The first blog post I made covered a cheezy B-movie from the 50s called Cult of the Cobra. I don’t remember watching it on Creature Feature but it definitely could have fit in.
No matter how silly they may seem to modern audiences, these kinds of films filled a huge chunk of my subconscious dreamscape as a kid. I look back on them with a combination of fondness and a sort of nostalgic dread reserved for the sorts of boogeyman-under-the-bed fears that give kids nightmares.
There’s no particular topical reason to make this post other than to make the somewhat provocative statement that Gamera is a better monster than Godzilla, his more popular brethren.
Now, many of you may not even know who Gamera is. Basically, Gamera is a huge turtle with fangs who can retract himself into his shell and shoot rockets out of it. He flies with with his head and arms out or rotating like a helicopter. In other words, he is absolutely absurd, which makes him the perfect Japanese monster (aka kaiju).
Gamera was created to cash-in on the monster craze after Godzilla hit. As such, he’s been maligned by kaiju purists as nothing but a crass ripoff. But my opinion is that he is the ultimate Japanese monster.
In order to make such a bold claim, you have to understand what the primal appeal of these kinds of movies are… These are actually a sub-genre of disaster/horror that is in fact more accurately a mashup or stealth mashup. The original movies where both Godzilla and Gamera debuted feature an antagonistic monster that simply crushed cities indiscriminately. It was only after the popularity of Godzilla did the writing begin to inject a crude sense of conscience into him so that he would act more like a guard-dog, attacking other monsters. So really, the genre that kaiju films mash up into one are the disaster movie, professional wrestling, and pet movies (think Benji or Babe).
The core theme of a typical Godzilla movie is the moral ambiguity of Godzilla’s animal motivation. In the recent Godzilla reboot this was very clearly (and correctly) articulated. The death and destruction Godzilla created was never intentionally malicious. It was collateral damage as he attacked the other monsters like an immune-system response. Of course, the powers that be were quick to treat him as just as malcious as the other monsters, but over time they needed to tease out the fact that Godzilla wasn’t evil and the other monsters were, so that by the end of it, Godzilla was labeled a hero of mankind.
The problem of Godzilla vs. Gamera is that Godzilla has been portrayed as malicious far more often than as the world’s protector. He’s definitely more of a bad-ass, but it’s hard to love him because (continuity or no) he’s been responsible for just crashing through too many cities in a pretty nasty sort of way.
Gamera was only portrayed this way in his very first outing, one that didn’t really get a ton of airplay in syndication. After that he had some sort of epiphany, almost reboot-like, into the friend of all children. Yes, that’s right. They didn’t just reform Gamera, they made him very consciously loving and compassionate to kids in a way Godzilla could never dream of being. Gamera’s autonomy is such that he comes across more like a well-trained dog whereas Godzilla is always highly unpredictable.
If the catch-phrase “friend to all children” wasn’t enough, Gamera was even given a catchy theme song.
Now, a lot of people only know about Gamera as a meme created by Mystery Science Theater 3000’s liberal take on the translated lyrics.
The Gamera franchise is ripe for being made fun of, so much so that I don’t even think it’s particularly funny or entertaining to mock it. I think it’s far better to give yourself up to the absurdly childlike fantasyland of Gamera. You don’t have to so much as buy into the science or the logic, just revel in how it actually takes a genre that’s supposed to be scary and makes it digestable to young audiences.
I’m not really a Gamera afficionado, and I’m aware that the franchise has seen a reboot or two in an attempt to be able to suspend disbelief a little more. Gamera the Brave is on my watch-list because I like the idea of starting him off as an actual pet turtle and then having him grow and grow like Clifford the Big Red Dog. It helps explain why he would be a “friend to all children”.
No, today I’m going to culminate by featuring the one Gamera movie I remember most: Gamera vs. Guiron.
The great thing about covering these kinds of movies is, more often than not, they are streaming for free somewhere. This one is smack dab on Youtube. Why it would fall into the public domain is anyone’s guess (assuming it really is) but copyright law’s loss is our gain. So without further adieu, I suggest you dim the lights, click play, go fullscreen, and lose yourself in the vibe, as it were. My defense of this film which is hovering at a mere 26% on Rotten Tomatoes appears under the embed.
This film is probably my single favorite Japanese monster movie, although there are others I really like as well. You’re never going to find Oscar caliber material here. You have to enter into the midnight-movie mindset.
I won’t go into all of this film’s touches, as there are many. You can find really nasty dissections of the film on Youtube like this one. These kinds of things are only trying to shoot fish in a barrel. I used to watch Elvira all the time and let me tell you, she was more watchable than this young Howard Stern lookalike.
The big appeal of the Gamera movies rests in the perspective, namely the kids. This sets it in the same company of E.T., Goonies, Stand By Me, Super-8, and so on. As a kid, watching a monster movie from the eyes of kid protagonists made it extremely accessible compared to the boring scientists and army generals. Basically what a Gamera movie amount to is the process of following kids as they navigate through a monster-movie scenario like it’s a videogame, with Gamera usually watching over them like a protector and saving them like a superhero when needed, then letting them hitch a ride back home.
I have a selective memory when it comes to things I watch. Rather than giving something a thumbs up or down as a whole, I can sometimes see how lesser fare contains some pearl in the center of it. And this film definitely has one!
The kids get to travel to a far off world with hot asian-looking alien chicks who serve them lunch. I didn’t connect the dots as a kid, but the scenario was a riff on Hansel & Gretel. The kids are too naive and trusting and don’t realize that they’re merely lambs being led to the slaughter.
The big twist of the aliens suddenly revealing themsleves to be predators pushed all sorts of strange oedipal buttons in me as a kid. I will never forget it. Really, the best Japanese monster movies mixed in some deep space travel so you could have your sci-fi fix in addition to the collapsing cardboard buildings and this one has some of the most of that component.
Anyway, to summarize, the reason Gamera is better than Godzilla is that he’s just plain more likeable. For whatever reason, he’s the friend to all children, and he walks the talk pretty consistently. So it’s much easier to anthropomorphize him whereas Godzilla seems more like an oversized dinosaur with a pea-brain.
Insofar as these sorts of monster movies operate on the simple level of professional wrestling, you need to have some reason for waving the flag for one monster vs. the other, and it’s just easier to root for Gamera, because he seems to consciously stand for something, the way all good heroes do. Godzilla seems heroic merely as a byproduct of his instinct for self-preservation. In other words, as silly as it is to say this–Gamera has more heart and soul. In his kind spirit of friendship, it would be best to end the post this way, though: