With the popularity of Toho’s Godzilla film series sweeping the country the people over at rival Daiei Films decided they could use some of that kaiju money for themselves and thus Gamera, the giant fire-eating turtle, was born. Though many have described the Gamera films as simply rip-offs of the Godzilla franchise that is not really the case, frequent series director Noriaki Yuasa, who helmed all but one of the Shōwa entries, had in mind something more lighthearted and whimsical with its target audience being that of children. The first Gamera movie can be easily compared to 1954s Gojira as it was also shot in black & white and featured a rampaging monster, the only real difference is that this one briefly shows that he is a “Friend to all children” and with that, the series quickly embraced a more fantasy element that centred much of the action around a young protagonist and when American International Television made a distribution deal with Daiei Films one of those protagonists would usually be Caucasian, because heaven forbid North American kids not having a white kid to cheer for, and as the series went on it got weirder as themes drifted almost into the realm of faerie tales rather than that of science fiction.
What happens when an ancient Atlantean giant fire-eating turtle is awoken from its frozen slumber by a nuclear detonation? The obvious answer is Gamera, the Giant Monster, which was Daiei Films’ answer to Toho’s Godzilla and its bid to cash in on the monster mania sweeping across Japan. Filmed in black and white the first Gamera movie is a rather dark and atmospheric piece that mirrors much of the look that you will find in 1954’s Gojira but while both monster movies stemmed from the threat of nuclear bombs this Gamera film wasn’t trying for any kind of analogy between its story and that of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The movie does have elements of the Cold War but the overall message of Gamera, the Giant Monster is that differences in ideologies can be set aside for the common good.
In this first entry in the Gamera’s Shōwa period, the big turtle was treated more like a rampaging menace than he was a “Friend to all children,” which would be the focus of his character in the later films, in Gamera, the Giant Monster he is simply a creature seeking nourishment while destroying anything that stands in his way. It’s not his fault that enflamed cities are the ultimate snack food for him. Gamera is not an evil monster but simply an animal that is “out of time” and looking for a home in a strange new world.
Now, there was a subplot dealing with a turtle-obsessed eleven-year-old boy who latched onto Gamera with a passion bordering on true psychosis and the problem here is that there was pretty much nothing likable about young Toshio as he’s basically a tiny sociopath with the delusion that his little pet turtle has somehow turned into a giant fire-breathing monster, and he will risk his life and all of those around him to be reunited with his pal. Throughout the film, Toshio acts like a candidate for the Darwin Awards and your enjoyment of Gamera, the Giant Monster will hinge greatly on how much of this little shit you can stand.
It should be noted that there is a scene in the film where Gamera saves Toshio from falling to his death, from a lighthouse that Gamera himself was in the process of destroying, and somehow this inexplicable act exploded in the collective consciousness of Japanese children and thus the franchise would wholeheartedly embrace the idea that Gamera was a “Friend to all children” whether it be warranted or not. Overall, Gamera, the Giant Monster is a solid entry in the Kaiju genre and is a worthy contemporary of Godzilla, and though he may not have spawned an equal number of films this first chapter provided viewers with some truly nice visuals, great miniature city destruction and a turtle that rocketed across the sky, so what’s not to love?
Watching this entry in the Gamera series and one thing is abundantly clear, and it’s the fact that Japan just can’t catch a break. At the end of Gamera, the Giant Monster everyone’s favourite fire-eating turtle had been trapped inside a rocket ship and was blasted into space – cue MST3K theme song – but Gamera wasn’t going to spend his life on the desolate landscape of Mars because, lucky for him, an ill-timed passing meteorite collides with the ship allowing Gamera to return to Earth.
Released a mere five months after the first film Gamera vs. Barugon was given the “A” picture treatment due to the success of Gamera, the Giant Monster – strangely, the director of that film was demoted to effects director for this outing – and we’d also have “Gamera, now in colour!” but where the first film consisted mostly of Gamera rampaging across Japan the sequel would launch the “Versus” motif to which each proceeding film would feature a new antagonist for Gamera to fight. For this first sequel, Daiei Films would pit Gamera against Barugon, a gigantic quadrupedal reptile with a long whip-like tongue that could emit a freezing mist to encase his foes in an icy death, but one power wasn’t enough for this creature so Barugon also has the ability to use the spikes on his back to project a super-heated rainbow off of his back that could disintegrate missiles and tanks. One has to admit that’s a strange power combo but as the Gamera series progressed, things would only get weirder from here.
