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!

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