"Looks like a huge turtle made its appearance!"

The year was 1963, and the financially ailing Daiei movie studio wanted to make a quick, cheap B-movie monster flick to boost its revenues. They planned something in the style of the cheapie American pictures like Bert I. Gordon's Beginning of the End, only instead of giant grasshoppers menacing Chicago, they imagined a swarm of enormous rats invading Tokyo. The Great Horde-Monster Nezura1 was to be shot on inexpensive black and white film, and would use live rats running around a scale model of the city and nibbling on dolls. The studio commissioned some large-scale sets and a couple of two-meter rat puppets for scenes featuring the live cast; somebody called the rats' agents; and some test footage was actually shot. Advertising campaigns through 1964 began crying up the new monster movie, and everything looked like it was going fine.

Unfortunately, the rats brought their own groupies with them... and soon the studio was infested with fleas. The situation quickly became intolerable for the cast and crew, so Daiei decided to abandon their idea of a giant rat movie2. However, they'd already built the miniature city sets, and they'd announced a new monster movie to the world. Rather than write off the whole project and admit defeat, the studio started work on a new idea: they would use their models to make a movie about a giant radioactive turtle called "Gamera".

About Monster Names
The suffix "-ra", which ends so many Japanese monster names, might be translated fairly as "-zilla". The pattern got started with the original Japanese name for Godzilla, which came from a combination of the words for "gorilla" (gorira) and "whale" (kujira): GOJIRA.

The first Toho monsters which followed after Gojira didn't follow the pattern. Instead, they took their names from biological taxonomy -- Angurus was a modification of the dinosaur name "Ankylosaurus"; Rodan was originally called Radon in Japan, a name which is a reduction of "pteRAnoDON"; and Varan's name is related to Varanus, the genus of the monitor lizards (including the Komodo Dragon). But then came Mothra. The folks at Toho apparently couldn't think of an effective variation of the Japanese word for "moth" -- ga -- so they borrowed the English word, and appended the "-ra" from "Gojira" the way English speakers have come to append "-zilla" to indicate something big and monstrous.

Of the monster names that followed, many are obviously derived from real words. For example, Ebira the Sea Monster is simply the Japanese word for "shrimp" plus "-ra": "Shrimpzilla". Hedora the Smog Monster is derived from hedoro, or "sludge": "Smogzilla". Kumonga, the giant spider in Son of Godzilla, is a little different... "kumora" apparently didn't sound right, so they added a final "n" to the Japanese word for spider (kumo), and then added the "-ra". The "r" sound assimilates to "g" after the final n sound, so the result is "kumonga", or Spiderzilla.

And then we have Gamera. The Japanese word for "turtle" is kame, but obviously "kamera" isn't a very menacing name for a monster. All they had to do was add two little dots to the Japanese katakana character for the first syllable "ka", and voilą! Gamera, or "turtlezilla".
There were two very interesting things about this decision. First of all, Daiei -- which wasn't doing very well as a company -- was entering into direct competition with Toho, the Godzilla of the Japanese film industry (literally). Toho had a virtual monopoly on the rubber suit genre; it wasn't until 1967, partly in response to the success of the Gamera series, that companies like Shochiku and Nikkatsu decided to make films about huge city-flattening monsters. Next and equally significantly, Daiei was making this challenge with a relatively inexpensive black and white movie, released at a time when Toho was dazzling the world with its use of color film technology (Daiei, after all, had been one of the pioneers of color movies in Japan!). Daiei might not have set any particular stock in the success of their film, but with hindsight it seems like a terribly risky thing to do. Had they failed with their movie, the results might have been more embarrassing than if they had made no movie at all.