Where citywide destruction was the main theme of Gamera, the Giant Monster in this film we veer into the domain of Allan Quatermain as we take a trip into the dangerous jungles of New Guinea with a trio of treasure hunters who are looking for a giant opal. This rather odd divergence into the jungle adventure genre, rife with quicksand and deadly scorpions, takes up a great deal of screen time and as fun as it is to shift into The Treasure of Siera Madre territory, is, as greed amongst the hunters leads to death, one can’t help but ask the question “Aren’t we supposed to be watching a giant monster movie?” Gamera, the Giant Monster is twenty minutes longer than its predecessor but we find Gamera missing for the bulk of the film – though to be fair, the destruction Gamera wreaks on the Kurobe Dam is spectacular – and our terrible terrapin is treated more like a deus ex machina rather than the star of the movie.
Now, in Gamera, the Giant Monster we had an eleven-year-old sociopath with a turtle fixation to contend with but in this entry, we do not yet embrace Gamrea as “Friend to all children” so instead, we have to put up with one of the world’s greediest and dumbest villains in cinema history. In the case of this movie, we are saddled with a man who would try and steal a diamond while its’ being used for monster bait. There’s dumb and then there is suicidally stupid.
The focus on the human subplots may put younger viewers off – I actually found some of that jungle adventure stuff to be quite amusing – and the lack of Gamera action is a definite negative, but when we do get our monster smackdown it is pretty damn impressive. Gamera vs. Barugon definitely has a more serious tone than later entries, with its major destruction and a high death toll being rather impressive, but even with its greater budget it was hampered by some serious pacing issues. I still love the hell out of this movie, the lack of a “Kenny” a definite plus, but it falls a little short of being a truly great kaiju entry.
With Gamera vs. Barugon receiving less than then stellar ticket sales it was decided that for this third outing pleasing the younger fans was to be the main focus – no longer making kids wait for the big monster fights was an integral part of this decision – and thus from here on out Gamera would most definitely be the “Friend to all children” but this didn’t stop returning director Noriaki Yuasa from doubling down on the monster carnage, with Gamera vs. Gyaos not only do we get to see stunning moments of citywide destruction but when the two titular monsters clash purple and green blood will gush forth like water from a bursting damn. Oh, and did I mention that Gyoas is basically a giant bloodsucking vampire bat?
Gyaos is easily one of Gamera’s best opponents and when the two titans clash it truly is a sight to behold and as was the case with most of the monsters in the Gamera series Gyaos has multiple abilities, not only does this flying menace have the destructed wing power of Toho’s Rodan but he can also emit a powerful ultrasonic beam than can cut through anything, especially aircraft, like a hot knife through butter. But that’s not all, being that fire is something Gyaos fears he can also spray a fog-like gas, from his nipples no less, which works as a flame retardant. It should be noted that making biological sense has never been a factor in kaiju films but the people at Daiei Films seem to go the extra mile in creating fun and ridiculous monster powers.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper kaiju film without it having a healthy dose of human drama and for Gamera vs. Gyaos that drama comes in the form of an expressway corporation that runs into problems with the local villagers who are protesting and sabotaging their efforts to build a new expressway. As human greed is a common element in these films the villagers aren’t protesting out of some ecological worry, instead, it all stems from their hopes of extorting more money from this big corporation. Is the arrival of Gyaos some kind of Biblical retribution for mankind’s folly? And if so, what does this make Gamera?
As mentioned, this is the entry that solidified Gamera’s “Friend to all children” ethos and in this outing, a young boy named Eiichi is saved from the brutal clutches of Gyaos by the giant turtle, but what is more interesting here is that the filmmakers decided to create a bond between boy and beast and its actually Eichi who comes up with the plan to save the day and not the useless adults.
Note: The military’s plan to defeat Gyaos is goofy as hell, their idea was to immobilize the monster by making him dizzy using the rotating platform on top of a nearby hotel, then lure the creature there via a fountain of artificial blood and while trapped by the centrifugal force the sun’s ultraviolet rays would “shrink” Gyaos to death. Yep, that’s a goddamn brilliant plan. No wonder they eventually have to turn to a ten-year-old boy to save their bacon.
