Gamera vs. Barugon (Daikaijû kettô: Gamera tai Barugon)
Japan (1966) Dir. Shigeo Tanaka
Following the success of the first Gamera film Daiei Studio president Masaichi Nagata immediately ordered a second, with an increased budget and an epic story to match. The result is the most Godzilla-like entry of the series.
Set six months after the first film, the Z Plan rocket containing a trapped Gamera that was fired into space, hits an asteroid which frees Gamera, allowing him to return to earth. His first stop is a power station to recharge his electrical power then heads off for a kip inside a dormant volcano. Meanwhile, three men – Kawajiri (Yūzō Hayakawa), Onodera (Kōji Fujiyama), and his brother Keisuke (Kojiro Hongo) are sent to an island in New Guinea to claim an opal buried there by a World War II veteran.
Arriving at the island, a bilingual native girl Karen (Kyōko Enami) warns the group not to enter the caves or search for the opal, but they don’t listen and continue anyway. They find the opal but Kawajiri is bitten by a scorpion and dies, whilst Onodera betrays Keisuke and leaves him for dead. Keisuke is rescued by the natives as Onodera returns to Japan with the opal – except it is an egg containing the reptilian beast Barugon.
Gamera vs. Barugon was the first film in the series to be shot in colour and the only one NOT to be directed by Noriaki Yuasa, who was relegated to special effects director in favour of Shigeo Tanaka. This change in helmer made a huge difference to the quality of the story telling, the handling of the non-monster related drama and the pacing. Tanaka doesn’t have any history with Kaiju or sci-fi related films in his catalogue, which may explain why Yuasa was kept close to share his experience if needed.
One thing is for certain that the increased budget helped to make this feel like a much bigger film than its predecessor, even if the monsters are still a little rigid compare to others, but in terms of scale there is a lot more happening here than before. What is interesting is that as the budgets decreased over the years, the ambition of the stories didn’t reflect this, with some taking place on spaceship or another planet.
This didn’t stop them looking cheap however, whereas here, beyond the 30 seconds set in outer space, this is a solely an earthbound set adventure and not limited to just Japan either. The money is in the miniature sets Gamera and Barugon destroy during their individual rampages, including a dam which Gamera blows a hole in, a squad of aircraft and military firepower, a ship which is blown to pieces, and the New Guinea island set.
Yet, the biggest difference and the one that makes this the most unique of the Showa era series is how this is pitched to adults and not exclusively children. This might also explain why it was a commercial failure and all future Gamera films not only were aimed at children but also had their budgets slashed too. In seeking a more mature audience, the script is less clunky and expository (which a voice over narrator handles), allowing the cast to act and not just ham it up to suit the frivolity of the subject matter.
In Onodera, we have a defined human antagonist for the prolonged human drama while Gamera is temporarily frozen by Barugon’s ice ray, with Onodera out to satiate his greed via violent means. We also see the humans try different plans to counter Barugon rather than panic in Gamera’s absence, but with no kids to come up with the one idea that will work, it is a mixture of military might and mysticism they rely upon instead.
Despite being the eponymous Kaiju, Gamera is only appears for around 20 minutes or so, spending most of the second half of the film catatonic, given Barugon the spotlight. If his name sounds familiar, he is not to be confused with the Baragon that appeared in some of the Godzilla films, despite the similar design. He has a retractable tongue that resembles a club that can also shoot ice, and can fire a rainbow beam from the spines on his back, which surely makes Barugon a hippy, right?
Noriaki Yuasa actually proves to be a pretty good special effects director, even if his one time in the role he did have the largest budget of the Showa Era series to work with. The sets are much better built, the monsters look better, and supplementary effects like the explosions are realistic. One of the best scenes is the hatching of the baby Barugon – the slimy reptile baby breaking out of the egg bathed in red light is nicely creepy and far more credible than other hatchings we’ve seen in Kaiju cinema.
However, they hit a snag for the climax of the final fight in which (slight spoiler) Gamera drowns Barugon who can’t exist in water. The suit was so light that it kept floating to the surface, so they removed bit so fit to see if that would help but it didn’t. Eventually, they removed just the head then had a crewmember literally pull it under the water and hold it down to get the shot.
With a grittier and sobering script, the playfulness of the other Gamera films is absent, which in retrospect is the starkest contrast to be made, along with the slowing of the pace in the latter second half. Running for 100 minutes, this is the longest of the original series and feels it as the Onodera saga takes over from the monster battles, which no doubt didn’t appeal to the kids. For the US release, the film was trimmed to 88-minutes streamlining the story somewhat.
From a production and story standpoint, Gamera vs. Barugon is arguably the strongest film this period, if a little dull in places. It at least shows Gamera can work without the usual Kaiju cheesiness.