It’s the mother of all giant turtle movies. Not that there are a lot of those, but still, Gamera rules. When I was a kid I loved the outrageous adventures of the colossal chelonian who could fly (and walk on his hind legs), who stomped across major cities and who battled terrifying alien creatures with names like Barugon, Jigar and Gyaos. Competing with Godzilla for the hearts, minds and dollars of Japan’s youth, Gamera was one of my two favorite giant monster icons, and now you’ll be able to (re)discover this Asian phenom from the Sixties with this week’s DVD release of the official Japanese version of Gamera: The Giant Monster.
Whereas Godzilla represented Japan’s fear of renewed atomic annihilation in the face of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and subsequent American atomic testing near their country), Gamera was initially symbolic of man’s insatiable appetite for resources, stripping away the Earth of everything in order to satisfy his self-absorbed needs. Not only did Gamera breathe fire, he ate it. His rampage throughout his first film appearance in 1965 consisted of the titanic terrapin consuming energy from anyplace he could, particularly power plants and oil refineries. (He may have also been peeved at the appearance of inept American actors at the start of the film in what have to be some of the most poorly acted scenes in film history.)
Looking back at the original Gamera, it’s easy to see how a six year-old kid in the mid-Seventies would have been shocked and awed by his literally larger-than-life exploits. Today the effects don’t hold up so well (although many are still impressive for the time) and the story’s division between Gamera as menace to adult humans and savior to small children feels a bit like a lack of commitment from the filmmakers as to who they were making this movie for. That is, until you watch the excellent documentary that comes with this remastered and restored Shout! Factory reissue, which explains that the rambunctious reptile understood that children are innocent of the sins of their parents and the other adults around them. I’ll buy that; I think animals are way smarter than humans give them credit for. That kid-friendly steered the franchise into a different direction, much like how Godzilla became cuddlier during that time period as well.
I still have a soft spot for the original Gamera movie over three decades later and plan on accumulating all seven of the Shout! Factory reissues that are planned. (Gamera Vs. Barugon is coming on July 6th.) I also feel vindicated that in the three-movie resurrection of the series in the latter half of the Nineties, Gamera got a serious upgrade in terms of effects and slickness. The third entry in that modern trilogy, Gamera: Revenge Of Iris, boasts the best mixture of rubber suits and digital effects I have ever seen.
Before you can see the newer films, however, you have to bask in the faded glow of the original. In spite of all of its faults, it’s still a really fun monster mash.
And how funny is this: I had forgotten that about ten years ago I wrote the Gamera review up on Amazon.com. I guess that giant turtle and I will always keep crossing paths. If they ever reboot the franchise again, I want a cameo!