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.

The biggest mistake the movie makes has nothing to do with the budget, however: it’s the casting of the two lead children. Nothing against actors Yashushi Sakagami as Kenichi and Gloria Zoellner as Helen; both do as much as you can expect from children far too young to handle headlining a special effects picture. It’s the filmmakers’ fault for deciding to target the Gamera series even younger and going toward the under-eight set with their “stars.” Kenichi and Helen are portrayed as aggravating little twerps who are annoying in every scene, doing all they can to irritate the adults (and the viewers) without actually advancing the story. Yashushi Sakagami as Kenichi is the poster child for the “Kenny” of Japanese monster films: the monster-kid brat whom you start to loathe by the end of the film. And poor Gloria Zoellner is really out of her depth, and it feels like any child of comparable age (six? seven?) could’ve pulled off the part as well.

It’s exasperating that it has taken this long for the Gamera movies to make a girl one of the two leads (instead of relegated to curious little sister part) only to still botch it with a character as young and ineffectual as Helen. Looking back at Gamera vs. Jiger, it seems like a missed opportunity not making the character of Tommy a girl. But in Gamera vs. Zigra it’s too late to turn into the spin with a female lead when the characters are too young to make effective heroes.

The impact of the low budget is really depressing. Most of the story remains locked in the same location, Kamogawa Seaworld, a decrepit-looking aquatic-themed amusement park. The film stretches out the running time with footage of orca and sea lion shows at the park, plus the infamous “fish argument sketch” between a dolphin trainer and a Seaworld hotel owner over who gets the only catch of fish from the day. The Sandy Frank dub doesn’t not exaggerate how useless this scene is.

There is no urban destruction and very little in the way of model work for the VFX scenes; the most extensive models appear on Moon base in the opening scene, which give false hope for effects level of the rest of the movie. When Zigra triggers an earthquake in Tokyo, devastating the city, we only hear talk of it and a few shots of some wreckage seen through a viewscreen. That’s how cheap things have gotten around here. (And nobody hanging around Seaworld seems duly upset about the thousands of deaths the Tokyo quake must have caused.)

What passes for “thrills” in the film are embarrassing. The U.N. makes a single half-hearted attack on the Zigra starship, and then the whole world collectively gives up. A large chunk of the middle of the film, before the monsters even have their first encounter, has Zigra’s hapless agent (Eiko Yanami) running around an empty Seaworld trying to catch two little kids who keep outwitting her with sub-par Scooby-Doo antics. It’s the low point of the Gamera series, no doubt. The draggy scene with the trapped bathyscaphe that eats up most of the second half is hardly an improvement, and it’s a perfect example of how useless Kenichi and Helen are. Of course, their fathers are useless in this scene as well. Uselessness all around!

The monster action doesn’t improves on things. Zigra and Gamera spend most of their time underwater on a set with a few rocks. Gamera doesn’t encounter Zigra until forty-five minutes into the movie, first attacking Zigra while still in spaceship form (resembling a bowl of jellybeans), then engaging in a boring fight that puts Gamera into yet another long coma until the conclusion. Zigra makes hilarious threats toward the Earth it can’t possibly back up (it only has one human tool, and she isn’t even capable of dodging stuffed animals), and Gamera finally wakes up due to a random lightning strike (again, the human characters are useless) and gets involved in a lifeless underwater fight that concludes with a few minutes of a land engagement… and it’s—all—so—boring.

To add a final insult, the film takes a preachy stance on the environment, letting the Seaworld marine biologists spout about pollution and science ruining the planet. This sort of sledgehammer messaging makes the same year’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah feel like a model of restraint.

There are a few minor positives. Until reduced to scrambling around Seaworld during the interminable chase scene, Eiko Yanami makes an intimidating figure as the possessed Earthwoman whom Zigra uses as its pawn. Zigra’s design, based on the goblin shark, is far better than the film deserves, although the stand-up suit variation during the brief surface scenes looks clumsy. It’s stupidly amusing to see Gamera play Zigra’s dorsal spines like a xylophone; it’s the only silly-fun moment in the tedious monster action. Otherwise, the whole movie should only be digested in its Mystery Science Theater 3000 form.

About that: Gamera vs. Zigra is the only of the original seven Gamera films that did not see a U.S. release of any sort soon after its Japanese debut. AIP didn’t pick up the film for TV distribution as they had for the last five (my guess: they saw it), so it never appeared on television in the ‘70s and early ‘80s with the rest of the series. It didn’t have its U.S. premiere until it turned up on the USA Network in 1987 as part of the Sandy Frank package. This means Gamera vs. Zigra is the only of the classic films that exists in a single dubbed version. Sandy Frank’s usual awful dub makes the movie almost unwatchable. Of course, MST3K rescued it, and the film’s endless faults make it one of the finest of their Gamera episodes.

Although Gamera vs. Zigra looks like it should have killed off the franchise, director Noriaki Yuasa and producer Hidemasa Nagata had plans for another film, which would pit Gamera against a two-headed monster. But Daiei collapsed before it could happen, and so the series came to end.

Except… well, I don’t know if Gamera: Super Monster truly counts as a Gamera film, but it’s on the Mill Creek Blu-ray collection, so I have to deal with it.

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