SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: Gamera The Giant Monster

Film: Gamera The Giant Monster
Running time: 78 mins
Director: Noriaki Yuasa
Starring: Eiji Funakoshi, Harumi Kiritachi, Junichir├┤ Yamashiko, Yoshiro Uchida, Michiko Sugata
Genre: Sci-Fi
Country: Japan

Region 1 release.

After the success of Toho studios’ Gojira in 1954, there was a boom in the kaiju eiga (or monster movie) and a rise of many contenders to the King of Monster’s throne. Arguably only one monster from a rival studio has stood the test of time, and that is the rocket powered, giant fire breathing turtle that is Gamera.

During the height of the Cold War, tensions between the two sides lead to a nuclear disaster when a Soviet Bomber is shot down over US airspace in the Arctic. The resulting explosion and atomic radiation awakens a long forgotten legend from the lost continent of Atlantis – the gargantuan Gamera!

Awakened from his icy tomb, Gamera begins a rampage across the globe, feeding on fire and petrol to fuel its combustion engine-like organs. Attempts at stopping the creature with man-made weapons only seem to make it stronger.

As do all giant monsters, Gamera soon heads toward Japan, and it is up to the scientists of the world – led by zoologist Dr Hidaka (Funakoshi) - to stop it before the world is left in ruins…

While Gojira’s narrative had other motives besides rampaging monster violence, Gamera The Giant Monster advertises the destruction as its primary focus – and because of this, the pace of the film initially is alarmingly quick. Five minutes into the film and the disaster that causes Gamera’s awakening has already happened, and the titular turtle has already appeared on screen – and this is before the opening credits have even run. While this is not necessarily a bad tactic for a monster movie to take, Gamera doesn’t benefit from the fast pace because the carnage is low. Gamera’s rampages are in fact few in number and evenly spaced throughout, with the rest of the time in between spent on various sub-plots. As these range from a small boy and his love for turtles, the appearance of UFOs around the world, and (a wafer thin) love story, it can’t be said that the film wasn’t at least trying for some variety. Less can sometimes mean more, but Gamera lacks the narrative impact for the phrase to carry in this instance.

As Gamera doesn’t really include any of the more chilling messages about nuclear war that can be found in other kaiju eiga of the time, it instead includes other ideas - such as the notion that the monster isn’t actually all that bad. Gamera merely feeds on fires and destruction because it has to, and in the movie’s main side story, Gamera saves a small child from falling from a lighthouse during one of his ‘rampages’. In addition to this, the scientists attempting to stop Gamera look into and use humane methods to calm the creature, rather than killing it outright. Not once is Gamera seen as a punishment from God or a result of man’s actions, but instead a legendary creature that simply can’t belong in the modern world. Interestingly, this is the only film in the Gamera series where the title monster would be perceived as a problem, and would go on to become the defender of Earth (much like Godzilla in his later titles), loved by children across Japan.

Given a man in a rubber suit destroying model landscapes and buildings is never going to work to the most convincing effect, watching this film requires a good amount of suspension of belief in order for the idea of a giant turtle destroying cities to work. That being said, even then, Gamera The Giant Monster looks surprisingly good. While some of the sets haven’t stood the test of time (particularly the Arctic settlement seen at the beginning of the film), the monster suit itself has aged gracefully. Close-ups of the suit may not seem like much, but wider shots really show off the level of detail it has, and how it didn’t stop the actor inside from moving - well, as you’d think a giant turtle would. The only problem lies in the use of Gamera’s flame breath, as nothing spoils the illusion quite like seeing visibly, a flamethrower nozzle in the monster’s mouth during these scenes.

Using all new subtitles, and sourced from a high definition print of the film, Gamera The Giant Monster has never looked better. DVD extras include an audio commentary by author and noted Tokusatsu (Japanese live action sci-fi/fantasy) historian August Ragone, a retrospective look at the Gamera franchise, trailers and a publicity gallery.

While a solid and recommendable entry in a long line of monster movies, much of Gamera The Giant Monster’s charm will be lost on those new to the genre and expecting more than a bit of B-movie fun. For those looking for better Gamera titles, they should look towards to the 1995 reboot of the franchise - where Gamera finally matched, perhaps even outdid, the subsequent offerings from his long-time rival Godzilla. AJ

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