But Daiei didn't fail. Much to the surprise of practically everybody (especially the movie's director, Yuasa Noriaki), Daikaiju Gamera was a resounding success. The movie did so well that a much more expensive sequel was put into production almost immediately, launching a series that was to span a total of seven sequels. The Gamera series went on to become the only serious challenge to the kaiju market share of Toho's Godzilla movies. They were not enough to save Daiei from eventual bankruptcy; in fact, as the series went on, the lack of budgets became more and more obvious. Still, they did earn a place in the hearts of monster fans everywhere. In 1995, 15 years after the last original Gamera sequel, the reconstituted Daiei studio (now a Toho subsidiary) brought back their beloved monster for a series of three brand new movies. These new films are acknowledged as being some of the best monster films ever made.

Ironically, one of the most probable reasons for Gamera's initial success is that it was shot in black and white. The movie's creators turned the budget-imposed limitations to their own advantage. The first Godzilla film had also been in black and white (though admittedly, this had been eleven years earlier); audiences would have made an immediate connection with Toho's groundbreaking film. Furthermore, like Italy's Amanti d'Oltretomba/Nightmare Castle released the same year, Gamera's monochrome photography gave it tremendous atmosphere that went a long way toward distracting the audience from the inadequate script. The rubber Gamera suit also looked much more dignified in black and white than it did in color. The tone of the screenplay matches the somber look of the film: the actors may be saying totally ridiculous things, but they take it all very seriously. Add to this Yamauchi Tadashi's equally monochromatic music, and you have a movie that feels like a more serious film than it really is.

But the film would hardly have been as successful as it was, even if it had been made with a bigger budget, had their title monster not been so charismatic. There is an appeal to Gamera which is very difficult to explain. There is something endearing in his shape, his expression, and most of all in his voice. He has a lot of character, and even though his opponents got wilder and more colorful with each sequel, he has never been upstaged.

Gamera begins with four unidentified (and not terribly convincing) airplanes flying over the Arctic circle. Meanwhile, a lone Jeep rides across the ice, until it reaches an Eskimo village. Inside the Jeep are Dr. Hidaka, a Japanese zoologist3; his assistant, Yamamoto Kyoko; and Aoyagi, a newspaper photographer. They have set out from a research ship, the Chidori Maru, which is pushing through the ice several miles behind them.

(The music for these opening scenes is mysterious and full of foreboding. It's based on an ascending four-note motive, which will come to have more importance as the film progresses. In fact, Yamauchi uses this ascending motive in both his kaiju movie scores: this one and the soundtrack he composed for Gamera vs. Gaos [1967].)

Dr. Hidaka's mission is to find evidence concerning an ancient Eskimo legend about the lost continent Atlantis (just let that thought sink in a minute... it gets even better!). Hidaka is looking for evidence to support a theory he has about gigantic turtles that lived thousands of years ago in Atlantis. He has arranged this expedition with the help of a colleague at Columbia University. Later we will learn that Hidaka not only has been given his own research ship for the project, he is also accompanied by no less than eight photographers, including Aoyagi. That seems excessive... but then, the project sounds more like material for the National Enquirer than the National Geographic, so perhaps most of the photographers are from the supemarket tabloids. I can see it now: "Nostradamus Predicts Giant Turtles from Atlantis Will Eat the World!"

As Hidaka greets the village headman, the four nearly-silent aircraft glide by. "Oh!" cries the Eskimo chief, "the Devil's birds!" Though the chief wears a crucifix around his neck, as though to show that Western civilization has made it up to this part of the Arctic, he and his villagers are no more realistic than the typical Polynesian natives that pop up in similar movies. These actors are wearing parkas instead of grass skirts, but they're still generic Hollywood-style "primitives".

Hidaka wonders darkly what the strange aircraft may have been doing in the area. The planes fly even lower as they pass the Chidori Maru, presumably to avoid being detected by the Distant Early Warning System. The sailors aboard the Chidori Maru are also suspicious about the planes, so they send a warning to the nearby American Air Force base.

