Tuesday, May 13, 2014

We've been eating Gamera, part III: Tempted by the red mist

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 kuchusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu)

This is the turning point.  Gamera vs. Gaos brings it all: spectacular high-camp science fantasy; the franchise's most iconic foemonster; a new, improved Kenny; and a novel emphasis upon Gamera as the hero of his own movies.  But most importantly, it brings Noriaki Yuasa and Nisan Takahashi back to full control of their monster's destinyThis is the definitive entry in the Showa series.

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Written by Nisan Takahashi
With Teruo Aragaki (Gamera), Naoyuki Abe (Kenny Eiichi Kanamura), Kojiro Hongo (Shiro Tsutsumi), Kichijiro Ueda (Tatsuemon Kanamura), Reiko Kasahara (Sumiko Kanamura), and Yoshiro Katahara (Dr. Aoki)

Spoiler alert: severe

If there were ever a comparison of two films that could wholly validate the director as the demiurgic force creating his own, personal art from the collective efforts of manywhich is to say, to validate auteur theory in its strongest formit's the comparison of Gamera vs. Barugon with its immediate sequel, Gamera vs. Gaos.  Both are the product of studio assembly lines, both were written by the same screenwriter, both feature the same title character, and both involve a variation on one of the two classic premises of kaiju filmmakinggiant monster fights giant monsterbut even the most disengaged and unobservant viewer must be struck immediately by how very much more passionate the latter really is.

Gaos is Noriaki Yuasa's return to directing the franchise he and Nisan Takahashi created in 1965.  No longer consigned to the purgatory of special effects sequences, they would shepherd Gamera until the monster died, along with the whole kaiju genre itself, in 1980.

Well, in cinemas.  For like four years, anyway.

Filling the special effects void were Yuzo Kaneko and Kazufumi Fujii, the latter of whom did the technical work on Barugon.  Fujii would stay by Yuasa's side as the third great man behind the camera throughout the remainder of the Showa era, and his work speaks for itselffor good or ill, depending upon your view of suitmation and exploding miniatures.  Sadly, like other Gamera luminaries, he seems to have dropped off the face of the planet, or at least Japanese cinema, with the disintegration of Daiei in bankruptcy in late 1971.

But it's best I save these lamentations for the future; this is still 1967, and as far as is evident, Daiei is the picture of financial healthGaos is by far the best-looking Gamera film so far.  If it is also the best-looking of the entire series, with four more features and a stock-footage film to go, that's not necessarily an implicit insult.  Gaos involves a truly stunning array of suitmation, precisely-destroyed miniature buildings, optical effects, rear projection, models, giant props, what is either underwater work or a convincing fake, and even human wire work.  All are clearly of their timewhen I say "stunning" I obviously don't mean "stunningly realistic," but neither would I truly prefer them to be.  The sheer amount of special effects ranks it as one of the single most ambitious kaiju films of its era.

It's almost ironic, since Gaosthough impeccably designedis perhaps the Showa series' most prosaic monster.  Of course, "prosaic" by Gamera standards is a highly relative description: in essence, Gaos is naught but a colossal bat, but that is only the foundation upon which Takahashi created the monster that would go on to become Gamera's most tenacious and iconic antagonist.

Gaos can fly, naturally, but that is far from all.  Drawing upon the vampiric connection, Gaos is also carnivorous, drawn by the scent of blood; evidently inspired by bats' sonar, Gaos' principal mode of attack is, as made famous by MST3K, a flying highway no-passing line that nevertheless represents no less than a 10 megacycle ultrasonic death ray.

"Hertz, donut!"

Each time it was used it cost Daiei 3500 yen, but unlike some visual effects-driven monster attacks, don't expect Gaos to spare it.  Whenever Gaos is threatened, and often when Gaos is simply bored, he strikes out instinctively with his most powerful armament, his voice.

