Monday, July 21, 2014

Reflecting on Gammera/Gamera

Gammera, he's invincible!

   Japanese monster movies really took off in the mid 60's. In particular, the years of 1966 and 1967 saw just about every Japanese movie studio (with the size to attempt it) release at least one giant monster movie following the success Toho studios was having with the Godzilla movies. The only studio to really make a go at a continuing series was Daiei, who in 1965 kicked off a series of films built around a monstrous prehistoric turtle. The first film, shot in spooky black and white, was imported a year later and released in the States as GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE.

   The film detailed the efforts of mankind to destroy a prehistoric monster unleashed by an un-planned atomic blast at the North Pole. Gammera wasn't just any ordinary giant prehistoric reptile that could spit fire, however! Gammera actually thrived on flames and heat, and grew stronger as the military attempted to kill him! Moreover, through a means I've never been able to figure out, he could also fly! By pulling in his limbs and spinning, Gammera was somehow able to take flight! What's more, he was so massive and powerful that he caused disruptions in the weather and tides!

   GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE was a box office success on both sides of the Pacific. The American cut was actually superior, given a nice political flavor in the addition of new footage featuring American stars like Brian Donlevy and Albert Dekker. Happily, the new footage also provided a rare meaty role for character actor Dick O'Neill fairly early in his career.

   Gammera was practically indestructible on Earth, so the only solution was to get him off the planet. Gammera was trapped inside the nose-cone of a massive rocket and shot into outer space! Oddly, he wasn't the only monster to be ejected rather than outright killed, as 1967's THE X FROM OUTER SPACE ends much the same way (however, that film didn't require construction of an outlandishly huge missile to accomplish this task).

   In Japan, Gammera was pressed into service for a second film. State-side, American International Pictures began scooping up Japanese monster movies for it's television division, knowing any color giant rubber monster epic was a guaranteed ratings-grabber. beginning in 1968, this included the Gammera movies, and the American studio even helped finance the pictures and suggested ways to keep the films profitable in the all-important American market.

   AIP's dubbing changed Gammera's name to Gamera (the pronunciation changing from Gam-rah to Ga-meer-ah), and began their slate of films with 1966's WAR OF THE MONSTERS. In this entry, which remains the most adult and moody of the lot, explorers go searching for a rare jewel which turns out to be the egg of a monster that is quickly running around loose in Japan. Meanwhile, Gamera has been freed from his rocket prison when a meteor collides with it. Gamera heads right back to Japan to bust up a dam before flying off to find ever greater sources of heat.

   While Gamera no longer causes environmental devastation by his very presence on Earth, he's still a monster here. With the newly hatched Barugon on the loose, however, Gamera is the lesser evil. Fortunately, he also proves the stronger, and after a couple of rounds, ends Barugon's terror and sets off to find another active volcano somewhere.

   WAR OF THE MONSTERS was a high mark for the series, but it was noticed the mostly-child audience wasn't being entertained by all the adult-oriented drama. The series pressed into a third chapter, and the focus was on action and adventure rather than human drama. To this day, THE RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS remains heralded as the finest entry in the saga, and one of the best of all Japanese monster movies.

   This time around, an active volcano attracts Gamera back to Japan while also unleashing the literally blood-thirsty monster Gaos from a subterranean lair. Gamera fights off Gaos, and firmly establishes himself to be a hero. 

   The development here is interesting, as the course of the three films shows Gamera becoming more and more attuned to humanity (in the AIP dub, he even understands English!). While this is never actually stated, it seems Gamera is highly empathic to human thought waves, and becomes less and less alienated from the human race (in particular, he gets along with children extremely well). This tendency would grow stronger and stronger as the series progressed.

   Of note, with this entry Gamera gets a peppy theme song.

   Up till now, the Gamera movies were pretty sedate, comparing favorably to the Toho adventures being made at the same time. As kids were the main audience for such films, though, 1968 saw the series take a severe turn into the goofy. From here on out, kids would be the focus of the series, which became increasingly akin to Saturday morning programming. At AIP's suggestion, the next few films would also feature American kids in addition to Japanese ones.

   DESTROY ALL PLANETS saw Gamera at odds with would-be invaders who sought to conquer Earth. To facilitate this, the creatures of planet Viras take two boy scouts hostage and hold them ransom for the rest of the world. Since the UN is in charge of negotiations, Earth quickly surrenders. Fortunately, Gamera is on hand to actually fight back, although he briefly falls under alien mind-control. In the last act, the Virans combine into a giant squid-type critter which inflicts upon Gamera damage that would normally kill even a giant Japanese monster!

Behind the scenes

   Gamera next took flight in ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS. Without doubt, this was the wildest entry of the entire series, concerning as it does Gamera's flight to a planet on the other side of the sun to save two small boys from being eaten by space women! What's more, Gamera meets his most infamous enemy, fighting off a knife-faced monster called Guiron! Weirdly, this is the film that would probably see the most American airtime thanks to AIP-TV.