The message reaches the Command Center of the American base, which is populated by three excruciatingly bad Caucasian actors and a crowd of extras pretending not to be Japanese. The commanding officer, reading his lines from the paper which is supposed to have the message on it, calls "all planes, fighter planes, based in the Arctic Ocean" to go investigate. The planes -- fighter planes -- attempt to intercept the unidentified aircraft, but the other planes begin evasive maneuvers. When one of the aircraft fires missiles at its pursuers, the Americans respond with a volley of their own. One of the fleeing planes is hit, and plunges to earth in a fireball. Suddenly, there is an enormous explosion, and a mushroom cloud arises from the impact site. Not far away, a fault line opens; a geyser of melted ice spews out from the cracks. Up from his two-millennium sleep rises... GAMERA!!

Back in the Eskimo village, Hidaka and his friends see the cloud on the horizon. They realize that the planes they saw must have carried nuclear weapons. Hidaka reassures the others they are too far away to be affected by the fallout -- and I'm pretty sure he's wrong about that, but then, this is a movie about a giant fire-breathing turtle, so I guess I shouldn't worry too much about realism. Aoyagi very sensibly suggests that with World War III imminent, it might be better to get back to the ship than to worry about ancient turtles. Kyoko, however, is unable to reach the ship with her radio (not an uncommon problem after a nuclear explosion). The American base also experiences problems with their communications (it is suggested through the rest of the film that Gamera has soaked up enough radiation from the blast to interrupt communications wherever he goes. The script doesn't use this idea consistently, though).

As Hidaka prepares to leave, the Eskimo chief comes to a decision. He reluctantly hands over to Hidaka a fragment of carved stone -- not bone, mind you, but stone, which suggests that it is not a local artifact; it's also very primitively carved, unlike the typically intricate native art from the far North. The chief says the stone represents "the Devil's envoy -- Gamera!", and at the sound of the name, all the "Eskimos" go running for shelter in true movie-primitive style. Aoyagi asks the chief about the strange wavy lines carved around the representation of Gamera -- are they waves, he asks? "I don't know," replies the chief; "Anyhow -- very frightening!" I should probably point out that the conversation between the chief and the researchers is carried out in English. This is actually what they're saying, verbatim.

It's at this point in the film that the four-note motive in the music takes its final shape, and becomes the eerie theme that represents Gamera through the rest of the film:

Gamera theme by Yamauchi Tadashi
Gamera's Mysterious Theme

The music wanders unpredictably, without seeming aimless. It's very unusual monster movie music, which creates an unsettling atmosphere. (I've run up a quick MIDI version for anyone who wants to hear it: Click Here.)

Although the explosion seems to have occurred far enough away for Hidaka and his friends to be safe from its aftereffects, Gamera somehow manages to get to the Chidori Maru before the team does. In a reasonably effective sequence, the giant turtle destroys the ship and kills the tiny fleeing crewmen. As the ship goes down, the crew tries to send out an emergency message (in a scene lifted directly from the original Godzilla)... but the interference from Gamera's radiation prevents it from getting through.

Or does it? For the next scene brings us back to the American air base, where they have apparently received the alarming message. "Looks like a huge turtle made its appearance," says the sergeant, and who could disagree with him? Unfortunately, when American planes -- fighter planes -- go to investigate, they can find neither the turtle nor the ship.

Gamera's first rampage is accompanied by a bombastic melody, played in unison by an entire orchestra. Like the sinister music we've heard earlier, this melody lacks a clear tonal center; however, it is much different in character. It manages to convey both enormous power and a sense of awkwardness through its continually shifting accent:

Gamera theme by Yamauchi Tadashi
Gamera's Big Tune (beginning)

(According to his entry in the IMDB, Yamauchi was a student of Ifukube Akira, the man who gave a distinctive musical voice to the classic Toho monsters. Like Ifukube, Yamauchi assigns carefully-chosen motives and melodies to his characters, and combines the thematic material in intelligent ways to illustrate what the various characters [human or otherwise] are doing or thinking. However, Yamauchi seems to lack Ifukube's gift for colorful orchestration. Ifukube's monster music managed to convey not only the colossal bulk of the monsters, but also a sense of great energy, vitality and menace. Ifukube was also capable of great delicacy when the situation called for it. Yamauchi's music has a tendency to sound muddy by comparison. Instead of sounding powerful, his orchestral tuttis come off heavy and ponderous; they should be awe-inspiring, but they just sound loud. To make matters worse, Daiei couldn't seem to afford as good an orchestra as Toho had.)

