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Popcorn Fall

Popcorn Pictures

Reviewing the best (and worst) of horror, sci-fi and fantasy since 2000

  • Andrew Smith

Gamera: The Giant Monster (1965)


An unnamed jet carrying a nuclear bomb is shot down over the Arctic, exploding upon impact and melting the ice. In doing so, it releases the giant monster Gamera from an icy tomb. A team of scientists and military personnel must find a way to stop the monster as it heads towards Japan, causing swathes of destruction in its path.


After Godzilla's monstrous success, It was only a matter of time before another Asian studio decided to try and ride the coat tails by producing their own giant monster movie. By 1965, Toho had dominated the kaiju market with their array of giant monster movies conquering the cinemas including Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra. But it took eleven years for Gamera to come along, a jet-propelled flying turtle with similar fire breath to Godzilla, and even then his debut outing was filmed in black-and-white - a crazy decision given Toho had released Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster a year earlier and one which dates Gamera: The Giant Monster significantly. I honestly thought this was from the same era as the original Godzilla.

I've already mentioned Godzilla a few times already. You see, It's hard not to make the comparisons between Gamera and Godzilla since Gamera only exists due to the other's success. Both consequences of atomic radiation (though Gamera was awakened by it, not created by it), both reptilian monsters than can spew deadly breath, both head to Tokyo for a spot of city-smashing, both seem impervious to the army's attempts to stop them and both are seemingly killed off only to re-emerge a few years later in the sequel. But whilst Toho aimed their franchise towards the adult market with a more serious approach, Gamera is solely directed towards the kids. Gamera eventually went on to star in his own series of films both back in the 60s and early 70s and then in the more recent 90s and 00s. The recent 00s revival gave Godzilla a big run for his money.

Later in the series, Gamera would always become friends with a little human Japanese boy who would call on him for help whenever another monster arrived to take over. There are few signs of this infantile approach in Gamera but likewise there are no signs that this was geared towards a more mature audience. There are no pretensions about atomic testing here. Godzilla had been there, done that and was now Japan's protector rather than his destroyer. Gamera has some thinly-veiled messages to fire off about the Cold War between America and Russia but they seem forcibly added to the film to give it some more gravitas. The monster here is not a malevolent force of destruction but rather something that had been rudely awakened from its long sleep and, like a bear with a sore head, is a bit confused and in a bit a bad mood, wondering why all of these cities have sprung up since the last time it was awake and desperately trying not to step on any.

Gamera is an interesting design but not in a positive sense. He's not just a giant turtle but one with a jet-powered shell that can make him fly. He can retract his limbs just like an ordinary turtle but then blasts fire out of each hole, sending him rocketing through the sky like a UFO. Not only does Gamera look daft but he acts daft too. He's not the primal force of nature that Godzilla was but rather a dorkier monster with a goofy face. The scenes of him smashing up the miniature cities are average at best, made worse by the ridiculousness of the monster suit. He's the sort of monster a committee of kids would come up with if they were asked by a studio suit to design a monster for a new film.

For budgetary reasons, Gamera was filmed in black and white and whilst this does cover over a lot of the obvious cracks in the special effects, it proves to be a feeble contrast when you look at other films released the same year. Over at Toho in 1965, Godzilla and Rodan were doing battle with King Ghidorah in glorious colour in Invasion of the Astro Monsters. Gamera's quaint black and white approach pales in comparison and gives it a much older look - you'd quite happily buy into it being a mid 50s sci-fi film. The step-down in quality from the Godzilla films is amazing and whilst the crew who worked on Gamera weren't as experienced at producing miniatures, the gulf in class is amazing. They don't vary the scenes of destruction and it gets tiresome watching Gamera pummel the same buildings over and over again. On the plus side, Gamera might just well be the first kaiju film to show humans being incinerated by the giant monster.

The human characters don't add anything to the story either. All they do is stand around in between monster attacks and discuss what they can to stop Gamera. It's a good job that there are plenty of attacks because they'd run out of conversation pretty quickly otherwise. There's a fair selection of stock characters on offer but you'll never remember who half of them are by the time the film finishes. Their eventual solution to the Gamera problem, trapping him and launching him into space, must rank as one of the most idiotic ways of all time to dispatch a giant monster. Better off launching the film reel with him. The fact that humanity didn't try to kill him but helped him off into space showed the softer side to the Gamera films that Daiei took, allowing kids to live in hope that he'd be back soon.


Final Verdict

It is the only real Asian rival to Godzilla but unfortunately Gamera doesn't even come close to beating Toho's all-conquering radioactive monster. Gamera arrived at the monster party ten years too late and is out-gunned by his kaiju counterparts in every aspect. Little kids may enjoy the flying turtle but that's still a stretch - as a little kid, I was already well into Godzilla so not sure why I'd need the 'Diet' version of him.


Gamera: The Giant Monster

Director(s): Noriaki Yuasa

Writer(s): Niisan Takahashi (screenplay)

Actor(s): Eiji Funakoshi, Harumi Kiritachi, Junichiro Yamashita, Yoshiro Uchida, Michiko Sugata, Yoshirô Kitahara

Duration: 78 mins


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