Friday, June 26, 2015

Turtle Talk #2: GAMERA VS. BARUGON (1966)


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TRAVIS:

Now THIS is what I'm talkin' about.

A mere year after the original black-and-white GAMERA, the tortoise returns in full color for GAMERA VS. BARUGON! We pick up moments from the first movie with Gamera's rocket ship heading towards Mars WHEN SUDDENLY it crashes into a meteorite and the monster is freed. Gamera immediately beelines it back to Earth and destroys the power plant at the Kurobe Dam to suck up some more fire power. Meanwhile in Osaka, a tale of TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE-style twists and betrayals are afoot! WWII veteran Kano has gathered three men (his brother Keisuke, ship officer Kawajiri, and general scumbag Onodera) together to send them on a jewel hunt in the South Pacific. Years ago during the war, Kano discovered a giant opal on a tropical island and hid it in a cave to retrieve later. Now handicapped with a limp, he sends Keisuke, Kawajiri, and Onodera on a mission to travel to that same island and bring the opal back with the promise of fortune and riches. What could go wrong?

The men reach the island and run into the local tribe. Tanned complexions, flower and straw dresses, high energy dance routines.... yep, it's your atypical kaiju flick island tribe! And like all tribes, there's a fatal warning for those who dare upset the spirits. In this case, the men are warned not to venture into the “valley of rainbows” as only death awaits those who disturb it. But our group of mainlanders do not heed this warning and explore the secret cave. They do successfully find the opal, but Onodera pulls the double cross by allowing a deadly scorpion to sting and kill Kawajiri and detonating the cave to leave Keisuke trapped by the falling rocks. Keisuke is rescued by tribeswoman Karen, but both must race back to Japan! Why? Well, that opal Onodera stole is no opal! It's an egg containing the ancient monster Barugon! It soon hatches and Barugon begins his destructive rampage on Osaka!

Now so we don't confuse any novice kaiju fans, we're talking about Barugon from the Daiei Gamera series, not Baragon the burrowing monster from Toho's FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON and GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK. I'll always have a place in my heart for the floppy eared Godzilla sidekick, but Gamera's rainbow villain is pretty fun too! As I said in the previous review, the Gamera films were fun when they embraced the sci-fi silliness, and the powers of Barugon are hilariously great. He's best known for the rainbow death ray that emits from his back, yet he also has a tongue nozzle that shoots freeze spray! Fun times! It's a small detail, but I also liked how he had vertical eye lids, giving him a little unworldly touch any time he blinked. He's definitely a great opponent for Gamera's first versus movie. What did you think of round two with Gamera, Luca?

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LUCA:

What a wonderful surprise GAMERA VS. BARUGON was, Travis! After the initial disappointment of Gamera's debut, I was a bit fearful as to how enjoyable a series on this monster might be. Luckily, my fears turned out to be unfounded (for the moment). To me this is just an all-timer of a Showa monster movie. You've touched upon how great and imaginative an adversary Barugon is, but let me focus on what dragged the movie kicking and screaming into Top Tier Kaiju for me: the asshole Onodera, as portrayed by Koji Fujiyama. More often than not, kaiju humans are pretty boring filler, meant to pad out scenes in between model city smashing and suit wrestling. Sometimes, however, there'll be a human(oid) villain to conjure up some conflict for our people-protagonists. This'll usually be a greedy businessman or an overly aggressive general or the like. Painted with the same broad brush strokes as our heroes, these antagonists are quite reliably hilarious in their one-dimensional greed/anger/general evil. It must be said, however, that Onodera is a cut above the baddies I've seen in kaiju movies so far. This mercenary's (?) evil is of such a venal, petty, cowardly, violent kind that I felt like I was reading an Elmore Leonard short story rather than a kiddie monster flick. Onodera just wants to get paid, and he doesn't really have a specific plan for that to happen. Instead, he just seizes the moment (like with the scorpion) when it's there or goes to bully people into doing what he wants. Some highlights include beating up a disabled man (not that Kano doesn't give as good as he gets, screaming "Die, you bastard!" in the brawl) and sabotaging the military operation to destroy Barugon because the diamond used to power the weapon is HIS BY RIGHTTTTT which it demonstrably isn't.

