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: THE GIANT MONSTER
A giant monster destroys Tokyo! Stop me if you've heard this one. But instead of standing for Japan's victimhood in the Pacific War, Gamera accidentally acknowledges responsibility for starting the war in the first place. Well, maybe. Anyway, just look at all the stuff they blow up!
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Written by Nisan Takahashi
With Teruo Aragaki (Gamera), Eiji Funakoshi (Dr. Hidaka), Hirumi Kiratachi (Kyoko), Junishiro Yamashiko (Aoyagi), and Yoshiro Uchida (
Spoiler alert: severe
By 1965, Godzilla's turn from villainous stand-in for American airpower to reluctant, antiheroic defender of Japan was complete. The previous December, like The Avengers of its time, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster had brought together Toho's top kaiju—Gozilla, Mothra, and Rodan—to face their most dangerous opponent. This was a battle that involved meteors from outer space, Martians, telepathy, twelve-inch priestesses, sub-Bondian spycraft, and a full-fledged musical number.
That is the environment in which the Daiei Corporation made its belated entry into the genre. The studio had dipped its toes into the waters of special effects filmmaking as far back as 1949, when they ponied up for what is credited as Japan's first SF movie, The Invisible Man Appears, a loose adaptation of the novel and heavily indebted to the 1933 super-classic. It had a (weirder) sequel; neither are well-known today. Daiei's third major effort is somewhat more famous: in 1956, riding the Gojira-born SF wave, they produced Warning From Space, a nonsensical riff on The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is recognizable to the B-movie fan as "the one where starfish aliens beg us to use our nuclear weapons to stop a meteor (and judge us for having them in the first place)."
But Daiei's bread and butter were its chanbara films, like the Zatoichi series, and teenager pictures that seemed more racy at the time. They were leaving that sweet kaiju money sitting on the table, while Toho was laughing all the way to the bank—at least in theory.
It would be only three years before diminishing returns saw Toho try to bring a close to their kaiju chapter with Destroy All Monsters (of course, its success reinvigorated the genre, if briefly). Daiei's decision to launch their own rival series in this climate was, as far as I can tell, almost arbitrary; information on the institutional origins of Gamera is fragmentary, and the initial impetus difficult to trace. It seems that Nisan Takahashi simply had the idea, and Masaichi Nagata, Daiei's boss, needing to make a movie about something, figured that this was as good as anything else.
So the project went ahead, despite Daiei's bad history with the special effects genre: crucial to the form that this new project would take was the Daiei special effects film that was never made, The Great Horde-Beast Nezura.
Nezura was to have been a horror movie about rats led by a giant rat, portrayed, ala Godzilla, via suitmation. Plagued—literally—by a terrible production, the travails suffered by the crew on Nezura included parasitic infestations spread by thousands of smaller, real rats. The film was cancelled in either 1963 or 1964, and the experience was so traumatic that, a year later, few of Nagata's employees were keen to work on Fire-Eating Turtle Attacks Tokyo (the rather more prosaic name by which the script was then called). But one man had the courage to take it on. This was the assistant director who'd cut the trailer for the abandoned project. By the time Takahashi's monster had finally been named, Noriaki Yuasa was on the job.
Yuasa was then 32, the scion of a film family whose number included his uncle Koji Shima, director of Warning From Space. His father was Hikaru Hoshi, an actor with whom Yuasa, as suggested by their difference in surnames, had more than one difference of opinion. Yuasa's young adulthood engenders sympathy and hope in my own heart: like me, he was a law school graduate who never practiced. Having, on a lark, taken the examination for an apprentice directorship—and passed—he went on to do things which had inherent social value. I hope to one day follow in his footsteps.
Though he hadn't done much yet. Yuasa had directed but a single feature film thus far, '64's If You're Happy Clap Your Hands, a movie so obscure even the Japanese Wikipedia doesn't have anything else to say about it. (I think it was a musical.)
But he was available, and he was willing. The rest is history.
"So what the hell were the last thousand words?" you might ask. "Shut up," I might say in return.
