Wednesday, August 19, 2015

TURTLE TALK #4: GAMERA VS. VIRAS (1968)

 

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TRAVIS:

In the first GAMERA film, the people of Earth successfully trapped our hero in a rocketship and launched it off to Mars. However, a well-timed meteorite collison set him free, and the big turtle soon made his way back to his home planet for more adventures. Outer space was still a frontier for the franchise to explore, and thus the fourth entry opens as a mysterious spaceship from the planet Viras closes in on Earth. Though we don't initially see the aliens, we can overhear them as they talk about their invasion. But their conversation ends abruptly as Gamera starts wreckin' apart their ship! In what might be one of the series' best title intros, the aliens send a final warning to their home planet before exploding: “We have discovered a terrible creature protecting the Earth. Its name is...” BOOM! The title GAMERA immediately whips up on-screen! Woo! Oh, and so does the rest of the title: VS. VIRAS.

Back on our planet, a troop of Boy Scouts are visiting a local aquarium to check out a cool new invention: a small, two-man submarine that's so easy to use that even a kid can drive it! And where there's fun to be had, naughty lil’ boys will play. Sneaky prankster Scouts Masao (who's Japanese and is a whiz at electronics of course) and Jim (who's American and is a whiz at cowboy lasso tricks of course) take the sub for a ride and discover Gamera hanging out underwater! Of course, the boys shouldn't worry about him since, as Masao puts it, he's “a friend to all children” (the first time the monster's popular moniker is introduced). But the kaiju's soft spot for the young soon becomes his Achilles Heel as a second spaceship from Viras lands on Earth and kidnaps the two boys. Knowing of Gamera's protectiveness of kids, the aliens threaten to kill the boys unless he surrenders. He relents, and the aliens place a mind control device on his head so that he can destroy the Earth under their will. Can Masao and Jim use their electronic know-how and lasso trickery to free themselves and Gamera from the Viras invaders???

There have been some fun films in the series so far, but VIRAS truly is where the template for the typical Gamera flick is set. This is the franchise's first threat from space, but it definitely wouldn't be the last. Most importantly though, here we see Gamera fully embrace the kid audiences. Kids will be our primary protagonists for the rest of the Showa era, and VIRAS will also set the trend of using children of both Japanese and American ethnicities. And not only are we first introduced to Gamera's brand name of “friend to all children”, but this is also the first film featuring that catchy Gamera march song! “Gamera! Gamera! You are so strong, Gamera! You are so strong! You are so strong, GAMM-AH-RAAHHHH!!!!” Did this tune rouse you to your feet, Luca?

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LUCA:

I was roused to my feet but then I got a little cramp, so dancing wasn’t on the table anymore. Luckily I had danced on other occasions in my life and used the memories of those instances to really cut loose to the Gamera theme song. Holy squids, Travis! I think I’m not exaggerating that in an 80 minute movie there’s a good 10-12 minutes of re-used footage here. And to think I was even quite on board with the portrayal of the aliens at first: Disembodied voices over images of flickering geometric shapes? Alright, some proper alien-aliens! They want to find out how to defeat Gamera, so they must “travel back to the beginning”? Awesome! Let it be a testament to how much the film had me that I thought they were going to explore the Atlantean beginnings of “the Devil’s Envoy” (as described by Plato, don’tcha know)! But nope, it just meant we were going to get a brief bit of re-used GAMERA footage with a weird purple (?) filter over it, showing how our favorite turtle monster first came out of the ice. Then it just pastes in the two major battles from BARUGON wholesale in an attempt to “find out more about the creature’s battle tactics”. What’s next? Why, if you guessed some fights from GAMERA VS. GYAOS, you win the No-Prize!

What this leaves us with is a stretch of beach and a dockside that everything was filmed at, along with a gaggle of boy and girl scout extras (the scouts are explicitly thanked for their cooperation in the opening credits). That baby submarine was the most expensive thing on screen, I think! Which makes it extra funny that we cut to model shots once we get underwater with it. If nothing else, the flatly presented, center-framed yellow submarine (!) model chugging along the ocean floor reminded me of Wes Anderson’s THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. Coupled with the fact that it’s manned by prankish boy scouts (MOONRISE KINGDOM), one can start to wonder whether or not ole Wes is a Gamera fan. Masao and Jim are really fun protagonists, I feel, in a genre where the human detritus is usually just cheap filler to get to more model-smashing. Maybe it’s that old Dean Jones Disney movie coziness they bring to proceedings. They’re just lookin’ to get into mischief! Oh no, the scoutsmaster is on their trail and he’s steamin’! Masao’s big sister has a Dick Tracy style communications watch to talk to him! It’s all just very obvious little kid pandering and it’s lovely.