With all these great bad guys for the heroes to overcome, there's really no need for the good guys to be super interesting, as the villains have it pretty much covered. That being said, I still had to laugh at how haphazardly Gamera gets pulled into this movie. Oh, a meteor bumped the rocket on a course back to Earth. Oh, he ate a dam and then took off for parts unknown. Oh, he's back now cuz he just can't have Barugon smashing up the place. We've often talked about kaiju monsters being like wrestling matches for kids (well, moreso than usual), and in only his second appearance Gamera has the air of an old pro who has to show up to defend the championship title cuz none of these other guys really move any merchandise and it's just in his contract. I suppose the continuity nerd in me appreciates that the movie bothered to explain why he's back, rather than Toho's patented "Well, here's Godzilla I guess" approach. Still, pretty funny that they're already resorting to grafting their marquee monster on seemingly unrelated scripts two movies in. I at least hope they will keep explaining his presence! If not, okay, fine. I can deal with this now after 30+ of these!

Another tradition (if one can call it that after two movies) that is brought over from the first GAMERA is the strange exoticization of the English language. You have an island tribe full of Japanese actors in brownface, and their beautiful princess is called... Karen? Was she a stranded anglophone scientist's daughter or something and did I merely miss the line of dialogue that mentioned that? I hope not, because it'd be hilarious if the script features a fictitious group of Pacific Islanders where "Karen" is a viable woman's name. More hearty island-laughs: the dire warnings about death and doom that will follow anyone that enters... THE VALLEY OF RAINBOWS!!! I love that they just unabashedly went with that, rather than Barugon Gorge or something slightly more threatening. Now I've been an island adventure mark ever since EBIRAH, but how about you, Travis -- was the tropical or the urban half of the movie more entertaining to you?

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TRAVIS:

I have to give it to the urban half because that's where all the MONSTA WRASSLIN' happens. However, that half does occasionally drag when the army manages to subdue Barugon (twice!) by dropping artificial rain on him. Both times they're followed by ponderous scenes of the cast figuring out a plan to kill him. You'd think that if they've successfully stopped Barugon in his tracks that they might as well blast him with a bunch of fire hoses or something since water is supposed to be his weakness. Or heck, wouldn't all that artificial rain eventually melt him away? It's implied that the army keeps liquid dusting him for days, so shouldn't he be a little weakened at least?

I guess not, because it takes Gamera to straight up hold Barugon underwater and drown him until he erupts into a purple bloody geyser! One feature of the Gamera series that was distinct from Godzilla was the amount of monster gore that was sprayed and gushed about freely in these supposed kiddie kaiju flicks. What probably made it okay for children was that the bodily fluids were never red colored, and the Gamera monsters generally bled black or purple or some unnatural color. Compare this to later Showa Godzilla entries where the G-man sometimes garishly gushed bright red blood from his wounds, and it's not hard to imagine children being more comfortable with the safe fantasy of Gamera's muted colored violence.

Speaking of children, GAMERA VS. BARUGON is a unique film in the series because it's the only one that lacks a kid protagonist. Yep, even though Gamera's known as a “friend to all children”, it's hard to spot someone under seventeen years old in this film. Though the Showa movies were regarded as kiddie stuff, BARUGON has the most adult tone with its old yarn of treasure hunters and the mistrust between them. Even when the plot gets back to Osaka, serious themes of greed and man's disrespect of nature and myth are prevalent in between the moments of giant turtle vs. rainbow lizard. The filmmakers could've made a serviceable movie about these themes, but hey, that's not why you're watching this flick, right?