Next, we find Dr. Hidaka in New York. Evidently (though it's not explained) he is finishing his project by delivering his report to his colleague at Columbia; this is a subtle bit of continuity which is rare in monster movies (on the other hand, another rather significant plot point, the unsuccessful nuclear attack on the United States, is dropped without further comment!). While in New York, Hidaka gives an interview on television, at which he explains that Gamera has probably died from his exposure to radiation, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

The story then shifts gears completely, as we are introduced to a little boy named Toshio. Toshio is the son of a widowed lighthouse keeper, who is currently living on the coast of Hokkaido. Toshio has difficulty relating to other people: since his mother died, he's had to move to several different, equally lonely outposts as his father changed stations. To make up for his lack of human companionship, Toshio has become obsessed with his pet turtle, Chibi. He has even taken it to school with him, a move which causes his teacher to come see his elder sister and complain. Toshio's father insists he get rid of the turtle at once. As the boy sits sadly outside the lighthouse, an enormous turtle-y head rises from the cliff behind him. Toshio senses he is being watched, but as he turns to see what's there, he finds nothing. I think it's a little hard to believe that something so enormous could hide so quickly... but then again, Godzilla pulled a similar disappearing act on Odo Island in the original Godzilla.

When Toshio's sister and father come out to find him, they don't see anything either... at first. Then, suddenly, Gamera rears up and starts toward the lighthouse. Everyone is horrified excpet Toshio, who runs up the steps to the top of the lighthouse to see his new turtle. Of course, Gamera has come with the express purpose of knocking the lighthouse down, and soon little Toshio is dangling from the ruined tower. Just as he loses his grip, Gamera reaches out and catches him in his scaly paw. The monster puts Toshio gently down on the ground and stomps away.

The lighthouse sequence is noteworthy, but not because it's particularly well executed. In fact, it's one of the less convincing special effects shots in the movie: the lighthouse and the little model Toshio look terrible.

(While we're on the subject of technique, this is also one of several sequences where director Yuasa plays a little loosely with the 180-degree rule. Basically, the 180-degree rule suggests that if you show someone or something moving from right to left in one shot, you shouldn't show them moving from left to right in the next. If the camera shifts its position relative to the action by more than 180 degrees, the effect is very confusing. If you fail to heed the 180-degree rule, you could have the situation where people who are supposed to be chasing each other seem to be running toward each other. Yuasa frequently forgets this principle during the opening of the film: for example, when we see the Jeep coming toward us over the ice, and then cut to inside the jeep looking out... the Jeep is pointed in the right direction relative to the previous shot, but the camera has gone several degrees over the line. In the encounter between the unidentified aircraft and the American jets, Yuasa forgets the rule again, and as a result it's very difficult to figure out which direction the planes4 are going. Yuasa seems to have thought the rule applied to the position relative to the person or thing in motion rather than the position of the camera.

In the case of the lighthouse scene, the camera literally does circles all around Toshio from shot to shot as the scene progresses. First, we see Toshio walking toward the camera, with the lighthouse behind him. He is approaching the cliff -- we'll call this direction North, based on the way the shot is framed. Next we see him in profile; then suddenly we're behind him, as he turns around [facing South, I suppose] and lies down on the ground. Next we see a "Gamera's eye view" of the sea and lighthouse... but it seems to be viewing the lighthouse from the South! All right, perhaps we were mistaken about Toshio's initial direction. Now we see Gamera's head rise slowly from the cliff behind Toshio... At this point, Yuasa has apparently forgotten the position of the lighthouse: we see the light from the beacon shining over Gamera, coming from behind him and to his left, which is impossible no matter if he's coming from North or South. If the previous shot was really supposed to suggest the turtle is approaching from the South, then the beacon should be in front of Gamera and to his right. The camera circles around Toshio once again as he gets the feeling he's being watched and goes to investigate. Then Toshio sees Gamera, again on what appears to be the wrong side... and the boy runs offscreen. The crowd then sees Gamera emerge from the East, but when he goes to smash the lighthouse, he approaches from the West. It's very disorienting.)

