Gamera: The Giant Monster (Daikaijû Gamera)
Japan (1965) Dir. Noriaki Yuasa
Imitation is reputedly the sincerest form of flattery, except in the world of cinema where it is seen as a licence to cash in on a successful format someone else thought of first. If this ersatz version of a hot property is too close to the original it will be DOA, but as the old aphorism goes, there is an exception to the rule.
Renowned zoologist Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi) travels to the Arctic Circle exploring Inuit folklore regarding turtles. At the same time, US fighter pilots shoot down a mystery jet carrying an atomic bomb which crash lands, the explosion ripping the ground apart. From beneath the ice, a giant fire-breathing turtle rises, called Gamera by the locals, and destroys a Japanese naval ship.
Gamera then flies to Japan, surfacing in Hokkaido where he saves a young boy, Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida), who is obsessed with turtles, and concludes Gamera isn’t a bad turtle after all. Meanwhile, Hikada and other scientists from around the world have gathered to concoct a plan to rid themselves of Gamera but since he feeds on nuclear energy, they have to find another plan of action and fast.
By 1965, Godzilla was already a global household name with numerous clones appearing across all continents with varying degrees of success, so it seems like Daiei studio were a little late the party when they unleashed their version, Gamera. Despites a low budget, problematic filming conditions, and lack of studio support, the film was a success and a new monster franchise was born.
Whereas Godzilla was the antagonist in most of his films, Gamera was designed to be a more child friendly hero and indeed was a hit with the kids, arriving at the same time as Godzilla started to get less aggressive. But why a flying turtle? The idea came to Daiei President Masaichi Nagata as he was on a plane and saw something in the clouds that he thought was a flying tortoise.
Nagata then summoned his creative staff, old them this tale and ordered them to make it a reality. After a few draft ideas, the tortoise became a turtle named Kamera (“Kame” being Japanese for turtle) but as this sounded too close to “camera” they went with Gamera. However, nobody wanted to direct the film, so Nagata forced the project onto rookie Noriaki Yuasa, with just one film to his credit.
Despite the low budget and hokey Godzilla-lite script from Niisan Takahashi, Yuasa was able to deliver a surprisingly solid outing that shocked everyone by being a hit. Maybe audience weren’t so cynical back in ’65, but viewers today will spend every moment of its brisk 79-minutes comparing Gamera to the first Godzilla film. It’s inevitable of course, but is it fair?
A lot of leniency is to be shown when watching this film, though that is true of all of the more blatant Godzilla rip offs, and indeed some of the early sequels too; do this and an enjoyable slice of Kaiju hokum reveals itself. Far less political than Godzilla – aside from the whole thing being the US army’s fault – the sentiment driving this story is not so much an outraged monster destroying humanity, rather humanity showing it can extend its empathy to beyond its own kind.
Toshio is in essence the Fay Wray character from King Kong; his implied connection with Gamera reveals the beast’s true intentions, and Gamera’s is reacting as any untamed creature driven by nuclear energy would. Eventually, Hikada and the military formulate a more humane strategy to solve the problem of a rampaging turtle; however we are expected to simply accept they were able to construct all of the parts in record time, but the Japanese did have the help of the Russians and the US (insert your own joke here).
How Yuasa pulled this off with the limited budget and outdated equipment is remarkable, but it does seem lessons from its Toho predecessor were learned in order to complete the film inside three months. The Gamera suit was quite light at 60 kg and more flexible for the actors, whilst it also boasted moving eyes for added creepy effect. When it was not moving, it would look like it was dancing when flapping its arms about for an amusing visual.
Keen eyed viewers might notice a slight evocation of pre-Thunderbirds Gerry Anderson in the miniature special effects, a result of their own meagre budget but they make it work. The green screen overlays are actually rather good, and one scene deserves credit for this and the impressive attention to detail in showing Gamera approaching a building and through the windows shows the people inside running to safety.
Since the whole premise requires suspension of disbelief, I’m sure many will find it hard to be so generous towards Gamera’s flying ability – rockets shoot out from his shell, and he takes off in a spinning motion like a UFO. Atomic breath and fire is one thing but this one is hard to swallow, and looking at clips of later films it is going to get sillier. But, if we’ve learned anything from Japanese Kaiju films, it is never to take them seriously.
Yet it seemed the Japanese public, specifically the kids, didn’t get this memo and for his brief first run which ended when Daiei went bankrupt in 1971, Gamera was as popular as Godzilla. In some ways, this shouldn’t have been the case from noting the derivative and shared elements in this film – they even shamelessly used Godzilla’s distinctive roar for Gamera – as well as the exposition heavy dialogue, and terrible acting from the US cast, but you can never predict what audiences will gravitate to.
Gamera: The Giant Monster should have been another Godzilla clone deserving to flop, but defies all expectations not just with its success but also by actually being rather fun. Leave your cynicism at the door before watching and you’ll see why.