07 June 2014

The Classic Gamera Series on Blu-ray: Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967)

Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967)
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa. Starring Kojiro Hongo, Kichijiro Ueda, Naoyuki Abe, Reiko Kasahara, Taru Marui, Akira Natsuki.

Finally! After two bland movies, the Gamera series finds its niche and breaks out the good rubber suit monster times. Fans generally consider Gamera vs. Gyaos as the best movie of the series, and I won’t dispute that distinction. The pacing, the monster battles, the cast, the blend of the human story with the big beastie action… it all comes together for an entertaining monster-vs-monster show, and one of the best kaiju films of the classic era from a studio other than Toho.

Gamera vs. Gyaos doesn’t waste time: after an intro with Gamera investigating the eruption of Mt. Fuji, it’s a mere twenty minutes until opponent monster Gyaos makes a startling appearance (eating a snoopy reporter!). Gyaos immediately threatens our child hero, Eiichi (Naoyuki Abe), bringing Gamera out to save the day. Gamera rescues Eiichi and lets the boy down to safety from a ferris wheel. This whole sequence is superior to anything in either previous movies

The special effects scenes are plentiful and a joy to watch. Gyaos makes an urban attack on the city of Nagoya when the Japanese Self-Defense Force irritates it. The flying monster smashes apart the skyline and takes down the city’s famous castle with its supersonic ray. (This castle has had rotten luck in the past with monsters: Godzilla crashed into it and battered it to rubble three years earlier in Mothra vs. Godzilla.) Gamera arrives in the city for a fine aerial duel over Nagoya’s baseball stadium, a scene that would inspire a major sequence in 1995’s Gamera, Guardian of the Universe.

Gyaos is a wonderfully designed monster. It resembles a cross between a bat and a Pteranodon; its mortar board head and glowing yellow eyes give it a sinister look appropriate for a villain kaiju. The plot doesn’t really need to explain Gamera as the hero monster, because Gyaos comes across on screen as the Black Hat through design alone. Also, Gyaos likes to eat people. That’s a bad thing.

Gamera is still not fully articulated as “friend to all children,” although when the giant turtle rescues Eiichi, it makes it only a short step toward this development in the series. Since Gamera commits no destruction against humans this time, Eiichi’s adoration of the monster works well, and it’s easy to flow with Gamera’s gentle treatment toward the kid at the opening. Kids like giant monsters, so why shouldn’t giant monsters like kids? Makes sense to me.

The human story contains some usual “military and scientists attempt to stop the monster” scenes, which superficially aren’t much different from the same material in the previous movies. However, they fold well into the other plots, include lots of Eiichi interrupting and providing the JSDF with ideas to stop Gyaos (pretty much every ploy they devise with originates with the kid), and leads to a delightfully daft attempt to kill Gyaos that’s one of the highlights. It’s a thrill just to type out the scheme: lure Gyaos to the top a rotating restaurant using a huge vessel of synthetic blood, then spin the restaurant extremely fast so Gyaos will become too dizzy to escape before the sun comes up and roasts it to death.

The main human plot centers on a village near the mountain where Gyaos appears. The villagers are trying to negotiate a settlement with the corporation that is building an important expressway through the mountains. The village’s elder councilman (Kichijiro Ueda), who is Eiichi’s grandfather, pushes the other villagers to hold out for a higher price from the corporation and resist the road’s construction until the moneymen give in. The story oddly takes the side of the road crew against the villagers, with foreman Tsutsumi (Kojiro Hongo, who was also the lead in Gamera vs. Barugon) emerging as the rational force between the two. The villagers eventually chastise themselves as too greedy, which is a strange development (shouldn’t they be the underdog heroes?), but the movie does at least show that the president of the company back in the city is a heartless SOB: “I don’t care about the volcanic eruption and the giant monster! Get back to work!” It sounds like a punchline to a joke about the Japanese work ethic.

Except for the Nagoya battle, the whole film takes place in the environs of the mountain village, so the story about the road construction fits well with the chaos occurring around Gyaos. In the finale, everyone joins together for a last plot against Gyaos, and Gamera appears for a terrific final fight that’s exactly what you want it to be: energetic and occasionally ludicrous. Clocking in a leaner fourteen minutes shorter than the endless slog of Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs. Gyaos is fast on its turtle feet and a pleasure throughout.

Daikaiju Kuchusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu (“Giant Monster Air Battle: Gamera vs. Gyaos”) first reached the U.S. through AIP Television as Return of the Giant Monsters. After the AIP version vanished in the early ‘80s, Sandy Frank Entertainment picked it up for distribution, re-dubbed it, and gave it the title Gamera vs. Gaos, dropping the “y” from Gyaos’s name for some reason—the same strategy that the Walter Reade Organization used when it turned “Ghidorah” into “Ghidra” for their release of Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster.

Although the best of the Gamera films, Gamera vs. Gyaos also made for one of the finest of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Gamera episodes. We can partially thank Sandy Frank for this, since once again his company’s dub job is horrendous and makes the movie seem substantially stupid because the characters all seem like dim bulbs. But since Gamera vs. Gyaos is so genuinely entertaining to watch, it also makes for a fun riffing subject. There’s simply so much more for the Satellite of Love crew to work with than the snoozer of Gamera vs. Barugon.

In summary: If you have children and want to show them a Gamera film, skip the first two and go straight to this one. You’ll have happier children. (Although the Blu-ray only has the subtitled version, which makes it a bit of a challenge for the younger ones. Perhaps you should purchase the 2010 Shout! Factory DVD that contains the AIP dub. Younger kids usually aren’t picky about standard-def vs. hi-def.)