Forget the technique (or the lack of it) on display: the lighthouse scene is more important for its symbolic content. First, it's a reference to one of the sources of the whole Giant Monster genre: Ray Bradbury's short story "The Foghorn". Bradbury's early story, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, was the inspiration for Eugene Lourie's film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which in turn was a direct inspiration for Godzilla. In the story, though, the dinosaur rose out of the fog because it heard the foghorn, and hoped that the lighthouse was another of its kind. In Gamera, though, it's the light that's attracted the beast, and he'd much rather destroy it than mate with it.

The other insteresting thing about the scene is its obvious (and disturbing) Freudian connotations. Prior to Gamera's wrecking the lighthouse, we've seen Toshio's rather stern father force him to give up his cherished pet. Then, a huge turtle comes and wrecks the father's lighthouse, after which the father completely disappears as a significant character. Thereafter, Toshio gets away with all sorts of incredibly bad behavior, and his father is nowhere in sight. It's as though Gamera, appearing for the first time as the child's surrogate, has destroyed the father's power by destroying the phallic lighthouse.

OK. I realize that may be a stretch when we're talking about a stupid monster movie.

Still, there is a strong connection between the character of Toshio and the monster, though it's not the saccharine sort of connection that would be established in the later films. Gamera wasn't yet the anthropomorphic "friend to all children". Gamera really is a surrogate for a child, especially for the series' target audience: boys on the verge of adolescence. After all, the monster has suddenly awakened to find himself grown monstrously big and clumsy, devouring everything in sight, and constantly being punished for things that really aren't his fault. No wonder he sometimes has the urge to flatten some architecture. And no wonder he appealed to so many of us kids, watching him in Japanese theaters or on American television.

Here is the melody which represents Toshio and his loneliness:

Toshio theme from Gamera by Yamauchi Tadashi
Toshio's Theme

Compare this to Gamera's Big Tune above, and you'll see that the first four notes of each phrase (F - D - Eb - A) are the same. This helps further to suggest the connection between the lonely child and the lonely turtle.

Toshio spends the rest of the film chasing after Gamera. I have to admit that writer Takahashi Niisan did a pretty good job with Toshio. Even though the character has drawn a lot of harsh criticism over the years -- particularly for the horrible dubbing he's given in the various English language versions -- he's a child character who thinks and acts like a genuine child. For example, when Toshio goes out to the cliff after Gamera's attack, he looks for his turtle Chibi in a little pile of rocks he left for it. He assumes, with the faith of childhood, that his friend will have waited there for him. Naturally the turtle is gone. Toshio then draws the perfectly reasonable conclusion that Chibi must have become Gamera. Toshio packs up the stones he left for Chibi and carries them with him, even to Tokyo when his family is forced to evacuate. After all, he says, the rocks are Gamera's house. Later, he becomes very upset when his relatives' son, a boy about his age, throws the rocks in the river. When the other boy's father tries to discipline him in front of Toshio's sister, the boy responds with a disparaging remark about Toshio and his family -- something he obviously heard from his father in private. This is all very well-observed child behavior, though it's not the sort of thing we normally see in movies featuring children.

Dr. Hidaka and his companions have just arrived back in Tokyo when they get the news of Gamera's return. Shocked, Hidaka sets off for Hokkaido with Kyoko. As the scientists board their airplane, they are greeted by Aoyagi, who has managed to get permission from his paper to tag along. Actually, Aoyagi is much more interested in the mousy Kyoko than he is in any giant turtle.

