Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Daikaijû Gamera (Gamera, the Invincible) (Daiei, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I ran an item we’d downloaded from I thought would be interesting: Daikaijû Gamera, the original 1965 Japanese-language version of the monster film later released in the U.S. by Sandy Frank’s cheap-jack operation as Gamera the Invincible. I’d always thought it would be interesting to watch one of these Japanese monster productions in the original language, with English subtitles, to see if (as some of their harder-core fans maintain) there are subtleties and richnesses that are literally lost in translation — especially since the dubbed versions were famously terrible, with goony-voiced actors not even coming close to matching the lip movements of the actors on screen, and just added another level of camp to movies that were already treading on the thin edge of risibility. I’d still like to see Gojira, the original Japanese version of the 1954 Godzilla, which is apparently half again as long as the one we got in the U.S. and lacks the crudely shot additional footage the U.S. distributor (our old friends American International) added with Raymond Burr. But I’m afraid Gamera is a pretty silly movie to begin with and seeing it au naturel didn’t do much for it — though it may have undercut the sentimentality with which the U.S. version dripped. Gamera was produced by Daiei Studios, the second-largest film company in Japan, next to Toho — which had made Gojira a.k.a. Godzilla and made a ton of money off it and its sequelae, as well as other subsidiary monster series and one-off bad sci-fi movies like the unforgettable (for all the wrong reasons) 1958 film Attack of the Mushroom People. Toho also had Akira Kurosawa under contract, and needless to say the profits from the monster cheapies helped finance Kurosawa’s masterpieces — and there were some casting connections as well: the year before Akira Kubo played the male lead in Mushroom People he had a supporting part in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, his famous reworking of Macbeth as a samurai drama (Kubo played the equivalent of Fleance, Banquo’s son).

Anyway, Daiei saw how much money Toho was making off films like this and wanted some of those yen for themselves; they decided to come up with a monster character that they could use in film after film, one who would also be the product of atomic weaponry (Carlos Clarens, in his book on horror films, noted the irony that Japan, the only country in history ever on the receiving end of a nuclear attack, used the Bomb again and again as a fictional device for explaining how prehistoric monsters came to life again and menaced modern Japan) and who, like Gojira/Godzilla, would be a bad guy in his first film but could be transformed into an agent of good in subsequent appearances. The concept they came up with was Gamera, a giant turtle who lived in ancient Atlantis until it was destroyed and sank beneath what ultimately became the Arctic Ocean. Evidence of its existence was preserved in a carving the Eskimo (I know that’s a politically incorrect name these days, but it’s what the filmmakers went with) handed down from generation to generation. Gamera re-emerges from under the Arctic ice when the United States Air Force notices a plane in the sky that looks military but bears no national markings — incidentally the Air Force personnel speak to each other in English, so in addition to Japanese with English subtitles we also get English with Japanese subtitles, not at the bottom of the screen but on either side of it (remember that Asian languages are written vertically). They shoot down the bogey (just what it was and where it came from is a mystery that in another sort of movie might actually have been an interesting dramatic issue, but in this film it gets ignored almost as soon as it’s established), only the mystery plane had an atomic weapon aboard, the A-bomb explodes and pokes a hole in the Arctic ice, and out of it emerges Gamera, brought back to life by the radiation. Its first act is to destroy an icebreaker ship (represented by a horribly crude model of a ship traversing equally unbelievable model ice — earlier we’d seen a truck going through the Arctic wasteland, also done with a model, and one wonders why Daiei couldn’t have just got stock footage for these scenes), and eventually it moves on Tokyo. Gamera both spits out and ingests fire — it later turns out that energy is its food source — and it also flies. Though this film doesn’t explain how, later films in the series did; Gamera has four jets that spit out fire, and by revolving it can gain both lift and thrust, though it also takes on a resemblance to a “flying saucer” and, indeed, is at first mistaken for one.

The human protagonists are scientist Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), reporter Aoyagi (Junichirô Yamashiko), his girlfriend Kyoko Yamamoto (Harumi Kiritachi) and the usual insufferable movie kid who was an essential part of the Gamera formula, Toshio Sakurai (Yoshiro Uchida). Toshio has some kind of mystical bond with turtles in general (he has a normal-sized one as a pet) and Gamera in particular, and while all the responsible adults in the film are trying to figure out how to kill Gamera, Toshio wants to befriend it and see if he can tame it. Eventually the humans figure out that Gamera lives on anything that burns, so they trap him inside an oil refinery and then try to lure him to the island of Ohshima so they can institute the “Z Plan.” (At this point I joked that they had to use the Z Plan because Plans A through Y hadn’t worked.) By far the most compelling scenes in the film are the ones in which the Tokyo authorities are trying to cope with the threat, dealing with the fires being set by Gamera’s flaming breath and coordinating an evacuation that turns predictably panicky. Remember that just 20 years earlier, well within the memory of many of the people making this film as well as many in its initial audiences, Tokyo and Japan’s other major cities had indeed been subjected to attacks that spat fire from the sky — though the attackers, of course, were not prehistoric giant flying turtles but U.S. aircraft. Towards the end of 1944 General Curtis LeMay had persuaded his superiors in what was then still the U.S. Army Air Corps to bomb Japan from America’s bases on the recently conquered islands of Saipan, Tinian and Guam — and, instead of doing precision raids with explosives to target Japanese industry, LeMay wanted to go after civilian populations with napalm and other incendiaries in hopes of terrorizing the Japanese population into demanding a surrender. It didn’t work any more than it had for both Germany and Britain doing similar things to each other in the European theatre, but it laid waste to significant chunks of Japan’s urban infrastructure (according to the estimate of Martin Caidin in his book A Torch to the Enemy, over 50 percent of Tokyo was destroyed in fire raids, as were similar percentages of Japan’s other major cities, even before the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and no doubt left most of the survivors with highly traumatic memories that seem to have informed this film.

These wrenching scenes of cities under attack provide the one genuinely interesting element in what’s otherwise a pretty standard monster-fest, in which the “Z Plan” turns out to be to lure Gamera inside a giant pod that looks like a huge model of a seed, trap him inside it, and then the pod turns out to be the nose cone of a huge rocket that will launch Gamera to Mars, so Earth will be rid of him but Toshio won’t have to deal with the trauma of his big friend dying. The direction by Noriaki Yuasa and the writing, if you can call it that, by Nisan “Fumi” Takahashi are about what you’d expect — Yuasa does his best with the expected disaster porn but he’s hardly on the level of Inoshiro Honda, Toho’s man on similar assignments — and Toshio’s part seems more restrained and less sentimental than it did in the English version (which I’ve never seen, but from the extensive quotes from its dialogue on the site I get the idea), though maybe that’s just because subtitles simply can’t contain as much information as actual dialogue and it’s possible the alternately sugary and just plain stupid tenor of the kid’s dialogue was literally lost in translation. Daikaijû Gamera was an interesting experience but overall surprisingly dull — even the big action set-pieces had an odd air of obligation about them — these Japanese monster movies have become the stuff of bad-movie legends, but the version from its home turf wasn’t scary enough to be seriously frightening and wasn’t bad enough to be camp, either.