned into Gamera. (Maybe it did? The film is unclear on this point.) Xanon sends its own female agent to Earth, Giruge, and she pesters the young boy as well.

20 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera vs. Zigra (1971)

Gamera vs. Zigra (1971)
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa. Starring Yasushi Sakagami, Gloria Zoellner, Koji Fujiyama, Isamu Saeki, Eiko Yanami, Reiko Kasahara, Arlene Zoellner.

I dare you—dare you!—to struggle through the entirety of Gamera vs. Zigra in one sitting without the aid of the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

After the success of Gamera vs. Jiger the year before, the terrible drop in quality to the worst of the original seven Gamera films would appear stunning—if not for Daiei Film Co. Ltd.’s impending bankruptcy thanks to the combination of a recession and upper level mismanagement. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it looks like when a major studio perches on the verge of going under, here you go.

Gamera vs. Zigra is a painful experience that combines plummeting production values with an irritating non-story, intolerable child heroes, and a thrill level approaching zero. This is what all Japanese monster movies must look like to people who dislike Japanese monster movies, and a reason fans like myself feel we have to defend the genre constantly.

This is just a rotten movie, and even children will have a hard time getting through it (and they’ll have to watch it via the Sandy Frank dub, which makes the film substantially worse). No previous Gamera film boasted a significant budget; however, the filmmakers still managed to make the most of the small funds available to craft colorful adventure stories. But Gamera vs. Zigra drowns in cheapness, making for a cramped, ugly, boring experience.

18 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera vs. Jiger (1970)

Gamera vs. Jiger (1970)
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa. Starring Tsutomo Takakuwa, Kelly Varis, Katherine Murphy, Kon Omura.

The progression of the classic Gamera series does not follow standard logic. Once the movies settled into children’s entertainment, they should have entered into a period of steady decline. Although Gamera vs. Guiron offers psychedelic good times with little in the way of plot to interfere with kids’ enjoyment, it also should’ve signaled an irreversible trend toward lower budgets and sillier, simpler plots.

Yet the next film marks an uptick in series quality and apparent budget. Gamera vs. Jiger (released to U.S. television as Gamera vs. Monster X, probably to tie into the delayed stateside release of the 1965 Godzilla film Monster Zero) is still a children’s movie centered on a pair of heroic boys, one Japanese and one Caucasian. But of the four Gamera films in a row that used this formula, Gamera vs. Jiger has the most interesting story and a good weave of child heroes with adult characters who aren’t a slew of doubting, obstructionist idiots. The Japanese Self-Defense Force returns and has military engagements with the monster, urban destruction comes back in a big way, people seem in legitimate danger, and the story takes an interesting science-fiction turn with elements from Fantastic Voyage that make the obligatory down-period for Gamera into one of the movie’s best stretches. This is definitely the finest installment of the series after Gamera vs. Gyaos.

17 June 2014

Tarzan-on-Demand: Tarzan and the Great River (1967)

Tarzan and the Great River (1967)
Directed by Robert Day. Produced by Sy Weintraub. Starring Mike Henry, Jan Murray, Rafer Johnson, Manuel Padilla Jr., Diana Millay.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The second Tarzan movie starring former NFL linebacker Mike Henry as the Ape Man, Tarzan and the Great River (available through Warner Archive, WB’s manufacture-on-demand division) reached theaters a year after the previous installment, Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, but was shot directly after it on location in Brazil. Producer Sy Weintraub continued to emphasize a modern Tarzan with aspects of the globe-trotting James Bond films, but Tarzan and the Great River eases back on military machinery and super villains and instead targets a stripped-down jungle chase story that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have found familiar. This doesn’t end up making for a better film, unfortunately.

Tarzan and the Great River opens with its most overt gesture toward the espionage movies of the era: Tarzan receives a summons from across the globe, and dressed in a snappy suit arrives in Brazil at the behest of an old friend, a professor at a zoological garden. The professor needs Tarzan to investigate a growing Jaguar Cult in the Amazon that has started to enslave local tribes. But while Tarzan takes the time to meet some of his African animal friends who reside at the zoo, the professor ends up dead on the poisoned claws of one of the cult’s wicked jaguar clubs. Tarzan now has vengeance on his mind as he travels deep into the Amazon rainforest to locate the cult’s leader, the cruel Barcuna (Rafer Johnson), in the company of the chimp Cheetah and the lion Baron. (The same animal performers who played “Dinky” and “Major” in the previous film.)

To travel faster along the great river of the title, Tarzan hitches a ride on the skiff of Captain Sam (comedian Jan Murray) and his young first mate, Pepe (Manuel Padilla Jr. from Tarzan and the Valley of Gold), who are transporting medicine crucial to curing a plague among a village near Barcuna’s campaign of terror. Along the journey, they also pick up Dr. Ann Phillips (Diana Millay, a regular on Dark Shadows), the physician tasked with helping the natives against the disease. 

