a.k.a. Daikaiju Gamera
company: Daiei Motion Picture Co.
director: Noriaki Yuasa
cast: Eiji Funakoshi, Harumi Kiritachi,
Junichiro Yamashiko, Yoshiro Ichida,
Michiko Sugata, Yoshiro Kitahara,
Jun Hamamura, Kenji Oyama,
Munehiko Takada, Yoshio Yoshida
writer: Nisan Takahashi
cinematography: Nobuo Munekawa
music: Tadashi Yamauchi
disc company: Shout! Factory
release date: May 18, 2010
retail price: $19.99
disc details: Region 1 / NTSC / dual layer
video: 16:9 anamorphic / 2.26:1 / progressive
audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic (Japanese)
special features: Audio commentary with
August Ragone, Retrospective documentary,
image galleries, original theatrical trailer
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Reviewed from a screener provided by Shout! Factory, LLC
1965 was a banner year for kaiju eiga. Toho’s Godzilla series was becoming a full-fledged franchise after the double whammy success of Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster the previous year, and was utterly unchallenged in the Japanese market except, perhaps, by Toho’s own deluge of effects productions. But Daiei Motion Picture Co. and executive producer Masaichi Nagata were about to change all of that forever, and unleash their own iconic monster hero upon an unsuspecting public.
From humble beginnings (according to anecdote, Nagata had a vision of a tortoise sailing through the clouds while traveling by plane and returned to Daiei, ordering his staff to turn that vision into a film) Gamera, the giant flying turtle and unlikely savior of children far and wide, would rise, spawning a profitable franchise that still boasts legions of fans both in Japan and abroad today. The first of eight, Gamera, the Giant Monster was an experiment for Nagata, taking his first giant leap into Toho-style monster mayhem (he would go on to produce the Daimajin and Yokai trilogies along with 7 Gamera sequels). Filmed in black and white, directed by the then inexperienced Noriaka Yuasa and plagued with the production troubles from start to finish, Gamera paid off big time for Daiei, and proved for the first time that others could hold their own against Toho’s seemingly unstoppable special effects juggernaut.
Godzilla‘s warning against nuclear proliferation had obviously fallen on deaf ears by the time of Gamera’s production, and the possibility of our world being reduced to a few irradiated ruins seemed very, very real. Not surprisingly it’s a skirmish between the Russians and the Americans, not the irresponsible testing of nuclear weaponry, that awakens Gamera from his slumbering, fissuring the Arctic ice and spewing him forth amidst fountains of slush and steam. Hungry for fuel stuffs, the monster makes short work of a scientific research vessel before diving into the sea and making an inevitable bee-line for the busy streets of Tokyo.
Hot on Gamera’s trail is Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi, Fires on the Plain), a survivor of the research expedition violently interrupted by the monster’s arrival, assistant Kyoko (Harumi Kiritachi) and reporter Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashiko) who, with the help of kindly old Professor Murase (Jun Hamamura, Prophecies of Nostradamus: Catastrophe 1999), look for ways to end the creature’s destructive rampage while trying to uncover the truth behind an old Eskimo tablet graced with Gamera’s image.
Complicating things is young Toshio Sakurai (Yoshiro Uchida, re-christened Kenny in the infamous Sandy Frank dub), the motherless son of a lighthouse operator who hasn’t a friend in the world save for a beloved pet turtle. Papa Sakurai (Yoshiro Kitahara) is none to fond of the critter, and demands that his son set it free – a sentiment echoed by Toshio’s older sister Nobuyo (Michiko Sugata). No sooner has Toshio fulfilled the wishes of his family than Gamera appears at their proverbial doorstep, simultaneously destroying their lighthouse and rescuing Toshio from certain doom. Convinced that Gamera is a good-hearted turtle, Toshio goes on a one-boy quest to sway public opinion and save his new best friend from the utterly ineffectual schemings of the JSDF.
The story for Gamera, the Giant Monster is too convoluted for its own good, a byproduct of writer Nisan Takahashi trying to please too many audience demographics at once while realizing Nagata’s absurd vision of a gigantic flying tortoise, and much of it is just plain dull. The pseudo-documentary scientific angle that comprises a third of the picture fares particularly poorly. Such scientific exposition was reduced considerably in subsequent efforts, always taking a back seat to the more usual human drama, but the necessity of explaining Gamera‘s presence pushes it blandly to the forefront here. The worst of it is a tepid romantic subplot between reporter Aoyagi and Hidaka’s assistant Kyoko, in which the former’s stalkerly advances come across as far more creepy than sweet.
Takahashi must have realized the considerable limitations of that aspect of Gamera‘s dramatics and, seeking to keep the younger audience members tuned-in, added an identifiable child character to the mix. Toshio is granted a suitably sympathetic backstory – his mother died just after he was born, and the nomadic lighthouse life of his father keeps him moving from school to school. It’s a great starting place for a character. After all, what child can’t relate to that feeling of not fitting in? Unfortunately, Toshio’s affinity for turtles large and small compels him to leap headlong into increasingly dangerous situations, even putting other human life at risk for the sake of his obsession. He climbs crumbling lighthouse steps, hitches a ride on a line of oil tankers and even smuggles himself into a military operation, all to be closer to his beloved Gamera. Future series sidekicks would be cut from saner cloth, but Gamera, the Giant Monster makes a sound argument for keeping its kiddie protagonist under lock and key.