   With the dawning of the 70's, Gamera got a little of his dignity back, when GAMERA VS MONSTER X got a slightly larger budget and a plot that echoed his earlier adventures. This time around, scientists unwittingly release a prehistoric monster when they remove an ancient totem pole from a tropical island. Turns out the statue kept in check the hideous Jiger, and now the monster is loose and heading for Expo 70! 

   Although it has it's cartoonish moments, GAMERA VS MONSTER X is a step back up for our hero. Sadly, this situation would be rather quickly reversed....

   GAMERA VS MONSTER X would be the last Gamera movie AIP-TV would release. GAMERA VS ZIGRA was made while Daiei was going bankrupt, and the film being finished at all is a bit of an achievement. It's also really goofy.

   In an extremely convoluted plot, a lounge singer/actress/something visiting the moon is zapped aboard an invading spaceship and brainwashed into aiding the Zigrans in their plans to subjugate all land-dwelling life forms into becoming food for the aquatic aliens. When some scientists and their children are zapped aboard the same ship, the kids manage to escape. Zigra demands the children be tracked down and killed for fear they have overheard the plans of the aliens, right after broadcasting their plans to the world via television. Fortunately, Gamera shows up and destroys the alien ship. Unfortunately, it's alien pilot grows to the same size as Gamera and defeats our hero in battle.

   Not to blow the ending or anything, but Gamera eventually returns and takes care of business, saving Earth once again. He couldn't save his studio, however, so although plans were made for another episode, it all ended right here.

   Daiei eventually scrapped together enough capital to re-open it's doors, and it was felt a way to raise some quick cash might be with another Gamera movie. How do you make a giant monster movie with no budget? You film some silly superhero movie and pepper it with stock footage from all the previous Gamera movies! 

   The result was SUPER MONSTER in 1980. Although mostly a collection of earlier battle scenes re-written to be Gamera struggling against an alien invader's army of mutations, a few new inserts of a flying Gamera model were employed. The bulk of the plot dealt with a small boy and his relationship to three women who turn out to be superheroes from a distant galaxy at war with an oppressive despot known as Zanon.

   The girls transform into their super-duds by doing an elaborate dance routine. Unfortunately, they can be tracked whenever in their super-forms, so a lot of time is wasted showing them go super, get shot at from space, and then go back to their civilian identities via another dance number. The film is repetitious in the extreme, and listless as well. Of particular detraction is Gamera's boring new theme music. SUPER MONSTER bombed. I believe the studio slid back into bankruptcy.

   While the AIP-TV prints of the Gamera movies were still turning up on UHF stations across the Americas, they would eventually fade from view by the end of the 80's. Along comes prolific producer Sandy Frank, who's looking to cash in on the video craze. As did K. Gordon Murray before him, Frank purchases a large number of foreign movies and TV shows and recuts them for consumption by American kids. Who among us, of a certain age, will ever forget the heyday of Celebrity Video's Just For Kids line, which included such fare as TIME OF THE APES, FUGITIVE ALIEN, and the anything but kid-friendly THE "LEGEND OF DINOSAURS" in all their VHS glory? The line also served as a re-introduction to Gamera the flying turtle to American audiences.

   Frank got a number, though not all, of the Gamera films and re-packaged them with new credit sequences. In most cases, he also found the original International dubs for the films he acquired (creating new dubs for the couple that didn't have such dubs available). Marketing Gamera as a hero for the video tots, the films entertained a new generation, and was again a popular electronic babysitter. (Also of note is that the pronunciation of Gamera's name returned to Gam-rah during this period.)

   Frank's line consisted of GAMERA (a straight dub of the film previously re-worked into GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE), GAMERA VS BARUGON (the International dub of WAR OF THE MONSTERS), GAMERA VS GAOS (ditto for THE RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS), GAMERA VS GUIRON (a new dub on ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS), and for the first time in the States, GAMERA VS ZIGRA.

   A few years later, a number of films in the Sandy Frank video library, including all of his Gamera releases, became the subjects of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where Gamera was introduced to a whole new new audience. It's well argued that Gamera's major fame in the new Century is the result of his adventures being watched and commented upon by Joel and the Bots. With this, Gamera went from Godzilla knock-off to pop culture icon in the United States. As well, the MST lyrics for the Gamera theme song have become just as popular.

ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS as GAMERA VS GUIRON on Mystery Science Theater 3000

   As Gamera was being re-invented by Mystery Science Theater 3000, he was also being re-invented by the Japanese. As Daiei managed to recover itself by the 1990's, plans began to surface of a revived Gamera series. Godzilla had been regularly brought back to screens in the same decade, and it seemed only natural other studios might try to cash-in.