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LUCA:

I’m gonna wuss out and say the urban/jungle portions were about equally good for me. One had the kaiju stomping as you say, but the jungle adventure also had the human betrayals escalating to the point of attempted murder (and originating hilariously with Onedara making the other two scrub the deck in their guises as skipper and sailors, respectively). The scenes build quite well, flowing logically from one to the next, with new obstacles popping up and leading to new complications in nearly each of them. That’s basic filmmaking, sure, but you’d be surprised at how rare it is in cheap monster movies like these! Or not, I suppose, considering they’re cheap monster movies. What I’m trying to say though is that the movie actually earns its 100 minute runtime – a real epic in terms of length when it comes to Showa movies, outdoing its predecessor by about half an hour and the distinguished competition at Toho by about twenty minutes. I must say that I didn’t feel this stretched runtime – even though it was (by my estimate) made longer because of the need to graft Gamera onto an already existing screenplay – as badly as I did with some Heisei Godzila films. Lookin’ at you, SPACEGODZILLA!

It was 1966 and the Gamera business was booming – or at least lucrative enough to be cranking them out at a pace to rival Toho’s. After ripping Barugon to shreds at the bottom of a lake like a rainbow lizard version of Jason Voorhees, it would not be long before our turtle friend returned to Japanese theater (and American TV) screens with GAMERA VS. GYAOS. Join us next time as Gamera takes on what appears to be its very own version of Rodan!

Monday, June 15, 2015

TURTLE TALK #1: GAMERA (1965)

 

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LUCA:

The shadow of Godzilla looms large over Gamera.

Released in 1965, the same year as Godzilla’s sixth outing (that would be INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER), GAMERA’s lack of color immediately reminds viewers they’re watching a cheap cash-in on the giant monster craze of the Showa era. Now, lo-fi movies don’t bother me one bit, as some all-time classics were created on a shoestring budget. I must say though that while color film stock may have been an extravagant luxury that wasn’t in the budget, I did not notice any particularly bad model work – which ultimately is one of the most important things in these movies next to the monster suits themselves. If they had to cut back on the former to make sure they were able to guarantee decent work on the latter, hey, I’m all for it. So how does Gamera look? Decent, for the most part. One of the best things I could say about the suit was that when Gamera opened his mouth, there was something glistening inside, giving you the impression that he had working insides, with saliva glands and all. Great for immersion! Not so great for immersion were the occasional glimpses of the flamethrower’s nozzle you could see when Gamera used his breath weapon. I hope the glisten wasn’t kerosene – poor suit actor!

If there’s one thing we can give GAMERA credit for, it’s the pioneering of a child protagonist in a kaiju movie. Granted, GAMERA is a bit of an ensemble movie like GOJIRA, but Toshio the turtle fanboy (Yoshiro Uchida) is a type that will be immediately recognizable to those versed in big monster movies. Daiei Studios smartly realized the appeal of these movies to young kids and decided to get in on that action right away, as opposed to the decade and change it took Toho. Yes, giant monsters will appeal to kids with or without human actors their own age, but there is definitely a difference in something like GOJIRA as opposed to ALL MONSTERS ATTACK. I’ll give props to GAMERA for yet another different approach – though as to whether or not it’s a good one is questionable – director Noriaki Yuasa says, “Fuck build-up!” and just reveals the mighty fire-breathing turtle in the first five minutes as he crawls out of an arctic chasm after an aerial skirmish between American fighters and planes from “an unidentified country” (haha sure) cause a nuclear detonation. Not only do we get a full view of Gamera right away, we even get fetishistic little close-ups of scales and claws and eyes and teeth over the starting credits. Quite bold, Yuasa-san!

And here we get to the main problem of the movie: what is it actually going for? If you reveal your monster right off the bat, suspense is out the window – unless you construct a specific situation where a well-liked human character is in peril or some other ticking clock involving the monster has to be avoided. GAMERA does neither! After awakening, Gamera just ambles about causing random destruction. When he comes to Toshio’s lighthouse, he swipes the top of the tower away, but saves Toshio from falling to his death. Oh, so this is an IRON GIANT style tale of a misunderstood titan and his special relationship with one outcast little boy? Nope, Gamera fries dozens of innocent bystanders later in the movie with his fire breath! Despite this, Toshio constantly tries to convince the military that “Gamera is just lonely! He needs a friend!” but they sound more like the ravings of a child in need of some counseling than a clever movie tyke who’s gotten a far better grip on the situation than all those short-sighted bully adults. Were you in need of a friend, Travis?

