Monday, May 12, 2014

We've been eating Gamera, part II: That rainbow's bright

Gamera isn't the most important, or the most influential, or the most popular Japanese monster.  That just means the Guardian of the Universe may have to content himself with simply being the best.  This series of reviews is dedicated to my very favorite turtle. 

(Daikaiju ketto: Gamera tai Barugon)

The first Gamera sequel demonstrates Noriaki Yuasa's growing competence in the special effects genre; to our regret, however, he only directed about a third of it.  The rest is credited to someone who had never made a monster movie before and, for reasons that will become clear, would never make another one again.

Directed by Shigeo Tanaka
Written by Nisan Takahashi
With Kojiro Hongo (Keisuke Hirata), Kyoko Anami (Karen), Koji Fujiyama (Onodera), Akira Natsuki (Ichiro Hirata), Yuzo Hawakawa (Kawajiri), and Teruo Aragaki (Gamera)

Spoiler alert: high

With Daikaiju Gamera, Daiei had a bona fide hit on their hands.  As the nature of studios is eternal, Daiei head Masaichi Nagata immediately commissioned a sequel, with a higher, class A budgetand in color.  Unfortunately, a class A budget was more than could be entrusted to one still considered a class B director.  Noriaki Yuasa was pushed to the side to make room for Shigeo Tanaka.

Tanaka is better known for, well, basically nothing.  Nonetheless, he evidently had a healthy career rivaling that of any Japanese directorhis first directing credit dates back to 1931, and he directed forty-four more films before dying/retiring/being abducted by aliens (accounts differ) in 1971.

His kaiju cinema, however, is limited to this single, lonely entryand, you could argue, less even than that.  While Yuasa was pushed out of the director's seat, he held on to the job of directing all the special effects sequences.  It is worth observing that these are the only really remarkable sequences in the film.

It's tempting to ascribe too much influence to an interloping Tanaka.  But Nisan Takahashi still wrote the script, after all, as he did for Daikaiju Gamera and would continue to do for six more Gamera pictures, and it's equally possible that Takahashi simply hadn't found Gamera's groove yet.

Regardless of the cause, Barugon is a noticeably different beast than the other Gamera films.  Barugon, you see, is a rather dark adventure story that, purely incidentally, also features a giant turtle fighting a wingless dragon.  It is also the longest Gamera movie of the Showa era by a huge margin, and the longest of all eras until the far more densely plotted final film in the Heisei series beat itbut only by two minutes, even then.

And despite such great scenes of mayhem as pictured above, Barugon is by any metric the dullest, but we'll get there.

We open well enough, with the Z-Plan rocket still hurtling Gamera to Mars (it is a long trip).  Inevitably, a meteor collides with the spacecraft, freeing the monster, who flies his way back to Earth to renew his campaign of destruction.  Remember this, however, since it'll be about an hour before Gamera is mentioned again in any capacity.

So let's turn instead to Keisuke Hirata, our handsome, square-jawed protagonist (portrayed, in the first of his several Gamera roles, by series semi-stalwart, Kojiro Hongo).  His brother Ichiro has called him to a meeting with two criminals, Kawajiri, an amiable sort, and Onodera, who initially seems trustworthy.  Ichiro relates to them a story of the Pacific War.  While fighting in the South Seas, he found a gigantic opal and hid it in a cave.  Apparently biding the hell out of his time, he has, two decades on, concocted an overly elaborate plan to retrieve the precious stone.

Upon their arrival on Ichiro's mystery island, Hirata and his co-conspirators immediately overplay their hand with the suspicious natives, but they deploy their boomsticks and retreat otherwise unmolested into the jungle, despite the entreaties of the natives' Japanese-speaking spokeswoman, the bloodlessly-pale "Polynesian," Karen (as portrayed by the quintessentially-Yamato Kyoko Anami, one of the few amongst her "tribe" not wearing ridiculous makeup).

Brownface: making the jungle adventure genre possible since film began!

They find the opal, and Onodera, believe it or not, betrays Hirata and Kawajiri.  Kawajiri dies, most entertaininglyin a special effects scene, I notebut Hirata survives through the ministrations of the natives, and Karen explains explicitly what she shouldn't have used vague poetic language to tell Hirata in the first place: that opal ain't no opal.

