With the highly-anticipated release of the Godzilla reboot mere weeks away, we’re seeing a resurgence in interest in kaiju (that’s Japanese for monster) movies. Not only are many of the classic Godzilla films being re-released, but the Gamera films are getting their due as well. The series was launched by the Daiei Motion Picture Company after the success of Godzilla. Gamera can be thought of as the Friday the 13th to Godzilla’s Halloween; it’s derivative, but that doesn’t take away from its immense entertainment value.
Mill Creek Entertainment has released the eight films in the original Gamera franchise (often referred to by fans as the Showa series) on Blu-ray for the first time. Each film is presented in its original Japanese cut with English subtitles. These films were previously released on DVD by Shout Factory, and these seem to be the same transfers, but now we get to see the giant, flying turtle in high definition. Gamera: Ultimate Collection Volume 1 collects the first four films: Gamera, Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs. Gyaos and Gamera vs. Viras.
AKA Gammera the Invincible
An atomic bomb explosion awakens a prehistoric monster known as Gamera. The giant, turtle-like monster possesses the power to breathe fire and fly. (It’s hard not to chuckle at the absurdity of the flying scenes throughout the series.) It destroys several Japanese cities before heading to Tokyo, but the scientists attempt to cut the rampage short by luring the monster into a rocket on course for Mars.
Gamera is a blatant rip-off of Godzilla, appropriating nearly every aspect from the kaiju king, but that only adds to its charm. The film features similarly wonderful miniature work and classic “rubber suit monster” effects. Despite color film being the norm by that point, Gamera was filmed in black and white to save money. The lack of color helps to cover up some of the budgetary missteps, but it also makes the movie appear more dated. Although no one would argue that it’s superior to Godzilla, there’s a reason Gamera spawned a successful franchise that we’re still talking about nearly 50 years later.
Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)
AKA War of the Monsters
When a meteor collides with the rocket carrying Gamera, the monster is freed and more powerful than ever. Meanwhile, a group of travelers retrieve what they believe to be an opal worth $4 million hidden in a cave on a South Pacific island. It turns out to be an ancient egg, which, when exposed to radiation, hatches Barugon. The monster possesses the power to freeze things with its tongue and emits a rainbow from its spine that destroys anything on the other end. Naturally, Gamera and Barugon duke it out to determine who is the supreme being.
Gamera isn’t exactly the coolest kaiju out there, but Barugon manages to be even cheesier. The lizard monster resembles an alligator/tyrannosaurus rex hybrid, which sounds great on paper, but the costume leaves a lot to be desired. Gamera vs. Barugon is the first entry in the series in color, and it’s glorious. The special effects are bigger and the explosions more plentiful. The story is the only one in the series that doesn’t feature a child as a main character, but it remains compelling, if predictable. For sheer entertainment value, Gamera vs. Barugon is a winner.
Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967)
AKA Return of the Giant Monsters
An underwater volcanic eruption unleashes a giant, winged creature known as Gyaos. Meanwhile, Gamera inexplicably returns (seriously, they don’t even try to explain it). Like Godzilla before him, Gamera became a fan favorite, particularly with children. As a result, this film begins Gamera’s turn to a good guy, saving Japan from its latest monster (which, by this point, is an annual occurrence).
Gyaos is something like a giant bat, with the ability to send out destructive, supersonic rays from its mouth. But I can’t look at it without thinking of a child’s attempt at drawing Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon. Gyaos is Gamera’s most frequent rival, also appearing in two later entries. The film itself isn’t bad, offering a noticeable special effects improvement on mixing people in the foreground with monsters in the background.
Gamera vs. Viras (1968)
AKA Destroy All Planets
An alien species invades Earth with plans to colonize it as their own. They consider Gamera – now referred to as “a friend to all children” – a threat and set out to eliminate it. In order to do so, the aliens recognize his weakness and kidnap a pair of Boy Scouts. They then force Gamera to wreak havoc on Tokyo via telepathy. (The aliens speak Japanese and Gamera seems to understand it, no questions asked.)
Gamera vs. Viras seems to mark the point when churning out a new movie every year began to catch up with the filmmakers. It’s a short movie, clocking in at 81 minutes, 10 of which consist of flashback footage of battles from the previous films. Footage in space and underwater add kitsch value, but Viras is a lame monster – essentially a giant alien squid – that barely puts up a fight. For those interested in the camp that Mystery Science Theater 3000 lampooned, this is a good place to look.
Gamera: Ultimate Collection Volume 1 is an excellent collection for kaiju fans gearing up for the return of Godzilla. Although it would have been nice to have the American versions as well, the (undeniably superior) Japanese versions look surprisingly good on Blu-ray. There are a few grammatical errors in the subtitles that should have been caught, but otherwise it’s hard to complain about the set. It’s compact, affordable and good quality.
Be sure to read our review of Gamera: Ultimate Collection Volume 2.