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Old 06-05-2010, 05:52 AM
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Gamera






Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: June 4, 2010

Format: DVD
Released by: Shout Factory
Release date: 5/18/2010
MSRP: $19.93
Region 1, NTSC
Progressive Scan
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
1965




inline ImageWhen you think of the Japanese kaiju, or monster, movies, you’re probably thinking Godzilla. Landing on shores first in 1954, it proved so popular that its distributor, Toho Company, practically cultivated the entire genre themselves. Year after year there was a new monster movie, and if it wasn’t one of the thirty-odd Godzilla sequels, then it was another of their minted monster franchises. To their name, Toho created popular kaiju franchises like Mothra, Gidorah, Hedorah, Rodan and Mechagodzilla, where over the years many of those creatures would also crossover into the Godzilla films as both friends and foes. There was another studio, though, and another monster, that for a fleeting time in the sixties and seventies, went head to head against Godzilla for global box office dominance. The studio was Daiei Company, and the picture was Gamera.

inline ImageThe Gamera films would go on to spawn eleven sequels, with the most recent being 2006’s Gamera the Brave. Yet, despite its prolific history overseas, Gamera has only seen the light of day in America via a pared down, reshot version of the original, dubbed “Gammera: The Invincible” [sic]. That, or you may remember it as being a fixture on Mystery Science Theatre. Shout Factory, though, is about to give the turtle his due, vowing to release this first film, as well as all subsequent entries, in their original Japanese form with English subtitles and extras aplenty. Let’s take a look at the one that started it all and see just how hot our flammable foe really is.


The Story

inline ImageBefore turtles knew Karate and ate pizza, they were fabled monsters of the Atlantis. With its legend carved in stone, Gamera was a colossal, fire-breathing tortoise feared by all (in later iterations of the series his legend would be manipulated to make him more kid-friendly by instead turning him into an ancient protector of the universe). It’s present day 1965, and I guess Atlantis was somewhere in the Northern Atlantic. At an Eskimo Research Station(!) somewhere between superpowers USA and the Soviet Union, an atomic bomb is accidentally dispelled on the icy tundra after some Cold War confusion over what aircraft was flying over North American airspace. Whatever the cause, a ton of molten radiation has caused the ice to part and the centuries old monster, Gamera, to rise again from its million year slumber. Proving that the America-Russia conflict is a mere triviality, Gamera avoids both and instead makes his way towards Tokyo. Clearly he harnesses the power of saving funds on local film production!

inline ImageBefore landing in Tokyo, he stops at a small rural harbor long enough to destroy a single light house and save a small boy. Toshiro (Yoshiro Uchida) is a turtle lover who moments before being rescued by the kindly hand of Gamera (who actually put the kid in danger in the first place by bitch slapping the lighthouse) had let his own little captive turtle free. Gamera respects karma, no doubt, and his gesture ensures that Toshiro will forever be a fan and an anti-attack crusader for the world’s most feared creature. With the big cities in jeopardy of attack, the scientific and military minds of Japan and later the world over combine to devise a way to stop the beast. They quickly find that fire doesn’t work – in fact, it replenishes the beast. Freezing sounds a better method, but that too proves futile when Gamera reveals that deep beneath his shell there are some fierce jet packs that can send him into a UFO-like flight. It appears nothing can raid that turtle power.

inline ImageSo you’ve got the plight of the minds upstairs on one hand, and then the fearless determination of a little boy on the other. Toshiro is determined to meet up once more with Gamera, who he know believes is a grown iteration of his vindicated house pet, Peewee. The boy pledges kindness as the way to finally contain the beast, and for once the people upstairs led by Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi) decide hey, why not? Rather than kill the beast, they concoct a plan, along with the Americans and the Soviets, to trap the beast on a rocket ship and send him off to Mars. He likes fire, so why the hell not? They devise a nifty plan, but even when man is not dropping A-bombs, nature has a way of showing that it can still be boss.

