Tuesday, August 5, 2014

We've been eating Gamera, part VII: "I am beautiful—and I should rule the seas!"

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.

(Gamera Tai Shintai Kaiju Jigura)

The Showa Era proper draws to a closeand perhaps none too soon.  Somewhere between a bang and a whimper, there is Gamera vs. Zigra.

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Written by Nisan Takahashi
With Umenosuke Izumi (Gamera), Yasushi Sakagami (Ken Ishikawa) (yep), Gloria Zoellner (Helen Wallace), Osamu Saeki (Dr. Ishikawa), Koji Fujiyama (Dr. Wallace) (sure), and Eiko Yanami (Woman X)

Spoiler alert: severe

If both Gamera vs. Guiron and Gamera vs. Jiger were variations on the formula decisively established by Gamera vs. Viras, Gamera vs. Zigra is its closest reproduction.  At least Guiron had an adventure in space; at least Jiger had some trippy new ideas, albeit badly executed.  The only element I had once thought Zigra didn't copy was a Caucasian child co-protagonist.  But while I'd thought for ages that the name "Helen" was a mere artifact of Sandy Frank's notorious translation job, "Gloria Zoellner" is not, obviously, a traditional Japanese name.

She looks Japanese and I had always thought she was Japanese, but on this most recent watch I finally clued in to the light brown hair on her older sister Margieplayed by Zoellner's older sister Arlene, who is a little young to have traveled in time and brought anachronistic fashion back from the future.  Then there's the random but perfectly fluent English, undisguised in the Japanese language version, and I realized with a "damn" that Helen is just Jim and Tom and Chris yet again, only now in drag.  (And a distressing drag show it is, since for the front half of the film Gloria is paraded around in a dress about eight miles too short for anybody.)  What seals it is that her dad is named "Tom Wallace," but apparently Japan was out of white guys that day.

That determination is unfair to Jim and Tom, though, whoafter allI basically liked.  And her dad's co-worker's son, Kenichi, wishes he were Masao or Akio.

Speaking of untenable positions to be in, we begin on the moon, where a narrator informs us that in the "latter part of the 20th century" we shall establish a colony.  (This "latter part" is later explicitly stated to be 1971, but getting bummed whenever Zigra veers into the worst kind of kaiju sloppiness would reprogram your brain for clinical depression.)  The narrator reacts with surprise, however, as the camera tilts up in one of the film's very few cool shots, and a mysterious vessel crests the horizon.  "What nation's spaceship is this?" he wonders.

Hard.  To.  Say.

As he gasps, probably the worst miniature set in Gamera history is destroyed by a red optical effect, and a moon buggy is destroyed (or is it??!??) by a different, green optical effect.

Coming down to Earth, we meet our adult protagonists, orca slavers SeaWorld researchers Dr. Ishikawa and Dr. "Wallace."  (Who paid whom, I wonder?)  They're out on the ocean pontificating about pollution because it's 1971 and that shall be the vague message of Gamera vs. Zigra, unfortunately garbled since the alien monster that's about to arrive is actually attracted to our clean water supply.  (For kaiju cinema that treated the issue seriouslywell, entertainingly, at leastI heartily recommend Godzilla vs. Hedorah.)

Obviously, it's much easier to condescend to the environmentally-tinged science fiction of the 1970sas if we've learned our lesson, or even mildly improved.  Snark snark!

Like all children in Gamera films, their respective spawn are headstrong brats, and the men find their lunches missing, the kids under a tarpaulin, and Helen complaining about her stomach hurting, all of which just makes you want to stage a boating accident.  None too soon, they spy the strange craft with which we have become familiar, and are abducted by its handy teleporter.

Now I have and shall continue to give Zigra shit, but the interior of the Zigran starship is a fantastic example of beautifully crappy set design.  (Once again like Viras, "Zigra" is not really the name of the monster, but its home planet.)  Weird mobiles twist on either side of the frameturns out they are that old Nisan Takahashi standby, the Easily Sabotaged Control Panels of Japanese myth.  The blown-out yellows in the American VHS transfer do make it a bit more otherworldly, but I wouldn't trade them for the full Scope treatment on the new BD sets.