Renamed Daikaiju Gamera, Yuasa's film was categorized as one of Daiei's class B pictures, which meant a significantly lower budget, which meant cheaper film. Gamera is, I believe, the only kaiju movie that is both shot in Scope widescreen and in black and white. As a result, Gamera is a uniquely handsome picture.
The saga begins in the Arctic. Dr. Hidaka, his comely assistant Kyoko, and vaguely horny photojournalist Aoyagi have arrived as part of a scientific expedition. No sooner than they've uttered their mangled greetings to some native "Eskimos" does a flight of sinister-looking aircraft pass overhead, their provenance unspecified.
Admiral Nagumo's back! And this time it's personal! Because he committed suicide.
Hidaka's ship relays the warning to the Americans, and the USAF scrambles a pair of interceptors to bring the intruders to heel. These scenes revive that great Japanese tradition from the 1940s and 50s, where any white person who could almost speak English could be cast as an American in a motion picture, regardless of how unintelligible, obviously not American, and very obviously not actors they actually were.
The brief aerial battle that follows, crafted with miniatures and (visible) wires, is exactly as chintizily cool as you could hope. It ends with the crash of one of the bombers in the far distance, triggering a nuclear weapon detonation, even though this is in no sense how nuclear weapons have ever worked.
But nukes mean monsters, and sure enough, one is awakened after a slumber of many thousands of years. Gamera will soon be traced, through somewhat unconvincing anthropology, back to the days before Plato, and to Atlantis itself. But right now, all we know of the great beast is that he is breaking free from his icy prison and roaring his title card into existence.
Direct comparisons to the narrative of Gojira may be unavoidable but they avail us little here; at this juncture, direct comparisons to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are more on point. In any event, by 1965, kaiju were commonplace on Japanese screens, and playing coy with your monster in 1965 was not a very commercial idea. Wisely, then, Yuasa pushes Gamera into the light as soon as he can, using the opening credits sequence as an excuse for an enticing montage of closeups of the suit, not even ten minutes into the show.
Shell, teeth, eyes, flames, claws, breath, scales, fun! Indeed.
Gamera tends to make up in pace and action what it lacks in originality. If there is an aesthetic deficit in comparison to Gojira, it's certainly not speed; nor is it Gamera's miniature work, editing, or suitmation. It's that Tadashi Yamauchi's score is merely competent, not unforgettable.
Gamera destroys Hidaka's ship, and the world is shocked by Aoyagi's photographs. The good doctor, whose expertise in Gamera amounts to "he saw him first, and he has a college degree," is asked to advise the military upon the subject, in that narratively efficient manner native to the Japanese special effects genre. Of course, he brings Kyoko and his photographer along with him, and even the journalist is permitted into their secret conferences with negligible back-sass. Contrast this to the scene in the more realistic Gojira, where Godzilla comes ashore, and a soldier tells the helpful but as-yet uncredentialed Professor Yamane to fuck right off.
Much like his Toho forerunner, Hidaka regrets that such a specimen may be lost to science; unlike that crybaby, he doesn't nearly derail the movie by constantly weeping over it. Hidaka's intellect is devoted to practical concerns.
He determines that Gamera cannot be harmed by heat—indeed, the flames of smashed oil refineries and nuclear reactors are his very sustenance, and it is this hunger that's drawn him to Japan in the first place. Thus, Hidaka suggests they try the opposite of heat. Fortunately for his extremely dumb idea, the military already has experimental freeze bombs. No, it doesn't work out; but why is interesting.
In contrast to Yuasa's commitment to spectacle, one of the most fascinating aspects of Gamera's first feature is his selective caginess in revealing Gamera's full abilities. After all, we see him breathe fire in his very first scene. This is rather impressive; unlike Godzilla's out-of-camera radioactive breath effect (excepting the few times they used a gas spray), and indeed unlike the optical effects used for Gamera's own foemonsters, Gamera's fiery attack is instead accomplished quite practically, via a flamethrower that was sewn into Teruo Aragaki's suit.
Safety concerns were low in the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema.
