Gamera/Gammera the Invincible/Daikaiju Gamera (1965/1966) -*****
I’m speechless. Seriously, I don’t know what to say. Watching Gamera/ Gammera the Invincible/Daikaiju Gamera for the first time was one of the most mind-blowing experiences I’ve ever had sitting in front of a TV set. This movie is right up there with Robot Monster in terms of jaw-dropping ineptitude, and like the latter movie, it is absolutely, 100% irony-free. These people seem to have had no idea whatsoever what a ridiculous movie they were making.
First, some background. Back in the 50’s, Daiei-- the Japanese studio that produced Daikaiju Gamera-- made a handful of sci-fi movies, including a string of Invisible Man films and a variation on the theme of The Day the Earth Stood Still called Uchujin Tokyo ni Arawaru (“A Spaceman Appears in Tokyo”); the later was shown on American TV in the 1960’s under the titles Warning from Space and The Mysterious Satellite. For reasons that are at best obscure, Daiei never made much effort to attract Western distributors, and while Toho were making Japanese sci-fi/fantasy/monster movies world-famous with their Godzilla series, non-Japanese observers could be forgiven for believing that the rival studio spent the decade following Warning from Space sitting on the kaiju eiga sidelines. Then finally, in 1965, Daiei got into the game in a big way, unleashing a giant rubber monster of their own on the moviegoing public. The result was not quite the transparent cheap rip-off one might have expected, though-- Gamera and its sequels, although clearly intended as competition for Godzilla, have an almost entirely different feel to them. They are far more whimsical, both in their stories and their design esthetic, a distinction that was probably predictable on the basis of Warning From Space, which featured what must be the weirdest-looking movie aliens of all time. As an example of that whimsy, let’s start with a comparison of the two series’ titular monsters. While Godzilla is a fairly straightforward 50’s-era representation of a Theropod dinosaur (albeit rather heavily customized and much larger than any animal in the history of life on Earth), Gamera is a startlingly bizarre creature-- characters in the film refer to him as a turtle 60 meters (198 feet) tall, and that’s not a bad shorthand description. But this leaves out certain fairly important details-- his bipedalism, the walrus-like tusks that project upward from his lower jaw, the lizard-like (as opposed to turtle-like) appearance of his head, and of course his super-powers. Not only does Gamera breathe fire (as a competitor to Godzilla, he’d pretty much have to), he is also able to fly by withdrawing all of his appendages into his shell; the sockets of his limbs miraculously become rocket engines, and he lifts off, his body spinning like a frisbee. (I’ve never quite been able to figure that part out.) Clearly, this is more than just an outsized turtle.
The movie in which Gamera makes his debut shows an almost psychotic disregard for logic, a quality which is all the more striking considering that it is clearly intended to be taken fairly seriously. The movie begins, like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (the inspiration for the original Godzilla: King of the Monsters), with a scientific expedition to the frozen wastes above the Arctic Circle. But at first, the movie appears to have little interest in the expedition. It’s too busy setting up a dogfight between a formation of swept-wing jet bombers (no country of origin is given, but the planes have a distinctly Soviet look to them) and a pair of American interceptors sent to shoot them down (the American planes look like a cross between the F-106 Delta Dart-- the most high-tech fighter in the U.S. inventory in 1965-- and the Swedish Saab Draken fighter-bomber... very strange). Despite the characters’ lurid talk of the imminence of World War III, this scene is in the movie for one reason only-- so that one of the Russian-looking bombers can be shot down, setting off an explosion in its belly-full of nuclear weapons. No better proof could be asked of the completely instrumental nature of this scene than the fact that the movie never again mentions the attempted nuclear attack on the United States-- an event which any normal movie would take very seriously indeed.