15 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera vs. Guiron (1969)

Gamera vs. Guiron (1969)
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa. Starring Nobohiro Kajima, Miyuki Akiyama, Chrystopher Murphy, Yuko Hamada, Eiji Funakoshi, Kon Omura, Hiroko Kai, Reiko Kasahara.

This is the Gamera movie that features the “letter opener monster,” the aliens who shave a kid’s head so they can eat his brain, and Gamera performing a men’s gymnastics routine. It’s also the one that decides plot is essentially optional when all you really need is kids wandering around science-fiction sets watching monsters have outlandish battles. This is an outgrowth of what happened in Gamera vs. Viras, only now stretched out to fill most of the movie. But thanks to the reduced use of stock footage and an abundance of bright weirdness, Gamera vs. Guiron ends up as a much more enjoyable movie, and arguably the one that will appeal the most to young children—if they aren’t squeamish about the threat of brain-hungry alien women.

The story could fit easily into a Little Golden Book, or perhaps one of the Marx Brothers’ films from Paramount. Two boys, Akio (Nobohiro Kajima) and Tom (Chrystopher Murphy), discover an empty spaceship that has landed near their homes. They get aboard, and the ship then zooms them off to the planet Tera, where the boys avoid a pair of aliens (Hiroko Kai, Reiko Kasahara) who want to snack on their gray matter. The boys stop occasionally to watch Gamera, who has come to rescue them, battle Tera’s guardian, the steak-knife monster Gurion. On Earth, people worry about the kids, but they don’t achieve anything except brief distractions from the action. Eventually, Gamera destroys Guiron and repairs the spaceship so the boys can go home. Gamera apparently took shop in high school.

10 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera vs. Viras (1968)

Gamera vs. Viras (1968)
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa. Starring Kojiro Hongo, Toru Takasuta, Carl Craig Jr.

The fourth Gamera film adds the finishing touches, the last three elements that director Noriaki Yuasa and producer Hidemasa Nagata needed to create the complete Gamera style: a Caucasian second child actor, Gamera’s catchy kiddie chant theme, and stock footage. The last of these isn’t an advantage. The other two… it depends on the film and how loose you’re willing to get.

Gamera vs. Viras is 100% a children’s movie with no quarter given. At this point in the series, some adults will simply check out and never return. You either have to have children yourself or have a soft spot for child-empowerment stories in order to get involved in super-kids and monsters dominating the story and the grown-ups sitting on the sidelines as essentially stooges. It also helps if you like watching colorful but inexpensive monster battles.

Gamera vs. Viras has a great opening that puts Gamera in space for the first time—yes, our heroic turtle can also fly through space! A spaceship that resembles five bumblebee abdomens linked together has come from the star Viras to conquer Earth because the Virases need another Class M planet to live on. Gamera shows up and destroys the spacecraft, but the aliens have enough time to transmit a warning to Spacecraft #2 to continue the mission and destroy Earth’s protector monster… Gamera! Cue the “Gamera Is Really Neat!” theme song.

09 June 2014

The Godzilla Blu-ray Flood: Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster)

Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)
Directed by Jun Fukuda. Starring Akira Takarada, Kumi Mizuno, Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, Toru Watanabe, Toru Ibuki, Choutarou Tougin, Hideo Sunazuka, Pair Bambi.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

After a few years fighting battles among the cities of Japan and facing the hapless measures of the Japanese Self-Defense force, Godzilla got to go on a tropical island vacation and enjoy broiled seafood. The results were an entertaining variation on the classic Godzilla formula known as Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. Or maybe Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. It depends on how strict you are about Toho Studio’s official English titles.

The arrival of the new U.S. Godzilla triggered a flood of Japanese Godzilla films to Blu-ray, with eleven hitting hi-def on the same day, spread across seven releases. The oldest film on the slate is 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, arriving courtesy of small label Kraken Releasing, a successor to ADV Films. You may know Ebirah better under its original U.S. television broadcast title, Godzilla versus the Sea Monster, with “vs.” spelled out for reasons best left mysterious. This Blu-ray is the first stateside release to have the official English title on the cover, although the movie’s title card reads Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, no longer spelling out “vs.” Reasons more mysterious.

A brief backdrop to this odd G-film: In 1965, Toho Studios made a deal with U.S. animation company Rankin/Bass to co-finance a live-action movie featuring the return of Toho’s version of King Kong. The show would tie into a Rankin/Bass Saturday morning animated series, The King Kong Show. Toho’s writers created a script titled Operation Robinson Crusoe, but Rankin/Bass passed on the idea. The King Kong film eventually emerged in 1967 as King Kong Escapes. But Toho chose to recycle the Operation Robinson Crusoe script as a Godzilla project.

07 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967)

Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967)
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa. Starring Kojiro Hongo, Kichijiro Ueda, Naoyuki Abe, Reiko Kasahara, Taru Marui, Akira Natsuki.