It is abundantly clear that Yuasa got a tremendous kick out of the two-dimensional beam's effects as wellshort of an actual human body, likely considered too grody for a kids' movie if not too expensive to mock up, no twain remains uncleaved by the power of coherent sound waves in Gamera vs. Gaos.  Gaos' campaign of destruction is therefore wonderfully idiosyncratic:

But Gaos, like all Gamera's foes, possesses a secondary weapon as welljust like the bat, Gaos can generate a cloud of noxious, flame-retardant, yellow gas. 

...You might want to consult your local zoologist.

Gaos is unique in Gamera's rogues' gallery as an enemy that can take flight under his own power, and the Japanese supertitle, Giant Monster Midair Battle, is no empty promise.  In perhaps the single most thrilling struggle of the Showa series, Gamera and Gaos duel over urban Japan, with the less-maneuverable flying turtle attempting to drag Gaos to earth while the king of the night skies desperately slices off his own foot to escape Gamera's jaws and, more pressingly, the encroaching rosy-fingered dawn.

For Gaos, like many of Gamera's monsters, is only complete when his weakness is revealed; in Gaos' case, the connection is mythically logical, rather than purely, head-slappingly arbitrary as with Barugon's vulnerability to rain.  The bat, attuned to the darkness, dislikes bright light.  Moreoverless rigorously, but nonetheless sensiblythe ultraviolet rays of the sun threaten the vampiric predator with complete destruction.

However more solidly conceived Gaos is than its predecessor, what is truly striking about Yuasa's picture is its unbeatable momentum.  Every scene, and indeed most every cut, is meaningful and deliberate.  No stretch of film is devoid of concern with the monsters.  Even when the film slows down a little, it's to be endearingly playful, as in a scene that serves as the very epitome of kaiju komedy: we visit Gaos in his nest while he painfully regrows his missing toes, and, in his fury, knocks a stalagtite from the ceiling, inevitably crashingwhere else?but upon his already-wounded foot.  A lesser director would have had Gaos deliver a truly barbaric yawp, assuming troglodytically that the mere agony caused by Gaos' misfortune is enough of a punchline to get a milk-spewing chortle from the slack-jawed juveniles in attendance.  But Gaos closes his eyes, swallowing his angerwe can imaginein fatalist resignation to the endless inequities of existence.

And I laughed and laughed.

There is a human story, of sorts, involving an expressway under construction and the recalcitrant village that won't move out of its waynot out of principle, but out of sheer avaricebut this deep and rich fable of greed at the expense of the public weal occupies, in grand total, roughly five whole minutes of Gaos' runtime.

Its principal reason for being is to introduce Eiichi, grandson of the village's leader, and the very platonic ideal of a Kenny.  It is Eiichi that discovers Gaos in a cave... well, he and a photojournalist, but Eiichi is the first to see Gaos and live, anyway.  The cowardly journalist's demise is perfect in how it primes the screen for one of the most brutally effective reveals of a monster in any kaiju film: a vertiginous pan that ends with a terrifying close-up of the monster's face, dominated by its open maw, from the point-of-view of its soon-to-be-dead victim.

My clock sez "nineteen minutes into the movie."  Advantage: Gamera vs. Gaos.

Gamera, drawn by the same vulcanism that has awakened the slumbering Gaos, happens upon the scene and his paternal instincts, demonstrated in Daikaiju Gamera, return in full force.  The initial battle is almost entirely one-sidedGamera's right arm is nearly lopped off by Gaos' beam, and it is with great difficulty and risk that he manages to save Eiichi and escape from Gaos, rendering the boy unto the heroic arms of Foreman Tsutsumi, the chief of the construction crew with whom Eiichi's grandfather holds no truck.

Gamera films, we've seen, have no problem with elevating narrative efficiency over unnecessary sense-making.  Thus, Tsutsumi becomesfor the reason that we've met his character alreadyan integral part of the JSDF team tasked with combating Gaos.  This team is led by Dr. Aoki, an affable scientist who reminds me vividly of an old, Japanese Brad Jones.

