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.

Even with Gamera rescuing kids in two of the previous movies, we’ve made a fast jump to Gamera the Superhero, protecting the world from outer space invaders and helping children. It feels as if the Gamera series was squeezing the same arc of how Godzilla became a hero into only a few installments, and then going was step farther. But the Gamera series probably wouldn’t have continued without taking this route.

The heroes of our story are two eleven-or-twelve-something Boy Scouts, Masao (Toru Takasuta) and Jim (Carl Craig Jr.). Both are kid-power icons who go far beyond the Hardy Boys model. They’re pranksters who always succeed at fooling the adults and get away with it, have nifty gadgets like a Dick Tracy communicator watch, outwit invader aliens, and free Gamera from brain-control so the monster can save the day at the end. Masao and Jim will probably rule the entire globe in five years given what they achieve here in a mere few hours.

The second Viras spacecraft arrives on Earth during a Boy Scout retreat. When the aliens learn that Gamera’s weakness is a fondness for children, the Virases kidnap Masao and Jim and hold them hostage, then turn the subdued Gamera into their mind-controlled slave. However, the Virases are idiots who give the two boys free range on the spaceship, so Masao and Jim eventually turn the tables right at the point when the U.N. is on the verge of giving up to an alien civilization in order to save the lives of the two little industrial saboteurs.

There are some adults in the film, like Kojiro Hongo on his third “lead” role in a Gamera film as a Scout Master, but they don’t have much screen time, and there’s only a short nod to the formerly obligatory gathering of the military and scientists (this time just to surrender). Most of the movie is Gamera flying around the groovy-looking Viras spacecraft, and Masao and Jim wandering around the equally groovy interior of the Viras spacecraft. If you love old Star Trek and Doctor Who sets, you’ll like all the tinkering around on the ship and experimenting with its telepathy devices.

The Virases are dolts and have the drabbest “space” outfits imaginable, looking like they work at a North Korean factory. But in dim light the effects department gives them frightening glowing eye appliances that have a genuine nightmarish quality. There’s also a weird moment where one of the Virases detaches and reattaches his arm. I appreciate these little odd details that appear in all Gamera films. (And I won’t spoil the crazy “decapitation” moment.)

The villain monster, an amalgamation of all the aliens aboard the ship into one creature known just as “Viras,” doesn’t appear until the finale. But the monster fight goes on for a good stretch and even gets a touch gruesome. Viras looks like a silver squid with a parrot face, and it can turn the top of its head into a stabbing spear. Viras pierces Gamera with this a few times, which looks deep enough to have easily killed the giant turtle. But the wounds hardly even slow Gamera down. Masao and Jim yell advice, and Gamera takes it and wins. The battle doesn’t have the same spectacle as the climax in Gamera vs. Gyaos, but it works for the movie.

Now, the bad news… there’s no way around how the stock footage hobbles the movie. In 1968, giant monsters were losing ground at the Japanese box-office because of the booming popularity of superhero TV shows like Ultraman and Ultra Seven. To keep Gamera profitable, Daiei Studios needed to slenderize the budget, and recycling VFX scenes offered a way to do that without harming production values elsewhere (much). The in-story excuse for the stock scenes is that the Virases must scan Gamera’s brainwaves to understand the monster’s history and weaknesses. The footage consists of Gamera breaking free from the ice in Gamera: The Giant Monster, both monster fights from Gamera vs. Barugon, and the first confrontation with Gyaos followed by Eiichi’s rescue from Gamera vs. Gyaos. Regardless of the excuse, it’s murder on the pacing to have stock footage pop up only twenty minutes into the running time and then trudge on for ten minutes.

But wait, we’re not done yet. Once the Viras spacecraft gains control of Gamera, the aliens send him on a rampage to destroy a power dam. In other words, the footage from Gamera vs. Barugon of Gamera attacking the Kurobe Dam. Then the Virases send him to attack Tokyo. In other words, the Tokyo destruction scenes from Gamera: The Giant Monster, given a slight tint to unsuccessfully disguise the original black and white footage. The only reason the Virases don’t send Gamera on further destruction is because they didn’t have any more footage to consume.

The deluge of re-used material restrains me from giving Gamera vs. Viras full approval. I enjoy most everything away from the recycling, no matter how silly or childish it is. I can roll with the wish-fulfillment aspect, and a ‘60s spacecraft is always a good time. But fifteen minutes of stock footage in an eighty-one minute movie—almost a fifth of the running time—is too much for a flimsy story to handle.

On the plus side, those fifteen minutes constitute 80% of the good material from Gamera vs. Barugon, so at least you no longer have to watch that film.

Gamera vs. Viras (Gamera tai Uchu Kaiju Bairasu, “Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras”) isn’t as well known in North America today as most of the other films in the series because Sandy Frank Entertainment didn’t purchase it as part of their mid-’80s syndication deal. The version from AIP Television, titled Destroy All Planets in an attempt to recapture some of the success the company had with Destroy All Monsters, was ubiquitous during the ‘70s through the early ‘80s; I can attest that it played on almost continuous rotation on local stations every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. But when AIP's rights expired in the early ‘80s, the film vanished in the U.S. for years. After Gamera made a comeback through Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the 1990s, this ol’ standby was still nowhere to be seen because MST3K acquired all the Gamera movies through Sandy Frank. So if you didn’t grow up during the ‘70s, Gamera vs. Viras will be a new experience. And you can make your own MST3K episode commentary for it.

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