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TRAVIS:

I'm always willing to be friends with kaiju, Luca, but Gamera's first outing falls pretty flat for me. Like you said, the movie's at odds with what kind of movie it wants to be. I mean, yeah, we're here for the monster smash stuff, but as we've seen with the Godzilla films, there are different approaches and tones you can do. GAMERA falls somewhere between “mythical creature awakened by man” and “kid understands misunderstood monster” without being interesting in either subplot. The most fun I've had with Gamera movies were when they fully embraced the sci-fi pulpiness. It's why the biggest laugh I got out of this particular entry was when the top secret Plan Z that all countries around the world (including Cold War enemies America and the Soviet Union!) collaborated on ended up being just a big ol' rocketship that'll trap the turtle and shoot him into space. You're already dealing with a fire-eating tortoise that came from Atlantis. Embrace the silliness!

The human characters don't help the proceedings either. Toshio's pretty insufferable, and I would've happily seen him shot off to Mars too. I know we're supposed to identify with this lonely outcast of a child, but seeing him continually endangering himself and others just to get closer to Gamera makes you want to smack him upside the head. While Toshio's just annoying, news photographer Aoyagi is a pretty big creep during the whole movie. He stalks and bothers poor Kyoko only because he followed her to the Eskimo camp and was spared from the attack on the ship Chidori Maru that killed everyone else. His “Goddess of Good Luck” is what he labels her. Ewwwwww......

Having not seen GAMERA in a very long while, I was reminded of my old Godzilla-influenced prejudices against the turtle. As ridiculous and stupid as the Godzilla films could be, there's polish to them and a sense that they've been given that Toho stamp of approval that makes them one of a kind among kaiju flicks. I know you didn't have a problem with the miniatures, Luca, but they look rather.... flat to me. Maybe it wasn't the smartest idea to open on the Arctic set with its Styrofoam-looking icebergs and Tinkertoy planes. It just sets this tone of cheapness that clashes with the serious tone of the rest of the movie. Again, it wouldn't be until Gamera fully embraced being that goofy friend to kids that the cheapness would become a signature instead of a blemish. He could be a lot of fun, but his first movie's just a bore. Am I letting my memories from Monster Island get in the way, Luca?

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LUCA:

Maybe it was because the movie hadn’t established a tone yet that I didn’t mind the Styrofoam arctic set with toy jeeps and planes they decided to open with. There’s even more laffs to be found in the ice when Dr. Hidaka converses with a native Alaskan (?) chief, and it’s a poor Japanese actor given phonetic English to recite. I’m sure they didn’t cuz it was hard to tell in black and white anyway, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if the fellow was in brownface! But we shouldn’t be too hard on the guy, since the native English speakers we are treated to only minutes later don’t fare much better either. From a colonel who is holding up reports (but is obviously just reading his lines off the paper) to radio operators who don’t understand how sentences or even subordinate clauses work (“Sir there seems. To be a strange object. On our screens!!!”). These guys are without a doubt the worst actors I’ve ever seen in a kaiju movie. Which is saying something!