But we know that Gamera's not limited to his propane breath. Though the truth is foreshadowed by the sight of a glowing, saucer-shaped object hurtling through the sky, it is not till later that this is discovered to be none other than Gamera himself—and not the aliens that, really, it could just as easily have been.
Indeed, hindsight has so ruined this twist that I can't begin to tell if it's a well-done one—I've known for twenty-five years that Gamera could retract his limbs, fart fire (I guess) through the sockets, and spin his body like a helicopter to hurtle himself through the air. But in 1965, I must imagine that it caught audiences at least a little off their guard when Gamera (the giant turtle), having been frozen, toppled, knocked upon his back, and left to starve to death, instead simply flies away, all while scientists and military officials stare dumbfounded at their unexpected failure.
Unfortunately, at this early stage, Yuasa failed to understand the principles of lift that underlie Gamera's flight, introducing a regrettable error into a film otherwise so scientifically rigorous.
Thus a race to find a new weapon to stop Gamera begins; the Americans and Soviets, whose confrontation began the film, now intercede in the war against the creature (one will read reviews where this is considered bad screenwriting or even a plot hole, but personally I find it entirely plausible that the Cold War could have been put on hold had an accidental nuclear detonation awakened Gamera). In the end, Japan and the two superpowers devise a plan that is as audacious as it is—frankly—ingenious. It lacks the emotional power of Gojira, but, to Gamera's credit, its ending is not a thinly veiled suggestion to Robert Oppenheimer that he commit suicide.
Instead, the combined forces will lure Gamera onto a special site where—we learn with surprise—they have constructed nothing less impressive than an interplanetary rocket. Having trapped him with science, they shoot Gamera to Mars!
"Look familiar, Joel?"
But none of this spectacular happenstance is half as meaningful to the Gamera franchise as the introduction of young Toshio. Toshio is as significant to the Showa series as he is unimportant to Gamera's plot—that is, infinitely. For Toshio is the first, and arguably the worst, of Gamera's many Kennies.
Gamera: the friend of all children.
"Kenny" was not a recurring character in the Showa series, but rather a recurring type. The name comes from the egregious redubbing done at the behest of Sandy Frank. He had many of the Japanese names Anglicized, and the children who would appear in almost every Gamera film as audience identification characters, and eventually as straight-up protagonists, were often christened "Kenny."
Toshio is more of a prototype than the finished model. A stupid, emotionally stunted boy, his only friend is Pee-Wee. Pee-Wee is a turtle. His dad, concerned that turtles will lead to harder reptiles, like cobras and komodo dragons, demands he give up the habit for good and release his shelled companion back into the wild. He heads down with Pee-Wee to the ocean (it is pretty clearly a freshwater turtle, but Toshio is, as noted, stupid) and tearfully says his goodbyes. Serendipitously, Gamera chooses this moment to come ashore and knock down the lighthouse that Toshio has hidden in, but when he sees Toshio fall, he uncharacteristically rescues the lad from certain death.
Toshio—did I mention he was stupid?—puts two and two together, and gets 1,592,029. Possessed with almost religious fervor, he becomes convinced—firstly—that Gamera is good, no matter how many people Gamera kills, and—secondly—that Gamera is, in fact, Pee-Wee, just bigger. Toshio thus spends the rest of the film bothering adults with his very stupid opinions, even though there is no obvious reason why he's still part of the story at all. But, mind you, the Gamera series is not even a step removed from the unsupervised-children-wandering-around-military-bases subgenre of Japanese special effects pictures; it's just a damned superior example of it.
A grimmer story could take this as a jumping off point into pure psychological horror. As it stands, it's not without a little of that element: Gamera will never be so brutal again, not even in the collateral damage-heavy Heisei series; and Toshio, in his mindless devotion, is a genuinely creepy little boy. This effect is not entirely, or at least not consciously, intentional.
Yuasa's said that he wanted children to have a figure that they could rely on and look up to. Not very secretly, his father kept a mistress; aware of the tension in his household from a very young age, Yuasa couldn't help but feel constantly betrayed.
