Last month I joked about not being able to find a giant monster movie that would be thematically appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day. To my knowledge, Japan (or anyone, really) has yet to film a 300 ft. tall Leprechaun pushing over Tokyo Tower. But then I got to thinking about the true meaning of St. Paddy’s, and suddenly King Kong vs. Godzilla seemed like a perfect fit: in that movie Kong’s a huge lush that loves to gets loaded on berry juice, and a major plot element is getting him black-out drunk so they can cart his sloshed ass off to Japan! But before I had a chance to study up on KKvG, helpful Reddit user TheRedBee chimed in with their suggestion, “Kaiju Leprechaun? I suggest Gamers vs Barugon. It’s got rainbows, treasure and booze.” And with that, the choice is made!
I’ve been itching to dig into classic, goofy Gamera, especially since I’ve already touched on serious Gamera in my review of Gamera 2: Advent of Legion. Gamera vs Barugon represents the Gamera series tentatively dipping its toe into campiness right before going full-on balls-out crazy. But the movie wants to have it both ways and be a clever monster thriller too: Barugon has some pretty adult themes, and there isn’t a single “Kenny” in sight. It’s a fascinating mess! Grab a drank and a giant opal, because it’s time to jam-era with Gamera!
Gamera vs Barugon, also known as Giant Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon was released in 1966 and made it’s debut in the States (on TV!) as War of the Monsters. Not to be confused with the fantastic Playstation 2 game also called War of the Monsters.
The TV premiere explains why I couldn’t find an English language poster or trailer, but it’s always fun checking out the original Japanese promotional materials anyway. Here’s the trailer! Jagged, spooky fonts on the title cards, moody music, monsters leveling cities, and uhh… Japanese people in black-face portraying primitive islanders. Yep, it’s a 60s monster movie all right!
And as a 60s monster movie, Gamera vs Barugon doesn’t skimp on the brassy, bombastic score either. Chūji Kinoshita brings on the noise and the funk, and you can sample it here. It’s solid but not super memorable, and at times I think it might have been more at home in an action or war movie instead of a kaiju flick. Chūji was a new name for me, but according to IMDB, homeboy is super prolific. As far as I can tell, this was director Shigeo Tanaka’s only kaiju movie, despite a resume that dates back to the 30s.
On the other end of the spectrum is Nisan Takahashi, who wrote every single Gamera movie from 1965-1980. I have to imagine this dude’s persistent influence was a big reason why these flicks are so goofy and charming. Not-so-fun fact: when Daiei, the studio behind the original Gamera pics went broke in 1971, they tried to screw him out of a bunch of money they owed him. In lieu of dolla dolla bills y’all, they gave him the rights to Gamera. This would have been sick, except another studio snapped up said monster rights, claiming Takahashi lost custody of Gamera in the divorce with Daiei. Takahashi went on to become a bitter hermit/prolific writer, and he even released a Gamera novel in 1995.
This is the first Gamera film in glorious color, and Daiei blasts you in the face with it right out the gate. The opening credits are a kaleidoscope of psychedelic colors, accompanied by a brassy march. And despite Daiei painting with all the colors of the wind, they still use black and white footage from the previous movie to set the stage. The original Gamera (or Giant Monster Gamera, or Gammera the Invcinible if you’re nasty) ends with humanity blasting Gammaster Flash to Mars in a giant rocket ship. Because old school Gamera is always delightfully insane, even when the series is plainly trying to mimic the atomic horror of Gojira.
Lucky for us an errant asteroid blows up Gamers’ spaceship and the cold, radioactive void of interplanetary space just seems to piss him off instead of killing him. This is also when we get our first taste of narration, and unfortunately it is not the last. In my review of The Giant Claw I talked a little bit about how excessive narration is usually bad news. In the case of Barugon, I’m not sure if the narration was put in to replace dialogue that got lost in translation, to smooth over shoddy story-telling, or if the studio just didn’t trust general audiences to keep up with the craziness of a flying nuclear turtle battling a dick-tongued, ice-spitting gator monster that hatched from a jewel. Whatever the case is, we’re subjected to a lot of it, and they love to address Gamera as “Guh-mare-uh.” To me Gamera has always rhymed with camera (“Gam-er-uh”) so it’s off-putting (but also funny) to hear the “wrong” pronunciation.