Finally! After two bland movies, the Gamera series finds its niche and breaks out the good rubber suit monster times. Fans generally consider Gamera vs. Gyaos as the best movie of the series, and I won’t dispute that distinction. The pacing, the monster battles, the cast, the blend of the human story with the big beastie action… it all comes together for an entertaining monster-vs-monster show, and one of the best kaiju films of the classic era from a studio other than Toho.

Gamera vs. Gyaos doesn’t waste time: after an intro with Gamera investigating the eruption of Mt. Fuji, it’s a mere twenty minutes until opponent monster Gyaos makes a startling appearance (eating a snoopy reporter!). Gyaos immediately threatens our child hero, Eiichi (Naoyuki Abe), bringing Gamera out to save the day. Gamera rescues Eiichi and lets the boy down to safety from a ferris wheel. This whole sequence is superior to anything in either previous movies

The special effects scenes are plentiful and a joy to watch. Gyaos makes an urban attack on the city of Nagoya when the Japanese Self-Defense Force irritates it. The flying monster smashes apart the skyline and takes down the city’s famous castle with its supersonic ray. (This castle has had rotten luck in the past with monsters: Godzilla crashed into it and battered it to rubble three years earlier in Mothra vs. Godzilla.) Gamera arrives in the city for a fine aerial duel over Nagoya’s baseball stadium, a scene that would inspire a major sequence in 1995’s Gamera, Guardian of the Universe.

05 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)

Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)
Directed by Shigeo Tanaka. Starring Kojiro Hongo, Kyoko Enami, Yuzo Hayakawa, Takuya Fujioka, Koji Fujiyama.

The second Gamera film (Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera Tai Barugon, “Giant Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon”) is a case of trying to correct course and ending up heading a different wrong direction. The previous year’s Gamera: The Giant Monster was an out-of-date retread of the 1950s giant monsters films, but with some interest because of its smattering of bizarre ideas and the presence of a child as a main character. The second film adds a monster opponent for Gamera, the weird creature Barugon, but drops the child actor and instead forges the dullest and most time-consuming human subplot of the series. Gamera doesn’t even have much screen time, and you have to wonder if director Shigeo Tanaka and producer Masaichi Nagata had any larger view of what they were doing. It’s appropriate that when Gamera’s original director, Noriaki Yuasa, returned with the next film (he only served as VFX director on this one), the series at last found its path of unabashed monster action and kid-centered stories.

This is a tedious film, lasting twenty-two minutes longer than Gamera but with far less to fill the time. It’s low on Gamera and high on filler about four men trying to retrieve an opal from a cave in New Guinea that one of them hid there during the war. Actually, they plan to steal the opal, since it’s really the property of the natives. The four thieves are an uninteresting lot, even the treacherous Onodera, and their scenes lack humor and tension. The whole opal plot is a long path toward getting Barugon into the movie, and it takes forever. The most decent of the lot of opal thieves, Keisuke, who plans to open his own travel company with his share of the loot, becomes the default hero of the story, but he doesn’t do much but stand around and wonder why nothing works at stopping Barugon.

01 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera: The Giant Monster (1965)

Gamera: The Giant Monster (1965)
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa. Starring Eiji Funakoshi, Harumi Kiritachi, Junichiro Yamashita, Yoshiro Uchida.

The original Gamera giant monster series of 1965–80 from Daiei Studios spanned eight films and became successful enough with an audience of children that it eventually influenced the Godzilla films that had inspired it in the first place. All Monsters Attack (1970) was Toho’s copy of the low-budget Gamera formula of kids, monsters, and stock footage.

But Gamera never enjoyed the respect that Godzilla received until the fantastic trilogy of films in the 1990s from director Shusuke Kaneko. The original “Showa era films” still have the reputation for being cheap and bizarre, although this constitutes a large part of their charm and the reason Mystery Science Theater 3000 had such a great time with them. (MST3K used the Sandy Frank dubs from the mid-’80s, which are among the worst dubs ever for any Japanese film, which upped their hilarity in a way the filmmakers never intended.)

But the first Gamera film, Daikaiju Gamera (“Giant Monster Gamera”),  was far less strange and positioned as a mostly-serious monster picture. For that reason, it’s also not very good.

Gamera: The Giant Monster (the English title distributor Shout! Factory bestowed upon it in 2010) was about twelve years behind the times. In 1965, the kaiju craze was rapidly reaching its height in Japan with colorful monster adventures everywhere. But Gamera was shot in black-and-white in a dry documentary style trying to imitate the 1954 Godzilla. It’s a strange tactic for Daiei Studios to have taken to compete with Toho Studios (Godzilla’s home). The movie contains the seeds of the rest of the series because it makes a child one of the principles, but the story of young Toshiro (Yoshiro Uchida) and his adoration for the giant monster that is demolishing Japan feels so incongruous with the rest of the film that you again have to wonder: what were they thinking? You could almost imagine a time-travel scheme where the filmmakers of the later Gamera films came back to 1965 and inserted new footage of a child into the picture to align it with the rest of the series.