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.

The Toshiro story aside, Gamera is routine monster movie business stuck a decade in the past. A Cold War fracas between the U.S. and an unnamed adversary (go ahead and guess) in the Arctic wakes up a giant turtle from the ancient continent of Atlantis. The monster comes ashore in Japan and begins wrecking things. Scientists and military figures try to figure out what to do; they make a few unsuccessful attempts, and at last defeat the monster by trapping it in a rocket and blasting it out to land on Mars. The final scheme is outrageous, but this is otherwise the same type of story from 1950s U.S. science-fiction movies, and a formula that Toho Studios abandoned by the time of Mothra in 1961.

What Gamera does have going for it are brief touches of the bizarre that would blossom in the later movies. Gamera’s ability to fly by pulling its head and legs and blasting out fire to spin like a Frisbee through the air is delightfully weird. The “Z Plan” of tricking Gamera into the nose cone of super rocket is also so daft you have to applaud it. But these are the exceptions in a mostly stodgy film, more akin to Godzilla Raids Again than to the original Godzilla. The one influence it picks up from Toho’s later films is the theme of international cooperation that director Ishiro Honda loved so much.

Regarding our young hero, Toshiro (the notorious “Kenny” of the Sandy Frank dub): his story doesn’t make the least lick o’ sense. Gamera saves his life, catching the boy when he falls from a lighthouse and then gently placing him down. But this is the only action of this sort that Gamera takes during the whole movie; at no other point does the fire-breathing turtle show any kind of benevolence or even regard for human beings. Gamera just trounces cities like a standard monster. This makes Toshiro’s running around military headquarters and irritating people with his insistence that Gamera is actually a gentle fellow feel like sloppy writing, or a second screenwriter who didn’t know what the first one was writing.

I can’t offer any better criticism of Toshiro’s scenes that all the snubs that the MST3K crew lobbed at the film: “Yep, what Gamera’s done today has been a benefit to all, Kenny,” shown over footage of Gamera wrecking a power station. It’s so strange. But the same way that Joel and the ‘Bots had such a grand time lancing into the film for the Toshio/Kenny plotline, I enjoy Toshio’s scenes for their oddness much more that the rote scenes with Dr. Hidaka, Other Scientist, the Boring Reporter (“News Stud”), and Blank Love Interest. In fairness to Toshi-chan, the character comes across as far less grating in his original Japanese performance than the horrendous dub Sandy Frank crammed in his mouth. Yoshiro Uchida is a fine child actor, and I feel for the character considering what a louse he has for a dad. (Come on, what’s your problem with the kid keeping a pet turtle?)

The special effects aren't bad. They don’t reach the level of Eiji Tsubaraya’s work for the Toho movies; Daiei Studios didn’t have the same tradition of visual effects available to Toho, and the film suffers from a budget far below what Toho could lavish on even a mid-budget Godzilla film like that next year’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. Special effects director Yonesaburo Tsukiji still manages some fine work with what he was given, such as the model planes and ship during the Arctic opening, Gamera’s destruction of a geothermal power plant, and the animation for Gamera in flight. The black and white photography comes in handy, since it helps smooth over the model and optical effects. The weakest section is the obligatory attack on Tokyo, where the limited model work cannot hold up well to what Toho could achieve at the time. (This is also the point where everybody needs to stop listening to Toshiro’s pleas about Gamera’s beneficial nature.)

Gamera has a pretty silly and awkward design for what’s supposed to be a serious monster film. Once the series moved into odd territory with later installments, Gamera started to look far better. Director Noriaki Yuasa took over the special effects with the following film and started to give them their unique look.

The image transfer for the new Blu-ray looks good for a film its age and budget; the clear widescreen photography does wonders in improving the effects. But Mill Creek crammed four feature films onto this one disc, and this means many irritating compression artifacts that even casual viewers will pick up. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the film, but Mill Creek should have made this a double-disc package with two films per disc. There are no extras: the menu screen directs you straight to your choice of the four films, and then the movie starts.

Daikaiju Gamera has gone under a number of different names in English over a variety of versions. This was the only classic era Gamera film that received a first-run U.S. theatrical release, as Gammera the Invincible, with the extra “m” apparently inserted to keep people from pronouncing the monster’s name as “GAH-mare-ah.” World Entertainment Corp. and Harris Associates, Inc. handled the release and Americanization using footage of Albert Dekker and Brian Donlevy as U.S. military officers. This version hasn’t seen a legitimate release since a pan-and-scan DVD from a decade ago. As the film was released in an anamorphic 2.35 widescreen, pan-and-scan tends to kill it.

In the mid-’80s, the film was one of the five that distributor Sandy Frank Entertainment purchased. Frank only had access to the Japanese version, not the American footage. He gave the film a cheap dub job but kept it mostly intact, and then released it to television as Gamera. When Mystery Science Theater 3000 picked up the films for their show, they were the Sandy Frank versions (which explains the absence of two of the classic films from the MST3K line-up; Sandy Frank never obtained the rights to Gamera vs. Viras or Gamera vs. Jiger, and I don’t think anybody even considered Super Monster or knew it existed)

The original subtitled Japanese film reached laserdisc in the ‘90s, now called Giant Monster Gamera, which is the closest to the meaning of the Japanese title. In 2010, the original version at last reached DVD, courtesy of Shout! Factory, as Gamera: The Giant Monster—and now we have it on Blu-ray as well, this time from Mill Creek. Shout! Factory has also released a box set of all the MST3K Gamera episodes, and I can’t recommend that collection highly enough: these rank among the best installments of the show.

I am looking forward to the other films in the series after this bland but necessary opener. Although the next film, Gamera vs. Barugon, doesn’t have the formula down yet either. At least it has a second monster.

Next: Gamera vs. Barugon