Gamera uses the rockets that fire out of his leg-holes to guide himself back to Earth because these are the best movies in the universe. Just like any of us would be exhausted after a long run, our boy Gamera needs to carb up, and for classic Gamera that means sort of like… eating different types of energy out of stuff. The point is that Gamera attacks a dam-era, specifically the hydroelectric plant. The original run of Gamera movies are famously less-than the Godzilla output off the time, but this dam set is huge and impressive, even if the miniatures are a little less detailed than what you’d see in a Godzilla flick. After trashing and chewing on some power lines, we get a really cool bird’s-eye view of Gamera lifting off UFO-style. Then just to be a prick/fulfill his kaiju quota he busts open the dam spectacularly.
That image is a about on par with the picture quality of the version I watched, which is a smorgasbord of vibrant color and clear images compared to the shitty-ass DVD I used to have. In the last few years a couple different companies have really stepped up and provided us with decent transfers of these movies. I guess I have to chalk it up to old school Gamera’s reputation as the “off-brand” Godzilla, but until recently these films were washed-out messes on VHS and DVD. It was especially tragic for this movie, because the death-rainbow Barugon shoots out of his back to level cities got reduced to a blur of gray smog.
In my Frankenstein Conquers the World review I gave Daiei shit for shamelessly trying to cash in on Baragon’s weird cult following with Barugon, but I can’t even pretend like I hate Barugon. He’s kind of a big generic croco-saurus, and with his long snout, nose-horn, back-spikes and quadrupedal stance he also seems to be “borrowing” pretty heavily from Anguirus, Godzilla’s first sparring partner:
Blatant rip-offery or not, Barugon comes together as a fun monster, especially when you account for his origin and other attributes. I’m getting a little ahead of myself though. We won’t see Barugon or even Gamera again until about halfway through the movie. After Gamera agressively remodels the dam and everything in a 50 mile radius, the narrator lets us now that Gamera is going to a volcano on the other side of the world… so he can like, eat lava for a while.
So we spend pretty much the whole first half of the movie with some jewel thieves. We meet them as they helpfully and ridiculously hold a meeting where they go over the plan that they all already know. I’m usually one to give this trope a pass because they have to inform the audience somehow, but they seriously kick it off with “For any of you who have forgotten, I suppose I can run through it again.” Their plan is to go to New Guinea and steal a huge opal one of them left behind during WWII, and if anyone asks, their cover is that they’re searching for the body of an old war buddy who never made it home. I’d reconsider my heist crew if they couldn’t remember that.
When our treasure hunters make it to New Guinea, they’re quickly spotted by the “islanders” (the aforementioned Japanese people in black face) who were doing like a full-on rain-dance outside their straw huts. One of our leads talks the other out of shooting them on sight, “Natives helped us in the war, they’re not going to hurt us now!” And shortly after that we meet a pretty lady-native who for some reason is not in black face and speaks fluent English (well, Japanese technically). We also meet the kindly old scientist living on the island that looks like Japanese Colonel Sanders by way of Miami Vice.
Anyway, the female lead’s name is Karen, so I’m not sure if she’s supposed to be a native that Dr. Colonel Sanders took under his wing and educated, or his daughter, or what. The point is that Dr. Extra Crispy and Karen tell our mercenaries that the cave they’re trying to find and explore is off-limits per the local yokels, due to their belief that it is populated by an evil spirit. Dr. Herbs and Spices tries to stop the protagonists out of respect for the natives’ beliefs and to keep looters from finding and raiding it (which makes me wonder whether he buys their story about retrieving a friend’s body). The male lead of the movie, a treasure hunter named Keisuke gets cold feet already, stating that anything in the cave belongs to the islanders. Keisuke seems like a good guy, but the worst treasure hunter.
Onodera is the member of the treasure hunting party wearing sunglasses, and he is a massive douche. We know this because he starts shooting to scare off the natives so they’ll fuck off and let our crooks go into the jungle. Wherein they cut through undergrowth with machetes, escape suspiciously watery quicksand, and swing on vines. I wonder if this was a kitschy, fun diversion in 1966 like it is now, or if it was seen as harrowing action back in the day.
After they LARP a couple levels of Pitfall, our intrepid thieves make it to the cave, and the set is pretty decent looking, it’s got some nifty water effects and looks natural. Giant monster movies almost universally have this part down pat. The only exception I can think of immediately is in Mothra vs Godzilla. It’s a shame because that movie is a legit classic in every other way, so that cave seems even shittier. Soon after entering the forbidden cave, our leads are accosted by some charmingly fake rubber bats and some super-deadly scorpions.