By his own account, he never made a movie with a love story in it—other than its immediate sequel, which Yuasa did not direct, Daikaiju Gamera comes closest in the Showa series to anything resembling romantic content. Even here the hint that Aoyagi wants to bend Kyoko over is barely text, devoid of subtext, and is practically not in the movie at all after a heartfelt conversation in the first act. For her part, Kyoko appears quite as viscerally disturbed by Aoyagi's overtures as Yuasa seems to have been.
In Gamera, Yuasa had found a pure creation that would never violate a child's trust. Additionally, the fact that children were, by 1965, the major demographic for kaiju films, surely wasn't lost on anyone involved in the production. Therefore the history of the Showa series is one of increasing focus on its Kennies.
It's odd, then—or it represents an indecision as to exactly how to play the material—that Yuasa made a movie that takes so many cues from Gojira. Indeed, though Gamera is extremely silly in the sense that it's about a kaiju and the superweapons deployed to defeat him, this first outing is very strait-laced, not just in comparison to the later Showa series, but to the other kaiju movies being made at the time.
If it's not even half as elegiac as Gojira—Yuasa said he found that film's appropriation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki's horrors "outrageous"—Gamera is certainly not without its own scenes of outrage, such as when Gamera incinerates a roomful of happy 60s Japanese teens. Concededly, it's done quickly, in a rather bad process shot, and I suspect it brought 100% fewer tears to Japanese moviegoers' eyes than that mournful scene in the radiation hospital in Gojira, but it's still as concrete an expression of death by fire as anything in Ishiro Honda's film.
The idea is generally held—by snobs, anyway—that there are only two great kaiju films; and that these acknowledged classics are great because they are deep and meaningful allegories for Important Things. King Kong is a racially-problematic accidental allegory about male sexuality; Gojira is a politically-problematic deliberate allegory about atomic warfare, and the dangers of scientific progress left unchecked by humanity. Of course, Gamera, the alleged "knock-off," has never, to my knowledge, received this same kind of (over)analysis.
But doesn't a monster that's come from the north to stomp around your petroleum plants remind you of anything? How about a monster that has force not only on land and sea, but—to the great shock of all observers—in the air, as well? How about a monster that gives meaning to young boys, who then proceed to parrot that monster's virtues despite the atrocities it's committing right before his eyes? Does that seem familiar?
How about a monster whose appetites for industrial fuel wound up killing millions and devastating a nation? How about a monster whose containment required the intervention of the United States and the Soviet Union, because the people actually subject to the monster were powerless to fight it? How about a monster whose ultimate defeat was engineered by the unexpected power of American aeronautics? How about, finally, a monster whose end heavily depends on the heroic Aoyagi finally defying the hardline discipline of the military and doing what needs to be done?
So nothing comes to mind? Nothing at all? I'll give you a minute.
Oh, for fuck's... NO. WRONG.
Hell, the thing even starts with a sneak attack on America.
As with King Kong, the themes Gamera taps into wouldn't have been in the forefront of Yuasa's mind—I find it unlikely they were even in Takahashi's. But when men tell stories about their country being burned to the ground, when their country was burned to the ground only twenty years before, it is never too hard to find a relationship between their fantasies and reality.
So on top of its well-mounted kaiju thrills, Gamera winds up, however unintentionally, a rejection of the cloying and occasionally obnoxious victimhood epitomized by Gojira, serving instead as a reluctant acceptance of Japanese responsibility for the war—even while spiritually-stunted children wave a cheerful farewell, waiting anxiously for the bad old days of militarism to return. Thankfully, they never did.
Though neither as technically sophisticated as Kong nor as gosh-darned depressing as Gojira, Daikaiju Gamera nonetheless deserves a reevaluation on its own merits. It is likewise essential viewing for the kaiju fan. As Gamera's Showa series progresses, it tracks with the Japanese people's own progression into the free world, a metaphor for the country that regained its moral center, achieved great technological feats, stood with their American brothers, and fought back those alien invasions that became a real social problem in the latter half of the decade.