Wednesday, May 14, 2014

We've been eating Gamera, part IV: The film that makes you ask, "Did I have a stroke? Did I die?"

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 Uchu Kaiju Bairasu)

The most inutterably insane Gamera film of them all, it may be far from the turtle's best, but it is truly his single most essential.  It is not only so bad it's good, it is so fucked-up it's mind-altering.  No B-movie education can be called complete without reference to Gamera vs. Viras.

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Written by Nisan Takahashi
With Teruo Aragaki (Gamera), Toru Taktsuka (Kenny Masao), Carl Craig (Kenny? Jim), Kojiro Hongo (Scoutmaster Shimida), and Genzo Wakayama (The Voice of Boss)

Spoiler alert: severe

I always indicate how badly I intend to spoil these things out of habit and because it's my format, not because I think it really matters that I reveal the secrets of fifty year old movies that you should have seen when you were six to really get the maximum possible utility out of them.

But in this case, I mean it.  I can't speak of how much joy Gamera vs. Viras would have given me when I was six; I was twenty-nine when I first witnessed this vision, and I know that the indelible memories it offers are best experienced not through the filter of an overly-detailed review, but directly by your mind's eye.  Viras isn't exactly what they would call pure cinema, but that's because they've never seen it: for Viras, apart from a vestigial narrative, is a minimalist experiment in color, geometry, and movement that deconstructs, quite literally, the human objects within its frame.

Alternatively, it's a bracingly idiotic children's movie, and a one-film descent from Gamera's artistic height into cheap fare explicitly and not terribly diligently crafted to get kids to drop a ten yen note on a double-bill with Yokai Monsters.  You make the call.

That vestigial narrative, incidentally, provides us the fourth and final Basic Gamera Plot of the Showa era.  These are, in order of appearance:
  1. Gamera destroys cities (Daikaiju Gamera);
  2. a South Seas adventure awakens a fanciful monster, which Gamera must destroy (Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs. Jiger);
  3. Gamera fights Gaos (Gamera vs. Gaos); and
  4. aliens (Gamera vs. Viras, Gamera vs. Guiron, Gamera vs. Zigra, Gamera: Super Monster)
Aliens were, as you can tell, a popular theme for kaiju filmmaking.  They really hit their stride in the mid-60s.  Godzilla's Showa series featured a seemingly endless parade of alien aggressors, certainly no fewer than five timesand up to seven, depending on what you're counting.

The quintessential alien invasion/kaiju hybrid is 1965's seminal Invasion of Astro-Monster, wherein the villainous denizens of Planet X subject Godzilla, Rodan, and Ghidorah to mind control that turns them into an apocalyptic army of terrestrial conquest.  This is not an Invasion of Astro-Monster review, but what's important is its brilliant core idea, which was a veritable generator of the two things you go to Japanese special effects films to see: monsters fighting and science fantasy carryings-on that make Plan 9 look like neorealism.

See: the Maoist dentists from beyond space!

What's surprising is that it took Nisan Takahashi almost three years to rip it off.  (By this point Toho were already in the process of riffing on it themselves, with Destroy All Monsters, which features a plot nearly identical to Astro-Monster's, except with more kaiju and vastly less interesting humans.)  Takahashi, it must be conceded, did indeed have a few new ideas of his own.

The first thing we see in Viras is a starfield that fills up the whole frame.  An intriguingly-designed spaceship prop enters, stage-left:

Though we only hear a voice, we learn that it is crewed by colonists from the planet Viras (get it? there is, in fact, no monster explicitly named "Viras" in this film).  They have, naturally, targeted Earth for their new home.  Almost immediately upon sighting our world, however, Gamera sights them.  Recognizing him at once as an enemy, they do space battle with the rocket-powered turtle.  They lose badly; with his dying breath, the Viran commander pleads for his kindred to take vengeance upon this "terrible creature protecting the Earth!"  He then cries out, "Its name is!" before the title card makes his starship explode and the world-famous Gamera March chimes in for the first time.

And thus is a superbly cheesy opening absolutely ruined in the English-language release by American International Pictures, Gamera's stateside distributor, who decided the title should be Destroy All Planets in order to better ride the coattails of the other 1968 monster movie.  I watched the original Japanese version.

Because I'm fancy.

A second Viran vessel makes a beeline (ha-ha) for our planet, and through subterfuge and superior technology, yoke our monstrous defender to their brainwave controller, and once again Gamera sallies forth to menace humankind.

Can their reign of terror be stopped?

Of course it can, through what shall come to be the standard Gamera franchise method: the resourcefulness of two brave little boys.

Meet Masao and Jim.  (Jim is on the right.)

Regardless of its aesthetic merits, the first thing to realize about Gamera vs. Viras is that it is foremost a children's movie, in a way even the Eiichi-centric Gaos was not.  Eiichi was, in his context, a believable child protagonist, a whipsmart if overweight boy who was supported by adult co-protagonists who did most of the actual work.  By contrast, Viras immediately condescends to its audience with a pair of itinerant rapscallions around whom the universe itself revolves.

Again taking its cues from Astro-Monsterand from AIP's executivesViras adds a little vanilla flavor for international delectation.  Our Kenny for today, Masao, is joined by the franchise's first token white boy, Jim, who reminds me of my cousin and, like all Americans, is an expert with a lasso.  He is otherwise indistinguishable from his full-blooded Yamato companion.

Meanwhile, Kojiro Hongo is relegated to the role of their scout master, frowning at their shenanigans and getting upset at their inevitable abduction by the Virans; I wonder why this was his last Gamera film?

Masao and Jim are permittedfor complicated reasons that nonetheless do make a vague amount of senseto pilot an experimental submarine, and who else do they find hanging out on the bottom of the ocean but Gamera, whose reputation as a benevolent beast is all but unquestioned by this fourth outing.