It's a baked potato with a lizard in it.

As we figured out ages ago, it's a Barugon egg, and Onodera's accidentally hatched it in the middle of Kobe harbor.  They hightail it back to Japan to share their knowledge with the Japanese Self-Defense Force while Barugon immediately grows to battleship-size and starts quadrupedally stomping through Kobe's dockyards.

Thus, at around the forty-minute mark, our kaiju movie actually begins.

I can't say that the South Seas adventure that precedes it is detestable.  Kawajiri's death by papier mache scorpion is indeed tensely creepy enough, for primitive creature effects work, and there's a certain sub-Indiana Jones quality to the proceedings as the semi-inept treasure-hunters fall into quagmires and turn upon each other.  Chuji Kinoshita's score certainly helps, and immensely so.  Chuji was director Keisuke Kinoshita's brother, and the bombastic music supervisor for Masaki Kobayashi's first decade of films; like Tanaka, this is Kinoshita's only kaiju film.  However, in Kinoshita's case, that's a shame.

As marginally fun as it (maybe) was, this adventure just won't end.  The struggle between Keisuke and Onodera becomes a completely parallel story running alongside the more standard scenes, one that gets even goofier than the giant monster action, without being very much as entertaining.  If you wanted a kaiju movie where a criminal suffers a nervous breakdown due to his inability to reconcile his guilt with his ongoing greed, Gamera vs. Barugon still probably isn't for you: the limitations of the actors Daiei tended to assemble for these projectsas well as those of Takahashi as a storytellerwill never again be more evident.

The standard scenes don't quite make up for all this chaff, but Yuasa, as special effects director, mightily tries.  Drawn to the fires of destruction, Gamera eventually makes his appearance, and, naturally, the two titans do battle.  There's a compelling atavism to Gamera and Barugon's conflict.  A surprisingly gnarly shot involves Gamera raking his claws across the dragon's cheek, drawing spouts of blue blood, and Yuasa clearly relishes this turn to ultraviolence.

"My face!  My beautiful face!"

The physical struggles of the Gamera Showa series are famously intenseGamera's combat is almost always gorier than the rare facesplitting indulged in by the Toho competition.  Yuasa's conflicting impulses were to render Gamera an anthropomorphized hero while, at the same time, emphasizing Gamera's capacity for limitless, animalistic savagery.  This contradiction between Gamera's dual natures has become the unmistakable signature of the whole franchise.  It's only strange to see Yuasa's unique sensibility begin to take its final shape in some other director's picture.

Unfortunately, the quantum leap to the "versus" style of kaiju filmmaking reveals the limitations of the practical effects work I praised in Daikaiju Gamera.  Godzilla, with his optical effect radioactive breath, is freewithin the constraints of budgetto cut loose on Ghidorah and other bad monsters, and they upon him.  By contrast, in Barugon, you can easily see Teruo Aragaki and the suitmation actor in the Barugon costume (sadly, he was uncredited and I cannot find his name) taking care not to get too close.  Clearly, there was a real or perceived riskI reckon very realthat Gamera's flamethrower would set Barugon's suit on fire.  Thankfully, advances in filming the action would make the awkward dance less obvious than it is in Barugon's lumbering showdown.

Still, Barugon himself initially seems a fitting nemesis to the fire-breathing turtle, for the lizard can shoot, from his preternaturally long and stiff tongue, a cryonic mist that freezes all it touches, including the Guardian of the Universe himself.  (And, indeed, the scene where Gamera is laid low before an ice-dusted miniature set representing historic Osaka is lovely.)

Filmed in Daieiiiiscope!

Yet Barugon is the result of Takahashi's creativity run completely amok: too arbitrarily conceived, even for a kaijueven for a Gamera kaijuhe isn't just imbued with freeze-breath, but like Superman, has many powers.  From the glowing spines on his back, Barugon can launch an even more devastating assault, an arc of rainbow-hued energy that can destroy targets at long range.

