Gamera: The Giant Monster
Directed by: Noriaki Yuasa
Written by: Nisan Takahashi
Starring: Yoshiro Uchida, Michiko Sugata, Eiji Funakoshi, Harumi Kiritachi
For all of its crudeness, Gamera is genuinely effective, if only sporadically. For his first appearance on the mainland, Gamera quietly sneaks up on Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida) who is casually lying on a hill. He dips out of view as Toshio turns around, only to appear behind Toshio a few seconds later.
Say what you will about the questionable lack of sound. How a 200-meter tall, radioactive turtle walks around without so much as snapping a twig is anyone’s guess, but the scene’s eerie effectiveness is proof that director Noriaki Yuasa put forth a valiant effort.
Daiei Studio’s Godzilla clone is fairly shameless in its knock-off status, copying much of the formula, and even the style. Despite being released in 1965, Gamera is shot in black & white, as with the original Godzilla. He is awakened by an A-bomb test, he is first seen on the mainland coming over a hill, weapons do not damage Gamera, he breathes fire, his initial film is a solo outing, and obviously he destroys Japan.
No one can state with any sincerity that the film is even trying to be original in concept, but compared to the Japanese kaiju of the day, it does have merits. Gamera is seen incinerating a group of fleeing people, something rival studio Toho never displayed. It is also a film of cooperation amongst nations. (Traditionally, Japanese giant monsters are dispatched due to the country’s own ingenuity and advancing technology.) Gamera freely promotes the countries of the world uniting in the ridiculously scaled Z-plan to rid the Earth of the monster.
Gamera is heavily flawed, obviously enough so that it failed to solve the Cold War on its own (wouldn’t that be some alternate reality history to take note of?). The cheapness of the effects is regularly on display, from the obvious hose in Gamera’s mouth shooting fire, to the ineffectual jets that bomb the creature. His eventual romp through the streets of Japan is better than many are led to believe by a certain “commentary” show, highlighted by adequate miniature work and effective mattes.
Brisk pacing (only 80-minutes) is obviously meant to keep kids in the seats, which is who the genre was aiming for in early ’60s Japan. It is mere minutes until Gamera is freed from his frozen tomb, although the painfully awful English actors playing US Arctic Base personnel break any tension. Gamera re-appears and stays on screen, a rare giant monster film that is not afraid to keep the rubber suit in use, much to the needs of audiences everywhere.
And fine, to the delight of all, it can be confirmed that Gamera is really sweet and filled with turtle meat. *sigh*
The original Japanese language version of Gamera makes its US DVD debut (previously available on VHS and an expensive Laserdisc) courtesy of Shout Factory. The case states the source is a new HD master created from “vault elements.” Whatever vault they found this in must have been well-preserved. There is hardly a scratch left on this print, the only notable exceptions being the stock footage used to simulate a volcano erupting. There are some minimal frames missing, certainly nothing that destroys the flow of the film, and these skips are quick to pass.
The transfer reveals exceptional detail, apparent early as Gamera rises from the Arctic ice. Glistening snow seems resolved and visible. Behind the credits, close-ups of the Gamera suit make the rubbery skin clear and distinct. The same goes for any other close-ups. Human characters exhibit a limited amount of facial detail, certainly adequate, although it does leave the viewer wanting for a full HD edition. Compression is handled incredibly well, especially with the film’s grain structure left intact.
Concerns are few. An encode error occurs at 4:24 as a plane explodes. Brief but visible black interlaced lanes show up in the frame. The contrast is also bland, black levels never reaching any level of appropriate depth, and whites are dull and faded. The image lacks dimensionality, settling into a flat gray scale that is certainly disappointing. That said, between a faded contrast and simply having a proper Daieiscope (2.35:1) Japanese cut on US shores, the latter will always be the right choice.
Shout Factory have thankfully not tried anything extravagant with the audio, keeping a proper 2.0 mono mix on the film. The soundtrack is in slightly worse shape than the video, although not by much. A few pops are notable, and the high end becomes slightly strained. You can hear this during the swirling paper montage at 13:30, and some additional distortion as the band plays in the club around 53-minutes in.
Dialogue, while carrying a hollow, worn quality, remains distinguishable. The sounds of rockets, gunfire, and explosions never overwhelm spoken words. The film’s basic theme quietly runs behind many of the dialogue driven sequences, kept perfectly in balance.
Extras include a 23-minute documentary pulled from the original Japanese laserdisc. This is an honest making-of, discussing limitations and providing a glimpse of the cancelled film in the series, Gamera vs. Garasharp. A commentary track from August Ragone, writer of Eiji Tsubaraya: Master of Monsters, is included. His chat is lively, informative, and active with few pauses. A small 12-page booklet sits inside the case with some notes from Noriaki Yuasa before his death in 2004. Three photo galleries and trailers remain. — Matt Paprocki