   At first, it was thought Daiei should make a cheap, kid-friendly little monster movie that could be released to matinee audiences. Then, something happened. It was decided any studio could be lazy (and indeed that word sums up the 90's Godzilla series perfectly), so the new Gamera film would try. It would try very hard. The result is one of the finest displays of special effects ever seen anywhere in the world. 1995 signalled a crowning achievement, the release of GAMERA, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE.

   This film re-cast Gamera as a man-made device. An ancient civilization had built Gamera to destroy ravenous flying creatures called Gyaos. When Gyaos suddenly reawaken in the 1990's, so does Gamera....

   GAMERA, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE was a smash hit. Daiei quickly re-trenched and put even more effort into 1996's GAMERA 2: THE ADVENT OF LEGION, which had some people proclaiming it to be the single finest Japanese monster movie ever made. Gamera had finally made it.

   In GAMERA 2, our hero is nearly defeated by a virus-like monster which feeds on silicon, and can break down into thousands of smaller creatures. The same year's Godzilla film had a much similar plot, but it was easily outclassed by the Gamera movie. 

   Although the film relies a bit too much on digital effects, the practical stuff is even more impressive than that seen in the previous film. The film was hailed as a landmark in the genre, and raised hopes for the genre's revival. Although the explosion of the 60's was never duplicated, it was around this period that Japanese and other Asian producers began to play around with the genre again. 

   For whatever reason, though, Gamera would sit out the next three years...

   It wasn't until 1999 that fans finally got the promised third entry, GAMERA 3, THE REVENGE OF IRIS. The resulting film was much darker than the previous films in the cycle, which has some fans split on it's merits.

   In the story, Gamera is losing his touch with humanity (which was much more straitly explained in this series) as environmental chaos is releasing Gyaos in frightening numbers. Meanwhile, a young girl (who hates Gamera because her parents were killed when he first hit town) discovers a mysterious egg in a forbidden cave. The creature which hatches out of the egg develops a symbiotic relationship with the girl as it goes about draining the life of anyone hapless enough to run across it. 

   Some extremely gruesome death scenes are among the film's items of contention for fans. Some think it goes too far, some think the new direction works in the film's favor. Either way, GAMERA 3 ended the new series. A fan-made GAMERA 4 featurette tries to wrap all the loose ends together, but few people have seen it.

   If I recall correctly, the new century saw Daiei absorbed by another studio. Either way, Gamera would have one last day in the sun when 2006 saw GAMERA THE BRAVE make the rounds. This one was a return to the kid-oriented plots of the 60's and 70's, while retaining the masterful effects of the 90's films. 

   The film in question revolves around a young child dealing with the loss of his mother, who comes into possession of a baby Gamera. The timing is fortuitous, as the baby grows to large proportions just as a hideous aquatic dinosaur suddenly appears.

   The new century also saw the original Gamera movies finally make the scene in wide-screen. A simply smashing VHS release finally unearthed a beautiful scope transfer of GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE. For those with more of a taste for foreign language cinema, the same company (ADV Films? Sadly, I can't remember for sure) also released a subtitled and scope tape of the original Japanese cut under the title GIANT MONSTER GAMERA.

   With the coming of DVD, multiple packages of public domain monster movies have included the once-forgotten AIP-TV prints of many of the 60's films. Meanwhile, a company called Shout! Factory has tried to import the original slate of films in all their widescreen glory via a series of disks which retain the uninspired original Japanese titles (or rather, simplifications of such). 

   The Shout! Factory disks for GAMERA and GAMERA VS BARUGON were pretty, but sadly lacked any of the English dubs. This was rectified with the subsequent double feature disks rounding out the series, which provided not only the AIP dubs, but the Sandy Frank dubs as well! 

   Should that not be enough, Shout! Factory also released a special metal-box collection of the five Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes featuring the Gamera movies.

   Will we see more of the flying turtle in the future? If Godzilla has taught us anything, it's that if we wait long enough we'll probably hear Gamera roar again....


  1. Oh My! flying turtles

    Thanks - that was a fun diversion

  2. This was a wonderful look into the weird and wild world of Gamera. I'm kind of stunned by that one photo under 'War of the Monsters', the one with Barugon eating a lovely maiden -- yikes! That seems like it would have been a bit much for the time, even if the Gamera series was rather gorier than the Godzilla films.

    And I love the photo of Viras wrapping a tentacle around the neck of one of the producers(?). That one's hilarious. One can almost imagine Viras is demanding a share of the gross instead of straight salary. "Fine, you'll get 10... urrgh! Okay, 15%!"

    1. Ah, yes, that photo from WAR OF THE MONSTERS where Barugon seems to be eating the girl! Fortunately, this doesn't happen in the movie, although a man does get lapped up in this same fashion.