In 1965, in order to capitalize on the impressive success of Toho Studio’s Godzilla, Daiei Studios produced a rival to the titanic, atomic lizard in the shape of Gamera; a humongous, fire breathing turtle that also had similar political leanings (this time about the Cold War) but harboured a tremendous fondness for children. Obvious Michael Jackson jokes aside, the film went on to spawn 11 sequels over about a 40 year period despite never truly escaping the image that in Kaiju movie terms, Gamera was the awkward, underappreciated step-child to Godzilla’s heavyweight movie-star.
However, despite this being true to a certain extent (that turtle has some clunkers, that’s for sure), he’s still somewhat of a guiding light within the genre, if only for more for the giant monster connoisseur than a regular viewer with his future films displaying increasingly bizarre creature designs and plots.
Gamera: The Giant Monster plays things somewhat straight compared to some of the out-there scenarios that appeared with the towering turtle terror engaging in standard, if highly competent, city stomping shenanigans. During an aerial dog fight a plane is shot down over the arctic and the subsequent explosion frees an ancient monster that starts to rampage throughout the seas. The Inuits in the area identify it as Gamera, a terrifying creature from legend with mind blowing abilities and sure enough, it surfaces elsewhere to wreak further havoc on a lighthouse while a small boy watches. However, during the carnage, Gamera deliberately saves the boy from certain death and promptly sods off again leaving all and sundry to wonder if there isn’t more going on with the amphibian marauder. A plan is put in motion to neutralise the creature once and for all using the fact it consumes fossil fuels as a food resource to lure it onto a rocket bound for Mars (seriously), but can a plan that sounds like it came straight out of a crack pipe possibly succeed in the face of Gamera’s might?
Compared to everything that came before and after, Gamera is fairly basic stuff – monster is freed, monster wrecks stuff, humans use questionable science to defeat it – but there is just enough going on to make it rise above the basic norm. A healthy sense of the absurd (something the series embraced full on pretty damn quickly from here on) makes it stand out, not least a scene where the military hope to defeat Gamera by knocking him on his back and hoping he’ll starve because as he’s a turtle he won’t be able to get back up (behold: SCIENCE!) only to be stunned as he tucks himself back into his shell and takes flight like a spinning frisbee.
The rampaging scenes are high quality and surprisingly nasty (groovy teens who refuse to leave their swinging party are buried alive and Gamera openly roasts people alive in the streets with his fire breath) and the monster suit, while admittedly goofy looking – it IS a sabre toothed turtle after all – and looking like it played merry hell on the performers spine, is still good value for money.
The performances are pretty standard for this kind of thing (although the actors in English speaking American parts are so awfully subdued you’ll openly wonder if there was a gas leak in the studio) and there’s not a single character arc to be seen, unless you count a kid repeatedly stowing away on things in order to get closer to Gamera as an arc.
Above average for this kind of thing, Gamera’s debut still suffers when compared to Godzilla first appearance but still has enough going for it for it’s star to proudly come out of it’s shell.