Director: Noriaki Yuasa, Shigeo Tanaka, Shusuke Kaneko, Ryuta Tasaki
Starring: Eiji Funakoshi, Kojiro Hongo, Nobuhiro Kashima, Tsutomu Takakuwa et al
Year: 1965 – 2006
BBFC Certificate: 15
When it comes to Japanese films about giant monsters whose names begin with ‘G’, there’s really only one series that immediately springs to mind. Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film Gojira introduced the world to the giant creature with nuclear breath, Godzilla, and spawned a franchise that continues strongly today. Last year Criterion released an exhaustive boxed set containing remasters of the “Showa” era Godzilla films, and Arrow are now getting in on the kaiju craze with a similarly chunky box set of films featuring Japan’s other big ‘G’ – Gamera!
Gamera is a giant turtle with the ability to breathe fire and fly around using jets that shoot out of the arm and leg holes in its shell; yes, it’s as mad as it sounds. Making its first appearance in 1965’s Gamera, The Giant Monster, Gamera was developed by Daiei films as a franchise to compete with Godzilla and ultimately spawned 12 films which are fully represented in this box set. Anyone familiar with Showa era kaiju movies will know that there was a degree of barminess that permeated most entries that followed the incredibly sombre and reflective Gojira, and Gamera hits this stride out of the gate. While The Giant Monster tries desperately to appear as serious as Honda’s sci-fi classic, shot in black and white with a similar plot of a newly spawned Gamera wreaking havoc across Japan, the lower budget and messy script just lend it an air of a 60’s B-Movie.
In some instances that’s not a bad thing; the model shots overall look fairly good and there’s some great physical effects on display, but the overtly serious tone without the subtext of nuclear war that cut through Gojira makes this feel so much like a Poundland imitation. In fact that’s a sentiment that filters through all the first 8 films of this boxed set to varying degrees, all of which make up Gamera’s Showa era (the period of Japanese history covering the reign of Emperor Showa). After capturing Gamera and shooting him into space at the end of The Giant Monster, he’s soon back and facing off against another monstrous threat in Gamera Vs Barugon.
Gamera Vs Barugon brought the series into colour and tried to add more of an adventure movie tone which kind of initially works but overall doesn’t. The first half of the film is focussed on a group of criminals trying to retrieve a mysterious opal from an island in New Guinea which turns out to be the egg of the aforementioned Barugon, a creature with ice breath and the ability to shoot a rainbow out of its back. Gamera kind of flies in, gets frozen by Barugon and eventually breaks free, defeating the evil monster by throwing it into the sea. Despite a strong start, the film really drags in the second half and both these first two showings don’t really bode well for the series to come.
This rollercoaster ride really extends to all of these first eight films. Gamera Vs Gyaos is a lot of fun, introducing the flying kaiju Gyaos who becomes a frequent nemesis for our (now) heroic turtle. It also starts to find its feet as a franchise more aimed at a younger audience as Gamera demonstrates a psychic link with children, ultimately garnering him the title of “The Friend of all Children” – from here on out, young heroes are a mainstay of the Showa films.
Gamera Vs Viras is very much a kids movie, adding some “saucer-men” stylings as the turtle faces off against alien invaders. The tradition of bringing back many of the cast members in these first three films in different roles lends them the feel of kaiju-Carry On, but the lighter tone in Viras as well as the addition of a theme tune that Gamera gets really is a far cry from the first two films of the series. The low point of this story, however, is something that plagues the Showa era films. There is a good 7 minute chunk of the story where the aliens view Gamera’s past battles, looking for his weakness, turning the film into little more than a glorified and tedious clip show. Sadly this isn’t the first time the series pulls this trick.
Gamera Vs Guiron is another tread into b-movie sci-fi territory as Gamera sets out to rescue a couple of kids who stupidly get themselves kidnapped by aliens. The Guiron creature is quite a cool, if utterly bonkers design – a monster with a hulking great machete for a nose that can also fire shuriken out of its head. One thing it does highlight, however, is one of the worst aspects of the creature designs in these films. There’s a tendency to use creatures that walk one all fours, rather than bipedal monsters like the Godzilla franchise. The problem here is that when your effects are driven by actors in suits, the solution for having your monsters walking on all fours is to either hire a performer who can pull that off, or simply have them crawl on their hands and knees – most of the time this is the solution and… it just looks silly.
Fortunately, Gamera Vs Jiger decides to opt for the “all fours approach” and is better for it. The film as a whole is also the best of the Showa era, with a greater sense of agency, a better constructed plot and a rival that seems more like a genuine threat than the previous monsters. There’s also a cool sequence that cribs somewhat from Fantastic Voyage where the human heroes have to travel inside Gamera to hunt down a parasite.
