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!

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