In 1965, when King of the Monsters Godzilla had already starred in five movies and battled Anguirus, King Kong, Mothra, King Ghidorah and Rodan, a new kaiju hit the scene, a fella by the name of GAMERA, THE GIANT MONSTER. I respect Godzilla, and I concede that he beat Gamera to waking up in the 20th century, and to starring in movies. But we’re told in this movie that Gamera is from Atlantis, and though I’m no historian I’m pretty sure that means he was around before whichever dinosaur era the puny pre-radiation Godzilla came up in. Gamera is the O.G. He’s just a late bloomer.
The Gamera movies were created by Daiei, the studio founded in 1942 that produced Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON, Kenji Mizoguchi’s UGETSU and SANSHO THE BAILIFF, and also the Zatoichi, Yokai Monsters and Daimajin series. This one was clearly made to compete with or cash in on Toho’s popular Godzilla series, but that’s odd because it’s a black and white movie where one monster is awakened and attacks Tokyo, not another monster. By this point Godzilla had done three color films and had been fighting other monsters for a decade. And it wasn’t as if most films were black and white then – Daiei’s own Zatoichi movies had switched to color. Was this made for people nostalgic for the original GOJIRA (which was eleven years in the past at that point)? Were they trying to make sure the world had a movie like GOJIRA but not a total bummer inspired by the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? And is doing that kind of like how KONG: SKULL ISLAND mimics all your favorite Vietnam War movies without all the horrors-of-the-Vietnam-War darkness? Uh, not really. They were just trying to save money. More on that later.
Look, I’m not proud that my country and the military industrial complex and what not are responsible for the disaster in this movie (an American jet shoots down another jet that drops an atomic bomb that wakes up a certain tusked giant turtle frozen in the arctic) but I’m thankful that their fuckup allowed us to make a great turtle friend. Coincidentally when it happens there are Japanese scientists in the region on an expedition to learn about turtles that lived there in ancient times. I but they didn’t expect the trip to be this fruitful! Or this dangerous.
“Why bother with this turtle business when World War III could be breaking out?” one of them asks, echoing feelings we’ve all had about various subjects at least 750 times in the past several years. So let this be a reminder that turtle business is always worth the bother: an Eskimo chief gives Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi, THE LOYAL 47 RONIN), his assistant Kyoko (Harumi Kiritachi) and embedded reporter Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashita, WRATH OF DAIMAJIN) a stone tablet that explains that the giant turtle is named Gamera. It’s great, because now they know what to call him when he destroys their ship.
Meanwhile in Japan there have been reports of flying saucers. I imagine at the time it would seem like, “Jesus – first giant turtles, now aliens, what’s next?” but of course they’re related. One thing that may or not be related: a little boy named Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida, THE GREAT BUDDHA ARRIVAL) is rescued from a fall by Gamera shortly after his parents made him free his pet turtle. So he’s convinced his turtle grew into Gamera and appoints himself as the Gamera whisperer.
Gamera is said to be 200 feet tall, and he gets more powerful by absorbing electricity. This might be inspired by Toho’s take on King Kong. He can also breathe and inhale fire, which is pretty cool, or metal, or whatever you want to call it. So when he heads for the nuclear power plant that could be trouble in multiple ways.
As often happens in these things, the scientists and reporter get to accompany the military as they try to stop the kaiju, and even better, little Toshio runs under a rope to tell the army not to shoot Gamera. Somebody actually says, “Commander, the boy has a point.” This made me think of Tobe Hooper’s INVADERS FROM MARS, which is a little boy’s dream, so he’s able to talk to the army general and stuff.
They make plans involving experimental freeze bombs and what not, and manage to flip Gamera onto his back – never good for a turtle. When he pulls his head and limbs into his shell the commander or somebody says, “Looks like he’s ashamed of losing!”
Ha – no. Suddenly the shell starts spinning. This is like the moment in THE TERMINATOR when the exo-skeleton comes out of the fire, or in T2 when the T-1000 comes out of the explosion. They thought they had him but he reveals abilities they never guessed. Flames start spewing from the holes in his shell and he flies into the air. That’s when they realize the flying saucers people saw were actually Gamera! The motherfucker can fly!
It would be interesting to know how surprised people were by this at the time. Was it given away in advertisements? Or was it the chestburster-scene-in-ALIEN of its time? You go in to see Godzilla-but-a-turtle and then you realize this turtle can do shit Godzilla could never dream of. How’re you gonna keep ‘em on Monster Island after they’ve seen spinning Gamera?
Also, not for nothing but Godzilla’s arms are way too short and his hips are way too big for him to run around on all fours like Gamera can. Gamera is very versatile.
Toshio gets to visit the Gamera Countermeasures Headquarters and explain that Gamera isn’t evil, “Gamera’s lonely and he doesn’t have any friends.” Dr. Hidaka figures out that Gamera is getting power from drinking fossil fuels (cannibalism?). Just like our own reckless consumption, Gamera’s starts to cause ecological disasters: tidal flooding, fish dying on the Pacific Coast, etc.
Eventually Gamera surfaces and has a fun night in Tokyo. My favorite part is when the authorities have trouble evacuating a packed night club with a live band playing. “Nothing’s gonna stop this shindig!” Party like it’s 1999. Party at ground zero. The rave in THE MATRIX RELOADED. This is a timeless theme.
Good news: “The Z Plan is practically infallible!” That’s the strategy created by an international group of experts at Oshima Island. They feed Gamera gasoline by the train load to occupy him, then create trails of flame to draw him where they want him (I’m sorry to say he falls for it) and though they have some trouble with the flames going out, an erupting volcano attracts him (hell of a piece of luck there) and they lure him into a rocket and launch him to Mars. “Under a fellowship without national borders, it was a resounding success.”
Tough luck, Mars! He’s your problem now!
At the end Toshio says that he’s gonna grow up to become a scientist so he can visit Gamera on Mars. It would be amazing if part 2 skipped forward like 30 or 40 years and had him do just that. I don’t think that’s what happens, but we’ll find out.
Reportedly, Daiei Film president Masaichi Nagata was not only trying to capitalize on the GODZILLA films, but also Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, so his initial idea was GIANT HORDE BEAST NEZURA, a movie about giant rats attacking Tokyo. Most of the directors they wanted turned their noses up to that, so he hired inexperienced Noriaki Yuasa. The puppets and animation they tried weren’t working out so they filmed scenes with actual rats on miniature models, which did not go well, and the production was shut down by the health department!
Determined to still make a monster movie, Nagata came up with the idea of a flying tortoise. Yuasa inherited the project and was apparently ridiculed for it – nobody believed it would work, which is why they went cheap and shot black and white. But the movie did better than expected, so it immediately got a sequel, and in color, too. Yuasa would go on to direct eight more movies: seven GAMERA sequels and THE SNAKE GIRL AND THE SILVER-HAIRED WITCH. And Gamera would go on to become one of the most respected actors of his generation. (I believe the generation born before the sinking of Atlantis are called Floaters.)