inline ImageAlthough it’s no doubt compared to Godzilla because of its superficial qualities and its similar overabundance of sequels, Gamera is really a completely different beast. Over a decade removed from the original Gojira, it represents a totally different social consciousness. Gojira came out with the fallout of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still very fresh in the minds of the country. There was a bitter cynicism towards America, and a palpable regret at the damning effects nuclear war had caused to Japan. Gamera, on the other hand, is less bitter, tragic or regretful, and instead more fearful for the future. With the Cuban Missile Crisis only a few years removed from its production, Gamera is mindful more of the conflicts brewing between other nations rather than the after effects felt on its own soil. It’s a more globally minded film, represented not only by setting major portions of the film in North American locals like New York or the unnamed Eskimo research station (using baaaaaaaaaad American actors) but more by the international resolve of the plot. It’s a conflict of confusion that causes the first A-bomb to go off, but ultimately, what sends the creature off into space is the tete-a-tete from the superpowers to band together to create a most clever expulsion. Gojira may be a cautionary tale about nuclear warfare, but Gamera is at the same time one about hope for a better future. As hackneyed and on the nose as the dialogue is, it’s in a way pretty progressive.

inline ImageWhat’s also mentally engaging about the film is its often-documentary like approach to storytelling. Partially a product of licensing stock footage to do its bidding, and partially a product of just simple, good storytelling, Gamera often provides a fascinating “What-if?” scenario for those watching. Seeing the after effects of the monster certainly echo other nuclear calamities, but the way the story is told using that stock footage, as well as the use of television broadcasts to convey information, gives the film a kind of real world immediacy. For Gamera came at a time when the TV was cemented as the central fixture of the household, and the bearer of all news that was notable and current. That we see the destruction, and the military meetings and interviews, as we’d see them if they were on television is important and effective. What’s even more important, though, is through who’s eyes we’re seeing this all unfold.

inline ImageThe handling of little Toshiro might just be the most interesting part of the film, for in a way he represents this newfound hope that seemed to be infiltrating the Japanese consciousness. The brunt of their mistakes with war and the Axis had certainly been felt (or in cases burned upon their skin), and it was in this new generation that they saw a chance for a future without nuclear weapons and without war. That the boy professes to resolve the Gamera conflict without violence, and that the military actually listens, shows a national step in the right direction. Like little Sadako Sasaki and her paper crane plight in 1955, it’s Toshiro’s good intentions that cause a brutish, old fashioned regime to rethink their strategies on sustenance and wellbeing. That Gamera himself shows his only moment of compassion towards Toshiro (when he extends his hand to help him from the collapsing lighthouse) demonstrates that even if mankind doesn’t entirely know and respect a child’s purity of thought, nature sure as hell does. Having the altered perspective of Toshiro throughout the picture provides the film a layer of compassion that similar monster films lack. It also introduces that whimsical sense of belief that is so central to these special-effects driven monster flicks.

inline ImageGamera has a magic quality with all its optical and miniature effects work. Watching it today (and probably in many cases even back then) it’s pretty easy to spot the type of trickery used to pull off the shot, whether it was compositing different frames together or making a guy in a rubber suit look a hundred meters tall through forced-perspective . But like the little boy seeing the monster and thinking, hoping, that he just may be his own little pet grown big, the film entices us to believe that yes, there really is a giant monster lumbering over Earth’s cities. These old films have that special quality, where they demand you meet them half way to make the effects work, that set them apart from the altogether perfect illusions of CG today. Like a book, they ask for our own imagination to fill in the holes, and like Toshiro, we do so diligently. The effects are convincingly achieved, and often with incredible creativity, like the scene where the group take an elevator through a wide matte shot of a power plant, only to emerge on the other side in the same unbroken shot. Gamera itself is done with a fine attention to detail, and while not quite on par with Godzilla, still has an inorganic scariness to him that certainly leaves an impact.

inline ImageBetween its interesting post-war outlook, documentary-like realism and its ambitious use of effects work, Gamera is an infectious, special little movie. It’s a movie that child and adult can enjoy in equal measure, and one that finds a similar balance between fusion fears and imaginative whimsy. Both scary and hopeful, campy and clever, Gamera is that perfect paradox – a little film that dreams big. The sequels would add color and a new kaiju foe with each installment, but it’s this first film, with its simplicity and humanism, that roars loudest of all.