On one hand, I'm highly impressed with Takahashi for realizing that artillery and missiles exist, and permittingfor once in a kaiju moviethe JSDF to use them in an attempt to strike at a rampaging kaiju from beyond its own (apparent) effective range of attack.  I'm equally satisfied with a monster that has his own capability for indirect fire.  And the reveal that the energy can be reflected by mirrored surfaces, leading into the military's ultimate scheme to use Barugon's own attack against him, is as elegant as the surprise rocket of the Z-Plan in Daikaiju Gamera (though, since Barugon must die by Gamera's own tooth and claw, of course it doesn't entirely work).

Pictured: painting with all the colors of the wind.

No, what rankles isn't the lurid goofiness of a monster that shoots a multicolored ray out of his buttfor a kaiju film, this is expertly foreshadowed by naming the opal-egg's hiding place the Valley of Rainbowsbut that by making Barugon essentially unbeatable, Takahashi must balance the scales by saddling the dragon with vulnerabilities, any vulnerabilities, and he evidently went with the first that came to his mind.  Barugon is rendered inert and powerless by water, of all things; and Barugon is easily distracted by the glint of diamonds.

Thus begins the final act: the JSDF uses artifical rain to shut Barugon down, while Keisuke, Karen, and the scientific establishment prepare to lure Barugon into the sea, where it will drown, with the shine of an enormous, 5000-carat diamond.

"Of course I'll marry you!"  (This is like a third of the film.)

Complications arise, drawing out the plot to a truly unsustainable length and exposing vividly how terribly cobbled together it is.

Ultimately, the plan is sabotaged when Onodera (remember him?) finds himself lured by the prospect of stealing the diamond, attempting an insane coup de main upon the JSDF boat that's carrying it.  At this point, the bright silver lining to Onodera's cloud is revealed, when Barugon, in what might be the most cartoonishly gruesome death in any kaiju filmincluding Cloverfieldis picked up bodily by Barugon's stretchy tongue and devoured.  There's no blood, but the sticky palpability of the gigantic tongue prop is disgusting, and the shot of the teeth as Onodera is drawn into the maw of Barugon's mouth is frankly nightmarish.

"Remember me as I once was!  Monomaniacal and stupid!"

Luckily, Gamera wakes upno one has even broached the possibility of thawing the poor dear out so that the two giants might kill each other, leaving the wounded survivor easier to dispose ofand drags Barugon to his watery grave.

It's too much to say that Gamera vs. Barugon is schizophrenic, for the two plots dovetail without too much effort.  On a structural level, the principal thing to complain about is how unwisely extended the diamond plan becomes, when by the eighty minute mark just about any kaiju film should be wrapping itself up.  The devil is in Barugon's details, which are either, like Onodera's entire arc, too schematic to be interesting, or so incredibly daftamounting to batshit insanethat you rewind to see if you actually saw what you thought you did.  The most bizarre moment of Barugon has nothing to do with the South Seas dragon at all, but with a South Seas vampire: her man having been wounded in a confrontation with Onodera, Karen kisses the knife cut on Keisuke's arm, smearing his blood on her lips.

It's an ancient "Polynesian" custom, I guess.

This is, finally, a Gamera film that lacks an appropriate amount of Gamera.  His turn to a good monster is not completeBarugon is notable in that no child appears, depriving Gamera of any potential friends.  Thus he spends his own film sidelined, brought in and out as the plot requires him to be.  He is not here, as he would become, a protagonist in his own right.  Instead, we are treated to the increasingly dull shame-based heroism of Keisuke, his undercooked romance with his South Seas paramour, and the unhinged and ultimately unbelievable villainy of Onodera.  The attempt to imbue the film with the theme of blind avarice, with Onodera and Barugon serving as mirrors of one another, is clumsily trite.  In the end it's actively worse than a movie with no themes at all.

There's a potential version of Gamera vs. Barugon that ranks amongst the better examples of the Showa series and the kaiju genre as a whole.  But, at twenty minutes too long and under the mistaken impression that humansor at least these humansare at all interesting, it is perhaps the weakest entry in the franchise.  The most "adult" Gamera film is also the most boring: Yuasa's maturing abilities as a composer of kaiju action are wasted on Takahashi's capricious script and Tanaka's sheer unwillingness to simply get on with it.

Score:  4/10

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