Godzilla’s first mighty roar in 1954 kicked off an aptly named kaiju boom in Japan that lasted over a decade. While Toho Studios were the undisputed kings of giant monsters in the cinema in the 1960s, other studios attempted to bring their own behemoth beasts to the screen. Competitor studios put out their own giant monster flicks; Shochiku had The X from Outer Space; Nikkatsu tried Gappa, the Triphibian Monster; Toei co-produced Yongary: Monster from the Deep with South Korea; and Tsuburaya Productions owned television with its long-running Ultraman series. But if any company got closest to rivaling Godzilla, it was Daiei and its titanic terrapin, Gamera.
Made on a relatively low-budget, 1965’s Gamera: The Giant Monster was a black-and-white chiller that followed very much in the mold of the original Godzilla: a giant monster rises from the Earth’s crust and marauds across Tokyo and the Japanese countryside. It was a modest effort, but enough of a success to launch its own series of sequels in the late ’60s. To contrast with Toho’s monsters, Daiei clicked into two things that their series could do to set themselves apart. 1) they’d place the focus of the narrative on children more than the adults; and 2) they’d show a lot of monster blood and gore. Seemingly contradictory stances.
The Kaiju Boom
In total, from 1965 to 2006, Daiei produced 12 Gamera films, which are the subject of a properly massive Blu-ray box set from Arrow Video. Watching the complete series is a revelation, because the swing in tone and quality is staggering and amazing. While the early Gamera films are silly enough to warrant five inclusions on Mystery Science Theater 3000, they laid the groundwork for a trilogy in the ’90s that are as serious and scary as any monster movies in history.
Generally most kaiju films, or Japanese special effects cinema in general, are designated by era. The Shōwa era effects are the birth of men-in-suit monsters which perpetuated during the first kaiju boom. There’s a quaintness and a warm familiarity to Japanese spectacle cinema during the Shōwa era. They look right at home with technicolor fantasy films from the west.
What is a Gamera?
Gamera‘s Shōwa era (1926-1989) films take up the bulk of the cycle. Director Noriaki Yuasa directed the first film, a sort of hail mary pass following the box office failure of his debut feature. It was a surprise hit; for the second movie, Gamera vs. Barugon, Daiei turned the director’s chair over to Shigeo Tanaka, a proven hit-maker for the company. Unfortunately, Barugon, a much slower and longer affair, failed to match the success of the original. But fortunately for Yuasa, who returned for the third film, Gamera vs. Gyaos; this movie featured a stripped down story and amped up the monster effects and action. From there we were off and running. Yuasa directed the next five movies, from 1968 to 1980.
The Shōwa era Gamera sequels are… weird. On the one hand, they’re colorful and the monster designs are fun. Guiron has a head that looks like a butcher’s knife; Viras is an intergalactic squid beast; and Gamera’s most recurrent enemy, Gyaos, is a giant bird-bat-dinosaur based on Dracula. But as the series went on, the movies got smaller and smaller budgets (necessitating run times well under 90 minutes) and put a greater focus on children as the protagonists. They’re enjoyable on the level of children’s book fantasy; obviously these things aren’t real, because how could they be?
Blood and Gore… for kids!
At the same time, the movies upped the blood and gore in a crazy way. Gamera’s fights often left him oozing green slime-blood, most graphically in 1971’s Gamera vs. Zigra where the sharp-finned evil shark slices Gamera right down the middle of his soft underbelly. In Gamera vs. Guiron, our two young heroes (always one Japanese kid and one Caucasian kid) witness a fight on an alien world between knife-headed Guiron and a silver Space Gyaos. It culminates in Guiron literally chopping Gyaos to pieces, sending the gnarly bat’s head flying with purple viscera dripping.
To a generation of kids in Japan and abroad, Gamera was exuberant fun and mindless action. By 1980, though, the franchise was reduced to a badly produced clip movie, Gamera: Super Monster. It included musical numbers, clips from unrelated anime series, and parodies of everything from Jaws to Star Wars.
