If Appellate Judge Tom Becker had a Gamera, he'd Gamera in the morning, he'd Gamera in the evening, all over this land.
Cringe in terror!
The devil's envoy!
Facts of the Case
Thanks to some nuke shenanigans by "an unnamed country," an explosion loosens some ice in the Antarctic, awakening Gamera (Gamera, Gamera Vs. Monster X), a 197-foot tall turtle with a hard step and a taste for fire. Besides being about 394 times larger than the average turtle, Gamera is not afflicted by the whole "slow and steady" business that bedevils so many of his tribe (see Walt Disney Animation Collection: The Tortoise and the Hare as an example), traveling 20 meters per second on land and swimming an impressive 150 knots. In addition, Gamera can fly, with a Mach 3 velocity.
While it would be everyone's dream to have a massive, fire-breathing reptile as a bestie, Gamera doesn't seem content to be homebound. Instead, he wiles away his days flying all over the world, stopping only to stomp and char the citizenry; needless to say, Tokyo takes some of the hardest hits.
The only one who seems to be able to get through to Gamera is Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida), a little boy who's a bit of a turtle freak. When the big guy demolishes Toshio's family lighthouse but declines to incinerate the wee one, the two form a special bond.
But even the love of a little boy isn't enough for Gamera, who looks to be the Turtle of the Apocalypse. So the scientists of the world come up with the Z Plan (having unsuccessfully run through the other 25 letters of the alphabet), in the hope of restoring some modicum of peace to Planet Earth.
Will the canny chelonian fall prey to this clever trap—which involves stepping in a large hole—or is mankind doomed to spend eternity scurrying in fear and bidding on turtle-destruction insurance?
I had always assumed Gamera was another Toho Studios creation that shared screen time with such luminaries as Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra. It was only when I sat down to review this set that I discovered Gamera was created as a competitor to Godzilla by an entirely different studio—the Daiei Motion Picture Company, which also produced the famed Zatoichi film and television series.
Gamera, the Giant Monster (aka Daikaijû Gamera) came along in the mid-1960s, and unlike the original Gojira, there was no pretense that Gamera was intended for an adult audience. Sure, they toss in the old nuclear bomb business, but it's really just an aside; something you'd miss if you got held up at the concession stand. Besides, at this point in history, any kid old enough to see a movie about a destructive giant turtle was already well-versed in the mutating powers of the atom. Make no mistake: This is a kid movie with a kid hero and kid sensibilities.
While not as serious-minded as the original Gojira, it's also not as giddily ridiculous as virtually every other Toho monster epic. Gamera is surprisingly middle of the road—surprising because you'd think that a 200-foot, fire-breathing turtle would be the non plus ultra in giant-monster silliness. But beyond the titular turtle, there's not a lot to see here. Sure, it's fun watching Gamera maraud, and I'm guessing that for older audiences, the many scenes of people having to evacuate their homes must have harkened back to the sobering days of WWII, but other than people running around fretting about and trying to prevent the oncoming reptile attack, there's not much else going on. There are only so many times you can watch a huge rubber foot smash up a model building before it gets old.
The film lacks any significant subplots or memorable characters. Besides the annoying Toshio, we have a scientist and his comely assistant, a gratingly eager reporter who has a sort of romantic interest in the assistant, and Toshio's teenage sister, whose sole purpose seems to be to smile every time Toshio doesn't get killed. Since these characters exist only to placidly discuss what should be done about the Gamera problem in between turtle attacks—some admittedly very well-staged attacks—they really don't make much of an impression.
Gamera was filmed in black and white, and while the transfer here is very clear, the film looks kinda bland and a bit dark. Maybe I was just expecting a colorful, late entry-style Toho extravaganza, but the TV-looking black and white actually makes the film feel older than mid-'60s. The 2.0 mono track is just fine, with Gamera's howls coming across loud and clear. Shout! Factory also provides a good line-up of supplemental material for this release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a good set, but it's just not as much fun as it should be.
What's missing here—and was available on the Genius Products releases of the Toho films—is the English dub. Much of the appeal of a movie like Gamera isn't so much what it does, but what it did—when you were a kid, watching these on Saturdays. Somehow, the cheesy giant Japanese monster experience just doesn't feel complete without horrific dubbing and simplified plot machinations. If nothing else, I'd love to see how the scientific explanation about Gamera consuming inorganic matter (such as fire) and converting them to organic energy (such as fire breathing) was dumbed-down for American grade schoolers' sensibilities. Also, like Gojira, the American version of Gamera included new scenes shot with American actors who were integrated into the original.
The whole "coulda been more fun thing" extends to the supplements, which are informative, but a bit dry. The commentary, by August Ragone (author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, a biography of the special effects whiz behind Gojira, Rodan, and dozens of other Japanese monster movies) has lots of information but not much spark. Ragone offers tons of background, including bios for the actors, but he lacks the enthusiasm that David Kalat brought to his commentary for Genius Products' release of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. "A Look Back at Gamera" gives us Director Noriaki Yuasa, Writer Nisan Takahashi, Special Effects Artist Akira Inouye, Costume Designer Masao Yagi, and others talking about the film as well as the other films in the franchise. Since everyone speaks Japanese, this is subtitled, and again, while it's interesting to hear the history, it's just not that fascinating a listen. (Apparently, this was originally produced for the Japanese release a few years ago, since Yuasa died in 2004.)
Perhaps the most fun supplement is the publicity gallery, which includes the "Original International Sales Brochure" and the poster art for a Gamera double bill with Mario Bava's Knives of the Avenger. We also get a 12-page booklet that includes an essay from the director, as well as Gamera's "stats" and some information about the characters.
It's a nice package, but I suspect it's going to appeal more to enthusiasts than the casual viewer.
Gamera, the Giant Monster is fine for what it is, but pales in comparison to the more imaginative, ambitious, and silly Toho offerings. Shout! Factory offers a respectful and respectable edition, but I wish the package had been a little livelier.
The turtle walks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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