Now, Wes Anderson would also certainly be amused at the sudden outbursts of deadpan violence that punctuate this film! From a quintuple decapitation (!!!) to Gamera being completely skewered by Viras, this series is really taking its “horrific violence” quota seriously. Oh, how I’d love to be a fly on the movie theatre wall and see children’s reactions when good friend Gamera just gets impaled all the way through right after a victory lap alongside his buddies Masao and Jim. And, even more bafflingly, he’s completely okay two minutes later! Don’t make it look so horrible if you’re not going to do anything with it, guys! Even Godzilla was only ever shot in the shoulder or something in those rare instances he actually bled, and I imagine that was already traumatizing enough. But hey, that’s my attempt at empathy with actual 1968 young kids who might have watched these movies. In 2015, only internet weirdoes like ourselves would dig these movies up and therefore, the more of such unexpected weirdness, the better. What are your feelings on the tonal shifts, Travis?

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TRAVIS:

Internet weirdoes?! As a rational adult who loves big monsters punching each other, I say that we are perfectly mature in seeing as much kaiju violence as possible! In all seriousness though, you pointed out in our Godzilla book that weird shifts in tone are welcome in these types of movies because, frankly, it breaks their routine nature. We've absorbed such a large volume of Japanese imports that any type of oddness whether it clashes with the film's tone or not is at least interesting. One could surmise that this is typical of Asian cinema as a whole. Though movies from Asia can be straight dramas or comedies or whatever, it may be surprising to American audiences that genres in these films can intertwine in ways that Hollywood pictures don't normally allow. Take for example the 2007 Korean monster movie THE HOST. In the midst of a story about a fractured family coming together to save their young daughter from a subterranean beast, there are both sad moments of family grief and black comedy beats of levity in between tension filled action sequences featuring the monster. What might seem jarring to a US viewer is perfectly in line with Asian culture.

It's a little different when talking about Gamera however. We've talked many times before about kaiju stuff regularly pandered to kids, and we've discussed how early Gamera chased after the young market earlier than Godzilla. In the Godzilla series, you can see Toho obviously add in things to appease the kiddies while trying to maintain that sheen of Godzilla as top tier entertainment. Daiei didn't seem to care as much about that kind of integrity, so they had the Gamera series follow the tastes of their youthful demographic. Kids like outer space? Send that turtle to fight monsters in space! Kids wanna be friends with Gamera? Now kids are the stars of Gamera's adventures! Kids have a blood thirst that cannot be sated? We're gonna have our kaiju spray out body goop like it's EVIL DEAD! As I've said before, you can find this cheesy catering to children annoying or charming, but I generally enjoy my Gamera to be nacho-level cheesy, so I'm happy to chomp it all down!

And heck, I don't even mind seeing GAMERA'S FAMOUS FIGHTS FROM THE PAST even though it's only here to pad out the running time. Most hilariously, most of Gamera's mind-controlled rampage is footage of his Tokyo raid from the first film (still only kinda-sorta color corrected by adding that purple tint to the black & white scenes). We'll continue to see footage re-used again and again in the Showa era, culminating in the ultimate greatest hits montage GAMERA: SUPER MONSTER. If you’re looking for justification of this cheap method of filmmaking, remember that this was a time before movies could be re-watched on TV and video. Movies were exclusively seen at theaters, and if you take that into consideration, what kid wouldn't want to not only see new Gamera adventures but also favorite moments from the series? Of course, in today's on-demand streaming environment, this point has been lost to history, but it's still a curious artifact of yesteryear's viewing habits. Any last words on VIRAS before we rocket-blast off to the skies, Luca?

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LUCA:

Something that doesn't come across on the page but was a minor surprise to me while watching the movie was the pronunciation of the name "Viras." I assumed it would be VEE-rus -- turns out it's BAIRAS! Well, they do infect poor Gamera with the ragebairas and a side-order of stockfootageitis, so I suppose it's apt. And, not unlike the bacteria that might traverse a sick monster's bloodstream, the human Viras hosts air-swim through the corridors of their spaceship horizontally on their bellies. This has no bearing on the quality of the film, nor does it illuminate any underlying thematic elements, I just wanted to let people know that some grown ass men jump into corridors and woooshhhh into the next rooms like a really bored bunch of Kal-Els. Speaking of those guys, I liked the curveballs the movie kept throwing at me regarding their nature. Geometric shapes? Cool! Oh, they're just guys and they were off-screen earlier. Dumb! Huh, they've got a weird floating octopus in a cage. Do they trophy hunt on the side or something? Weird! Oh ho ho, the floating octopus is their BOSS! And he's upset with all of them, so he's gonna take down Gamera himself (after decapitating/absorbing his disappointing minions so he can grow into kaiju size). Awesome!

What parting thoughts can I give our readers regarding GAMERA VS. VIRAS? Well, it's colorful and funny, and there's tons of moments that you've already seen, so maybe this 1968 production was simply so far ahead of its time that it just accurately predicted our current social media age of short attention spans. Oh, he's fighting Barugon again? Time to make a sandwich! Oh, he's destroying Kurobe dam again? Maybe I should call my mother... It's an odd duck for sure. If it wasn't for the stock footage extravaganza, I would have no qualms with calling it my favorite Gamera film so far. It just has such positive vibes and that late sixties kid movie cheer. If Lane Pryce on Mad Men was blown away by GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE, I'm sure VIRAS would have been a hit with Bobby and Gene Draper in 1968. Bit too “kiddie” for Sally by that point probably, though!

Full movie’s on YouTube as well!

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