Greetings, readers. I’ve been on a kaiju kick since writing my look at Godzilla’s Enduring Legacy, and have recently gotten my grubby hands on a real treat that I thought I’d share with you. Now, everyone knows Godzilla. Major pop culture icon, as I’d written. Slightly less well-known, and certainly less well-respected, is Gamera, created by rival studio Daiei. Gamera is best known in the west from TV edits of the films, with major cuts and questionable dubbing, which later turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, getting riffed on by Joel and the ‘bots. Between this introduction and the generally lighter, kid-friendly tone of the films, Gamera has never gotten much respect in the west.
Imagine the elation, then, of kaiju fans the world over when Shout! Factory announced that they had acquired the rights to release the original eight Gamera films, remastered and with some very nice extras. The first film in the series, GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER, was released May 18th, and the second film, GAMERA VS. BARUGON, hit stores July 6th. The next six films will be released over the course of 2010 and 2011. Gamera is, like Godzilla, a cornerstone of daikaiju eiga, Giant Monster Movies, and it’s a delight to see him receive the attention and quality releases he deserves.
That being said, let’s take a look at these first two films.
GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER (DAIKAIJU GAMERA), 1965
A scientific expedition to the Arctic witnesses an aerial dogfight between US fighter jets and the radar-shielded bombers of an unidentified nation (i.e., the USSR). A bomber is shot out of the sky — it’s crash to earth reveals that it was carrying an atomic bomb. The atomic blast awakens and energizes Gamera, an enormous fire-eating, fire-breathing, jet-propelled turtle created by the lost civilization of Atlantis. The monster soon gets bored with kicking around the Arctic, and flies to Japan where it begins to feed on fire, petroleum, and basically crippling Japan’s energy industry. It’s up to zoologist Dr. Hidaka, his assistant Ms. Yamamoto, brash newspaperman Aoyagi, and Colonel Sanders-lookalike Dr. Murase to find a way to eliminate Gamera. Fortunately, a young, pudgy, constipated-looking kid, Toschio, loves turtles and serves as the voice of morality to the group.
OK, I may have been overly snarky with my synopsis, but the film is an interesting mix of broad comedy and seriousness. Unlike most daikaiju eiga, GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER does not shy away from real world politics, and some of the characters are surprisingly deep and thoughtful. And then Gamera, God of Koopas (he’s a flying, fire-breathing turtle. Shigeru Miyamoto has some ‘splainin’ to do.), is kind of ridiculous.
The film is a beautiful widescreen print and the audio crisp, with clear, legible subtitles. In terms of bonuses, we get an audio commentary track by August Ragone, a major historian of Japanese pop-culture and kaiju superfan, who recently wrote the authorized biography of Godzilla’s special effects master, “Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters.” Ragone’s commentary track combines a genuine enthusiasm for the material with a sense of quiet authority and well-timed comedy. Additionally, there’s a really nice mini-documentary created from interview footage of some of the primary creative minds behind the birth of Gamera, also featuring a recreation of planned-but-never-made sequel GAMERA VS. GARASHARP.
Even the DVD case contains some nice extras. The inside of the sleeve features a beautiful anatomical drawing of Gamera, detailing some internal organs (his lungs shoved off to the side to make room for his Uranium Sac, Fire Sac, Coal Sac, Petroleum Sac and Magma Sac), reproduced inside the booklet as well, along with a retrospective on Gamera by director Noriaki Yuasa, originally released with a 2002 Japanese DVD release of the film.
All in all, the Shout! Factory release is a beautiful one and well worth a place in any kaiju fan’s collection.
GAMERA VS. BARUGON (DAIKAIJU KETTO: GAMERA TAI BARUGON), 1966
Following being shot into space at the end of GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER, the colossal chelonian returns to Earth, and he is not happy. Fortunately for the human inhabitants of Japan, Gamera quickly finds an opponent worthy of his fiery rage: Barugon, the Freezing Monster, unleashed into the world by a quartet of treasure hunters who mistake Barugon’s egg for an enormous (and enormously valuable) opal in New Guinea. The treasure hunters were warned by the locals to avoid the cave where the “opal” is hidden, but of course, they just had to disregard local superstition…soon it is up to Keisuke Hirata, a reformed treasure hunter, and the smokin’ hot Karen, a New Guinea native, to find a way for Gamera to defeat Barugon before Japan is turned into a Sno-Cone!
GAMERA VS. BARUGON is the first Gamera film shot in color, something it takes glorious advantage of. The New Guinea scenes are replete with tapa-clad hula girls shaking what their mommas gave them, and Barugon sports a “Rainbow Ray” energy weapon in addition to his freezing breath. And the color in this transfer is beautiful — I’d seen clips of the TV edit of GAMERA VS. BARUGON (released under the title WAR OF THE MONSTERS and the color was so washed out that the film was effectively sepia-tone. GAMERA VS. BARUGON is in the same 2:35:1 widescreen as GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER, and again we’re treated to a really crisp, attractive print with excellent audio — I noticed this time around that the roars of the monsters are mixed louder than the human dialogue, hammering home the size and power of these behemoths.
With his long, spiky body, three facial horns and rapid-fire tongue, Barugon himself looks like a cross between a Jackson’s Chameleon and a Komodo Dragon, and his quadrupedal gait is nicely realized. By contrast, Gamera’s role in the movie seems light, as Barugon steals scene after scene. The entire film, actually, is a bit monster-light, but we are treated to some nice human adventure action in its place.
As for special features, once again August Ragone comments with authority, this time joined by Jason Varney. The commentary track as whole, I’ll admit, is a little dry, but contains some impressive nuggets of information and enough back story on the entire cast and crew to please any serious student of Japanese film history. No documentary this time around, but we do get a gallery of an original movie program for GAMERA VS. BARUGON. The booklet in the DVD case contains some reminisces by Kojiro Hongo, who starred as Keisuke Hirata, and an attractive anatomical diagram of Barugon, showcasing his Sensor Horns, Rainbow Ray Emission Port, and Freezing Liquid Organ (Minus 100C!)
Overall, I’d call GAMERA VS. BARUGON as good a value as GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER, and well worth inclusion in your collection of Japanese monster cinema. I doubt we’ll ever see a DVD release of this film that look as good as this one.
There you have it. Part One of my look at Shout! Factory’s Gamera releases. Look for Part Two later in the year, once GAMERA VS. GYAOS and GAMERA VS. VIRAS have hit the shelves!