Gamera, in the meantime, has started heading for a major geothermal power plant. Dr. Hidaka warns the authorities that the heat from the plant is unlikely to thwart the monster, since he seems to have survived the heat of an atomic explosion. Instead, the Defense Force decides to use the plant's entire output of electricity to shock Gamera to death. In a scene also lifted straight from the original Godzilla, Gamera tears through the electric power lines and keeps going. In fact, he seems to be stronger than before.

While the military bombards the monster with ineffective missiles, Gamera trashes the power plant. This is one of the best scenes of monster mayhem in the film, aided once again by the wonderful black and white photography. As the plant erupts in flames, Gamera seems to welcome the explosions. Much to everyone's surprise, Gamera begins drinking in the flames... OK, actually, they just play his fire-breathing effect backwards, but you get the idea... Hidaka speculates that the creature may eat energy. He cautions the military commanders to avoid attacking Gamera until he returns with a second opinoion.

Hidaka goes to see a friend of his, a paleontologist from Hokkaido University named Dr. Murase. Though Murase is played by the respected actor Hamamura Jun (The Burmese Harp), his hair is possibly the scariest thing in the movie. Murase, more than the average movie scientist, has a tendency to make sweeping pronouncements wihtout a shred of evidence. On first hearing of the monster, Murase immediately jumps to the conclusion that Gamera is one of the giant turtles mentioned in the prophecies of Plato (sic; that's just got to be a bad translation), and that his body must be stronger than metal. Armed with this vital information, Hidaka takes Murase back to the beleaguered power plant.

By this time, the plant has been reduced to smoldering rubble. Before Gamera decides to move on, the Defense Force decides to call on the American Army to provide them with missiles. Just as the order is about to be given to fire, Hidaka arrives and begs them to reconsider. He gets some backup from little Toshio, who for some reason I can't recall happens to be there with his family. Toshio's reasons are slightly different from Hidaka's: he's convinced that Gamera isn't a bad monster... he's just lost and confused, and making problems inadvertently.

The attack is called off. Here you may notice that many of the scenes in which the military commander sends his orders to his men are shot at an interesting angle (note to Roger Christian: here's a movie even sillier than Battlefield Earth which could show you how to use the "Dutch tilt" properly). It's a little disconcerting, though, to realize it's the same camera setup, and the same blocking, that was used for the shots before Hidaka went off to the University. It's been several hours at least -- maybe as long as a day -- and the repeat of the camera angle gives us the impression everybody's been standing around in exactly the same position waiting for the Professor to return.

Gamera eventually runs out of energy-food; as a surveillance plane follows him, he starts to head off toward Tokyo. Actually, he doesn't so much move as saunter, swaying back and forth and swinging his arms. Did I say Gamera looked more dignified in black and white? Well, not in this scene. I believe the appropriate sound effect for Gamera's wobbly gait is: "Dopey dopey do-o-o-o..."

As the monster climbs a nearby ridge, the military decides to try a new weapon they've been developing: freezer bombs. Hidaka's theory is that if the monster thrives on heat, perhaps extreme cold will incapacitate him long enough to work out a better plan. Good thinking, Doc -- you found him frozen for thousands of years in the Arctic ice, and you're just now making the connection? Of course, we also remember the Big Guy did pretty well in the frozen North. Consistency is not this movie's strong point, any more than logic.

Just as Gamera gets to the top of the ridge, bombers hit him with the freezer charges. The explosives work: Gamera slows to a halt. Unfortunately, the freezer bombs only work for about ten minutes, so the Defense Force engineers have to hurry. They drill holes in the rock face directly underneath the giant turtle, and pack the holes with explosives. Just as Gamera is beginning to thaw out, they blow up the cliff, sending the monster over the cliff on his back in what is one of the most effectively shot sequences I've ever seen in a rubber suit monster movie.

Now what? asks the Defense Force commander. Murase replies that a turtle on its back can not right itself. All the humans need do is wait for it to die. Hidaka is elated that he will have his precious specimen, and everybody begins congratulating each other. A soldier notices that Gamera is drawing his head and arms back into his shell. Everyone takes this as a sign he has given up...

