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Movie Review: ‘Gamera’

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Gamera

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Thanks in part to the Heisei trilogy that revamped the monster during the 1990s, more and more people are learning about the flying turtle known as Gamera. However, Gamera still retains a “second banana” role, as the first the foremost kaiju to come from Japan remains the mighty Godzilla. Nowhere is Gamera’s similarity to Godzilla more prominent than in 1965’s debut feature titled Gamera (also known as Giant Monster Gamera), the only movie of the franchise to be filmed in black and white. Although there are facets of the Gamera mythos already present in this debut effort, Gamera remains a secondary Godzilla-like creature in this film. Only later would Gamera come into its own as a distinct character.

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Released as Gammera the Invincible in the United States with additional American footage, the film reviewed here is the original Japanese version produced by the Daiei Motion Picture Company. The movie focuses on Cold War tensions between the United States and the former U.S.S.R.

The movie begins with a Japanese expedition dispatched to the Arctic Circle, where they encounter an Eskimo tribe who possess an ancient artifact that depicts a giant turtle that their chief calls “Gamera.” While the team speaks with the tribal leader, several Soviet bombers fly overhead, invading American airspace. The Americans respond by scrambling fighters of their own, one of which shoots down one bomber. When the plan strikes the icy surface of the Arctic Circle, it detonates a nuclear explosion. It is this explosion that revives a long-dormant Gamera.

Capable of standing on two legs, the giant turtle with tusks is supposedly one of many such creatures that have a tie to the antediluvian city of Atlantis. Gamera feeds on oil and gas, which it uses to emit a stream of fire from its mouth (the fireballs come in subsequent films) and to power its “jets” that enable it to fly like a cyclone. In this movie, Gamera is a hideous creature, one that destroys the American jet and proceeds to destroy several ships and rampage through Tokyo much like Godzilla.

As Gamera wreaks havoc, Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi) and an international band of scientists come together and attempt to stop Gamera. The scientists fail to stop the creature using several types of technology, but then they hit upon the idea of capturing Gamera and literally blasting him into space, via a plan they call “Plan Z.” Part of the plan involves using fire to lure Gamera to the spaceport specifically built for Plan Z.

Standing in the way of the scientists is a young, annoying kid by the name of Toshio Sakurai (Yoshiro Uchida), who believes that Gamera came to be as a result of his little turtle, which he calls “Peewee.” Toshio does seem to have some type of sympathetic bond with Gamera, as the creature rescues the kid when falling off a light tower. Aside from saving the kid, Gamera’s actions toward humanity are violent, as the creature kills without remorse.

Although the American version is notoriously campy, the original Japanese version of Gamera remains a flawed but enjoyable diamond in the rough. The film suffers greatly by being beholden to the Godzilla concept, thus making this Gamera just another giant monster tearing up Japan. However, the movie also offers up some really good ideas that at this point are simply seeds that later will be developed much more. Gamera’s origin and purpose are only hinted at here, but later will make up much of the giant turtle’s distinct mythos. Also important is Gamera’s link with humanity, particularly children. Although poorly developed here, such a relationship bears fruit much later, especially during the Heisei series of films.

Not as somber or dark as the original Japanese version of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, Gamera remains an interesting movie, particularly to kaiju fans interested in the monster’s development over time. The movie is a bit schizophrenic, fluctuating from the horrors of a giant monster terrorizing humanity to one of a friendship between said giant monster and a child. Some of the pseudoscience is hilarious, but Plan Z turns out to be a genius way of getting rid of Gamera. The most annoying facet of this film is the kid, who will grate on the nerves of even the most pacifist or jaded viewer. Despite these flaws, Gamera remains an entertaining movie. For those who wish to experience Gamera at its best, start with the Heisei trilogy, which begins with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.

The original Japanese version of Gamera is available on the recently released Gamera Legacy Collection. This bare-bone collection offers 11 Gamera movies but no commentaries or extras. The Gamera in this collection is in its original Japanese (with the Americans speaking in English and other nationalities speaking their respective languages) with English subtitles.

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