Thursday, 27 August 2020

Gamera - The Giant Monster

Turtley Awesome!

Gamera - The Giant Monster
(aka Daikaijû Gamera &
Gammera The Invincible)

Japan 1965 Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Daiei/Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

First there was Nezura! A movie about a deluge of oversized rats attacking Japan.

Or, rather, first there wasn’t Nezura! Because the huge horde of real life rats used on the miniature models not very far into shooting were infested with fleas and maggots and production was apparently shut down by the health and safety people. But there was still money left over from the project and Daiei studios, who were behind the successful series of Zatoichi films at the time, were going to be the first studio to try and take on Toho Studios at their own game... namely, the first studio other than Toho to make a large scale monster movie (kaiju eiga) in the wake of Toho’s 1954 Godzilla and its various sequels or other monster movies. And so, Gamera was born. The first of what would eventually be, over the decades, 12 films featuring this giant, fire breathing, flying turtle to date.

And I’d never seen any one of them but Arrow Films have just come to the rescue here with what is a truly beautiful box set of all the Gamera films restored for Blu Ray in a marketing move made, perhaps, to emulate the successful Criterion edition of the Godzilla - The Showa Era films box set from last year (and packaged in a similar way to their own wonderful Herchell Gordon Lewis boxed edition). This new Gamera - The Complete Collection set is a true behemoth of an oversized box set including a hardback reprint of various Gamera comics too and a fairly interesting, soft bound book about the series of films. If you look carefully at the hardbound book which packages the discs, you’ll also find small artwork cards of each of the films (again, the brightly coloured illustrations are in a similar vein to the ones found in the Criterion Godzilla set) and also a map in a pocket on the inside front cover of ‘Gamera’s Japan’, double sided in English and Japanese versions. It’s a truly lovely package but... what about the films?

Well, I’ve only seen this one so far but I have to say that, as an admirer of the Godzilla films, I was truly impressed with just how brilliant the first movie in this series is. It’s the only one in black and white because, well, the budget wasn’t all that but, the ‘almost novice’ director took on the huge challenge of making the movie when all the other directors at the studio took a pass and went through a chaotic and difficult shoot to make... one of the best kaiju eiga I’ve ever seen, for sure.

The film starts off with researchers in Iceland and three of the main characters, Dr. Hidaka played by Eiji Funakoshi, his assistant and a reporter... spot some mysterious and sleek planes in the sky. In the American recut (which I’ll get to later), they are named as Russian planes but in this, far superior Japanese original version, they are unnamed. This, however, doesn’t stop the Americas from blasting one of them out of the sky and the atomic bomb on board detonates in the ice. Like many an Eastern monster movie, this man-made incident awakens an age old beast from his hibernation and, before you know it, Gamera the giant turtle has cracked out of the ice and goes on a, fairly docile for the most part, rampage when it somehow finds its way to Japan.

These early sequences are amazing and, on some scenes in a ship, the director even swings the camera around to capture the seesaw motion of the vessel (the more creative shots deleted from the American cut, for some reason). Also, apart from one hilariously bad line reading at the end of a scene, the American military as represented in the Japanese cut seem very naturalistic and authentic (the guy introducing the film in the Blu Ray set has a different opinion on that one, for sure). Everything felt quite real to me in those US scenes which were shot by the Japanese.

Once Gamera is out and about of his icy slumber, the opening credits play out on his scaly shell as he walks off towards Japan. We get a foreshadowing of, frankly, much more evil than we think may be coming when the Eskimos tell, in their warning to the Japanese doctor, that Gamera in their legends is ‘the devil’s envoy’.

I have to say the film looks great. Coupled with some very crisp, high contrasting black and white photography which made me think of the early films of Seijun Suzuki, we have some lovely shot designs in some of the movie, where the director might frame people within simultaneous diagonals and verticals made by poles and other foreground objects. Added to this are some really nice special effects works and miniatures. Not all the miniatures are convincing, for sure but, enough of them are well enough done to ensure that Gamera’s rampages look impressive and have consequence.

The film does all the expected Godzilla stuff where Gamera demonstrates his fiery breath and even fails to blink at high charged electricity wires but, he’s also got a little trick he pulls, once he’s been turned over onto his back and the Japanese military think they’ve won their battle. This is where he pulls his arms and head into his shell and fires jets out of the openings to turn it into a kind of flying saucer. A neat trick which, obviously, wasn’t a feature that Godzilla was armoured with. Also, although this is not a deliberate thing, his genetic make up also blocks radio signals in any area in which he is found... so that’s obviously useful to him.

There are also some grim moments here, even though Gamera does seem to be a completely inadvertent and reluctant antagonist. For instance, you do see him breathe his fiery breath onto a whole crowd of people... who we see ‘burn’ via that old ‘turn the image into a negative exposure’ trick that the early Doctor Who stories used to use whenever anyone was shot by a Dalek or some other aggressive enemy. This is something you don’t actually see Godzilla do in any of his early films (although it’s surely implied), to my knowledge, so this one does have a grittier edge to it, for sure.

However, that gritty edge is a little hamstrung by the fact that there’s a turtle obsessed kid called Toshio who thinks his former pet turtle has somehow grown into Gamera and he basically just runs into danger, risking his own life and everyone else’s, throughout the film. I think we’re supposed to be given a shot of hope for the future of humanity with the less than subtle insertion of this character but, honestly, he just seems like a hugely deluded, beyond stupid character presence, if you ask me.

Asides from this ‘meddling kid’, the only other thing which I think is a slight negative is the sound design. Every time something explodes in this film, which is quite often, it’s accompanied by the sound of a bullet ricochet. Seriously, this makes no sense and kind of gives the action sequences a bit of a surreal, possibly humorous quality when they really could do with just some hefty, rumbling bangs instead.

The ending is interesting on this one too. Not making the same mistake as Toho did on their first Godzilla film, Gamera is captured alive at the end and rocketed off to Mars. How this denouement continues in the future of the film series is unknown to me at time of writing this but I’ll let you know soon.

Like Godzilla and many of the other, earlier kaiju eiga, the film was given to the Americans and they cut a load of stuff and added a load of footage to make it into... well, let’s call it a totally different experience. The American version doubles up on the letter M in the title and this version is also made available as a bonus feature on the first of the Arrow Gamera discs, to give it the title of Gammera The Invincible.

The US cut adds lots of unwanted narration, includes a whole bunch of new ‘explanatory’ scenes to include American actors Dick O'Neill  and Brian (Quatermass) Donlevy (in much the same way that Raymond Burr was added into Godzilla - King Of The Monsters), changes just a few musical cues (not the whole lot this time, thankfully) and somehow transforms this slick and brilliant debut of the giant turtle into a slow, dull, lightweight version of the Japanese template. The role of the kid is cut down so he’s a little less prominent but, honestly, that’s the only possible improvement and it generally makes the movie hard to watch. Even the replacement military scenes seem to have less ‘oomph’ to them and it really destroys the icy cold atmosphere of the opening ten minutes of the movie.

Ultimately, though, this has to be one of my best blind buys for a while and this beautiful new boxed edition from Arrow is easily a big competitor with the recent Severin Al Adamson box set as, in my opinion, ‘Blu Ray release of the year’. I can’t wait to watch the other 11 films in the set spanning decades of Gamera films. Gamera The Giant Monster is absolutely an unmissable film if you are a fan of Godzilla and other assorted oversize creatures of Japanese cinematic history... and this turtle-y awesome Blu Ray set is definitely the way to go. I absolutely loved it.

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