Onodera caps a scorpion with his pistol, and it proceeds to leak mustard everywhere. As it bleeds condiments out, Onodera informs us, “One bite and you’re dead in four minutes.” One bite and you’re dead in four minutes. Are scorpions famous for biting and not stinging with their iconic, barbed tails? Or pinching with their big, you know, pinchers? Four minutes? Exactly? Didn’t want to round up to five? It’s just one line but it’s such a weird train wreck that I had to stop and rewind the movie to make sure I heard it right.
So one of the treasure hunters, Kawajiri, finds the softball-sized opal, and everyone is super psyched about it, including the deadly, French’s-filled scorpion that is celebrating on Kawajiri’s leg. Onodera notices it, but Kawajiri doesn’t, because he’s hooting and hollering about all the rad shit he’s gonna buy with opal-dollars. Onodera, being a noted power-douche, makes a point not to warn or help Kawajiri, who gets stung, presumably because he doesn’t include the scorpion in his plans to buy fly whips and bitchin’ cribs.
The scorpion stinging Kawajiri (STING NOT A BITE, FUCK YOU ONODERA) and the resulting pulsating wound look pretty damn convincing and disgusting. Kawajiri’s death performance starts strong but gets preposterous as he hams it up and starts throwing in jazz hands and juking around on the ground. Then Keisuke weeps like a banshee over his body in our first warning that Keisuke will eventually go way beyond “sympathetic, sensitive hero” and land squarely in “big baby” territory. They really lay on the schmaltz when Keisuke finds a picture of Kawajiri’s wife and kid. About now is when Onodera goes “Hey fuck it, I’m straight-up evil now. Enjoy these grenades while I run away with the priceless treasure.”
Keisuke is somehow rescued by the villagers and Karen, and when he wakes up in their hospital, he has a brutal farmer’s tan/sunburn. Karen and Dr. Famous Bowls cryptically tell Keisuke that the opal is a harbinger of mega-evil, while Onodera is already on the boat back to Japan with the opal and fucking malaria. On the ship they treat malaria like it’s no big deal, and the onboard medic seems more concerned with Onodera’s foot fungus. Onodera’s a dick though, so I’m glad karma is doubling down on his bitch ass. To treat Onodera’s toe-herpes, the doctor gives him a big infrared heat lamp to… blast his foot with? I’ve never had malaria or hardcore foot fungus, so this all seems insane to me.
Naturally Onodera accidentally leaves the heat lamp on, and it fries the opal when he leaves the room. This incubates the opal like a chicken egg(?) and there are some really cool effects as the opal glows and burns through Onodera’s coat pocket. You can see the little goopy babby monster squirming around inside the opal, and then the smoking purple lizard hatches out of it. Shit gets real rapidly, because the ship starts going down immediately after Barugon is pooped out of the gem-egg.
Onodera and most of the ships’ passengers and crew make it onto land before the ship blows up… somehow. Maybe Barugon found some grenades Onodera had left over? The water glows purple before Barugon peeks his giant monster head up from behind a warehouse. Meaning he goes from fitting in the palm of your hand to city-stomping goliath in about a minute, and he swam from the boat to shore. I’m good with the insta-growth: it’s a fantasy movie, he’s a living greed-curse, whatevvies. Barugon swimming I’m less willing to give a pass on, because the movie makes a big deal out of water being lethal to Barugon.
The Barumeister gives us a much-needed break from gem-related intrigue and starts smashing the shit out of Osaka, because hell yes. I have mixed feelings on the Barugon suit. It only has detailed scales in a few places, the scales are a really simplistic checker/cross-hatch pattern, and the face seems big and empty. It’s not great looking, but it’s not a disaster either. I like his vertical eyelids, the glowing spines are cool, and the wire-work on his tail is pretty damn good. Plus it’s easy to forget any lackluster design elements when his big phallic tongue rockets out of his big dumb face-mouth to punch over the Port of Kobe Tower.
While Barugon wipes his butt with Osaka, Onodera meets up with the guy who masterminded the opal heist, who also happens to be Keisuke’s brother. Onodera goes full Hagrid and accidentally reveals that he offed (or thinks he offed) Kawajiri and Keisuke. The mastermind is a sickly, frail dude (which is why he stayed home while the others lifted the gem) but when he finds out Onodera is a murderous dickbutt, he goes bananas and starts beating his ass with his crutch! The mastermind’s wife tries to break it up, but Onodera knocks her the fuck out, and then crushes the mastermind to fucking death with a locker.
