Gamera turned 50 years young this month! To celebrate, I had to review his debut flick Gamera, or Giant Monster Gamera, or Gammera the Invincible, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gamera. It’s the movie so nice MST3k riffed it twice!
Gamera’s first feature is the only one to cast him as the villain, the only one in black and white, and the only one that doesn’t have the Gamster taking on an opposing monster. It’s the poster child for early installment weirdness, even more so than the straight-laced Gamera vs. Barugon. Even though O.G. Gamera is a city-smashing, crowd-roasting terror, that somehow doesn’t stop him from being crowned “The Friend of Children” which means this movie is populated with some seriously fucked-up human characters. It’s great!
We’ll talk about all that, plus how this movie started out as a failed attempt at a rat-attack horror movie. Load up on freeze bombs, eat some fire, sign off on Plan Z, and get ready to slam-era with Gamera!
First, here’s the original Japanese trailer for your eyeballs to slorp up. Shit is grim. Which is especially odd considering what wacky, colorful adventures the series would go on to be known for. They’re clearly cribbing from the Gojira playbook with the smoky, dramatic black and white photography, bleak Cold War overtones, a cast populated by scientists and journalists, and an unstoppable prehistoric monster.
It’s a testament to the power of the monster movie boom of the 50s and 60s. 11 years after Gojira, 4 years after the full-color Gorgo, and who knows how many other pretenders to Godzilla’s throne, Gamera still made bank for studio Daiei. While it’s certainly on a smaller budget than some of the creature features that came before it, Gamera’s got enough imaginative weirdness and visual juice to keep it a fun watch today.
The score for the movie by Tadashi Yamauchi is solid. It’s kind of minimal, but hits all the buttons you hope for with a 60s kaiju movie soundtrack, particularly the warbly, electric organ. Yamauchi’s a new name for me, and it looks like that’s because he only has one other monster movie credit to his name: Gamera vs. Gyaos. The big musical stand-out for Gamera is this wacky-ass Batman-esque rock song that was created for the U.S. version of the film. Who can resist the groovy allure of bored teens mellowly calling out to “Gam’ra”? I’ll just go ahead and put this on repeat for the rest of my life.
So who’s responsible for this insanity? There’s newbie director Noriaki Yuasa who directed all but one of the classic, Showa-era Gameras, and there’s series scribe Niisan Takahasi who wrote ’em all. In my review of Gamera vs. Barugon I talked about how Takahashi was given the rights to Gamera in lieu of his mounting paychecks when Daiei went under, only to have the new studio heads pretend like that never happened. I mention it again because it’s still shitty that they screwed him, and I 100% support his choice to be a pissed-off hermit cranking out novels to this day. His output includes a Gamera book he wrote in 1995 called Gamera vs. Phoenix! It was originally written as a screenplay, but then Daiei scrapped it in favor of Gamera Guardian of the Universe.
The movie opens on a a bleak, icy landscape in a remote region far in the American North. We meet our three leads, Dr. Hidaka, his assistant Kyoko, and their plucky photographer Aoyagi, engaging with the local Inuit population. Shit gets hopping right away, as a trio of ominous, silent jets fly overhead. The Inuit chief calls them “the devil’s bird” and our leads lament the long reach of the Cold War.
Our leads’ ship, a nearby icebreaker (portrayed by an impressive miniature), reports the mystery planes to the nearest US Air Force installation, who scramble a squadron of noisy-ass normal jets. White people, especially extras, in Japanese monster films are generally a hoot because they’re hired solely for their “Western look” and nothing else. Gamera is no exception. While the regular dudes manning the USAF base do a fine job, the general has a comically thick New York accent and drops G’s like he’s trying to make it rain.
My favorite lines of his are “Flyin’ on course,” and “Whattya doin’ about it?” But the point is he tells his pilots to intercept and eventually shoot down the mystery planes. The miniature jets look all right, but the mini missiles are surprisingly awesome looking. You know what else is awesome looking? THE RESULTING FUCKING MUSHROOM CLOUD
Boom! Gamera blasts out of the ice, and we get credits over him prowling around the icy landscape. The Inuit Chief gives Dr. Hidaka a “Devil’s Stone,” a mystical tablet covered in pictograms and engravings of Gamera. The Chief says Gamera is from Atlantis and that the terrible terrapin is the Devil’s Envoy.
The leads respond to this news with the best line ever: “Anyhow it is very frightening.” They also get obsessed with trying to figure out if the wavy lines around the carving of Gamera are supposed to represent waves. This struck me as really weird and pointless until I remembered that when this movie came out, it wasn’t a well-known fact that Gamera can fucking fly. Assuming people didn’t guess it from the trailer, that’s a crazy awesome twist. Like, at least worth two or three Sixth Senses.
