Friday, November 7, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

Though I enjoy the MST3K sendups of English-langugage Gamera films as much as anyone, I have to admit that there's some satisfaction in finally watching the series in Japanese with English subtitles. Admittedly, no particular prism of cultural values can ameliorate the inspired lunacy of a film-series built around a giant turtle who can breathe fire and zoom through the sky like a flying saucer.  Still, a subtitled translation can't help but preserve more of the cultural values present in the original films.

In most of its components, GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER emulates the pattern of 1954's GOJIRA. Like Gojira, Gamera is a prehistoric beast that slumbers beneath the earth until it's awakened by an atomic blast.  The first Gamera film is a little fuzzy as to whether the titular creature spontaneously mutates thanks to exposure to radiation, but it's just as well the film didn't try to sell viewers on this idea. Not only would one have to believe that the colossal turtle gained the power to breathe fire, but also that somehow, it can pull its head and appendages into its shell and then emit rocket-like fire from the "holes," allowing the creature to simultaneously spin like a top and whirl through the heavens.  Like Gojira, in the monster's first appearance he battles no opponents save humankind, but when his series gets rolling, he never fails to engage in combat with another critter of similar dimensions.

Still, there are interesting differences. GOJIRA is suffused with anxiety and ambivalence about Japan's history in World War Two, with Gojira standing in simultaneously-- as my review explicates-- for both a traditional spirit of vengeance and an embodiment of alien forces, particularly those of the Atomic Age, bent on bringing Japan to its collective knees. In contrast, the GAMERA series engages at the level of domestic, rather than epic, conflict.  True, geopolitical tensions are invoked in Gamera's rebirth in the first film.  A Soviet plane carrying an atomic bomb trespasses into North American air space. The aircraft is shot down by American planes while far below on the icy tundra, a group of Japanese researchers watch the exchange. But the researchers don't exhibit any post-nuclear fears at the appearance of Gamera, and even when the giant turtle goes out of its way to swim all the way from the arctic to the shores of Japan, Gamera still doesn't carry any trace of Gojira's "atomic valence," so to speak.

Still, the earliest Gamera films have their own distinction: they show more interest in garnishing the marginal science-fictional structure of the narratives with references to myth and folklore.  While this particular Gamera has apparently never been un-earthed before, the researchers encounter some Eskimo people who preserve an ancestral tradition that such apocalyptic beasts have showed up in other times. This sounds like the script setting up the possibility that Eskimo tradition will provide some solution to the giant creature's rampages, but this potential soon fizzles out. In addition, the nominal "young male lead" at one point compares the "young female lead" with the Goddess of Good Luck. And then there's the film's principal viewpoint character, a grade-schooler named Toshio. This little boy, long before witnessing Gamera's advent to Japanese shores, worries his sister and her husband because he doesn't play well with others and displays an almost totemic obsession with -- what else?-- turtles.

To be sure, Gamera isn't as balls-out mean as Gojira. The first film places more emphasis on the fact that Gamera is motivated by hunger, for the great turtle feeds on heat, fire, and diverse other forms of energy. The monster doesn't attack anything but sources of food, such as refining plants, and barely even bothers to counter-attack against the gnat-like humans shooting at him. And of course, Gamera-- though not yet sentimentalized to earn the sappy title "friend of all children"-- does something that Gojira never would. When little Toshio takes a fall, Gamera extends a clawed hand, catches the kid, and allows him to run free. As presented in the first film, it almost seems to be a spontaneous impulse rather than an outpouring of kindness, for after that Gamera just goes back to feeding on oil-rigs. Nevertheless, when Japan's leading scientist comes up with a way of disposing of the monster, Gamera is treated with relative beneficence: being tricked into entering a space capsule that will take him to Mars, presumably with the idea of letting him live out his life there.

Though GAMERA had the disadvantage of being filmed in black-and-white, something about the film must have clicked at the box-office-- perhaps the memorable design of the monster, which somehow works despite all the disparate elements. Thus the big turtle gets a reprieve from his Martian exile. GAMERA VS. BARUGON starts with a meteor destroys the spaceship holding Gamera, after which his spinning shell whirls its way back to Earth (apparently the beast's nuclear mutation also allows the creature to survive in deep space).  While the colossal chelonian makes his way back, three Japanese fortune-hunters inadvertently unleash Gamera's first kaiju foe.  They travel to New Guinea in search of a giant opal, which is actually the egg of a giant creature called Barugon. The fortune-hunters hear of Barugon from a high priestess on New Guinea, name of "Karen." She warns the fortune-seekers against trespassing in the forbidden "Valley of Rainbows," which warning they naturally ignore. Apparently none of the present-day New Guineans have ever seen a Barugon, any more than the Eskimos of the first film had ever seen a Gamera, but somehow ancestral tradition has preserved the knowledge of these quasi-prehistoric survivals.