I mention this not only because it gives you a full picture of a what a turbo-cock Onodera is (since it doesn’t really have any bearing on the story), but to bring up something I’ve noticed about Japanese monster movies. Monster fights in these films are almost always the primary selling point, and are generally a blast to watch. The human fights on the other hands are usually awkward as fuck and consistently feature weirdly terrible sound design. Barugon’s people-fight is no exception. The whole time we’re inundated with the sound of shuffling, clopping dress shoes on tile floor, and the combatants mostly fumble around like goobers (except for the key moments I mentioned above). I would argue that these sad scuffles are a lot more human and realistic (so potentially more dramatic) than the epic brawls we get in Hollywood flicks, but they tend to drag and stop the movie cold.
We get back to Baby Baruga’s rampage in Osaka and find out that his tongue doesn’t just hilariously plow through buildings, but it also emits a freezing mist. The freezing effects look great, and Barugon being an ice-wielding monster makes him an interesting thematic counter-point to Gamera’s fire-spewing and shell-rocketing (though a reptilian ice monster is an odd choice). There’s a terrific shot where we actually see people running through a building trying to escape the approaching Barugon. They either inserted those screaming people optically in post-production or projected film onto one of the miniature buildings, but either way it’s a hell of an ambitious effect that looks pretty sick. It is followed by a jet crumbling after Barugon ices it, and then he conks out in the middle of the city.
Thankfully his “My ass ’bout to get blow’d up” sense starts tingling and he wakes up, because the Japanese Self-Defense Force surrounded his sleepy ass with missile launchers. Then something wonderful happens:
MO-FUCKA SHOOTS A RAINBOW OUT HIS BACK! It blows up the missile arrays, and Gamera finds out about it… somehow. The narrator tells us “Gamera was immediately aware of Barugon’s rainbow.” I’m glad Gamera uses a gigantic Cerebro to keep tabs on the world’s rainbows? This movie is a weird mess, but a rainbow-beam is a pretty original/bonkers way to milk your color monster film.
Before we get to see Gamera engage with Barugon, we jump to masses of terrified people huddled together in shelters listening to the news via an emergency broadcast. When the camera moves out to the streets we still hear the continuing bulletin, and we see the city is empty except for military patrols, crushed cars, and random debris. In a clever move, the camera pans down and reveals a little abandoned radio as the source of the newscast, because it’s cut short when the radio gets run over by a jeep. That is some super fucking cool use of diegetic sound in a movie that is essentially junk food for your brain. Scary, serious touches like this clash pretty hard with the wacky monster-fighting, and it makes the movie seem pretty schizo as a result.
Gamera stupidly and interminably flies around Barugon, passing though his rainbow beam like a dunce until he crashes to the ground. Gam-gam and Barugon finally square off, and there’s a pretty cool shot of them sizing each other up on opposite sides of a classic Japanese castle. Barugon jumps at Gamera, except it looks less like jumping,and more like Barugon is being swung at Gamera, because that’s exactly what’s happening. Props to Daiei, I didn’t actually see any wires, but Barugon’s wonky trajectory made it hilariously clear he was on them anyway.
They tussle a bit more, and a lot of it looks pretty cool! Gamera stabs Barugon in the face with his claws, drawing out a gushing torrent of Baru’s crazay purple blood, but Barugon rolls Gamster on his back and establishes dominance over him. Barugon’s ice breath manages to put out Gamera’s fire-breath (breaking some key Pokemon rules) and allowing Barugon to freeze him into submission. Important note: when he’s frozen, Gamera looks like white dog poop from the 70s.
A nearby TV magically knows that not only is cold Gamera’s only weakness, but also that he has been frozen solid. The movie hops back to the humans for a bit, but they really are just tying up loose ends from the jewel heist story; it has almost no impact on, you know, the two gargantuan super-monsters battling for control of the Earth. But if you were curious, Onodera burns down the mastermind’s house, and then Keisuke and Karen beat the shit out of him until he escapes. I guess it’s important to know that Keisuke and Karen are back in the country, because the narrator tells us that Barugon will follow a 6,000 karat diamond, which Karen of course happens to have on hand.
