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.

The young heroes this time are Hiroshi (Tsutomo Takakuwa) and Tommy (Kelly Varis), a much improved duo than those of the previous films and the subsequent one. Instead of delinquents who cause trouble for the adults before the monster action gets underway, Hiroshi and Tommy are smart, diligent, resourceful, and earn the respect of the adults enough that having them become involved in the action around the monsters makes sense. Although Gamera is portrayed as a helpful beast, the giant turtle isn’t there to assist the kids specifically, and this makes Hiroshi’s and Tommy’s choices all the more heroic. This is the closest the Gamera movies approach to a classic “boys’ adventure” book. Takakuwa is also the most personable child performer in the series, although Varis comes across as a bit anonymous… but at least never annoying.

Although Gamera vs. Jiger has a larger budgeted feel, it still makes a few Yen-saving maneuvers. There’s stock footage, but it only appears under the main credits, where it’s forgivable. To eat up time, the filmmakers instead provide a prolonged tour of Expo ‘70 in Tokyo, or the future site of Expo ‘70s, since it wasn’t finished at the time of shooting. (I doubt the filmmakers would’ve bothered if they had to find a way to shoot in the middle of the exposition.) An archaeologist, who’s dating Hiroshi’s sister, gives the boy a tour of the site that runs through shots of every pavilion (I love what the Swiss did with theirs!) and discusses the exposition’s theme of world cooperation. The archaeologist then explains about how he’s arranged to move a megalith called the Devil’s Whistle from Wester Island in the Pacific as part of the exhibition—which sounds suspiciously like colonial theft to me, but hey… world cooperation!

Moving the Devil’s Whistle does end up as a bad move, since it unleashes a monster from the continent of Mu, Jiger, whom the Muvian imprisoned millennia ago using the monolith. Gamera, apparently aware of the presence of all evil monsters, whether terrestrial or extra-terrestrial, tries to prevent humanity’s foolish mistake, but the archaeology team still moves the Devil’s Whistle to the Expo, sending Jiger out in pursuit to eliminate the object that kept it immured for so long.

In a moment of cultural insensitivity, ignorance, or laziness, the Wester Island cultural envoy who shows up to Tokyo to object to the interference with the Devil’s Whistle is clearly presented as from Central Africa in language and dress, even though Wester Island is in the Pacific. I have no idea what the filmmakers were thinking when they did this, except that maybe the kid viewers wouldn’t care; it’s an unusual misstep in a film that otherwise makes an effort to treat its young audience with some respect.

Jiger combines elements of older, more realistic dinosaur kaiju with Gamera series outlandishness. The quadruped monster resembles a ceratopsian with a Dimetrodon dorsal crest; it might have fit into the earlier Godzilla movies without much change. But Jiger has the most extensive array of odd gizmos of any Gamera opponent yet: an “Ultra Wave” from its snout capable of skeletonizing people, spears shot from its tusks, air jets in its frills allowing its non-aerodynamic body to fly, and a tail spike capable of injecting larva into an opponent. Jiger is pretty nasty business, able to incapacitate Gamera twice (which means we get three monster fights, yeah!) and thoroughly wrecking Osaka in scenes that seem like they must have cost twice the budget of both previous films.

Jiger delivers the most humiliating defeat on Gamera yet with the larval-injecting spike. This incapacitates Gamera face-down in the water, apparently unable to recover. Once the scientists figure out the problem, Hiroshi and Tommy dash off to pilot a mini-sub from the Expo into Gamera’s mouth to seek out and destroy the offending larva.

Gamera’s mid-movie break is a staple of the series, but this time it happens twice, and the second time becomes a part of the rest of the story. Usually, the plot trudges on with the child heroes until Gamera recovers on its own, but now the whole finale rests on Hiroshi and Tommy making a journey through inner space to rescue the giant turtle. The scenes inside Gamera’s body, as the two boys communicate with home base and attempt to find the dangerous larva, are definitely among the cleverest of the series, and show a nice intersection of weird with plot practical. Even given the limited budget, the Gamera lung sets are quite wonderful to look at. The resolution rests a bit too much on chance (it turns out Jiger is susceptible to wireless phone transmissions!) but the sequence is as memorable as anything in these movies.

The last fight, kept at the edge of the Expo ‘70 site because Gamera kindly wants to avoid destroying it and to keep the budget from spiraling too much, suffers from the slower choreography that the monster battles have adopted since Gamera vs. Viras. The maneuvers are as entertainingly odd and anthropomorphized as ever: Gamera grabs a metal club and beats off Jiger’s tail stinger, jams telephone poles in its ears to block the Ultra Wave attack, and somehow understands the importance of the low-frequency sounds of the Devil’s Whistle and hurls it right into Jiger’s head. Loopy stuff, all around.

Sandy Frank did not pick up Gamera vs. Jiger for distribution (I would love to know why), so like Gamera vs. Viras, the movie only appeared in the U.S. courtesy of AIP Television, then vanished in the ‘80s when the rights expired. Mystery Science Theater 3000 never got the opportunity to take the movie on, which is a shame considering how much material worth heavy riffing it contains. At least we never had to deal with a horrendous Sandy Frank-commissioned dub job.

If you don’t know anything about the history of the Gamera series or the direction of the Japanese film industry, you might imagine that Gamera vs. Jiger was the mark of a new stretch of quality films. However, economics and fatigue would now defeat Gamera more effectively than any giant monster with a larva-injector tail, and the next installment would shut down the series for nine years (and 1980’s Gamera: Super Monster hardly counts as a “Gamera” film) and plunge it down to embarrassing depths. The cosmic forces that aligned to make Gamera vs. Jiger a good film realigned to make Gamera vs. Zigra a…

Oh, we’ll get to that. No need to commence the punishment early.