Image Quality

inline ImageLong existing as a claustrophobically cropped 1.33:1 VHS (as well as a tough to get LaserDisc if you could find it), Gamera scorches now with this expansive 2.35:1 progressively authored and anamorphic DVD. While the open and seemingly unplanned compositions would never be confused for Ford or Carpenter, the film still holds a special scope in 2.35, especially during the attack scenes. The print looks beautiful, its only shortcomings inherent in the negative, like some lower-resolution optical titles or scratched up stock footage. On the whole, it’s a grainy film, with the grain all the more visible against the often dark nighttime backdrops. Truthfully, the entire master may be a touch on the dark side, but the black levels visible here are very solid and without any of that grey murk that often sullies old black and white efforts. The scenes during the day look best, like the ice-cracking revival of the monster, where the textures in the snow make themselves readily visible. Kudos to the English subtitles, too, which always consider what’s going on in the frame for their placement, such as when the subtitles reveal them at the top when important map information is on the bottom where the subtitles usually go. It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes this transfer a good one, and Shout Factory one of the premier producers of digital media.

Sound

inline ImageThe film is presented solely in its original Japanese Mono track. There are a number of scenes in English (with burned in Japanese subtitles on the sides) as well, but those are scenes with American actors in American settings. It would be quite odd seeing a film like this, with such rich Japanese culture and characters, dubbed into another language, it’s great that Shout Factory opted to preserve the most desirable audio track. Although, as an aside, it sounds as if they were unable to locate a print of the American version in time for the DVD. The Japanese track is clear and with only a slight hiss during the quieter moments. Dialogue is lacking in depth but always audible.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageWhile I champion Shout Factory for presenting the film in its original, unaltered version, it still would have been pretty cool to see the American version with the added footage and different edits. That could have made for a nice extra, but Shout Factory still has a few worthwhile luxuries for fans of the film and series. First is a video retrospective looking at the entire franchise called “A Look Back at Gamera”. The dated, interlaced, twenty and change year old video certainly doesn’t make a great first impression, but forget that, this is a wonderful, passionate little featurette. Running 23-minutes, it features interviews with most of the major creative personnel behind the first Gamera and several of its sequels. Included in the batch is the late director, Noriaki Yuasa, as well as the screenwriter, costume, effects and production crew and more. Each person has some pretty sentimental memories of the first film and the series in general, and each share snippets of how the original came to be and how it, and production company Daiei was always fraught with challenges. There’s even an inspiring little storyboard and miniature recreation of the sequel that never was, Gamera vs. Garasharp, complete with story narration. The participants are all articulate and honest in their native tongue (subtitled all in English) and the kind of honesty and insight present here is something even the docs today have a hard time matching. Originally hosted on the old Japanese laserdisc, this extra has proven itself more than worthy to make the transition to digital.

inline ImageThe other significant extra is an audio commentary with August Ragone, one of the most respected Japanese fantasy film historians. If you’ve seen panels on kaiju films, this guy is usually there front and center, and that kind of passion for the material shows itself in this engaging and researched commentary. It’s driven by facts of the history of the scenes and crew members featured on screen, so it has a sort of disjointed structure, but Ragone is so bustling with information and the occasional comic flourish that it’s more than worth the listen.

There's also a nice little booklet included, which features a warmly nostalgic introduction from Yuasa written in 2001. There are also superfluous character bios and a neat little biological deconstruction of Gamera, including facts about his size, speed and body parts. This diagram is also included on the opposite side of the insert, seen from the inside of the case. They may be quaint and not altogether essential, but it sure is nice having those little tangible booklets to peruse through when not glued to the television.

inline ImageFinally, there are some promotional items, including the press kit, international sales brochure and photo gallery, all accessed via still menus. The Japanese theatrical trailer is also included, and proving Shout’s desire to go the extra mile, it’s encoded with optional English subtitles. Not the grandest display of extras, but a nice little helping that gives context and appreciation for a film with a comparatively small American following. Here’s hoping they keep this up for their upcoming Gamera releases!


