Gamera: The Complete Collection
directed by Noriaki Yuasa, Shusuke Kaneko
starring Gamera, Gyaos, Guiron, & Zigra
Poor Gamera. The giant flying turtle is not only the guardian of the universe, but also the friend to all children, and the big guy is still the Rodney Dangerfield of kaiju, he just gets no respect at all. As a monster and a film series Gamera and his foes always come up short against Godzilla, Mothra, Gigan, et al. Even within Daiei FIlm, Gamera isn’t the alpha kaiju as the Daimajin trilogy of films, about samurai and a vengeful mountain god, reigns supreme. After generations of Saturday afternoons on TV, lousy, retitled VHS cash grabs, English dubbing atrocities, and endless drubbing at the hands of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Riffttrax, the much maligned terrapin is getting his due with an Blu-ray set from Arrow Video that actually eclipses last year’s blockbuster Godzilla Showa era set from Criterion.
Gamera, the Giant Monster, directed by Noriaki Yuasa was a tight 78 minute black and white affair that felt more like a 1950’s American monster movie, say The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, than a Japanese Kaiju Eiga. The film may have clocked in at under 80 minutes but still felt mercilessly padded due in no small measure to one of the strangest child characters in film history, and if you know your Gamera films that’s some stiff competition. Well Gamera proved to be the hit Daiei needed so they quickly doubled down on a full color sequel upgrade with a much bigger budget and a new director, Shigeo Tanaka, and Gamera vs. Barugon. This second film disappointed at the box office, but Daiei felt there was still something to work with so they brought back the original director, Noriaki Yuasa to retool Gamera into cheap monster programmers aimed squarely at children. Noriaki Yuasa took his orders and created a new Gamera film every year through 1971. These films were all basically the same. Some kids discover a monster, or monsters, and Gamera shows up to fight while the kids provide play by play and color commentary from a safe distance, rinse,dry, repeat. As they went the movies lost narrative cohesion and functioned more like children’s fever dreams as the young protagonists, with a token caucasian as a requirement for US distribution, weave through plots that sound like they were written on a playground. The kids investigate something in the woods, they find a spaceship, which they know how to fly, they encounter an asteroid field but Gamera shows up to help them. They land the spaceship on a planet full of giant monsters and beautiful women who want to eat their brains, and that is just the first half hour. Noriaki Yuasa continued the frenetic, no frills approach with increasing reliance on monster footage prom previous films until the belated swan song of the original cycle, Gamera: Super Monster in 1980 was little more than clip show with a scant framing device in which to dump footage from earlier films in one of the low water marks in cinema, which would sadly be mirrored in 1982’s Trail of the Pink Panther.
In the mid-1980s television producer Sandy Frank, who had success importing and retooling the Japanese anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman into a beloved Star Wars cash-in Battle of the Planets in 1978 bought up the Gamera movies which replaced the English dubs that were created by American International for TV distribution with some of the worst English dubs in film history. Frank released the movies on cheap home market VHS tapes under new titles that were designed to be confused with Toho’s Godzilla series. How many accidental purchases of Destroy All Monsters, Attack of the Monsters, or War of the Monsters lined Frank’s pockets back in the day. These releases really helped sour people on Gamera, but the final insult, being the butt of the jokes on Godare held in high esteem as Kaiju films regardless of monster or studio as they are actually better than some of the Godzilla movies from the same era. The new Gamera is no longer kiddie matinee fare and features less children, better effects, and plots that keep the audience engaged between monster battles without getting in the way. They are everything Kaiju should be; fun monster spectacles that keep the tone light without drifting into self parody. 2006 gave us another reboot with Gamera the Brave which just proves it’s hard to keep a good monster down and there is always a place in fans’ hearts for a rocket propelled, fire breathing, space turtle who is a friend to all children.
Arrow Video has assembled Gamera: The Complete Collection and it is one of the most impressive box sets ever produced even outshining the recent Criterion Collection’s Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films 1954-1975. All 12 Gamera films are included, across 8 discs with original Japanese tracks and English dubs and even three different cuts of Gamera vs. Viras. Arrow crushes it with their extras. The set is packed with commentaries on the movies from the likes of August Ragone, Steve Ryfle & Ed Godziszewski, Sean Rhoads & Brooke McCorkle, Stuart Galbraith IV, and David Kalat and others. The commentators all bring unique styles to their craft so even when retracing the same ground they are able to bring a fresh angle so it doesn’t get repetitive hearing the same information multiple times David Kalat draws a tough assignment making a defense for Gamera vs Guiron and by extension the whole series by contextualizing them as fairy tales with as more in common with the Brothers Grimm than science fiction. This reading makes a great deal of sense and forgives a number of sins from the original run. The set also includes a multitude of interviews, documentaries, oddball bits of Gamera lore, along with posters, artcards, and two books. It is an instant Gamera collection in a box and a testament to the staying power of the monster and the films. You are strong, Gamera!