It only took four films in the Gamera series for invaders from space to make an appearance, unfortunately, they weren’t the true threat to our wonderful giant turtle. The men in charge of Daiei Films were sure that the kaiju boom was about to bust and thus Gamera vs. Viras was given a third of the budget to what had been provided for the previous film, needless to say, this resulted in a Gamera entry of decidedly less than stellar attributes. Basically, to say this film used a lot of stock footage would be a gross understatement.
To be fair, Gamera vs. Viras does have a bang-up beginning, with an alien spacecraft proclaiming their dominance over Earth mere seconds before Gamera arrives and totally wrecks their shit., which results in the aliens initiating plan “B” as in “Kill Gamera, then take over the Earth.” As promising as that sounds the movie quickly devolves into a kid-friendly adventure film – a direction the series was always heading towards – with two mischievous Boy Scouts being kidnapped by the aliens as hostages against Gamera compliance, it’s up to these two annoying kids to save the day.
Here’s where things really go wrong. After kidnapping the two kids the alien invaders manage to mind control Gamera, ordering him to destroy a damn and rampage through Tokyo, they then deliver the ultimatum “Surrender the Earth or the two boys die.” Strangely enough, the United Nations immediately capitulates – what is the life of millions when compared to a couple of idiot kids – and if not for the actions of these “heroic” Boy Scouts mankind would have been doomed. What’s even weirder is after mankind surrenders these invading bastards go ahead and order Gamera to smash more shit.
Aside from the annoying kid factor what really hurts Gamera vs. Viras is that about 80% of the destruction we see Gamera unleash is nothing but old footage from previous entries – talk about being cheap- and even the final battle between Gamera and the giant version of Viras was a tad disappointing as the alien monster was clearly out of his league and didn’t stand a chance, and how does our big turtle hero win? Gamera accidentally lands on his back after using Viras as a jet-ski which resulted in him crashing into the beach, landing on his back and allowing the giant squid-like monster to impale his vulnerable belly.
I will admit that the alien menace in Gamera vs. Viras had a decidedly menacing look to him, those creepy glowing eyes were a nice touch, but when you end up being defeated by a couple of annoying Boy Scouts it’s hard to take you seriously. Strangely enough, this was intended to be the last of the Gamera films but the kids simply loved this outing and the film became a huge hit. Clearly, the filmmakers behind Gamera vs. Viras knew their target audience and hit a bullseye with this kid-centric formula, as to how much enjoyment the average viewer will get out of this film, well, that will depend on how much you can stomach a couple of little boys repeatedly screaming, “Gamera, Gamera, Gamera, Gamera!” like the two worst cheerleaders in the universe.
Note: This film is also known as Destroy All Planets but after seeing the film one must admit that particular title comes across as a bit laughable as these aliens couldn’t even stop two eleven-year-old boys let alone destroy an entire planet.
With the surprise success of Gamera vs. Viras, the Gamera franchise was taken off life-support as the heads of Daiei Films quickly ordered another movie starring everyone’s favourite fire-eating turtle and as was the case with the previous entry Gamera vs. Guiron would be a kid-centric adventure with a young Japanese boy teamed up with a Caucasian counterpart who would work together to defeat the current threat – in this case, a pair of space women with nefarious plans – of course, the boys would also be helped by Gamera, “Friend to all children.”
What makes Gamera vs. Guiron a standout entry in the series is in both the grave nature of the threat and the massive on-screen violence, with the whole production having the feel of a Grimm’s fairy tale with two young children being lured away to be eaten – this time not by a witch in a cottage made of candy but a spaceship remotely operated by aliens – and it’s on a distant alien world that they would have had their little skulls cut open by a bone saw and their brains eaten by the aforementioned space women, “While they’re sleeping we’ll eat their brains raw.”
Now, due to the box office success of the previous film Gamera vs. Guiron was also given a slightly bigger budget – though this wouldn’t stop the studio from using footage from earlier Gamera films to save a buck – and the production designs of the planet Tera, this unknown tenth planet in our solar system due to its location on the opposite side of the sun, are simply marvellous and gives one the idea of what a science fiction film would look like if made by Dr. Seuss.