I will give GAMERA this though: when Gamera attacks the Chidori Maru, we get a wide shot of the monster, the ship, and at the bottom of the screen people (or at least crude animations of people) fleeing over the ice. Then later there’s some tricky editing/compositing going on as Toshio boards a train that Gamera is pulling towards him. This human/kaiju same-shot interaction was something that was strangely missing from most Zilla movies. In fact, I made special notice of it in the Heisei relaunch that it was odd seeing two people in a collapsing building as they attempted to escape the monster. True, it doesn’t really look very good, but I’ll give them credit for at least trying technically complex things. Some random funny stuff that I also deem positive because it made me experience positive feelings aka laughter: an old grandfather sees the flying form of Gamera hurtling across the night sky. He doesn’t freak out, but rather says “Oh… a will-o’-the-whisp! Or could it be one of those modern YEW EFF OHS people are seeing nowadays? Ohhhh…” Later, as he and his wife read in the newspaper that a monster is terrorizing Japan, he states that “Well grandmother, if one grows old enough, one sees many terrible things.” “Oh aye…” his wife replies. They do no feature in the movie again! I’d also like to point out the line “Ah… a fire-breathing turtle… as described in the writings of Plato…”

You touched upon it already, Travis, but my favorite moment was also the reveal of what Plan Zettu actually was – just lure the damn turtle onto a platform that then snaps shut and is revealed to be the head of a rocket that promptly BLASTS OFF TO MARS. Hell, you’re not gonna pull off another Oxygen Destroyer like in Gojira, so might as well make it someone else’s problem – why not Barsoom’s? Lil’ idiot Toshio then says he’s gonna grow up to be an astronaut so he can go visit Gamera one day, to which Dr. Hidaka gives a great “Yeah sure kid…” response. Travis, I’m starting to think that Lane Pryce on Mad Men wasn’t completely sober when he declared this movie “a very good film!”

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TRAVIS:

To be fair, Mr. Pryce was most likely enjoying not GAMERA but GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE! Just like how GOJIRA made its way to America as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, World Entertainment Corp. took the original Daiei film and shot new scenes featuring American actors for the US release. Now titled GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE (the extra 'm' was added Gamera's name to clarify the pronunciation), this knockoff of Godzilla was transformed into your standard B-flick from the atomic age of sci-fi. Along with the Japanese characters, we also focus on a group of army generals and U.N. officials as they too contend with the Gamera problem. And by contend, I mean sit around in drab soundstage rooms as they talk about communicating and collaborating with the Japanese government. They pretty much occupy the same role as Raymond Burr in GODZILLA, acting as observers to the crisis and putting up the image that they're actually participating in the action. There's some fun schlock to be had: the dame army secretary being hit on by her superiors, stuffy scientists arguing over the existence of the monster, a blustery senator outraged (OUTRAGED!) that the army isn't following the proper procedure to respond to a giant turtle.... standard B-picture stuff. Heck, I might take a cue from Pryce and watch this version with a stiff drink, because it might be the only way I could tolerate it!

Despite getting the American fix-er-up treatment, GAMERA didn't find theatrical success in the states and remains the only movie in the series to have a US theater run. But while he failed in America, Japan was still on a kaiju kick that required more, more, and more monsters! Don't expect Gamera to land on Barsoom anytime soon, because his course is about to get rerouted into a epic battle of rainbows! We'll find out that diamonds truly are forever in GAMERA VS. BARUGON!

Monday, June 8, 2015

TURTLE TALK #0: Intro

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LUCA:

Konnichi wa, friends, and welcome to TURTLE TALK!

It was late 2013 when the inimitable Travis Kirkland and myself set off on a path of destruction through half a century of pop culture that started with a certain grim little monster movie from 1954 called GOJIRA. Over the better part of a year, we discussed every movie featuring the titular monster – and some ancillary crap besides (such as the short-lived 1999 animated series and the only album ever that featured both Diddy and Jakob Dylan). If you enjoyed our Kaiju Kavalcade blog series – or even bought the collection “Memories from Monster Island” off Amazon – we hope that our latest endeavor will bring you as much fun. You see, TURTLE TALK will delve into that other great purveyor of city-smashing: the friend to all children – GAMERA himself! Now, our angle on the Godzilla series was that I was the noob going in cold, whereas Travis was the old pro, coming to the movies from a place of rediscovery, ready to face the cold light of an atomic dawn if they didn’t quite hold up. For TURTLE TALK, this contrast has been sanded off a bit, as Travis isn’t quite so well-versed in Gamera lore as he is in Godzilla. Equals, finally? Almost! But I will let him elaborate a bit in a second.

