Monster Movie Monday: Gamera: The Giant Monster (1965)
Matthew Turner | On 01, Nov 2021
Director: Noriaki Yuasa
Cast: Eiji Funakoshi, Michiko Sugata, Harumi Kiritachi, Junichiro Yamashita
Where to watch Gamera: The Giant Monster in the UK: Amazon Prime / Arrow Video / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
In the mood for a creature feature? Amazon Prime has a veritable menagerie of monster movies, so we’re working our way through them, one killer beastie at a time. Welcome to Monster Movie Mondays.
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa, Gamera is a Japanese kaiju film that was essentially conceived as a rival to Toho Studios’ Godzilla, which had taken the global box office by storm in 1954. Gamera (a giant, fire-breathing flying turtle) subsequently spawned his own monster franchise, consisting of a total of 12 films to date.
The only film in the series shot in black-and-white, Gamera gets straight to business, with the title character making his perfectly timed first appearance just as his title credit comes up – like Godzilla, he knows how to make an entrance. The set-up is extremely simple: when American planes shoot down unidentified enemy aircraft over the Arctic, their payload turns out to be a nuclear bomb, which explodes in the icy wasteland, awakening giant turtle Gamera.
On hand to witness Gamera’s awakening are Dr Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi) and his assistant Kyoko Yamamoto (Harumi Kiritachi), who deduce from an Eskimo legend that Gamera originated in Atlantis and had been buried in the glacier for thousands of years. Meanwhile, attracted by fire, Gamera stomps his way through various power stations and lighthouses and eventually heads for downtown Tokyo.
Considering the relatively low budget, the special effects in Gamera are surprisingly good, with some excellent model work. In keeping with the tradition established by Godzilla, Gamera is very much a man-in-a-suit job, but the costume is excellent, with great detail, from the spines on his back to his long tail (allowing him to walk upright) and his two upward-pointing fangs. There’s also a nice reversal on Godzilla’s power-set, in that Gamera can actually eat fire (by drawing it in), as well as breathe it out as a weapon.
Speaking of Gamera’s powers, there’s one detail that’s either the height of silliness or a stroke of genius, depending on your viewpoint. It turns out that Gamera can fly by withdrawing his head into his shell and then shooting fire from all shell-holes. This results in him frequently getting mistaken for a flying saucer, as if Yuasa is having a cheeky dig at US flying saucer movies.
The set pieces are genuinely exciting, with Gamera giving all manner of things a damn good stomping and amusingly shrugging off most of the schemes the pesky humans come up with to defeat him – eg. he wanders into an overhead power cable trap, but it turns out that only makes him stronger. The destruction occurs on an impressive scale and Yuasa includes some fun little touches, such as an inspired cut from Gamera’s latest attack to a hip and happening Japanese pop band, just before the giant turtle shuts down their concert in a pretty decisive fashion.
Despite the fact that a little boy (Yoshiro Uchida as Toshiro) continually defends Gamera as benevolent – to be fair, he did rescue Toshiro from the lighthouse he knocked down – the creature burns several people alive and there’s a moment that’s genuinely shocking, when Yuasa briefly uses a negative photographic image effect over a room full of now dead concert-goers. Traditionally, such an effect is cinematic shorthand for a nuclear explosion, so it’s not hard to see the comparison Yuasa is drawing there, but it’s an unexpectedly powerful moment nonetheless.
Even the film’s problems somehow contribute to its charm. Chief among these are the frankly terrible English accents for the English dialogue portions – not just on the Japanese actors, but the American actors (playing US military types) as well. They’re only bit parts, but the cumulative effect is hilarious, as if Yuasa deliberately assembled the worst actors he could find, just for laughs.
On top of that, the rather poor eye effects on Gamera (the poorly operated pupils randomly go from side to side) let the side down a bit and there’s the occasional bit of amusingly on-the-nose dialogue, such as “Well, this could be an ominous sign.” But, as previously noted, all that only adds to the fun of the whole thing.
As a final side note, the good news is that this version of the film is released by Arrow Video, which means it has the original language with subtitles and is presented in the correct aspect ratio – it even has the original Japanese subtitles on the English language dialogue, appearing at the side of the screen. That’s by no means always the case for non-English language films on Amazon Prime Video, so it’s a reason to celebrate. Gamera parties all round!
Gamera: The Giant Monster is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on Arrow UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.