Gamera vs. Gaos / Return of the Giant Monsters / Daikaiju Kuchusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu (1967) ***
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. For nearly as long as I can remember, if you saw a Gamera movie in English, it was going to be one of the Sandy Frank dubs. As TV stations increasingly abandoned the practice of airing old monster movies late at night and on weekend afternoons after the late 1970’s, one saw correspondingly less of the cheap foreign junk that companies like AIP-TV had spent the past two decades importing for television syndication, and the old film libraries of broadcasters like WDCA-20 spent more and more time gathering dust in the vaults. American International was no longer around to take advantage of the new market when home video came along, and a great many of the movies they had distributed in this country simply vanished from sight. Other entrepreneurs emerged to serve the video industry’s needs, however, and Sandy Frank was one of them. When he acquired the US video rights to a number of old Japanese monster and sci-fi movies, the package included most of the original seven Gamera films (interestingly, Frank picked up Gamera vs. Zigra, which had never appeared in English-language release before, but omitted Destroy All Planets and Gamera vs. Monster X, which AIP had circulated years earlier), and it was through his versions that most kids of the 80’s first encountered Daiei’s counter-Godzilla. The Sandy Frank editions were also the ones licensed by Best Brains Inc. for use as “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fodder, dominating the 90’s cohort’s exposure to Gamera as well.
The rise of DVD introduced a new factor, however. VHS tapes are mechanical devices with lots of moving parts that have to be carefully assembled, but a DVD is just a compact wafer of emulsified aluminum. The unit cost for duplication is practically nil, so public-domain content can be profitably exploited on DVD even at retail prices of a dollar per disc or less. With television stations understandably eager to part with vast stocks of films that they were no longer showing, made or imported in large measure by companies that no longer existed, there was also a considerable supply of exactly such material readily available, and thus was born the public-domain DVD label. For the Gamera series, this meant a sudden reversal of the Sandy Frank-vs.-AIP availability situation. Frank held an enforceable copyright on his versions, and had been touchy about licensing them ever since he saw how they had been handled on “MST3K;” the AIP-TV dubs, on the other hand, were free for the taking to anybody who could secure access to a print. Which way do you think the smart businessman was going to choose given the aforementioned options? The changeover was a mixed blessing for fans, though, because Frank’s edits have at least one thing over AIP’s— since Frank was too much of a cheapskate to put any thought or effort into them, they are pretty much direct translations of the Japanese originals, whereas AIP had worked hard and creatively to bring their versions into line with what was expected of American children’s entertainment in the 1960’s. In practice, that meant a lot of gore and graphic violence went missing in the old dubs, and since Gamera vs. Gaos is in many respects the darkest Gamera movie of the Showa era, I really did want to hold out for an uncut edition. In other words, now you know why it’s taken me so long to get here.
Now, if you’ll think back to Gamera vs. Barugon, we last saw our favorite flying, fire-breathing turtle inexplicably turning white-hat after a short but pretty intensive career as a menace to the public good. Remarkably, screenwriter Nisan Takahashi acknowledges the obvious unlikelihood of Gamera’s sudden reformation by having the Japanese government, press, and public eye him warily when the unprecedented reawakening of Mount Fuji’s volcanic plume brings the monster to Tokyo’s environs to feed on the unleashed geothermal energy.
Meanwhile, an expressway being built across another nearby mountain has had its construction held up long enough to infuriate the head of the firm responsible for it. Before Gamera, there was the renewed volcanic and seismic activity, and before that, it was a village of small-hold farmers refusing to sell the land in the path of the highway. None of those obstacles seems to be going anywhere any time soon, but the boss doesn’t care. He gives orders to his site foreman, Shiro Tsutsumi (Kojiro Hongo, of Gamera vs. Barugon and The Wrath of Daimajin), to resume work at once, and to get as tough as he needs to with the recalcitrant villagers. Recalcitrance turns to sabotage when Tsutsumi starts pushing, and the situation looks poised to devolve into a dress rehearsal for Prophecy. Just like in Prophecy, though, the conflict between capitalists and country folk is put on the back burner by the emergence of a deadly monster. The headman of the truculent farmers (Kichijiro Ueda, from The Legend of the White Serpent and Horrors of Malformed Men) has a daughter named Sumiko (Reiko Kasahara, from Island of Horrors and Gamera vs. Zigra), and Sumiko has a very young son called Eiichi (Naoyuki Abe) whom the villagers employ as a scout when they stage their raids on Tsutsumi’s construction site. Eiichi happens to be watching the main approach to the village when a newspaper photographer (Shin Minatsu) comes snooping around, attracted by both the conflict over the highway and the weird green glow that just started emanating from the fissures opened up by the latest round of earth-tremors. The journalist convinces Eiichi to show him the way up to the fissures by appealing to the boy’s sense of adventure, but his own proves unequal to what they find living in the great rents— a huge, carnivorous, bat-like creature whose sonar has developed into an ultrasonic cutting beam capable of slicing a heavy-lift helicopter cleanly in two. The photographer runs from the monster, leaving Eiichi to fend for himself, but the colossal bat quickly catches and eats him. It tries to do the same to Eiichi immediately thereafter, but all the ruckus on the next peak over has attracted Gamera’s attention. Gamera flies over from Fujiyama, and an inconclusive sparring match breaks out between the monsters. The bat-thing seems reluctant to engage Gamera at close quarters, but its sonic ray cuts through the other kaiju’s hitherto-invulnerable hide as easily as a chainsaw through cardboard. Gamera nearly loses an arm rescuing Eiichi, and he retreats to the safety of Tokyo Bay after delivering the child to his elders at an amusement park on the outskirts of the city.