After mystical rocks and general feelings of impending dread have been exchanged, the crew of the icebreaker spot our raging reptile. They manage to call it in right before Gamera rolls up and jostles the ship around, eventually blowing it the fuck up with his fire breath.
The movie jumps forward to New York news reports of Gamera’s emergence and attack. Dr. Hidaka and Kyoko are on as special eye witness guests, and Hidaka tells the world Gamera’s whole life story by reading it off the tiny rock. I guess Atlantians write super small. Basically there used to be a bunch of Gameras roaming the Earth a few thousand years ago, but they got trapped in glaciers and went into hibernation. It’s pretty bananas, but what’s even crazier is how bored/sleepy Kyoko looks on national TV.
So I think she was supposed to look sad since Gamera killed the crew of the ship. Which I get. You don’t report on a tragedy looking like Oprah giving away cars, but it still looks like she’s about to nod off. Hidaka assumes that the radiation Gamera’s been bombarded with will eventually kill him, so we can all move on with our lives! Phew! Crisis averted! Hey, what’s with all these completely unrelated flying saucer sightings?
We get one more scene with HIdaka, Kyoko and Aoyagi as they leave Tokyo. Aoyagi comes clean that he and the other journalists on the boat had to draw straws on who would accompany Kyoko to the Inuit camp because they all had big boners for her. Aoyagi won not just the privilege of hanging out with a cute girl, but also not, you know, getting immolated by a prehistoric nuke-monster. So Aoyagi dubs Kyoko his “goddess of good luck,” and Kyoko continues to be sleepy/uninterested/depressed.
We jump to Hokkaido and meet Toshio, a very strange little boy who is obsessed with turtles. He’s obsessed to the point that he has disconnected from humanity and is incapable of processing a variety of emotions and basic human instincts.
Tosh.io was renamed Kenny in Gammera the Invincible, and his baffling behavior and general obnoxiousness inspired the MST3k crew to refer to all the later kid protagonists in the series as “Kenny”. His various dissociative disorders and selective memory manifest as the movie continues. All fairness to Toshio, his home life is pretty turbulent, which probably contributes to his psychosis. Dead Mom, having to change schools again and again because of his Dad’s job running lighthouses, plus bizarrely high pressure from loved ones to abandon his pet turtle and stop enjoying turtles in general.
After being emphatically told by his dad to “forget all about turtles,” Toshio solemnly walks down to the rocky coastline and lets his precious pet turtle Pee-Wee (Chibi in the original Japanese?) free on the beach. After a few moments of sad reflection, Toshio gets 600% more turtle than he ever bargained for in the form of our movie’s star!
The Earth shakes as Gamera lumbers inland and Toshio runs for his life… maybe. For reasons only known to Toshio, he runs up the lighthouse. I guess he never saw Scream?
Gamera cruises up to the lighthouse and jacks it, sending Toshio tumbling. The kid manages to catch himself on a guardrail and dangles for a minute, screaming for help. Gamera, for reasons known only to himself, agrees, catches the kid and safely sets him back on the ground. So Toshio’s got some form of schizophrenia, and Gamera is bipolar.
Gamera roars triumphantly and bails, while Toshio’s dad and sister scoop him up. They’re relieved Toshio’s alive, but they’re also grateful to Gamera?! Sure, he “saved” Toshio, but Gamera’s the reason he was in any danger to begin with! So the running mental illness tally ticks up to include Toshio’s delusional/Stockholm syndrome dad and sister.
After things have settled down, Toshio goes back to the coast and searches for Pee-Wee. Hearing him call for “Chibi” over and over again super reminded me of this. When Toshio can’t find his pet turtle he comes to the totally reasonable conclusion that Pee-Wee has transformed into Gamera.
There’s no time to rush Toshio to a psychiatrist though, because Gamera’s going buck-nutty on a nearby geothermal power plant! Gamera subsists on a diet of straight-up fire/energy, so this power plant is basically a Golden Corral without the shame. The miniatures for this sequence might not be as good as what you’d see in a Toho film, but they’re solid enough, helped along by the fact that it’s undeniably entertaining to watch the Gamster go ham-ster on the complex. Dr. Hidaka, Kyoko, and Aoyagi are on the scene as Gamera experts, and they suggest fricasseeing his turtle tush with zillions of volts of electricity. Like the bonafide monster maniac he is, he just pimp-slaps the electrical lines away and proceeds to punish the plant’s cooling towers.
Japan’s Self-Defense Force are pretty solidly not stoked on this and roll in a bunch of tanks and cannons to blow Gamera’s ass into turtle soup. The JSDF does their darnedest to get Gamera to peace out, launching a barrage of artillery that oddly sounds like the stock bullet ricochet noise from spaghetti westerns. As Gamera slurps up fire (portrayed simply and effectively with reversed footage) Hidaka implores the general to order his troops to retreat. The JSDF refuse to back out, so Hidaka, Kyoko, and Aoyagi bail to go talk to their colleague, an older mad scientist looking dude.