What is my relationship to Gamera? Well, it’s fairly minimal. Even more minimal than my knowledge of Godzilla was when we started with Kaiju Kavalcade, in fact! From my general pop culture osmosis, I had gathered over the years that Gamera was

1.) A turtle
2.) Airborne (possibly robot parts?)
3.) A friend to all children

After the life-transforming/affirming experience that was compiling Memories from Monster Island, I can add another fact to this very short list: he never met Godzilla in any official capacity. With the thoroughness we applied to our Zilla-journey, it would be inconceivable we could have missed such a clash of titans. And isn’t that weird, if you think about it? Even eternal rivals DC and Marvel Comics set their differences aside to produce stuff like Amalgam Comics or that fan favorite one where the Joker teams up with Carnage. But Godzilla and Gamera? No dice! For fifty years, the two iconic monsters stayed completely separate. Just strict business practices, or an irreconcilable stylistic difference in tone and target audience? We hope TURTLE TALK may shed some light on this issue that is no doubt keeping the lot of you awake at night. Travis?

TRAVIS:

Here's a shocking revelation from this lifelong kaiju fan: I hated Gamera.

Yep, this dye-in-the-wool fanatic of giant creatures crushing buildings was definitely not a friend to the big turtle during my formative years. Godzilla, Rodan, Anguirus... all of the Toho monsters became beloved characters to me as I grew up. And yet... Gamera could not impress me at all, no matter how many gravity-defying somersaults he could pull off. This... this fraud... this hack... this RC Cola of a reptile compared to the classic Coke formula of Godzilla. Looking back, it's very odd to me how much I actively rejected Gamera. Sure, he was created by Daiei Film Company as competition for Toho's main G, but I was perfectly happy embracing dueling icons of pop culture. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, Superman and Spider-Man... they all had a welcome place in my fantasy world. But Gamera... if I had my way, I would've left his ass frozen in the Arctic while I enjoyed watching more reputable kaiju like Varan the Unbelievable.

But why? Why was I so prejudiced against the poor monster? Perhaps I wasn't introduced to Gamera in the right context. Instead of a magical late night marathon that transformed me into a Godzilla fan, my first glimpse of Gamera was via the television show MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Five of his movies were roasted by Joel Robinson and his robot pals during the third season, and I happily laughed along as they ripped apart the films' goofy, innocent tone. Stupid turtle. In all fairness though, MST3K also riffed on GODZILLA VS. MEGALON and GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER, so the big man of Monster Island wasn't safe either. My blind hatred was also probably due to it being my first brush with geek brand loyalty. How could any monster dare stand up to the rightful popularity of Godzilla?! Heck, if you recall our review of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, I wrote about how outraged I was as a child to see some dumb ol' ape be victorious over my King of the Monsters. An outrage I say!

Many years passed however, and my unwavering allegiance to Godzilla became more relaxed. I eventually came around to watch a few Gamera Showa era movies and was amused the monster's antics. They didn't make me a convert, but I could now see his appeal. He's a flying, fire-breathing turtle who has a soft spot for protecting children. Of course kids would love him! Later on based on strong recommendations, I also checked out the incredibly awesome Gamera Heisei trilogy, headed up by director Shusuke Kaneko (who brought that same kinetic energy to GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK). So where does that leave me before I dive headfirst into the entire Gamera filmography? For me, MEMORIES FROM MONSTER ISLAND was my way of reconnecting with my childhood friend Godzilla to examine our long relationship and how it remains strong to this day. In this sense, TURTLE TALK will be me trying to make peace with an old acquaintance I've unfairly treated all these years. And Gamera, I wouldn't mind calling you my friend at the end of this. So sit tight, readers, because next week we're kicking off our coverage by blasting back to 1955 with (what else?) GAMERA!