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Featured DVD Review: Gamera

May 16th, 2010

Gamera - Buy from Amazon

In 1954, a Japanese film studio called Toho created Godzilla, which has become one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time. It also has spawned countless imitators, some of which were able to stand on their own. Others, not so much. Gamera, a.k.a., Giant Monster Gamera, a.k.a. Gammera the Invincible, was released in 1964 in its native market and later released in the States in an edited form. This is the first time the original Japanese version is being released on DVD. Obviously, fans of this genre will be very excited by this news. But can this movie attract fans outside this niche market?

We start the movie in the Arctic, with Japanese researchers arriving at an Eskimo encampment just as four large black bombers fly overhead. The Japanese relay this sighting to the American military, who send up supersonic fighters to check it out. After they are fired upon, the Americans return fire, downing one of the bombers. This of course sets off its nuclear payload, which in turn awakes Gamera. After destroying the ship the researchers traveled on, it disappears beneath the waves.

Despite the enormity of this event, it is overtaken in the news when a drunk Japanese farmer spots a flying saucer and that becomes the news de jour. Huh? On the one hand, you have a ship that was attacked by a giant turtle and sunk. On the other hand, you have the word of a drunk. Yeah, I don't think I'd go with the Flying Saucer story in this case.

A short time later in Hokkaido, we meet Toshio, a turtle-obsessed young boy who is having troubles adapting after the death of his mother. You can probably guess what happens next. Gamera appears and destroys Toshio's father's lighthouse, but actually saves Toshio's life before moving on. The next day, Toshio can't find the wild turtle he keeps as a pet, Pee Wee. He thinks it must have grown up to become Gamera, his salvation.

Later, Gamera attacks a nuclear power plant. The Japanese military hope they will be able to destroy it, but it eats the flames. The military does manage to knock it on its back, but that's when they learn of Gamera's most devastating ability... Gamera can fly! I'm not going to tell you how, but I'm sure that scene was enough to get it on MST3K.

When reviewing this movie, one has to admit your opinion will be greatly determined by what you compare the movie to. Comparing it to other Kaiju films from the era, this one is actually very well done. Granted, the overall story is very familiar. This is partially because it is very similar to the original Godzilla. And because a similar plot has been used in nearly every Kaiju film since, most people watching it today will find it all very familiar. Also, we never do learn much about Gamera as a character. He saves a boy and eats heat and that's it in terms of character development. The special effects are good compared to most Kaiju films, although some of the miniature work is not only weak, but also unnecessary. On the other end of the scale, there are some shots that I thought held up well, all things considered. The film is closing in on 50 years so far after all. (I particularly liked the use of animation to show the men running away from the research ship at the beginning of the film. It wasn't convincing by today's standards, but it had a style that made stand out.) Finally, the acting in some scenes is a little... how to put this politely... amateurish. But there was a legitimate reason for this: they were very likely amateurs. (Check out the audio commentary track for more details on that.)

Or you could just admit there's a reason this movie was featured on MST3K, twice. (The first time was during season one, when they didn't have the proper licenses to rebroadcast or distribute, so it was featured again during season four.) The special effects haven't aged well, the concept of a giant flying turtle is just too awesome to ignore, and the character of Toshio is grating to say the least. It offers a lot that is worth mocking.

The main special feature on this DVD is an audio commentary track with Japanese film historian, August Ragone. You have to watch this movie with the audio commentary track. It's like a mix of dry, historical movie trivia and MST3K mocking of some of the more ridiculous moments. Sometimes audio commentary tracks tend to be a little too easy with the compliments, but not this one. He points out when the acting isn't up to today's standards, or any standards, and why. Absolutely worth listening too. The other significant extra is a 23-minute long retrospective of Gamera franchise that is in Japanese with English subtitles. There's even a taste of what the next Gamera might have been like. There's an image gallery and a 12-page booklet.

The Verdict

Toho pioneered Kaiju films with the creation of Godzilla, which has set the standard for the genre. Gamera isn't up to that standard, but it is still entertaining in its own right. It's certainly better than most Kaiju films that follow it. This DVD is the first time the original Japanese version is being released in North America, and in Anamorphic Widescreen no less. This makes it a must have for fans of the franchise, and worth picking up for fans of Kaiju films in general. I would have loved it if the DVD had both versions of the movie, but this is still solid bang for the buck.

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