That leaves the bat-thing (dubbed “Gyaos” by Eiichi, and modified to “Gaos” by Sandy Frank on the theory that “GY” is a consonant cluster that no English-speaker wants to try wrapping his tongue around) free to wreck things, devour livestock, and generally terrorize the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area at its leisure. The authorities step in, naturally, but Gyaos massacres the fighter-bombers sent to attack it in its lair, and launches a massive retaliatory strike on the city proper. Again Gamera intervenes, but he accomplishes little more than to bite off a couple of Gyaos’s toes. That’s a more significant development than it seems, however, because the strange behavior of the severed appendages suggests that the monster has a weakness after all. Eiichi had already observed that Gyaos is strictly nocturnal, and the military (wisely taking their cues from the only person in the whole movie who has been paying any attention) had already attempted to exploit that observation by mounting all their attacks on the creature’s lair in broad daylight. But when the sun hits those chewed-off toes, they begin withering away like a sublimating ice cube, showing that there’s a very good reason for Gyaos to stick to the shadows. Dr. Aoki (Yoshiro Kitahara, from Gamera and The Transparent Man vs. the Fly Man), the junior of the two scientists studying the monster, postulates that it’s the ultraviolet waves that do the trick on Gyaos’s tissues, but his superior, Dr. Murakami (Fujio Murakami), rejects the idea of a gigantic UV death-ray as impractical. That’s a curious position to take, considering his counter-proposal. Again relying upon Eiichi’s teratobiological insights— in this case, that Gyaos drinks blood and flies in such rigid patterns as to suggest that he’s terribly susceptible to dizziness— Murakami devises the following astounding plan: the revolving restaurant atop the hotel where the army’s anti-Gyaos task force is headquartered will be modified to spin at about 30 revolutions per minute, and have its roof converted into a fountain for synthetic blood. Gyaos will smell the blood-substitute, perch on the roof of the hotel to drink, and become so woozy that he’ll be unable to fly home to his cave before the sun comes up. Inevitably, this, er, ingenious scheme doesn’t pan out quite as intended, and it falls to Gamera to finish what Dr. Murakami started.
You want to know when Gamera vs. Gaos really won my heart? It was during Dr. Murakami’s initial press conference, when one of the assembled reporters asked him whether Gyaos was a bird or a reptile. That was the scientist’s cue to switch on his slide projector, and start clicking his way through 1930’s-vintage paintings of some prehistoric animal that kind of, sort of looks maybe just a little like the monster suit the special effects people had designed. Then he could atrociously garble the creature’s taxonomic name, and offer some cockamamie explanation for how it could have survived in hibernation for entirely the wrong number of millions of years. It’s a ritual moment in the monster movie, a ritual which, in 1967, had been scrupulously observed by practically every such film since The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. But Murakami doesn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he tells the reporters that he has no idea what Gyaos is, and frankly doesn’t see that it matters much— “Let’s just call it a monster.” The reporter tries again, prompting Murakami with the old saw about eons of hibernation, and the professor allows how that’s as good a guess as any. But then he goes on to state that nothing he or anyone else (he hasn’t met Eiichi yet) might say about the creature’s nature or origin at this point would be anything better than a very slightly educated guess, and that so far as he’s concerned, his efforts would be far more wisely spent on figuring out how to kill the frigging thing. I can think of no other monster movie prior to Tremors that offers any comparable display of forthright self-awareness.
Gamera vs. Gaos marks the moment when Daiei’s monster mascot emerged from the shadow of Godzilla to become a character and a franchise worthy of consideration in its own right. In fact, from this movie forward, Godzilla would increasing begin taking hints from his upstart rival. What Gamera vs. Gaos does is to integrate the divergent approaches of its two predecessors, creating a template that the series would follow until its first demise in 1971: Something out of the ordinary makes its presence felt, and Gamera is sighted for the first time; the human story is set in motion; a second monster appears, threatening a tubby little kid; Gamera comes to the rescue, but is dealt an incapacitating injury in the fighting; human ingenuity comes close to overcoming the otherworldly menace, but is unable to triumph without the last-minute aid of a resurgent Gamera. In essence, it’s the plot structure of Gamera vs. Barugon, but mated to the whimsical fairy-tale sensibility of the original Gamera, and while subsequent sequels would be ever more totally overwhelmed by the sillier elements of the formula (and would be handicapped ever more seriously by technical incompetence and shoddy production values), this installment gets the balance very close to exactly right.
Naturally, it helps a great deal that this movie features Gamera’s one truly iconic foe. Gyaos is often dismissed as a cheap copy of Rodan, but the actual similarities are few and superficial. Both monsters fly, they both live in caverns, and they both generate cyclone-force winds with their wings, but that’s really all there is. Gyaos is better understood, I think, as a successful stab at what Toho failed to achieve in Frankenstein Conquers the World, a post-Godzilla, Japanese interpretation of a Western horror archetype. Exactly which borrowed archetype he represents may not be immediately obvious, but neither does it take too much reflection to recognize it. Guzzling blood, hiding from the sun’s lethal rays, and treating children like the greatest of delicacies, Gyaos is the kaiju Count Dracula! He’s also easily the most elegant of the fanciful second-wave Asian monsters, despite being hamstrung to some extent by Daiei’s low budgets and inferior special-effects artisanship. With his wedge-shaped head, ridged back, and vertically flattened blade of a tail, he looks like he might actually be capable of the preposterous speeds the Japanese like to claim for their flying kaiju, as if Mother Nature had grown envious of the MiG-25. No matter how weird the monsters got later on (flying metal goblin sharks, monitor lizards with steak knives for heads, etc.), none of them ever took such strong root in the fans’ imaginations, and it’s no surprise that when the series was resurrected for the second time in the mid-1990’s, the first of those Heisei Gamera films was a virtual remake of this one.
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