The plot has that dreamlike quality one would expect in a fairy tale but it also has elements from the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet as we learn that the alien race who, like the Krell, were basically destroyed by their own advanced in technology and overall hubris – somehow creating Space Gyaos which led to their doom – but what is not dreamlike about this film is the more nightmare-like quality in the film’s scope of violence. The monster Guiron sports a massive axe-like blade on its head that it uses to brutally sever the limbs of its opponents – it makes quick work of Gyaos, cutting off his head and chopping its body up like a plate of sushi, and as if that deadly blade wasn’t enough Guiron also has a pair of four shurikens stored in two circular indents in the blade that it can launch via telepathic waves.
The adults in Gamera vs. Guiron are treated as either disbelieving parents or inept comic relief – if not both – and this is because it is the children who are the heroes of this series, they are the friends of Gamera after all, and so any involvement of parents or authorities is downplayed and we spend the bulk of the film with the two boys trying to outwit their alien captors. Overall, this is a very fun entry with the monster fights being as brutal as they are entertaining and the two child actors actually manage to remain engaging rather than annoying.
You can learn many life lessons watching a Gamer a film such as “*If a giant fire-breathing turtle doesn’t want you to remove a supposedly cursed statue maybe you should listen.” In Gamera vs. Jiger once again idiot adults ignore the advice of children, who are always right in these movies, and because of this they inadvertently release a terrifying monster onto the world. This sixth entry in the Gamera film series also seems to be a promotion for Expo ’70 which was the first World’s Fair to be held in Japan and much of the film’s action surrounds the various pavilions that are in danger of being smashed during this particular kaiju smackdown – though the fair’s representatives insisted that no pavilions be destroyed during the conflict, so the fights all kind of happen next door to the Expo – but what really makes this particular entry standout is Gamera’s opponent, a triceratops-like beast that as a virtual arsenal of powers to attack with.
As the Gamera series progressed the filmmakers continued to ramp up the powers and abilities of Gamera’s opponents, Guiron in the previous film had psychokinesis, which allowed him to launch shuriken at Gamera, but not only does Jiger have the telekinetic – or possibly magnetic – abilities to launch rocks at our heroic turtle it can shoot deadly saliva-compacted quills, which like the shuriken can hamper Gamera’s ability to retract his legs and go into rocket mode. Jiger can also fly via jet propulsion – which puts her movements on par with that of rocket-powered Gamera – but its most feared weapon is her “Magnetium Beam” an Ultrahigh frequency ray that is capable of dissolving buildings and ships and even people, reducing them to skeletons. Now, one would think that’s a pretty badass threat but the people at Daiei Films weren’t about to stop there.
As the series progressed the family-friendly nature increased exponentially – despite the amount of violence and gore provided by the monster fights – and in this particular outing our pair of child heroes are even more key to saving the day than in previous films. In something that is right out of Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, a young Japanese boy and his Caucasian pal must pilot a min-sub into Gamera’s body to save him from Jiger’s most despicable attack. But what could be worse than an ultrasonic beam that dissolves everything in its path? Well, it turns out that Jiger has a stinger-like ovipositor which it uses to implant its young inside the giant turtle. Yikes, that’s horrifying! This embryo will then parasitically live off the host up until it hatches, turning Gamera into a lifeless husk in the process, and it’s up to the kids to pilot their little sub down Gamera’s throat to do battle with Jiger’s progeny. If that is not one of the craziest things to ever be proffered forth in a Kaiju movie I’ll eat my hat.
It’s kind of sad that an alien race can travel hundreds of light-years, easily wiped out a moon base, then instigate earthquakes of immense magnitude that devastate the planet but can then be easily defeated by a couple of preschoolers. Director Noriaki Yuasa’s desire to make the Gamera series into a collection of childlike fantasies is fully realized in Gamera vs. Zigra as not only do the kids in this movie save the day, with the help of Gamera of course, but the adults are even more moronic than in previous entries.
Much of the film’s running time is spent on an “alien” spacewoman trying to kill the two children because “They know too much” but aside from knowing that the Zigrans are incredibly lame I’m not quite sure what the kids know that is such a threat to the invaders. I was okay with adults being portrayed as narrow-minded idiots in these films, so that the kids could be the ones to save the day, but when your villain can be thwarted by a five-year-old throwing a stuffed toy, well that’s not just sad that’s downright embarrassing.