Final Thoughts

inline ImageGamera is a loveable little movie, with progressive social commentary, an engaging child lead and a frightening, creatively realized monster. As dated as the effects may be today, they possess a whimsy that CG films and monsters just cannot replicate. Shout Factory outfitted The Giant Monster with some giant production value, with a beautifully restored visual transfer, the original Japanese audio and a small collection of really informative extras. The rest of the Daiei produced sequels will be making their way to DVD via Shout throughout the remainder of 2010 and 2011, and considering the work done here this reptile is in great hands. This disc is the bomb!

Rating

.
Movie - B+

Image Quality - B

Sound - B-

Supplements - B-





Technical Info.
  • Running Time - 1 hour 18 minutes
  • Color
  • Not Rated
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • Japanese mono
  • English subtitles

Supplements
  • Audio commentary with kaiju historian August Ragone
  • "A Retrospective Look at the Gamera Franchise" featurette
  • Publicity gallery
  • Theatrical trailer

Other Pictures

 

 

Extras
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Old 06-05-2010, 06:35 AM
Joe Six-Pack
Finally, Gamera gets a respectable DVD release in the US! I can't wait to pick this up as well as the rest of the series.
 
 
Old 06-06-2010, 05:49 AM
HackMaster
From what I've read Shout Factory tried to get the American version included as well but the last surviving 35mm print of it is held by a film library that demanded too steep a price for the use of their copy for the DVD.Shout Factory considered offering a full frame 16mm transfer as a bonus but decided not to.Regardless,this sounds like a great DVD.
 
 
Old 06-06-2010, 08:41 PM
Closet SCREAM fan
Fantastic review, my friend. I could scarcely have said it better myself.

Believe it or not, most of the Gamera films actually exist in two separate American versions. This film has the Gammera the Invincible version that Shout! couldn't include that came here in the 60's, but also an 80's TV syndication version called Gamera that had a different English dub and did not have the extra scenes shot for the original American release. The Gamera sequels (aside from the last one, Gamera vs. Zigra) were all released straight to TV here in the 60's and 70's by American International's TV arm. Then in the 80's the same company that released the new syndicated Gamera version, Sandy Frank Entertainment, also bought four of those sequels and redubbed them as well and put them on TV and video. Those are the versions that wound up on MST3K.

An interesting point is the rejection of military firepower in this film. On a superficial level Japanese and American monster movies resemble each other in the fact that they usually bring together science and the military to deal with the monster. But there the difference usually stops, and Japanese and American monster movies show very different attitudes about the use of military power, which I think arises from the different wartime experiences and postwar atmosphere for the two countries. Japan had renounced militarism and adopted a pacifist constitution, maintaining armed forces for defense only and renouncing the use of force in international disputes. America was a new superpower and was beginning to embrace militarism and insert itself into all sorts of international matters that it had never had a stake in before.

You can see this difference in 50's and 60's monster movies. The role of science in the American films is to help the military blow up the monster or otherwise kill it. The emphasis is on the ability of the scientists to enable a military solution, since monsters are rarely vulnerable to conventional firepower, and military men are often main characters in these films. In the Japanese films from this era though military characters are rarely anything more than bit parts, usually in the form of generals promising to destroy the monster(s) and then wringing their hands when they can't. Japanese films reverse the order of importance from military men to scientists. In the Japanese films it is the military that helps scientists, instead of scientists helping the military. Scientists develop a solution and the military's logistical capabilities (helicopters, aircraft, vehicles) implement it. The solution adopted is rarely one that simply invents a new way to blow up the creature. There are some exceptions to this trend in the monster films of both countries, but in general they seem to follow their own patterns.
 
 
Old 06-06-2010, 10:17 PM
Maniac
I really enjoyed that post, thanks for that!
 
 
Old 06-07-2010, 05:20 AM
Moderator
Jeremy is the king of the monster movie. Great post, I definitely agree, it's always interesting to see how different Japan's take on horror is compared to the west, be it from the impact of the war, or later, the impact of mass technology.
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