Obviously, no matter the viewing experience, in terms of shape and color, it's not as sublime as Viras' aesthetically near-perfect sets.  It does have something Viras does not, however, and what makes Zigra special is the presence of the commanding beast, matted in at the top.  He is cobwebbed after however many eons in space, immobile but imposing like a waking elder god, barely visible but for his glowing red eyes and the bioluminescent protrusion between his beak and harpoonlike prow:

For now his agenda is given expression by yet another groovy spacewoman.  She is credited by IMDB as Woman X, and she chews the scenery's empty calories with gusto as she explains to the scientists that recent earthquakes are her doing, and that Earth shall soon be battered into submission for the pleasure of the aquatic Zigran colonists.  She marches into the foreground and demands they serve as witnesses to the Zigrans' power; the scientists react to her threats by way of nearly-random rack focus, making you wonder why and precisely how Yuasa's visual sensibility regressed so far and so fast.

Eiko Yamani does one take.  ONE TAKE.

(And just to talk a little bit more about Yuasa's less accomplished, frankly bizarre direction of Zigra, this is a film full of shots which are absolutely dominated by clutter in their extreme foregrounds, as if Yuasa had seen the previous year's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion right before shooting without understanding any of its visual language.  In fairness, it is Italian.)

Our heroes escape, of course, since most of the aliens that come to conquer the Earth in kaiju movies and especially Gamera movies do so because they were too ragingly incompetent to run their own planets in the first place.  However, they do not escape unscathed, for the scientists have been plunged by Woman X' magic eyes and snappy fingers into a catatonic state.  Now does the master finally speak, ordering his humanoid slave to pursue the children, for they have learned too much (and whose fault was that, buster?).

For the first time since beginning this project, I've truly missed the English dub.  Sandy Frank's Zigra, which admittedly is poorly translated and imputes an obsession with Coca-Cola to Helen that does not exist in the original, is immeasurably stronger in one crucial respect: the American voicing the semi-eponymous monster is a delicious puuuure eeeeeevillll baritone, deeply invested in his work and clearly taking his cues from the source of all cinematic evil, Claude Rains himself.


The Japanese Zigra, in stark and depressing contrast, is bored, mumbling, and not dissimilar at all to an adult from a Charlie Brown cartoon.  The American Zigra amused himself with the irony of Earthlings living on land and eating the creatures of the sea, while Zigrans would live in the sea and eat the creatures of the land (particularly us).  In the Japanese original, it's just kind of taken as read.

But, well-voiced or not, we have our new Viras, a fully intelligent kaiju from outer space that talks and negotiates and wheedles and deals and even offers aesthetic judgments (we are ugly; he, sexy).  Takahashi's bag of tricks has been long exhausted, and he goes so far as to repeat exactly the submarine scene from Viras.  Now it's Zigra holding our heroes' yellow submersible hostage, with the title to the Earth nonsensically hanging in the balance.  (Of course, this is virtually the only sequence in the film with any tension, since for a while it appears they all die, so complaining about it would be like biting the hand that's feeding you, even if it is feeding you the fresher bits from the garbage can.)

Woman X, tasked with sanctioning the children with extreme prejudice, is a curious and admittedly new development, however: for the first time there is a suggestion that the Gamera movies might have hit the threshold of puberty.  Realizing that she can't very well walk around in her spacesuit, Woman X accosts some beach bunniesand she takes their clothes.

And a surprisingly old and Asian James Cameron has an idea.

Thus for what seems like a very long time we get to watch the bodacious bod of Eiko Yamani wandering about Japan in a two-piece, hypnotizing men.  It's as if Yuasa's id finally bubbled through Takahashi's goofy-ass screenplays, with the women that ensared his father and destroyed his family now personified in a genocidal alien with the power to reduce human minds to mush.  Okay, that may seem like a real stretch, but it's probably the most reasonable explanation for this much focus on Yamani's superb breasts, gloriously tight midriff, and 2014-approved thigh gap in a movie made exclusively for six year olds.  Alternatively, it was one of my first exposures to all of the above and it's my own id you're looking at here.  But that is different from any other review of mine how?