While this is happening, Toshio arrives on the scene and watches the JSDF fruitlessly battle Gamera. This is when Toshio’s disconnect from reality and lack of compassion for his fellow humans really start to manifest. Toshio is literally watching a monster go on an unprovoked murderous rampage, which causes him to scream this:
As a monster fan (and one that usually gets misty at the end of movies like King Kong), I feel a little hypocritical putting Toshio on blast. But in the context of this movie on its own, Gamera is an unredeemable killing machine. Saving one life (that was only threatened by said “savior”) doesn’t make up for ending a few thousand others. Gamera isn’t being provoked and tormented like King Kong, and he’s not an avatar of righteous vengeance like Godzilla. The argument can be made that Gamera’s not evil, he’s just hungry, but Gammy going for a snack run is a fucking cataclysm that makes Jaws look like an anorexic vegan.
The older doc that Hidaka and pals meet with concludes that not only will conventional weapons be useless against Gamera, but nuclear weapons will just feed him like radioactive cake pops. Gamera spends so much time trashing the geothermal plant that he’s still there when our leads schlep back. Hidaka suggests the JSDF try to freeze Gamera since electrocuting him and blowing him up are continuing to fail spectacularly.
The JSDF conveniently just happens to have a stockpile of freeze-bomb prototypes! Hooray! Plans are made to ice out the Gam-man just as he finishes off the geothermal plant. Sometimes he plods away on two feet with a derpy strut, and sometimes he trucks around on all fours. It’s another odd detail that didn’t really carry into the later movies; he’s usually depicted as a biped. Gamera climbs the awesomely named Hell’s Rock, and the JSDF scrambles to kill him before he gets to the spa resort on the other side.
Ice bombs though, that’s pretty dope, right? Yeah, but they only work for ten minutes. “To the second, I’m sorry to say.” That alone is a little goofy, but then they make sure to hammer that detail home like three more times in the space of about five minutes. Mad props to the JSDF though, in that tiny window where the freeze bombs are effective (I can’t remember how long it is, there weren’t enough reminders) they’re able to put Gammy on ice, then place dynamite charges that send him tumbling down the hill and onto his back, “like a helpless idiot!” the onlookers seem to say (but don’t). “HAHA! Fuck him! Fuck him right in his dumb butt!” they may cheer (but don’t). Everybody (actually) laughs at the helpless monster as he pulls his limbs into his shell, and I find myself reluctantly starting to side with Toshio.
Gamera’s leg-rockets ignite, he starts to spin, then flies off into the night. Everybody shits bricks as they realize that the flying saucer was Gamera cruising around the world, and that the waves on that stone weren’t waves, they were were clouds! FUCKING CLOUDS! Japan sets up the Gamera Countermeasures HQ to track Gamera sightings all over the world and try to combat the killer kaiju. Since their home was destroyed by Toshio’s best friend Gamera, he and his sister are staying with their uncle who runs a fish market in the city.
Unfortunately for their uncle, business has suddenly gotten horrible. Not because Toshio is scaring everyone off by ranting and raving about Pee-Wee and Gamera (he is), but because the fish in the surrounding waters have all died off. Not only that, but Tokyo Bay has suddenly flooded, but only in certain parts. The folks at GCMHQ have cooked up a hypothesis that it’s all due to Gamera chillaxing at the bottom of Tokyo Bay.
Not surprisingly, Japan isn’t really vibing with the whole atomic death monster on your doorstep scene, so they initiate Plan Z. The movie’s Plan Z has nothing to do with the real-life one Hitler ordered in 1939, but is a last-ditch effort at getting Gamera to fuck off. They pull in the greatest minds from Japan, Russia, and the U.S. to do mysterious, secretive research on the remote Oshima Island. Gamera decides to confirm everybody’s worst fears and tear ass around Tokyo, starting with Haneda Airport.
Gamera makes his way into the city proper, exploding through buildings like a fucking maniac. Just then the scene “explodes” to a night club full of sexy, rebellious youths rocking and rolling to popular music! Some stuffed-shirt square army guy runs in and screams at them to evacuate, and of course they tell him to get bent so they can keep partying. GAMERA AGGRESSIVELY CANCELS THESE PLANS
Gamera takes Tokyo and it’s fantastic. We get a really sick composite shot as Gamera watches people frantically flee wrecked a building. Then he sets his eyes on Tokyo Tower. Gamera carefully steps around it, respecting its status as a national landmark and an important broadcasting center.
