Turtle Power! The classic and entirely bizarre Gamera monster movie series examined.
Destined always to be second fiddle to his kaiju rival and inspiration Godzilla, the giant flying turtle Gamera nevertheless has had a long and sort of impressive run as an icon of Japanese cinema. His movies represent both the best and worst of Japanese monster movies, colliding the absurd and cheerfully ludicrous with maudlin sentiment and juvenile concepts – but unless you are a total miserablist, then it’s hard to be too critical of the movies, which do exactly what they set out to do and have such a complete lack of pretension or pomposity that it’s hard not to enjoy them simply as empty-headed fun. We are, of course, talking about Gamera’s original run of movies here, from 1965 – 1980, where he starred in a series of increasingly absurd and poverty-stricken romps; the later movies, the Heisei period that began in the mid-1990s, is a rather more collection of films, and ironically less fun. Just as the revived Godzilla from around the same time upped the production values but perhaps dialled back the inherent silliness, so these films are a more ponderous series, and while not without their charms, they seem more self-aware and serious. If I’m watching a film where someone dresses up as a giant turtle and battles prehistoric vampire monsters or rainbow-spouting beasts, then I know what I want, and it isn’t high art.
Gamera was spawned in 1965, and let’s not beat around the bush here: he was conceived by production studio Daiei as a Godzilla copy, at a time when the Big G was at the peak of his international popularity. Godzilla, of course, was an iconic monster – a fire-breathing dinosaur that looked as cool a creature as you could ever imagine. Gamera, on the other hand, was always doomed to be the fat kid who is picked last for sports teams. I mean, he’s a turtle, and turtles just don’t look all that cool. Missing the trick pulled some years later by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Gamera was essentially a tusky head, four legs and a tail popping out of a shell, lacking Godzilla’s anthropomorphised appeal and always seeming a bit clumsy and cumbersome when not flying through the air of fiery jets that no one ever bothers to explain the origin of. But that said, Gamera was hardly the first oddball kaiju – look at Mothra, a giant moth for crying out loud, an iconic figure but hardly a convincing monster. And over the films, a lot of effort was put into trying to convince the viewer that Gamera had real personality, even if the turtle head rarely managed expressions that even came close to Godzilla’s.
The first film, Gamera The Giant Monster (retitled Gammera The Invincible for US release) feels like a copy of the original Godzilla. Shot in black and white, it features a giant monster unleashed from the frozen Arctic by an atomic bomb that then wreaks havoc in Japan. Like the first Godzilla, the film was heavily re-edited and had new footage shot for the US release, though in this case, it was primarily to replace bad acting from American characters in the original film, though it also gave the film a US emphasis with new Western characters taking the leads. Where the film diverts from the early Godzilla films is in the way it portrays Gamera, who is not just a relentless killing machine. By 1965, Godzilla was well on the road from villainous monster to saviour of humanity, and Daiei studio boss Masaichi Nagata – who conceived the original project – was clearly aware that these films, once very much aimed at adult viewers, were now hugely popular with children, and so Gamera is shown to have a softer side, saving the first of a stream of annoyingly chirpy small boys that the series is littered with from death; and Gamera is not sent to his death at the end of the film – again, the prospect of a series of films being far more obvious at this point – but instead fired off into space, from which he could easily return if the box office demanded it. Audiences did, and Gamera was brought back annually for the next six years, though the returns were quickly diminishing ones, at least financially, even as the series developed its own style that increasingly moved away from its origins as a Godzilla clone and took things in their own direction.
The first Gamera film is gritty stuff compared to what was to come, but it’s interesting to see this hedging of bets and the first inklings of the sentimental juvenalia that would swamp the series from this point on. Clearly, Nagata knew that there was limited mileage in a mindlessly destructive monster, and was setting the scene for Gamera’s rapid reinvention. It took Godzilla six films before he even started to seem more an anti-hero than an outright villain, but Gamera began the shift in the second film, 1966’s Gamera vs Barugon, where he returns to earth and initially picks up where he left off, but soon becomes the defender of humanity when lizard monster Barugon emerges from an egg and starts firing his rainbow beam, and… whoah, whoah. Rainbow beam? Yes, you read that right. Even in 1966, that must’ve seemed a rather odd special power, unless it came complete with an angry leprechaun at the end of it protecting his pot of gold. Sadly, Barugon has yet to be picked up on as a pioneering gay rights hero, though hopefully, some readers will be creating a Barugon-themed float for next year’s Pride.