Also, that the Zigran spaceship looks like something Willy Wonka would have designed does not help to create a menacing threat, with its glowing gumball aesthetic it’s just too goofy looking to be taken seriously, and when we finally get to the kaiju fight between Gamera and the alien monster Zigra it’s just as disappointing.
Now, the idea of an aquatic alien race fleeing their polluted ocean world so they could then take over Earth’s oceans and have us land-dwellers as a primary food source is not a bad plot – it gives the film a nice ecological bent to it – but the ineptness of the invasion cannot be overstated and the alien threat is undercut at every turn. I’ll grant that when Gamera destroys the Zigran spaceship and a giant space shark pops forth that was pretty cool but Zigra just didn’t have the cachet of the previous monsters.
It’s clear that at this point Daiei Films was running out of money – in fact, they were about to declare bankruptcy – and thus we don’t get a lot of kaiju action in this movie and all that earthquake destruction the Zigrans apparently unleashed on the world will have to happen off-screen. Then to add insult to injury we get the standard armchair quarterbacking from the two kids – as they scream out fighting advice during the climactic battle – and this is where we see that, apparently, Gamera needs to be told to use his fire-breath against an aquatic monster. “Sigh”
In this penultimate entry in the Showa Era poor Gamera literally jumps the shark as he tries to save both Sea World and Daiei Films, sadly, he was only able to do one of those things, basically, Gamera vs. Zigra works better as a commercial for Kamogawa Sea World than it does as a kaiju film.
This would be the final entry in the Shōwa Gamera series, what with the studio going bankrupt after the release of Gamera vs. Zigra back in 1971, but with Gamera: Super Monster they had every intention of pulling their struggling production company out of debt, unfortunately, this was not to be the case as the film failed drastically at the box office and Daiei Films filed for bankruptcy about six months later and we Gamera fans were left with nothing more than “Clip Show” rather than a true Gamera feature film.
The movie opens over some nice space paintings – why spend money on visual effects when van art can be just as effective – where we are then treated to a “Star Destroyer” suddenly lumbering across the screen, and it’s here where one would love to point out to the filmmakers that “If you have almost no money in your budget maybe don’t try and rip-off Star Wars in your lame attempt at reviving your franchise.”
The framing device that makes up this film collects all the library footage of Gamera’s previous battles together as part of a plan by an evil alien named Zanon, who has come to enslave the Earth only to find his diabolical plans thwarted by a young boy who has a special connection with Gamera. There is also a trio of resident superheroes – Spacewomen in spandex and capes hiding out on Earth – but they are pretty much useless as their principles do not allow them to have weapons or harm any living thing. Just what one hopes to find in a giant monster movie, pacifist superheroes.
What is even weirder is that not only does this film incorporate every big monster fight from Gamera’s history – this movie featured only about two minutes of new Gamera footage – but we also get this kid’s bizarre ass dreams where we see Gamera flying alongside the Space Battleship Yamato and the Galaxy Express 999 and are given no explanation for any of this.
Aside from harvesting every second of stock footage Gamera: Super Monster provides us with some of the worst video effects brought to screen, stuff that wouldn’t pass muster on an episode of H.R. Pufnstuf or The Bugaloos, and when we aren’t being subjected to such lame visual assaults we have this stupid little kid banging away on a Casio keyboard with his version of the Gamera March.
I’m not saying Gamera: Super Monster is simply a worthless cash grab but what I want to make clear is that this was an incredibly painfully cobbled-together travesty that fails at humour, drama and action – setting aside the excellent stock-footage sequences that make up the bulk of the film – while consistently providing some of the worst acting ever witnessed in the history of cinema, all to bolster up a plot that barely exists. We can only thank the gods that in fifteen years the Gamera Heisei period would be born and with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe everyone’s favourite giant turtle would get the respect he deserves.
Gamera: The Shōwa period (1965–1980)
Franchise Rank - 7/10
Gamera may not have the name recognition of Godzilla, at least not outside of kaiju fandom, but the adventures of this giant flying turtle have a lot to offer and though they appear goofy and childlike they are also incredibly fun.