As Gamera continues his reign of terror, we see people desperately fleeing crumbling buildings… and we see Gamera fucking roast them alive. Toshio gets even weirder and more mysterious here. He begs Gamera not to do anything bad (way, way too late for that), and he wanders to the oil refinery Gamera has started destroying and feeding on. Toshio is delighted to see the enormous murder-tortoise and hops in a little mine car and rides it towards Gamera. What’s his plan here? To talk some sense into Gamera? Be friends? I know Toshio’s just a kid, but I have trouble imagining a kid his age could ever be naive enough to think getting up in Gamera’s face would result in anything besides getting killed. Luckily for Toshio, a refinery worker is brave enough to save the kid’s crazy ass before he gets cremated by a gigantic atomic hell-monster.
The oil refinery was ultimately a diversion, buying the Plan Z scientists the final bit of time needed to complete their top secret project. They lure Gamera to Oshima Island with an E.T./Reese’s Pieces-style trail of burning oil across the ocean. Hidaka and Kyoko are there as advisors, Aoyagi got around the press ban by signing on as a laborer, and Toshio stowed away with some cargo, because of course he did.
Our heroes watch with bated breath as Gamera approaches Oshima Island. Toshio of course warns Gamera to stay away, because Toshio would see the world burn if it meant saving one turtle. Everything seems to be going great until some typhoon winds pick up and blow out the fire trail! Damn, and Gamera was so close! The monster instantly loses interest and turns his attention elsewhere. Oh well, I guess that’s it, the end. An island full of the smartest people in the world certainly will never think of a way to draw in a creature attracted to heat and energy.
No seriously, they don’t. Thankfully Aoyagi’s there to basically go “Uh guys fire is still a thing” as he starts arsoning the coastline. Gamera was already heading away from the island, but as soon as the fires really get cooking, he basically spins around and goes “eeeh-yeeeeeesss?!” So then that’s gotta be it, right? Gamera gets lured in to Plan Z, right? Nope, rain comes along and puts out the fire! Sorry suckers! Guess we’re boned! …But then a volcano goes off on the island! Bringing the Gamster back again!
I’m not as mad as that picture might imply: the back and forth is hilariously preposterous, and it actually does make things more tense. The volcano does finally get Gamera to come ashore. After making landfall, he follows a series of flame-throwers embedded in the ground by the Plan Z team, leading him to the main platform, where we finally get to see that Plan Z is the best plan of all time:
They launch his big scaly ass into outer space! Over 30 years before Jason X, Gamera had that space game on lock! Amazingly, Toshio is okay with this. He pledges to pursue a career in science so he can become an astronaut and one day visit Gamera on Mars.
So that’s Gamera! It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s fun, charming and weird, and its flaws add more than they detract. Much like Gojira and Godzilla King of the Monsters, Gamera and Gammera the Invincible have some notable differences. Scenes that included white extras were replaced by new scenes shot by director Sandy Howard and starring U.S. character actors. The romance subplot between Kyoko and Aoyagi is all but removed as well. Seeing as how their “romance” mostly amounted to Aoyagi calling Kyoko his goddess of luck and her looking sad, it’s not much of a loss. On a more fun note, the dub for Gammera the Invincible was done by the same voice actors behind the English-language version of Speed Racer.
So what’s with the rat movie? Gamera wasn’t actually Daiei’s first choice for their monster film! Initially they wanted to make a movie called Nezura or Giant Horde Beast Nezura. It was going to tell the tale of a swarm of huge, mutant rats running amok in Tokyo. Nezura actually made it pretty far into production before they had to shut it down. A pair of 6 ft long full-scale rat puppets were made, model sets were built, test footage was shot, and Daiei had even started running promos for the movie.
There was just one big problem (or a shit-load of little problems): the live rats they planned to use. Daiei had caught a lot of live, untrained sewer rats to star in their creature feature. Conditions in the studio quickly escalated to miserable as the rats brought an infestation of fleas and ticks, and the small town near the premises was not super geeked about the possibility of said filthy rats escaping into their community.
If a Japanese rat-based horror film is something you desperately need in your life, don’t worry! An unrelated one went straight to video in 2002! It’s called Nezulla the Rat Monster, and the general consensus is that it’s not great.
Gamera was a surprise hit for Daiei, spawning a long legacy of sequels. Gamera eventually carved out his own niche as a kid-friendly superhero monster, distancing himself (a little) from his roots as a trippy Godzilla clone. It’s hard to imagine a giant rat pulling that off, but if a flying, be-tusked turtle can become an icon, who knows?
After a few quiet years, Gamera’s future looks bright. Kadokawa (the studio that now owns Gamera) released a test film for a new Gamera movie at New York Comic Con last month, and it looks sweet as shit. After his first two movies, Gamera really grew into a distinct and fascinating character. That might be a topic to discuss on a later review, so I’ll just wrap up by wishing Gamera a happy 50th one more time, and crossing my fingers for another 50 years with Japan’s terrific turtle titan. Shine on you crazy diamond.