When she finally changes, it's into a scarcely less-fetishized miniskirt and heels (you can see her panties in at least one shot) (which also means that Woman X is wearing a stranger's panties, in case you needed any further push in the direction of "this is kind of messed up, sexually, enough so that it is 1% possibly a deeply-buried metaphor for Yuasa's father's infidelities") (but it's probably just that no one even thought about it till just now, given that no one was thinking about the Gamera movies very much at all by their seventh iteration).

Anyway, the final result is not so much another startling and confusing erection than it is the world's most bizarre and inept chase sequence, albeit one set to a pretty cool guitar-driven score that may well stay with you long after you've forgotten the film itself.  But for the moment, behold as editing teleports people all over the place and Woman X awkwardly pursues her targets in those heels.  Notice, even more awkardly, that Yamani is clearly pacing herself because, despite her footwear disadvantage, she's still obviously much faster than the kids.  Eventuallyand I mean at severe length, as several other scenes start and finish in cross-cutsWoman X is cornered.  However, as it turns out she's actually just an astronaut kidnapped by Zigra and brainwashed, she is unbrainwashed with science and becomes an important source of information about Zigra's biology and methods.

You have certainly noticed I have not mentioned Gamera very much in this review, and this is well, since Gamera doesn't do a whole awful lot; he's only less of an active presence in Gamera vs. Barugon.  There are but two kaiju battles here, and both are mediocre.  Yet I have a lingering affection for Zigra, because whatever else you might say about himfor example, that his shifts from finned to bipedal and back are never less than absolutely jarringhe's still a damned well-built monster.  Zigra unleashed is all curved blades forged of gleaming, glorious silver, with highlights of demonic red:

Unfortunately, he's also really weak.  Once exposed to the lesser pressures of Earth, he grows Gamera-sized, but even then he is never a true match for him; only once does Zigra even come close to representing so much as a credible threat to our favorite turtle.  (And when he does it, he cheats by zapping Gamera with his brain-ray, which is just anticlimactic as hell.)

Indeed, he's not just weak, but lazy and shiftless; and if you never thought you'd hear a kaiju described thusly, then you have not seen Zigra.  When Gamera comes to rescue the bathysphere, Zigra is taking a nap.  He wakes up briefly when Gamera throws a rock at himand then he goes back to sleep.  For this and more, Zigra may be the most saddening combination of great design and terrible execution in kaiju history.

The diving bell and the goblin shark.

There is, however, one last high point to Zigracounting not just the spaceship set but Yamani's barely-covered litheness as a "high point" for our purposesand that is its final climax.  The fight itself registers only a little above baseline, but its ending is the Gamera series at its bizarre best.

The turtle has stuck a rock on Zigra's nose so that he's pinned to the beach by its weight (which is weird enough).  Then Gamera picks up another, oblong rock, and begins drumming on the creature's spine.  His work is naught but atonal noise at first, but soon we recognize a melody emerging, the Gamera March itself.

Goodness me.

Then, in a Gamera series first, he unleashes his flamethrower as a finishing move in itself: yes, this is the one where we watch a monster get horrifically burned alive.  We watch, and we watch, until the Zigra suit collapses upon itself.  Through a series of fades, we continue watching, until finally there is nothing left of the corpse but a heap of ash.  That's... well, that's kind of awesome.

Thus, while Zigra is not particularly any good at all, we prepare to depart Gamera's Showa Era on one of its highest notes of whimsy right next to one of its more extreme moments of ultraviolence.  Take a last long look at Daiei's single rear projection screen with the hole in it, reflect upon the shockingly bimodal quality of Noriaki Yuasa's filmography, and wipe away your tearsbut don't say goodbye, even if you mean it.  For Gamera will return... in Gamera: Super Monster, a clipshow film made nine years later, which I am just dreading.

Score:  4/10

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