When Gamera Became Great
And that could have been it; Gamera could have been nothing more than an amusing footnote in the annals of kaiju cinema. That is, until the mid-90s. Toho’s Godzilla series was seeing renewed interest in a new continuity of darker, more grown-up films in Japan’s Heisei era (1989-2019). Daiei decided it might be time to bring their own terrible thunder lizard back the same way. They gave the reins to director Shusuke Kaneko and special effects director Shinji Higuchi. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Kaneko’s three Gamera films are, for my money, among the top five kaiju movies of all time. The other two are Godzilla (1954) and Shin Godzilla.
So, why? Well, Kaneko does this by playing into what the Gamera movies always were. As scary as Heisei Gamera looks (and he does look terrifying), he’s a heroic figure. The first movie is called Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and it feels a lot like a disaster movie; flocks of giant Gyaos descend on Japan while at sea, tanker ships crash because of a gargantuan turtle. The government thinks this turtle, Gamera, is the bigger (ha) threat; an ornithologist thinks Gamera is a threat but the Gyaos are a more pressing problem. But a young girl touches an ancient medallion and forms a spiritual attachment with Gamera and learns that he is, elemental or atomic, a figure of protection and kindness.
The only early Gamera movie where Gamera is the all-out threat is the first one, but even in that movie, he saves a child from falling to his death. Gamera is a friend to children. In the second of Kaneko’s trilogy, Gamera 2: Attack of Legion, Gamera comes up against a hive of man-sized insect beasts which eventually form together into a giant nightmare thing. This movie is even scarier than the first one (the Legion bugs take out a subway car full of people and it’s up there with Aliens) but it also features a scene of Gamera saving a whole bus full of children.
And finally, Kaneko’s crescendo, 1999’s Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris. There’s always been a spiritual, elemental aspect to Gamera, and that grows over the course of the trilogy. In the third part, Gamera faces an alien who feeds on the hatred of a young girl (whose family died because of the massive turtle in part one), and Gamera must sacrifice himself (possibly) lest the world become infected with the evil of revenge. Iris sucks the life out of humans in truly horrific ways, leaving a husk behind. At the end of the movie, Iris tries to suck the life out of Gamera’s hand and the terrapin blasts off his own limb to be able to keep fighting. It’s brutal.
Why You Need This Blu-ray Set
The Heisei Gamera trilogy honestly deserve a full essay unto themselves (which I may write one day), but in the context of this set, it sheds a light on something very integral to movies like these. The trilogy is only as good as it is because the audience understands the fundamentals of what and who Gamera is. They’re truly scary movies with the most impressive suitmation and miniature effects I’ve ever seen, but if Kaneko hadn’t kept the basics of the series true and just brought up the tone and quality, they’d all be for naught. You earn the Heisei trilogy by watching the Shōwa series.
There is one more movie in the set: 2006’s Gamera the Brave. It starts the continuity over again and while it maintains the impressiveness of the effects to a degree, new director Ryuta Tasaki aims directly for a child audience again. Gamera is friendly looking, the main character is a little boy. It’s perfectly passable, but a paltry shadow of the three that came before.
In all of this essay, I’ve only just talked about the movies themselves, including American versions of a couple, but that is just a sliver of the greatness you’ll discover in Arrow’s Blu-ray set. On each disc, you’ll find a bevy of extras including an incredibly informative introduction on 11 of the 12 movies from scholar August Ragone; audio commentary on every movie from a host of experts; interviews with cast and crew; and brief documentaries on the Heisei series.
There’s also a full 80-page book including retrospectives on the series and interviews with various luminaries. And finally, you get a 130-page comic book including full-color reprints of the four-issue Gamera comic from Dark Horse in 1996. Plus, the first-ever English-language printing of the prequel comic, The Last Hope, by Matt Frank and Joshua Bugosh. The whole thing is packaged in a beautiful box with brand new, vibrant artwork by Matt Frank.
Arrow’s The Complete Gamera Collection Blu-ray box is without question the best such collectors set of 2020. Even if you only know Gamera from the MST3K episodes and think “Eh, those are dumb and bad movies,” you owe it to yourself to pick it up. It’s one of my favorite releases in literal years. And like Gamera himself, it deserves to be appreciated, understood, and celebrated.
Featured Image: Arrow Video/Matt Frank
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