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.

Almost none of this has any affect on the unspooling of fight footage from the earlier films, except for a few minutes when the leader of the space women removes Xanon’s control device from Gamera’s neck. Otherwise, these characters have their own inexpensive corner of the movie were Giurge eventually turns out to be decent and sacrifices herself. It’s actually better drama than anything in Gamera vs. Zigra, I’ll grant it that.

The new footage looks on par with a low-budget TV drama. It mostly occurs in mundane locations with an unconcerned Tokyo populace wandering around—nobody appears worried about the monster mayhem. The film’s idea of a science-fiction “set” is a white room with a plastic painters’ curtain at the back, and the visual effects are at Sid & Marty Krofft level. The most expansive special effect is Xanon’s ship, which is a copyright infringement-worthy version of an Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars. The ship also appears via stills of what may be pre-production art. For some reason, the movie also drops in clips from animated films. One of the clips is from the anime show Space Battleship Yamato (1974), which U.S. viewers may know as Star Blazers. Its appearance here is bizarre and distracting—but at least it is explained as a dream.

For the record, here’s how the stock footage unfolds: Xanon wakes Gyaos from a volcano to wreck havoc until Gamera defeats it in an edited-together version of two different fights from Gamera vs. Gyaos. Next, Xanon brings forth deep-sea beast Zigra, and the two monsters have a fight on the beach that cuts through the few battles from Gamera vs. Zigra in mercifully short time. Because Gamera is now at the seaside, Xanon can quickly bring in matching footage of the fight between Gamera and Viras from, well, Gamera vs. Viras. Jiger gets sent next, and we watch the middle fight of Gamera vs. Jiger, which is oddly the least interesting of the monster scenes from that movie.

Aware that it must use some film of Gamera attacking civilization, Xanon puts a control device on the giant turtle, so Gamera then attacks the Kurobe Dam (again!) from Gamera vs. Barugon. The black-and-white footage from Gamera: The Giant Monster appears as a news broadcast on a blurry TV set to disguise its origins (a better job than Gamera vs. Viras did using this same B&W stock). Gamera breaks free from control, flies to the planet where Xanon keeps its monsters so the movie has an excuse to use scenes from Gamera vs. Guiron. Fed up after Guiron blows up, Xanon resorts to Gamera vs. Barugon, which means one of the poorest films ends up providing the climactic monster fight footage.

There’s approximately two minutes total of new Gamera VFX, most shot in close-ups of the monster’s head and arms. The “finale” has Gamera ram into Xanon’s ship—although we don’t see it actually happen—and apparently die. So ends the classic Gamera series. Be glad it’s a mere fifteen years before Shusuke Kaneko revives the monster with the fantastic Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. The existence of that film makes me feel a better about this sorry funeral oration.

Is there any reason to watch Gamera: Super Monster, aside from historical curiosity for kaiju fans? Children who have never seen a Gamera film may enjoy the monster fights, and the new scenes won’t aggravate them; but if they’ve already seen the other movies, they won’t have much tolerance for this aside escapade from easy access to monster scenes. They can fast track through the human “drama” and use this as a highlight reel. Nobody else needs to bother.

Gamera: Super Monster reached the U.S. quickly, although not widely. Shochiku Films of America distributed it to television in dubbed form, where it occasionally appeared on late-night shows. Elvira featured the movie on her program in 1983, but by the time Sandy Frank was purchasing the rights to the rest of the series, Super Monster was already a forgotten film. I can’t imagine Mystery Science Theater 3000 could have done much with it except complain about needing to repeat the same jokes for the forty minutes of rehashed footage.

I’ll leave the classic Gamera movies with a quote from series director Noriaki Yuasa regarding this regretful final installment: “After New Daiei came about, one person came to me to ask [me to direct Gamera: Super Monster] and I was reluctant to accept because it was hard to see old friends, many of whom had been having trouble, and I’m sure [screenwriter] Mr. Takahashi felt the same way. And the budget was very low. New Daiei didn’t think of it as a new film and just wanted to cut the old footage together. I grieved for my son Gamera—it was a very strange fate.”

Previous: Gamera vs. Zigra