Karen and Keisuke are able to lead Barugon away from the city for a while, but Barugon stops following the diamond after a while because
of straight-up crazy bad writing the narrator tells us something about the diamond’s infrared rays making Barugon… I’m not event sure, the movie really lost me here. While Keisuke, Karen, and the Japanese military try to figure out a new plan, helicopters continually douse Barugon with water, which keeps him immobile. The suit actually looks better wet, and even looks eerily alive in the dark. It’s not addressed how or why they can’t drop enough water on Barugon to just kill him.
So our heroes and the army decide to like, shoot a laser at the diamond to amplify it, which will be enough to get Barugon to chase it again, because reasons. They mount it on a jeep, and it works! Barugon must have read the script. They get to the coast and load the diamond and laser rig onto a boat, but that fucking piece of shit Onodera rolls up in a speedboat to steal it! He straight-up murders the army dudes on the boat, but before he can scamper off with the rock Barugon blaps him with this big cock-tongue, eating him and the diamond!
So instead of high-fiving Karen and screaming “REKT YOU GOT REKT ONODERA YOU FAT BITCH,” Keisuke literally starts crying and weeping about how Barugon is the ultimate punishment for stealing the opal. You could argue he’s also freaking out because without the diamond and with Gamera “dead,” humanity is doomed to cower in Barugon’s shadow forevermore. But it doesn’t quite come across that way.
In light of the most recent Barugon-related poopstorm, our heroes discover that a rear-view mirror off a jeep survived getting rainbow’d. They figure the mirror must have reflected the fabulous death ray, so naturally they build a giant mirror-covered radar dish and try to get Barugon pissed enough to rainbow it. Dumbass does it!
The mirror dish blasts Barugon in the hieney, and he responds by doing a goofy jig and rolling over, and then revealing that he is now a GRUESOME PILE OF PURPLE GORE.
Karen and one of the scientists agree that Barugon will never fire a rainbow ever again, because no animal has ever made a mistake twice. I’m not even exaggerating, that’s pretty much what they say word for word. I can only assume that somehow they’ve never seen a dog eat its own poop over and over again. It’s all good though, because Barugon’s a consummate pro and knows the script calls for him stop shooting rainbows, so he complies. And hey, Gamera finally comes back!
We actually get a soundbyte-worthy quote from one of the humans: “Is modern science totally ineffective against these monsters?!” and Gamera gets busy.
Gammy shell-checks Barugon through a bridge, there’s more crazy wire-work as the monster suits get swung around the set and crash into shit, and Gamera also read the script, because he knows to chuck Barugon’s silly ass into the water. It’s not the gorgeous chaos you get from the maestros at 60s-era Toho, but it’s entertaining to finally see Gamera wrap this thing up. Barugon grotesquely and spectacularly drowns in an ocean of his own purple
A scientist claims that “Barugon has met his master,” which was another innocuous quote that t-boned my brain. Does this scientist believe that Barugon has gone to heaven? Like regular people heaven, or does he believe in a separate monster heaven? Are they both run by God, or is there some bored intern-angel that runs monster heaven? Monster heaven sounds fucking awesome, I’m gonna see if I can get transferred or at least visit that one when I die. Or is monster heaven just hell? Maybe I change my mind.
Keisuke again laments the greed of mankind and the people that have died in the wake of this monster throw-down. He’s also oblivious to Karen clearly being down to clown. Though that does seem like a weird time to be in the mood, so I don’t really blame him.
Gamera vs Barugon has a lot of great bits and pieces that just can’t add up to a satisfying whole. It feels like half of a heist adventure thriller got bolted to half of a creature feature, and that half of a creature feature couldn’t decide on apocalyptic dread or campy monster-wrestling. It’s a weird transitional movie for Gamera: after this, Gamera found his niche as “the friend of all children.” He’d go on to be a big monster superhero, embarking on many wacky, colorful adventures fighting monsters even more ridonculous than Barugon.
Barugon didn’t fare nearly as well. He made some stock footage appearances later in the series, but he never got a second chance to tussle with the Gamster or join him as an ally, like Anguirus did for Godzilla. I think it’s kind of a shame, because he has some really crazy powers and a cool origin story. Between the tongue and the rainbow-laser, I think maybe he was meant to be a kaiju chameleon, which is actually a bad-ass idea. I would love to see a studio take another crack at this wild beast; maybe give him invisibility/ultra-camouflage powers to play up his chameleon-ness, and put him in a better movie. Until that fateful day, good night sweet prince.