When Shout! Factory released the original Japanese subtitled version of Gamera the Giant Monster on DVD last year, I was planning on just adding my thoughts about it into a review of the English cut of the film, Gammera the Invincible. However, having finally found the time and enthusiasm to sit down and watch a movie I figured couldn’t have been all that unique from its Western counterpart… I discovered it was quite unique from its Western counterpart. Thus, a separate article!
Gamera the Giant Monster (1965)
When an aerial battle over the arctic between US and Soviet forces sends an A-bomb hurtling into the ice, the prehistoric monster known in Eskimo legends as Gamera awakens! A behemoth left over from the lost continent of Atlantis, Gamera desires only to devour all of Earth’s thermal energy, killing thousands in the process. Scientist Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), his assistant Kyoko (Harumi Kiritachi) and tag-along press photographer Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashita) chase the beast across Japan, trying their best to stop it. Meanwhile, young turtle-enthusiast Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida) chases them, certain that Gamera is actually a gentle-giant. Alas, no one will listen.
The version of the film that I’ve always been familiar with, Gammera the Invincible, was a very heavy reworking of the original Japanese version, just as Godzilla, King of the Monsters was to the original 1954 Godzilla. However, where Godzilla, King of the Monsters found clever ways to include an additional narrative following a new character as he slips into scenes from the original movie, Gammera the Invincible lacked such effort, featuring a rotating cast of military and media personalities in cheap sets trying desperately to distract you from all the Japanese people. The result was something of an unfocused mess, with the leftovers featuring the original Japanese cast feeling half-baked or entirely pointless (Toshio’s presence in the US version is especially needless and random).
So as you can imagine, Gamera the Giant Monster is a much more focused film with a stronger narrative and cleaner plot threads. Shout! Factory’s DVD release looks particularly good, cleaned-up with the restored aspect ratio; it gives the film a better sense of grandeur, as the widescreen makes the special effects of Gamera’s Tokyo rampage look more frightening and less cheesy (though still cheesy). I definitely left feeling like I’d watched a completely different film with a different tone and objective from the version I’d grown up with, and all the better for it.
Gamera the Giant Monster is much less military-oriented than the American cut of the film, grounded more in the trials and tribulations of its cast of characters and their starkly different impressions of the title kaiju (Japanese for “monster” and used by fans of these movies to refer to giant Japanese monsters). Dr. Hidaka and his crew see Gamera as nothing more than a fiend bent on destroying the world while little Toshio sees a more sympathetic angle to the big turtle. Their plot threads initiate separately in the film before coalescing, with Toshio actively working against Dr. Hidaka and the armed forces and rooting for their defeat against Gamera. There’s a bit of a compromise at the end on how they vanquish Gamera without killing him, though Toshio’s ranting actually has little to do with the non-lethal implementation of Plan Z.
There’s also a definite anti-Cold War message permeating the movie, centering on a theme of global peace and cooperation. At the beginning, its warring US and Soviet forces that unleash Gamera on the world. At the end, it’s the united creation of Plan Z (with the US and Soviet Union specifically called out for their contributions) that saves the day. The US version of the film, released in 1966, during the Cold War, diminishes this message of peace in exchange for just making it look like Soviets are assholes and Americans are heroes. And to prove that twenty years later we’d made absolutely no progress, the US reworking of 1984’s Godzilla into Godzilla: 1985 did pretty much precisely the same thing, reworking a sequence so that the Soviet Union looks like a bunch of dicks and America has to clean up their mess.
I haven’t much new to say on the special effects, as most of the scenes involving Gamera were left intact for the Gammera the Invincible cut. I’ll just reiterate that they look a whole heck of a lot better in widescreen.
Gamera the Giant Monster is definitely the stronger version of the film, though you’ll have to steel yourself for some pretty terrible English language performances during the first twenty minutes or so of the movie (and incidentally, there are some pretty bad Japanese-language performances in the last twenty minutes of the film, too). While it isn’t in the same league as 1954’s Godzilla, Gamera the Giant Monster doesn’t try to copy the grim and gruesome tone of that film, instead opting for a more peaceful message about international unity. While I prefer my Gamera flicks to be good ‘n silly, the more serious nature of this first installment works a lot better in this original cut than the US version, making it a pretty solid picture.