The good doctor goes on to give the best expository slide-show in kaiju history.  When he's asked whether Gaos is a reptile or a bird, he answers, and I paraphrase only slightly, "I have no idea, he's a monster."  He happily concedes that his presentation is all guessworkthen he immediately produces detailed cutaway drawings of the new kaiju's internal organs, expounding upon their precise function while gesticulating with a tuning fork.

"Source?  My Ph.D., peon."

Oddly, but much less so if you've seen the later Gamera movies, Eiichi maintains a presence at these convocations.  Indeed, Eiichi's ideas wind up indispensible: Eiichi is the first to notice the nocturnal pattern of Gaos' predation.  And when Eiichi tells the story of how Gamera deliberately avoided spinning while transporting him upon his back so Eiichi wouldn't get sick (yes, this absolutely happens), one discovers with immense shock that what initially seemed like lazy effects workGamera's rotation being notoriously difficult to realizewas actually subtle foreshadowing.

Chekhov's giant flying turtle ride.

Aoki, thus prompted, devises an elaborate plan to lure Gaos outby nothing less extraordinary than a gigantic, blood-spewing fountainand then spin the monster until he is incapable of moving, let alone flying, while the rising sun kills him.  (Stymied, however, by the lack of a platform that can do the job, it's up to Eiichi yet again, and he points out the revolving restaurant on the rear projection screen behind them.)

Since the first plan never works in these movies, no matter how ingenious, Gaos escapes, and their last hope is Gamera, but he seems less than invested in guarding this universe, content instead to avoid further conflict with his dangerous enemy.  Who else has the bright idea, but Eiichi, to set ablaze the entire mountainside around Gaos' nest, and draw the flame-loving Gamera back into action?  No one, obviously.  Eiichi is, by a rather embarrassing margin, the smartest person in the room.

Yet at no time does Gamera vs. Gaos feel half as pandering as the series, no sooner than the very next film, becomes.  Yuasa and Takahashi walk a line even thinner than Gaos' ray with their juvenile protagonist.  They give Eiichi all the best ideas, but they are ideas that a child could come up with; and while Eiichi's brainstorms may be simple leaps in logic, they are leaps just large enough that you canwith the powerful suspension of disbelief necessary to the enjoyment of a kaiju film in the first placereasonably accept that no adult made them first.

The actual logistics and technical implementation of Eiichi's ideas (as modified to be useful by Dr. Aoki and Foreman Tsutsumi) are the sole province of responsible adults with STEM degrees.  In the context of a giant, fire-eating turtle, it's believableand not even particularly cartoonish.

The final battle ensues, as it must, with enormous bloodshed.  Gamera remains fully possessed of the bestial killer instinct that we've come to expect.  It ends with Gamera's fangs locked around Gaos' throat, producing a copious lavender arterial spray.  Dragging the dying creature by the neck, Gamera tosses him into an erupting volcano.  Gamera follows down, and perhaps it is indeed better left to our imagination what Gamera does with Gaos after that.

It's private.

Gaos is the Showa series at its finest: expertly paced, deliriously imaginative yet possessed of its own fantastic internal logic, and fully devoted to Gamera as not just the lesser of two evils but, however merciless, the hero in his own right.  Though his customary honorifics have yet to be coined, Gamera is now fully formed as the benevolent Friend of All Children as well as the brutal Guardian of the Universe.  Gaos is the last stage in Gamera's evolution, from the personification of petro-lust and connoisseur of flame to humanity's very salvation by fire.

Taking Takahashi's morally uncomplicated story about collective action where every voice is heard and shared sacrifice is necessary to achieve progress, Yuasa fashioned a film that is all the more appealing for its innocent lessons.  Takahashi demonstrates these lessons through pure narrative, but a trio of shots communicate the core of this Gamera film's themes in a surprisingly arty way.  Deploying a fade in, and a match fade out, Eiichi weeps for Gamera's return; but Yuasa lets the child in all of us know the spirit of Gamera's heroism is in everybody, even if sometimes it seems capable of expression only in a fantastic dream.

Score:  9/10

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