I can only imagine what effect the next shot must have had on viewers seeing it for the very first time.

Flames burst out from the arm- and leg-openings of Gamera's shell. While the military and scientists watch, Gamera begins to rotate, eventually lifting up off the ground and spinning away over the mountains. Gamera's haunting main theme plays again, this time using winds instead of strings, giving the scene a sense of awe that the usual "monster movie" music would not have provided. The thunderstruck Hidaka realizes that the strange patterns on the Eskimo stone are not waves at all, but clouds. Gamera is a flying turtle.

(I'm willing to accept monsters which breathe radioactive fire. After all, fire-breathing dragons are a part of world mythology going back to the dawn of man. But Gamera's flying ability really stretches my suspension of disbelief, especially the way he manages to do it. Forget even explaining how Gamera manages to stay lit... if he has four jets of fire coming out in four separate directions, all pointing in toward the center of the oval-shaped shell, how would this enable him to fly? It makes my head hurt. But I have to admit, it's very cool seeing a 200 foot turtle turn into a rocket and spiral away over the horizon.)

The remainder of the film deals with the increasingly desparate attempts by the scientists and military to deal with the creature. After Gamera goes on a spectacular rampage through Tokyo, coming to a climax in which the monster destroys Tokyo Tower5, everybody pretty much gives up and decides on a policy of containment. They lure Gamera to a refinery, where they keep him fed with burning oil. Little Toshio manages to sneak into the refinery, and tries to get close to the monster by hitching a ride on a rail car filled with oil. This is a very stupid and dangerous thing to do, but fortunately he is spotted and rescued by a brave worker. The worker is played by Fujiyama Koji in his first screen role. Fujiyama would later become a vital member of Daiei's stock company. He appeared in a total of four Gamera movies: after his debut, he played the villainous Onodera in Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), a military officer in Gamera vs. Viras (1968) and a scientist in Gamera vs. Zigra (1970).

There seems to be only one course of action left to mankind: Z-Plan. The details of Z-Plan are left unexplained unti the very end of the movie -- probably to keep the audience from giving up completely -- but the lead-in to the plan is pretty darned silly by itself. The scientists plan to lure the monster to Oshima island by spilling a trail of oil out of a tanker all the way from the mainland, then lighting it on fire. If this is the dumbest idea you've ever heard, just wait for the punch line: it works! That's right... the spilled oil maintains a perfectly straight line in the water, from one port to the other. When they set fire to it, Gamera follows right behind it, sucking up both the oil and the flames.

Gamera gets right to the edge of the shore before a typhoon hits. The rain and wind put out the oil fire. Uh, yeah. Seeing nothing else to eat, Gamera starts heading back to sea. The scientists are cursing their luck, when suddenly one of the workers starts pouring gasoline all over the control center. When Hidaka and the others attempt to restrain the worker, they find that it's Aoyagi again, tagging along where he's not allowed. His plan, which is pretty darned sensible compared with some of the other schemes we've seen so far, is to start a big fire on the beach, to lure Gamera back no matter what the sacrifice. What the hell, say the scientists, and soon they're torching everything with enthusiasm. Their efforts fail again, though. Just as everything seems bleak, the local volcano chooses this exact moment to erupt. Gamera is drawn to the heat of the magma, and the day is saved.

Now we get to find out what "Z-Plan" really is. It turns out that the world's scientists have been secretly building a rocket, which is designed expressly for the purpose of sealing up a 200-foot turtle and shooting it into space. You know: just in case. Gamera is lured away from the volcano by a couple of tiny man-made flames (!). He steps into the trap, and waits patiently as it seals around him. There is a cut away to the watching scientists (and the dangerously irresponsible Toshio, who has stowed away with the equipment), and when we cut back to the Z-Plan rocket, we note with amazement that it is about half the size it was before! This is to distract us from the realization that a rocket carrying such an enormous payload would have to be unthinkably large (and expensive). Gamera the Invincible is shot into space; once he's safely in orbit, Dr. Hidaka and TV's Murase no doubt plan to send him his own movies -- the worst they can find; he'll have to sit and watch them all, and they'll monitor his mind. Toshio horrifies the audience by expressing his desire to become a scientist when he grows up. Hidaka advises his assistant Kyoko to quit science and settle down with Aoyagi. And they lived rdiculously ever after.