Unfortunately Gamera Vs Zigra is a bit of a mess – a confused plot regarding another alien invasion centered around a Sea World center and some of the more irritating child heroes of the series, this is a bit of a limp way to see out what is really the first full run of films. Of all the Showa movies, Gamera Vs Jiger is definitely worth watching, as are Gyaos and, to some extent Guiron. The others are really only essential if you’re looking for the full experience or if you’re a bit of a super fan.
You’ll notice I missed that 8th Showa era film out of the run down there. Well… oh boy. Gamera: Super Monster is quite a thing. Made in 1980 by a struggling Daiei Films who were desperate to make some money, Super Monster is the very definition of “cheap”. Mixing in a mad plot involving three female space superheroes being hunted by aliens in what can only be described as copyright infringing spaceships (cough, Star Destroyers!) Super Monster uses all of its footage of Gamera from the previous films as the aliens make him face off against previous villains from the series. So, basically just re show all the old fights. This is an awful film, but so mad and gonzo that it’s almost worth watching as a capper to the first two thirds of this boxed set – what’s even more bizarre is that the reuse of footage doesn’t just stop at Gamera; Super Monster also mixes in footage from the anime Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express 999 – literally just dropping animated footage right in the middle of the film! As an end to the Showa era, Super Monster is a sad state of affairs, but one that we’ll come back to shortly…
After laying dormant for 15 years, the giant space turtle returned in 1995 with a series reboot in the form of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, a film that not only reinvented its hero, but also changed the perception of kaiju movies in a big way. In a word, this film is incredible. With a bigger budget, better visual effects and costume work as well as more use of location shooting and a far more serious tone, Guardian of the Universe kicked off a trilogy of films directed by Shusuke Kaneko that felt very much like a response to Hollywood’s recent blockbusters like Jurassic Park. Gyaos returns as the main threat, but there are more of them and they feel far more lethal than they did in the 1960’s. The human characters are well cast and believable and Gamera itself is more developed, with hints at a mythological back story and a more intimidating design.
The direct sequel, Gamera: Attack of Legion, actually manages to somehow be an even better film, dipping its toe into some straight up horror territory with its crawling Legion creatures. With influences from the likes of Aliens, Attack of Legion ups the human drama and begins to explore the impact that these creatures might have on humans as well as Gamera’s “Guardian of Earth” label. The action photography on display here is also superb with some suit shots that defy belief, especially after the super cheesy originals. I’d also like to take a moment here to highlight the score by composer Kow Ohtani who provides the music for this whole trilogy. Gamers may recognise him as the composer for Team Ico’s classic PS2 game Shadow of the Colossus and his score here is very similar to that title, full of the same epic bombast that feels apt accompanying behemoths tearing each other apart.
The final film of the trilogy, Gamera: Revenge of Iris, is a bold finale, sidelining Gamera for most of the run time in favour of a film that explores further the idea of humanities relationship with a giant monster that’s meant to protect them, and how that creature may react if it deems humanity to be as great a threat to the planet as the other giant creatures that want to attack it. It’s heavy stuff with an ambiguous ending, but it caps off what is a genuinely fantastic and essential kaiju trilogy.
Which brings us to the final film in this boxed set, 2006’s Gamera The Brave. Effectively a soft reboot of the Showa era films that ignores the godawful Super Monster, Gamera The Brave is very much what you would get if Amblin Entertainment ever made a kaiju movie. Following the story of a boy slowly realising that his cute baby turtle might just be the reincarnation of the giant earth protecting monster. With a lighter tone, a cuter design for Gamera and a return to the “Friend of all Children” motif of the Showa era, this is a more polished and extremely watchable version of those cheesier 60s films. While it’s not as bold and fresh as the Kaneko trilogy, it’s a gentler film that would a great introduction to kaiju movies for younger viewers.
This is the point at which we’d normally detail all the bonus features you’ll find included, however this box set is so jam packed and full of content I thought it would be better to just link out to the Arrow website. For the Gamera fan, this collection is the real deal, with newly recorded commentaries and features accompanying each film, alternate cuts for some of the Showa era movies and some lavish packaging and books that we sadly didn’t get to look at. It’s an expensive set but it’s very much worth it!
The films for the most part look and sound great, with HD transfers across the board, the more recent films having been taken from 4K remasters. The only exception here is probably Super Monster which looks flat and lifeless, but there is that old adage of not being able to polish a turd!
For the casual viewer, however, this collection is probably a bit much. Thankfully Arrow have released each film individually on various VOD channels and (for the time being) on their Amazon Prime Channel. Fans of kaiju movies will absolutely want to check out the Kaneko trilogy and should also give consideration to Gamera The Brave.
I came into this review knowing almost nothing about Gamera, but, despite the jankiness of the Showa era films have come away with a new found love for the Guardian of the Universe. Gamera is a fascinating alternative to the other big ‘G’ of the kaiju world; it’s a shame that the series hasn’t made as big an impact in the West and that there hasn’t been a new film for nearly 15 years, but hopefully this remastered release will help more people discover the Friend of All Children.