For all the faults of the human element, the monster is certainly interesting – Toho never thought of anything so bizarre as a jet-propelled turtle with a soft-spot for prepubescents. The original Gamera presents the monster as a far more ambivalent entity than its sequels would suggest. Viewed by adults as an unstoppable menace and by Toshio as a cuddly, good-hearted creature, the truth of this Gamera lies somewhere in the middle. Hungry after his millions of years on ice and just too big to keep from getting into trouble, Gamera is less malicious than a few eons out of place, not above crushing a few hundred fleeing civilians while on the hunt for his next fix but not so unconscionable as to let an innocent child fall to his death. In spite of his city-stomping inclinations, Gamera proves just too lovable (er, unstoppable) for authorities to destroy, leading to one of the most humane monster movie resolutions outside of 1960′s Gorgo – the top secret Plan Z, which puts the invincible creature on a one-way flight to distant Mars.
In spite of limitations in both budget and experience (none of Daiei’s more accomplished staff would lead the project after the collapse of the earlier effects vehicle A Swarm of Beasts Nezulla), Gamera, the Giant Monster boasts an accomplished effects production that easily bests that of other contemporary Toho derivations. A lengthy attack on a geothermal plant and the climactic destruction of Tokyo are both expansive miniature setups, and Gamera’s emergence from the irradiated and bomb-shattered Arctic ice is perhaps the most impressive visual of the series. A reputation for crudity, largely the product of poor quality pan-and-scanned video editions, is mostly undeserved. Full scope presentations reveal intricately constructed miniatures, detailed mattes and fine process photography. Those on the lookout for supposed gaffs will find easy pickings in visible wires and the like, but those willing to check their modern expectations will have a great time enjoying the production for what it is.
Gamera, the Giant Monster has its problems to be sure, and both Gamera vs. Barugon and Gamera vs. Gaos would be marked improvements over in in their own ways. Noriaki Yuasa and the rest of the Gamera production team would become more confident as the series progressed, leading to a few real gems even as Daiei’s mismanagement led to ever more severe budget cuts. Gamera, the Giant Monster is where it all began and all of the iconic elements of the series to come, like turtle-loving kids and ludicrous anti-monster military operations, are there. Imperfect as it is Gamera is still worth checking out, especially for fans of giant monster cinema. Recommended!
Shout! Factory presents the original Japanese cut of Gamera, the Giant Monster
on DVD in the USA for the first time, and boy is this release a beauty! I don’t often commend a disc for its wrappings, but Shout! Factory deserves praise for their efforts at presenting Gamera
in a quality package. The interior of the disc insert reveals a anatomical illustration of everyone’s favorite giant flying turtle, easily visible through the clear Amaray-style case. A 12-page liner booklet repeats the illustration, but also offers an essay by departed director Noriaki Yuasa, character bios, a reproduction of the awesome Japanese theatrical poster and full credits for the DVD production staff. Tying everything together are the disc / front art and attractive menu designs, all based on production stills and rendered in appropriately icy blues.
The film itself is transferred from Kadokawa’s latest HD master and looks absolutely fantastic. Progressive and anamorphic in the original aspect ratio of 2.26:1, Gamera, the Giant Monster looks better than ever before. Detail is strong and contrast natural, with film grain visible throughout. Damage is minimal, limited to speckles here and there and the occasional scratch. Digital manipulation, if any, is slight, and this new transfer is free of the artificial sharpening that plagues the 2002 Daiei / Toshiba DVD releases. The end result is a great looking DVD presentation that upconverts beautifully for those with high-def televisions or projection systems. Audio is a clear Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic Japanese track augmented with an excellent optional English subtitle translation by August Ragone (the disc’s special features producer and author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters), one of the best I’ve seen for a foreign genre release.
Many have already lamented the exclusion of the 1966 US theatrical cut, Gammera the Invincible, the only known 35mm print of which is stored at the UCLA Film and Television Archive (which was reportedly uncooperative, though I don’t know the details). This was, honestly, not much of an issue for me. Those interested in that cut should consider picking up Neptune Media’s long-OOP widescreen VHS (sourced from the same UCLA print), which is still readily available on Amazon.com and elsewhere. Flat transfers from 16mm television prints are available everywhere, but are to be avoided. No English language dub track is included with this release (I don’t recall a full-length track beyond Sandy Frank’s grossly inaccurate hack-job being available anyway).
Shout! Factory has made a healthy assortment of supplemental content available. First up is an informative feature commentary track by August Ragone, which offers up extensive behind-the-scenes production details, biographical information on the cast and crew (including an obscure cast member credited only as ‘Brown’), and even some opinion on the film itself. Next up is a retrospective documentary listed as A Look Back at Gamera. The piece was originally produced for Daiei’s stacked laserdisc releases of the Gamera series and was later re-used for the 2002 Daiei / Toshiba DVD releases. Featuring interviews with director Noriaki Yuasa and writer Nisan Takahashi, among others, the 23 minute retrospective offers up first-person accounts of the series’ production and a tantalizing but brief ‘what-if’ video reconstruction of the proposed but un-produced sequel Gamera vs. Garasharp. The retrospective is made available here with English subtitles for the first time, and is presented in flat and interlaced 4:3. Still image galleries (featuring the international sales brochure, American pressbook and more) and the original Japanese theatrical trailer (which looks to be sourced from a newer HD master as well) round out the supplemental package.
The Gamera series has been denied its due respect in the US home video marketplace for far too long and Shout! Factory has done much to right that here, exclusion of Gammera the Invincible be damned. This is the original Gamera as creators Masaichi Nagata, Nisan Takahashi and Noriaki Yuasa originally intended it, and I’ve no complaints. As far as Wtf-Film is concerned, Gamera, the Giant Monster is a must-buy.
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