Oh, boy.

There are movies which re-create, with great care and insight, the way people live and behave in a certain time or place. There are other films which attempt to comment on the human condition by deliberately making a break with reality as we understand it. And then there is Gamera, a movie so completely unrelated to reality as to be totally meaningless.

Don't get me wrong: I love this movie more than I could ever hope to explain. But you would have to look very hard to find a film that goes further than this one in making sure that almost every detail is wrong, whether scientific, political, cultural or behavioral. This disconnection from the Real World is probably the biggest hurdle an adult viewer has to face when watching Daikaiju Gamera. Personally, I think it's part of the movie's charm.

There are plenty of other movies which seem to be taking place in a different dimension, where no civil or natural laws apply... and most of these are just unwatchable. The miracle of Gamera is that Yuasa and his crew are able to carry off the film with a straight face. While you're watching it, it's not terribly difficult to suspend your disbelief and just... go with it. Sure there's a 200-foot turtle that eats and breathes fire, which flies through the air and is impervious to any weapon. Sure a rampaging prehistoric monster from Atlantis will make the world forget about a nuclear attack on the United States, and come together in a show of universal brotherhood. Sure a ten year old kid could sneak into every phase of a military operation and not be disciplined.

After the movie is over, though, the disbelief the audience has tried so hard to suspend comes crashing down harder than Tokyo Tower. Note, for example, how the well-intentioned scientists end up creating an even bigger mess than the monster, with their gigantic oil fires and deliberate ocean dumping. Marvel over the amazing feat of technology which is the "Z-Plan". Lose yourself in the adolescent, poorly-developed "love story" between Aoyagi and the nearly-invisible Kyoko.

Still, it's hard to believe anything so inane could hold together so well. Yuasa does a very good job of making visual sense out of a barely coherent screenplay. If he makes some bad decisions about camera placements during the course of the film -- a criticism that becomes even more valid in later sequels -- his decisions seem to actually be decisions, rather than mistakes made out of sheer ignorance. Furthermore, though Yuasa's delightfully low-brow sense of humor isn't allowed to show as much in this film as in later episodes, there's still a sense of excitement and fun in many of the attack sequences that shows Yuasa really cared about "his" monster.

Daikaiju Gamera has been released in the US on an uncut, widescreen video from Neptune Media. Neptune has also released the version which American International Pictures distributed domestically in the late 60's, which adds footage featuring American actors.

Monster movie nuts like me will probably prefer to spend the extra money on the Region 2 DVD from Daiei/Toshiba Japan. The disc is very well done, with English subtitles and (untranslated) extras galore; it can be ordered directly from Japan for about $50 USD including shipping. The disc is also available as part of Gamera: The Box, Part I, a four disc set which also contains Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs. Gyaos and Gamera vs. Viras. I got mine, as might be expected, from the ever-reliable folks at Poker Industries here in New Jersey. The purchase blew my movie budget for a month (and then some), but when you're as obsessed as I am, this is the sort of thing you simply have to do.

Second Opinions:
Stomp Tokyo

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1. "Nezura" might be appropriately translated as "Ratzilla".


2. Somebody in Japan did actually make a Giant Killer Rat movie called Nezulla in 2002.


3. It's almost impossible to believe, but the actor playing Hidaka is Funakoshi Eiji, one of the stars of Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain, who would later go on to play the blind sculptor in Masumura's demented masterpiece, Moju/Blind Beast.


4. Fighter planes!


5. Gamera may have saved Toshio's life a few scenes back, but during his visit to Tokyo we get to see him deliberately incinerate a building full of people!