A young Wes Anderson has an idea.

The Virans choose this moment to put their combined plan of world conquest and Gamera-enslavement into action, kidnapping the children and extorting Gamera into staying still (the animal comprehends them via brainwave synchronizationobviously) while they shoot their mind-control device into his neck.

To understand the tone of Viras, one need only know that the children, once they have served their purpose, are not only not immediately killed, they aren't even imprisoned, instead permitted to wander around the ship freely.  These burglars of turd will eventually be restrained when they become unbearably annoying, but they readily escape.  (They do so in a sequence involving Jim's lasso that plays as a nightmare of confusion and non-newtonian physics; even after watching it about five times I still don't understand how it works.)

Probably, um, leverage?

The second thing to realize about Viras is that it is indeed exceptionally cheap.  It is the cheapest of all the proper Showa films (and, hence, of all the Gamera films)only Gamera: Super Monster, a stock footage cash-in, cost less to make, and one does not easily consider that one a real movie.  It manifests in huge wayswith what kaiju action we get confined to a relatively featureless beachas well as in small but crucial waysturns out that Gamera vs. Gaos was the first and last time underwater scenes with the amphibious monster would involve some kind of actual water, rather than placing the monsters on a darkened set with someone waving gel in front of the key light.

It's true that all of the Showa films, other than Daikaiju Gamera itself, make some use of stock footage.  But in Barugon, it was in service to a brief, explanatory history lesson; in Gaos, it's a charming montage over the closing credits.

In Viras, four full minutes passor 5% of the film, for you math majorsas the villains rewatch selected scenes from previous movies in order to determine what the audience already knows, that Gamera is the Friend of All Children.

We can, putting ourselves in the tiny shoes of the intended audience in 1968, grudgingly forgive this overlong indulgence and perhaps accept that it is a victim of a modern sensibility, spoiled by our easy access to these classics on home video.  In the Before Times, this might have been the only exposure some kids would ever have to the genre majesty of Gaos.

Of course, the more pressing reason this sequence exists is that Viras' script, tailored to the budget, provides little endogenous kaiju action until the very end.  And we cannot forgive what happens after the Virans' put Gamera in their thrall and his rampage begins: the parsimony lands like a physical blow when Yuasa resorts to black-and-white footage from Daikaiju Gamera.

Must we take solace that at least the Daieiscope aspect ratio remains consistent?

Yet the budget has its advantages.  Viras boasts some of the most engagingly minimalist set design of any science fiction movie ever made: the instrumentality of the telepathic Virans is reduced to almost nothing but simple geometric shapes, flashing lights, and lurid but well-chosen color.  (They're rather easily sabotaged geometric shapes, but this is a kids' movie.)

Red room.

Blue room.

(The blue room is the monster room.)

And, budget aside, Viras has surprisessurprises that description would entirely fail to do justice.  A thousand words would be wasted, for only the pure image can truly suffice:

Obviously, the most visceral shock in store is the Virans' detachable limbs.  To an attentive viewer, even the juvenile one, it is clear from the first appearance of the squid monster in his cage that he will be released and somehow grow larger to fight Gameraif nothing else, he's probably on the box.

What even an adult might not deduceand applying formal logic to Gamera films will become, increasingly, a fools' game anywayis that the monster isn't a prisoner or a weapon, let alone a zoo exhibit, as Masao and Jim fatuously conclude.  He is their leader.

Gamera vs. "Boss!"

The Viran commander is a first in the Gamera series.  The only forerunner of which I am aware is Toho's Mothra, an enigmatic beast that clearly possesses a strange, unknowable intelligence, and who can communicate but only through her priestesses (and they areas far as you knowjust guessing).

Viras (let's call him for convenience) is more demonstrably sapient, capable of abstract thought and even conversation.  Other than a Gamera foemonster to come later, he is nearly singular in the genre for thisif his double-sided cephalopod body plan wasn't already enough to describe him as "unique."

Sometimes a Japanese tentacle monster is just a Japanese tentacle monster, guys.

Of course, he's also only about ten feet tall.  When Gamera breaks free of Viran control, and destroys their vessel, what to do?  Why, he will eat his own crew:

A crew, mind, that were just revealed to have been wearing dead human bodies for the entire film.

We now, seventy minutes into the picture, finally have our kaiju battle: sometimes eschewing formula works, sometimes it doesn't, and Viras manages to be an extreme example of both.  The struggle between Gamera and Viras ends cleverly, if somewhat anticlimacticallyI don't know what happened, whether they lacked the budget or Daiei's executives nixed the idea as too grotesque even for a Gamera film, but when Gamera carries him into the upper atmosphere to freeze, and drops him, he lands in the ocean rather than shattering upon the ground in a thousand pieces of mollusk meat.  Yet in the midst of their conflict is perhaps the single most violent moment in a series that is already storied for its abundant gore:

Viras' weaknesses as a Gamera filmthe introduction of a pair of Kennies as sole human protagonists, the use of stock footage rather than original scenes, its lack of actionare rather severe.  It's weaknesses as a film qua film are perhaps even worse.  Though I actually, and unironically, adore some of the compositions, in some ways Viras is the worst put-together of the proper films in the Showa series.

Yet, in others, it is the very ideal of kaiju cinema, perhaps even the apotheosis of midcentury science fiction B-cinema as a whole.  It is for the chance to witness movies that speak directly to the child's soul in us, as Gamera vs. Viras does, that we sit through lesser movies that are boring as well as stupid.  Good or bad, Noriaki Yuasa's daylight hallucination made celluloid is truly amongst the most unforgettable films of all time.

Score:  8/10

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