05 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)

Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)
Directed by Shigeo Tanaka. Starring Kojiro Hongo, Kyoko Enami, Yuzo Hayakawa, Takuya Fujioka, Koji Fujiyama.

The second Gamera film (Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera Tai Barugon, “Giant Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon”) is a case of trying to correct course and ending up heading a different wrong direction. The previous year’s Gamera: The Giant Monster was an out-of-date retread of the 1950s giant monsters films, but with some interest because of its smattering of bizarre ideas and the presence of a child as a main character. The second film adds a monster opponent for Gamera, the weird creature Barugon, but drops the child actor and instead forges the dullest and most time-consuming human subplot of the series. Gamera doesn’t even have much screen time, and you have to wonder if director Shigeo Tanaka and producer Masaichi Nagata had any larger view of what they were doing. It’s appropriate that when Gamera’s original director, Noriaki Yuasa, returned with the next film (he only served as VFX director on this one), the series at last found its path of unabashed monster action and kid-centered stories.

This is a tedious film, lasting twenty-two minutes longer than Gamera but with far less to fill the time. It’s low on Gamera and high on filler about four men trying to retrieve an opal from a cave in New Guinea that one of them hid there during the war. Actually, they plan to steal the opal, since it’s really the property of the natives. The four thieves are an uninteresting lot, even the treacherous Onodera, and their scenes lack humor and tension. The whole opal plot is a long path toward getting Barugon into the movie, and it takes forever. The most decent of the lot of opal thieves, Keisuke, who plans to open his own travel company with his share of the loot, becomes the default hero of the story, but he doesn’t do much but stand around and wonder why nothing works at stopping Barugon.

The opal from the cave turns out to be Barugon’s egg, which hatches on the ship returning with it. Finally, forty-minutes into the film and thirty-five since we last saw any giant monster, Barugon emerges from the water near Kurobe.

While this is going on, our opal buddies are still worried about their little scheme long after the movie should’ve given it up and moved onto Gamera. The falling out results in a clumsy fight in an apartment right at the point when everybody should be a bit more concerned about the giant monster loose in the city. There will be another thieves’ fight later, this one extremely violent, and the point at which the film boldly declares that it’s not for children. This is the only of the Showa Gamera films I suggest you screen before permitting youngsters to watch it—although they’ll probably fall asleep before anything violent happens.

Our main monster Barugon—Gamera is only the supporting monster—is the baseline of “strange” for this series. A quadruped reptilian beastie with a rhino horn and a sort of friendly puppy look, Barguon has a ram-action tongue with a deep cold blast that makes for some fine effects work of castles, tanks, and planes freezing. There’s one shot a plane frozen over in flight that then breaks apart in chunks that’s more interesting than any of the effects in Gamera: The Giant Monster. Barugon has a second special attack with a rainbow ray shot from its back that can vaporize anything, which produces nice optical-based visuals. It’s unfortunate that these effects, all contained in Barugon’s rampage through Kobe, exist in isolation from everything else. With a script that was actually about the monsters, this could’ve been worthwhile. Instead, it works better as material for a clip show (i.e. Gamera vs. Viras).

Gamera appears at the opening, first through blue-tinted stock footage from the first movie (they needed to add some color, especially after the tie-dye paint pattern under the opening credits) and then in an attack on the Kurobe Dam. Clearly, Gamera is still far from being the Friend to All Children supported by a rah-rah theme song. Gamera crashes into the dam and breaks it—an impressively detailed piece of model work—then flies off to a volcano below the equator to search for more food. The movie forgets about him for a long time.

It isn’t until fifty-two minutes into the movie that Gamera at last returns, and for the flimsiest reason: interest in Barugon’s rainbow ray suddenly draws the spinning turtle from some outer reaches of the world to Osaka. Here’s where the film should finally pick up and feed off the promise of the Barugon attack scenes. But alas...

Gamera vs. Barugon establishes the kaiju fight pattern for the remaineder of the series: Gamera and Guest Monster have a mid-movie confrontation where the Guest incapacitates Gamera in some fashion with a special attack. The Guest Monster rampages for a spell, Gamera recovers, outwits whatever weapon the Guest Monster used, and is victorious. The difference with this film is that the audience doesn’t know which monster to root for (Gamera isn’t established as heroic yet, and there’s no little kid for moral support) and the fight scenes have bland and slow blocking that makes them uninteresting.

Once Barugon puts Gamera on ice, the movie turns into a picture that should just be titled Barugon. It’s padded with standard scenes of scientists and military men trying to devise a way to kill or stop a monster, failing each time. The tactics against Barugon are super-boring and involve either luring the monster very slowly toward water or making it stop because of rain. Not only does Gamera do nothing during this stretch, nobody even gives a thought to the frozen turtle. At least in later movies during Gamera’s time in the penalty box, some kids would pay attention and try to revive the monster.

When Gamera at last returns for the final fight, it’s a brief affair that closes an unsatisfying film on an even less satisfying note. And none of the characters even have anything to say about Gamera saving the day. The whole movie is just a glum affair with a few good effects tucked in here and there. At least there’s the anticipation of Gamera vs. Gyaos ahead.

The Mill Creek Blu-ray transfer of Gamera vs. Barugon has an improved picture over Gamera: The Giant Monster, with fewer noticeable artefacts and none of the banding that sometimes appeared in the earlier film’s transfer.

Gamera vs. Barugon went straight to television in the U.S. via American International Pictures, who would also distribute the next four movies. AIP titled the movie War of the Monsters. When Sandy Frank purchased the rights to the movie and gave it yet another rotten dub, the film went to its now standard title of Gamera vs. Barugon. The MST3K version (based, like all their Gamera episodes, on the Sandy Frank print) is the weakest of the lot: they have a great time with the weirdness of Barugon (“That’s it. We’re licked.”), but the opal theft stretch that eats up almost half the movie doesn’t have enough fodder for excellent riffing, and of course there is very little Gamera to go round.

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