Barugon is a rum sort, causing much the same sort of destruction that our turtle hero previously had, and definitely deserves a good thrashing. Stepping away from the dark side, Gamera takes him on, and in a series of scraps that would set the scene for the whole series, is given a bit of a whooping before finally emerging triumphant, usually with the encouragement of an irritatingly enthusiastic child. But Gamera vs Barugon is very much a transitional film – much of the action doesn’t involve the monsters at all, instead focusing on the search for a rare precious stone (in fact the egg). This emphasis on very human action – and the fact that the film was originally going to feature topless native dancing girls – suggests that Daiei were still a little unsure quite where to pitch the movie. That might seem ridiculous if you watch these films now, but you have to remember that in the mid-Sixties, these films were still often considered adult fare outside Japan – as late as 1965, Godzilla vs The Thing (Mothra vs Godzilla) was still considered shocking enough to be rated X by the BBFC, an admittedly ludicrous decision that nevertheless shows that men in rubber monsters suits were once the very epitome of terror for some people. And so Gamera vs Barugon sits uncomfortably as neither fish nor fowl, a weird transitional point for the series. In the US, of course, it was still seen as strictly juvenile fare, and like all the Gamera films to come, would be bought up and sold directly to TV by AIP as War of the Monsters, the first of many generic titles given to the series in America. Godzilla was already iconic, even in the West, but the giant turtle was little known outside the more obsessive monster movie fans of the Sixties and Seventies – a situation not helped by the deliberate misspelling of his name in the US edit of the first film – and was never going to get an Aurora model kit or Marvel comics series at that time. The AIP titles gave no hint that this was an ongoing series.
Rainbow beams aside, Barugon was a pretty nondescript monster and was made all the more anonymous by a name that closely resembled the (slightly) more impressive Baragon, a second-tier Toho monster who debuted in Frankenstein Conquers the World a year before this film and would join the all-star cast of Destroy All Monsters in 1968. He’s too much of a run-of-the-mill dinosaur and having two creatures who spent most of their time on four legs did not give the film much visual dynamism. What the series needed was an iconic villain, something the match Godzilla’s adversary Ghidorah, and the next film, Gamera vs Gyaos (US: Return of the Giant Monsters) delivered just that. Gyaos (or Gaos, depending on the translation) is one of the great kaiju creations, a prehistoric giant vampire bat with a flat-top head who fires laser beams from his mouth. This was more like it – Guaos was so close to monster perfection that it is hard to believe that he wasn’t designed by a committee of ten-year-old boys, and he is as scary and villainous as he is visually impressive. Barugon never seemed much competition for Gamera, but Gyaos looks as though he could make turtle soup of him in no time. This is the first film in which a wounded Gamera has to slink off to recover – things would get worse for him in later movies. It’s also the first film where Gamera is fully lumbered with a small boy as sidekick; this too would get worse as the series progressed.
There’s still an adult plotline supporting the monster action, though this time it is sensibly kept from overwhelming the action. The story of big business vs a small community is very ‘now’, though anti-capitalist viewers will be aghast to hear that it’s the villagers who are the bad guys here, standing in the way of progress while trying to line their own pockets. In this sense, the film is very much the kaiju Carry On At Your Convenience, or at least overtly modernist in its outlook, taking the side of progress and development over traditionalism and anti-globalisation. But I may be over-thinking it.
In any case, the film is the line in the sand between original Gamera and the later films, where the giant turtle is very much the hero – no ambiguity here – and posited as ‘the friend of all children’, something hinted at here and subsequently spelt out explicitly. These were more innocent times, when a small boy and a giant turtle could be besties without one being taken into care and the other added to a government register. And the balance between juvenile fantasy fulfilment and full-on monster scrapping is spot-on here, with the violent action remaining violent and dark enough to remain exciting. This might be Gamera’s finest hour and a half – every element of the film in balance, with a monster that is the right side of absurdity to be effectively scary for younger viewers.
From this point onwards, the films became strictly children’s movies, with the kids front and centre as the main characters with everything channelled through their eyes. In the case of Gamera vs Viras (US: Destroy All Planets) it’s a pair of boy scouts, one Japanese and the other American in a none-too-subtle attempt to woo the American audience. Gamera gets plenty of screen-time playing games with the kids, but the fun soon ends (or, if you are a viewer, finally starts) when alien invaders show up in a groovy spaceship and attach a brain-control device to our hero, who then goes on a rampage that will be very familiar to viewers of the earlier films – the financial problems that Daiei would suffer from for the next decade first reared their budget-trimming heads here, and chunks of the movie are padded out with scenes lifted from earlier movies. But Viras is a fine monster, a space-squid who grows to enormous size and then battles it out with Gamera – now freed from the alien influence by his child chums – on the beach.
Viras is typical of the later Gamera opponents. Perhaps inspired by the success of Gyaos, the monsters would become ever more absurd and entertaining, but never really scary. There’s a cartoonish vibe to Viras, and the other creatures to come, and while the film is still full of what the British censors would call ‘moderate threat’, there’s nothing here that would upset younger viewers. This might, in fact, be the most determinedly child-friendly movie of the series, with the adult narrative pushed so far to the back that it barely registers. The next film in the series, Gamera vs Guiron (US: Attack of the Monsters) goes for a similar approach, though it rather ups the levels of intensity, and had the film featured more realistic effects might actually be quite traumatising for nippers. After all, it features two children (again, one Japanese, one American) kidnapped by aliens and taken to their planet, which is under attack from several Space Gyaos, with only the blade-headed Guiron as their defence. Among the highlights here: Guiron decapitating and dismembering a Gyaos (lots of blood, none of it red) and the aliens turning out to be cannibals who want to eat the boys’ brains – shocking stuff!
