Ever since I first saw the Godzilla movies in the early 90s – when Channel 4 in the UK used to show a different one every Friday night – I’ve been a fan of the charming, silly and often hilariously campy antics found in kaiju (basically ‘giant Japanese movie monster’) movies. Godzilla films have always been curiously difficult to track down, however – but then, so have many films from the most famous kaiju’s cinematic competitors. Yet recently, Arrow – often known for their reissue and careful treatment of classic direct-to-video cult horror – have managed to re-release the entire run of 12 Gamera films, first in beautiful and expensive limited edition box set form (containing all 12 films in one place) and then separated as two more affordable Blu-Ray box sets, with the sets split into the two distinct eras of Gamera (named for the Japanese Emperor at the time of release): the Showa Era films (1966-1980) and the Heisei Era films (1995-2006). Given the relative lack of availability of the series in the UK until now – especially in their original Japanese form – I thought it’d be a good time to get myself caught up. So here we are, with the first of twelve reviews. I hope you enjoy them – it’s been a lot of fun checking out the crazy kaiju action in the Gamera films, that’s for sure.
Intended as a rival to Toho’s hugely successful Godzilla franchise, the first Gamera movie – from competing studio Daiei – arrived in the mid-60s, eleven years after Godzilla first stomped all over the box office in 1954’s Gojira (Gojira being the original, still-in-use name for the Japanese King of the Monsters).
This initial entry sees a scientific research team witnessing an incident which leads to the accidental destruction of an atomic bomb in the Arctic. This detonation awakens Gamera, a giant, tusked turtle.
Shot in black and white (like Gojira), Gamera’s main draw is seeing a brand new, man-in-suit kaiju – and it doesn’t skimp on the scenery stomping action. It’s less overtly silly than later entries in the series, but a lot more bizarre and daft than Gojira, with Toho’s 1954 film still standing as a powerful and sombre comment on the dangers of atomic warfare.
There’s a sequence in Gamera in which he destroys a lighthouse that a young boy is standing on; when the boy falls, Gamera saves him. Though he was only in danger because of Gamera’s rampage, this scene forms the basis for the rehabilitation of Gamera’s image throughout the series – before long, he became a protector of Earth and is specifically, repeatedly referred to as a ‘friend of all children’ in later films.
The special effects are generally very well done for a film of this type and vintage, though the low budget does cause a few issues with some of the model work – in particular the visibility of strings on many of the planes and missiles flying around at various points. Gamera himself is pretty well done, though there’s no getting around how silly his rocket powered shell looks when he’s flying or spinning at high speed through the air. His eyes are laughably vacant too, though the dark black and white photography does at least benefit their glowing look. Gamera’s fire-breathing powers are pretty nicely handled too.
During the film, a coalition of nations team up to defeat the rampaging turtle – and it has to be said that the American actors, delivering their lines in English, are absolutely atrocious. To say they’re wooden is an understatement; it won’t be long before you’re wishing for them to be stomped on by the big, rubbery turtle.
And that’s what we’re watching for anyway, right? Gamera does at least get all of the big kaiju action right – with some very unusual contemporary sequences including a very 60s nightclub being trashed by the unleashed beast.
As kaiju films go, Gamera isn’t bad; it strikes a balance between the tone of the very first Godzilla films – which played the action relatively straight – and the daft charm of later movies in Toho’s series. All it’s missing is a rival kaiju for Gamera to take on, but it wouldn’t be long before audiences got to see the flying turtle take on someone his own size. If you’re a fan of cheesy 60s monster movies, you could certainly do a lot worse than Gamera.
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