For instance, after Barugon has hatched, expanded to king-size, and gone on the usual rampage, Karen reveals that it usually takes ten years for a Barugon hatchling to grow to maturity.  This leads to a rather dopey explanation as to how Barugon's quick development-- and perhaps some of his fantastic powers as well-- came about as a result of exposure to an infrared sun-lamp being used by one of the treasure-seekers. As BS-explanations in SF-films go, this one's pretty awful, and doesn't even have the virtue of being funny.
Fortunately, though the visual design of Barugon isn't nearly as impressive as that of Gamera, the oversized lizard does display some very cool powers, such as a tongue that sprays freezing mist and rainbow-rays that shoot out of the spines on his back.

There are no cute kids in GAMERA VS. BARUGON, and the male lead-- the fortune-hunter Kano-- is refreshingly mature in realizing that he's indirectly responsible for the deaths of many innocents through his trespass on a sacred precinct. In contrast to Kano, one of his surviving accomplices, Onodera, is a picture of arrant selfishness: since he doesn't witness the egg hatch, he gets the idea that the gem is still out there, and his single-minded obsession leads him to interfere with Kano during one of the armed forces' attempts to vanquish Barugon.  He dies in the jaws of Barugon, while Kano will later be rewarded for his selflessness by winning the heart of the lissome Karen.

Gamera is almost side-lined from his position as "star of the show." The turtle is drawn to the scene of Barugon's rampage by his displays of energy, but is thereafter frozen stiff by the lizard's ice-tongue, and only thaws out in time for the finale. There's no sense that Gamera vanquishes Barugon out of any protective feeling toward humans; it's just a big grudge-match between two monsters who don't think Nippon's big enough for both of them.  When Gamera destroys his opponent, the adults watching don't precisely cheer him, but they don't seem too worried any more about Gamera attacking humans again.

Although GAMERA VS. GYAOS begins the trend toward Gamera's strange penchant to succor human children, it's probably the best of the original series.  While BARUGON maintains a somewhat murky look throughout, GYAOS's photography displays a palette of bright primary colors, perhaps as part of a desire to appeal more overtly to a juvenile audience.  The film also benefits from Gamera's best opponent: the vicious-looking pteranodon Gyaos, who like Barugon eats people rather than just flames.  The two major fights between the monstrous opponents are also the best choreographed in the original series.

This time no human beings are guilty of unleashing the new monster on the block. Mount Fuji erupts and releases yet another time-buried creature, later named Gyaos for his screeching cry.  Gamera does show up to gobble up the flames released by Fuji, but he isn't involved in the pteranodon's rebirth.

Nearby a more mundane drama is transpiring. A Japanese road-building company is attempting to build a new highway in the neighborhood of Fuji.  To do so they must convince the inhabitants of a small village to sell their land.  Some villagers don't want to leave their long-time homes, while some only want to make the most money they can from a big sale. They appeal to the village-mayor to make their deals for them, but discussions are tabled when it's revealed that there's a man-eating monster hanging around the area.

The mayor's grade-school grandson Eiichi becomes far more intimately involved in the perils, for he's almost one of Gyaos' first victims.  Gamera shows up and not only gives battle to the winged monster, he deliberately rescues Eiichi and even takes him back to the bosom of his family.  The tusked turtle's motivations for doing so are no longer explicable as the spontaneous action of an unthinking beast: Gamera has become, at least on one level, a heroic figure.

Like the other films GYAOS includes some quasi-superstitious pronouncements, like "when animals run away, disaster will follow" and "the gods sent Gyaos to punish us for being so greedy" (the latter comes from the mayor when he realizes that his delays may have cost the villagers the chance to sell their property). These may not be profound, but they do reinforce the Gamera series' aura of modern folklore.  But of course Gyaos' nifty powers-- particularly his ability to shoot a flesh-cutting sonic ray from his mouth-- and Gamera's ability to counter them are the highlights of this kaiju epic.  The conflicts between Japanese traditionalism and progressive capitalism are solved rather easily, but at least this time the little Gamera-phile kid is reasonably appealing.  More annoying avatars, to be sure, were on the horizon.

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