Let’s be clear – this is still kiddie fare, with the peril very much within the limits of a PG rating, but there’s a lot going on here and it’s one of the weirder films in the series. Again, old footage is recycled, and adults are almost entirely absent. The result is like a strange kaiju fairytale, oddly engaging and a lot of fun even though the ambition is by now clearly outstretching the budget.
Gamera entered the 1970s with Gamera vs Jiger (US: Gamera vs Monster X – a rare moment in the American title spotlight for the giant turtle), where once again, the demands of the modern world and the traditional Japanese culture clash – though here, it’s definitely the modernists who are the pig-headed fools. When a large statue is uncovered and seems to be in the way of construction for Osaka’s Expo ’70, the authorities ignore the pleas of tribal elders and make like 2020 social justice protestors, pulling it down. But you mess with history at your peril, and before long, volcanoes are erupting and spiny monster Jiger has made her appearance, battling Gamera (who you might think would have more respect for ancient history, but apparently not) by firing quills from her face at him.
We know Jiger is female because, at one point in the film, the gaggle of children who are the film’s juvenile leads find her baby. Inside Gamera. This is the film where, Fantastic Voyage style, a couple of kids take a mini-sub into a comatose Gamera (who, as usual for the films by now, has suffered a crushing defeat in round one of his battles) to remove the parasitic Little Jiger from his lung via white noise. Well. Again awash with old footage and featuring the most uninspired monster since Barugon, the film at least benefits from slightly less omnipresent bad child actors, and the sense of absurdity just about pulls it through. But it’s clear that the series is almost as worn out as Gamera – who spends most of the film in a coma – and so it’s no surprise that things ground to a halt in 1971, not just for Gamera but for Daiei as well, who went bankrupt as Gamera vs Zigra was completed. It was very much a case of the series (and studio) fizzling out, and this film didn’t even reach USTV. Still, as absurd nonsense goes, the film is a lot of fun, with pretty much every element of the Gamera series thrown into the pot. Zigra is not, interestingly, a monster (at first – bear with us) but a planet, and when a Zigran spaceship and its ruthless female commander arrives on Earth and starts causing earthquakes, only Gamera can save the day. Though he takes his sweet time doing so, allowing more adult action, as the world ponders surrendering to Zigra in order to save a couple of child hostages. Given that the Zigrans have made it clear that they will kill and possibly eat everyone on Earth, this seems a touch overly-sentimental, frankly.
Anyway, for reasons too complex to explain, the Zigran spaceship is transformed into a giant fish creature, and so the traditional giant monster mash begins. As ever, Gamera is left unconscious by the first fight and needs reviving before finally defeating the alien monster, at one point playing the ever-catchy/annoying Gamera theme tune on the fish monster’s fins like a xylophone. This seems a point of absurdity so absurd that the series could surely go nowhere else, and so perhaps it was only fair that everything finished here.
Except that it didn’t, quite. After a nine-year absence, New Daiei released Gamera: Super Monster, a sort of ‘greatest hits’ designed to help the company out of its financial rut. It didn’t work, but as a final chapter in the original Gamera series, it’s oddly engaging. Admittedly, this is the first Gamera film I actually saw – the series was even less distributed in the UK than it was in America, and I had to import a VHS copy of this from the Netherlands in order to see what all the fuss was about. In that sense, it was – and is – the ideal Gamera sampler, as it features the climactic battles from all the previous films, complete with on-screen captions introducing each monster as if it was a new wrestling opponent. Tying all this together is a story of yet another evil alien intent on conquering the world. This time, the villain has to deal with a trio of superheroes, unimaginatively the Spacewomen (led by real-life wrestler turned actress Mach Fumiake) – a possible nod to the popularity of monster-battling superheroes like Ultraman. Also along for the ride is yet another small boy, this one particularly cloying. He has a fixation on turtles in general and Gamera in particular, even composing the appalling/brilliant Gamera March, which he plays for the Spacewomen in a scene of such tooth-grinding cringeworthiness that it has to be seen to be believed. Anyway, it does the job, as soon Gamera has popped up to save the day, fighting his old foes that the aliens have revived, not being able to afford a monster of their own. It’s a story of redemption and sacrifice, oddly enough, a very determined final chapter in the Gamera saga that has a comic book feel throughout, and although ludicrously cheap and disposable – as well as the earlier Gamera films, it cannibalises footage from animated TV shows Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express 999, suggesting a certain devil-may-care attitude – it also feels weirdly like a real – if very strange – film if you haven’t seen the others, and like Gamera comfort food, with all the fun bits and none of the padding, if you have.
As a nakedly desperate attempt to make money, Gamera: Super Monster was an unquestioned failure, and was significant mostly as the last gasp of the classic era of Japanese monster cinema – almost everything after this was a reboot and revival, rather than a continuation. But it’s a suitably ludicrous way for the whole movement to end on, and seems to sum up the Gamera films perfectly: juvenile, hilarious, kitsch, exciting, bizarre and shameless. There’s a wholesome, unpretentious joy in these films, one that is sadly missing from today’s monster movies where pomposity and ponderousness have taken centre stage. Even the worst of these films are fun, and sometimes, that’s all that is needed.
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