Fully fifteen minutes elapse before it becomes remotely apparent what Dr. Hidaka (Blind Beast’s Eiji Funakoshi), the scientist in charge of the operation, is looking for on this trip, and even then, Hidaka says absolutely nothing that would suggest why his quest has brought him to the Arctic. Our first indication of what’s going on comes when he asks an Eskimo man, in a complete non-sequitur, “Tell me, have you heard of any giant turtles that used to live on the Arctic continent?” (I hasten to remind you that there is no Arctic continent!) Naturally, the Eskimo produces “the legendary stone” which his people have passed from generation to generation and blah blah blah, and which is inscribed with some circles and squiggly lines that might look just a little like a couple of turtles if you squinted really hard. Do we ever hear anything from Hidaka about the origins of his interest in big polar turtles? No, of course not. But Hidaka picked the right day to come, because that atomic explosion a few minutes back (about which none of the characters seems to be worried in the slightest) has conveniently awakened just such an animal. (Now here’s an example of why Gamera movies can often be much more fun than Toho’s technically far superior films. At no point does anyone offer any explanation for Gamera’s appearance following the explosion. There isn’t even a scene like the ones in Rodan or Gigantis the Fire Monster/Godzilla Raids Again in which a bunch of military men sit around a table while a bespectacled scientist slings shamefully obvious bullshit about “prehistoric monsters.” In Gamera, the equation is a simple one: A-bombs ergo monsters, Q.E.D.) When the monster appears over an nearby ridge (in a shot that looks exactly like our first peek at Godzilla), the Eskimo gasps, “it is Gamera, the Devil’s emissary!”-- and in the version distributed by Sandy Frank, at least (more on that distinction later) that’s actually about the most restrained and believable line of dialogue in the whole film!
After Gamera wrecks Hidaka’s ship-- sparing only Hidaka, his secretary (Harumi Kiritachi), and a young male reporter (Junichiro Yamashiko)-- he disappears for a while, allowing us to meet some more characters. In particular, we are introduced to a boy named Kenny (Yoshiro Uchida) and his family-- Mother (Michiko Sugata), Father (Yoshiro Kitahara, from Transparent Man vs. the Fly Man and Gamera vs. Gaos), and sister Nora. Kenny is obsessed with turtles (gee, I wonder where this is going). So obsessed, in fact, that his parents and teachers think it best that he part with his pet turtle, Tippy. (It’s hard to pick a favorite line of dialogue from Gamera-- nearly every utterance is a gem-- but Kenny’s dad admonishing the boy, “you’d be better off to forget all about turtles,” is a top contender.) I have to say this plot point baffles me; you’d think the kid were on drugs or something, the way the adults carry on. Anyway, when Kenny goes to the shore to release Tippy, who should appear but Gamera? He promptly smashes a lighthouse (every giant amphibious monster simply must smash at least one), which unsurprisingly happens to be the building in which Kenny was trying to hide.
And then, for no reason that I can fathom, an event transpires that will set up the single most disorienting aspect of the movie. Kenny falls from the wreckage and into Gamera’s hand, at which point the monster lightly sets him down on the ground and heads back out to sea. Henceforth, Kenny will be unswervingly convinced that “Gamera is a good turtle! He’s good and gentle!” No matter how many buildings Gamera smashes, no matter how many people he incinerates, Kenny will be there, protesting the monster’s goodness and gentleness. I think what’s at issue here is that Godzilla had become a good guy the year before Gamera was made, and that Daiei already had an eye toward working a similar transformation on their new monster’s character, should box-office grosses be sufficient to warrant the creation of a sequel. Of course, this raises the completely valid question, “why not have Gamera act as a hero right from the start?”, and I honestly don’t have an answer to that. Maybe Gamera’s creators thought it necessary, or financially wise, to at least pay lip-service to the long-established monster movie formula. But who knows?
Anyway, most of the ensuing action is fairly predictable. Gamera smashes industrial site A, defeating in the process military force B, and withstanding massive electrical shock C, before moving on to smash densely populated city D, and is finally bested by whiz-bang high-tech gadget E. Had I watched either the original Japanese version or the 60’s-vintage English-language dub produced by AIP-TV (which, incidentally, sacrifices a lot of original footage in order to make room for newly shot scenes featuring Brian Donlevy, from The Creeping Unknown and The Curse of the Fly), I don’t think I’d have found this movie nearly as impressive as I did. But instead of either of those, I treated myself to the early-80’s Sandy Frank home video version, an edition whose primary claim to fame is some of the most nonsensical dialogue ever recorded. I honestly cannot remember the last time I spent such a substantial proportion of a movie’s running time with my mouth hanging open in astonishment that they actually said that!!!! In fact, scarcely a single line came out of anybody’s mouth that failed to elicit the aforementioned reaction. What else can you do in response to “Of course our old legends referred to fire-eating turtles, but in the 20th century, we’ve given all that up as nonsense,” or to “Gamera is friend to all children,” asserted just before the monster burns to death a dance hall full of teenagers? The impact of the dialogue is magnified several-fold by the dubbing of the actors’ voices, which is some of the very worst that I have ever heard. The air force general in charge of those mutant interceptors is particularly spectacular in this regard; the combination of his voice, lines, and delivery is so absurd that it could almost be called “dadaist.” If you still haven’t seen this one, do it right now. Whatever you were doing before can wait.