Fire-Breathing Turtles and Rubber Suits:

On Gamera

Anyone paying attention to my articles may have noticed I have a certain fondness for kaiju films. I assume that people aren’t paying attention though, so for that majority: I like kaiju stuff. The thing is, other than a handful of Godzilla films and a fair number of Ultraman episodes, I haven’t actually seen that much. Thank god someone out there was looking out for me. Perhaps some diminutive god of wasted time or silly rubber suits or something. Either way the late era Gamera films had been on my radar for a bit. I’d heard they were really good. At least by kaiju standards which, admittedly, is a level of its own. So when I found a collection of every single Gamera film, all eleven of them, I knew I had to commit to watching the whole series.

Gamera is a Daiei Motion Pictures Company creation. After the success of Toho Studios Godzilla, Daiei decided to capitalize on the new trend. It went about as well as one could hope. Despite being a hasty attempt at riding Toho’s coattails, Gamera became an icon in his own right. Generally he’s considered to be one of the most iconic kaiju, and is certainly the most iconic to not come out of a Toho film. The first movie Gamera, or The Giant Monster Gamera, or The Invincible Gammera (yes, with two Ms) launched the newly designed and created kaiju. It came out in 1965, eleven years after the first Godzilla film but only one year after Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster, which helped launched the trend of more heroic kaiju films (the similarities between later kaiju films and superhero comics are too numerous to mention here), a mould Gamera fits into nicely.

It’s easily argued that the most important part of any kaiju, especially a brand new one, is the design. Gamera was designed by Ryosaku Takayama, whose only credits are the first three Gamera movies. Which is a shame, because he’s clearly not bad at it. Gamera is technically a daikaiju, like Godzilla. This just means he’s especially large – specifically sixty to eighty meters in height. His most notable characteristic, however, is that he’s basically a giant turtle. He’s bipedal, with the exception of a few shots in the first series of films. He has spiny plates on his shell and a toothy mouth, including two prominent upwards-pointing fangs. He breaths actual fire, unlike Godzilla, and can fly. Which is simultaneously delightfully silly and wonderful iconic. Designing a kaiju is all about creating a distinctive silhouette and a memorable, simple, dynamic design. Gamera is all these things.

His origins (in the movie I watched, apparently these evolve as the other parts of the series pop up) are pretty complex and delightful. Basically Gamera was a massive semi-prehistoric species of turtle. He feeds on radioactive and flammable materials and used to live on the continent of Atlantis. He ends up frozen in the arctic and is only awakened when an atomic bomb gets dropped on his head. He’s generally a little pissy about this, and starts crashing into all kinds of buildings. He does, however, save a small kid at one point. (Later he would be christened “Friend of All Children” because Gamera is adorable.) This kid spends the rest of the movie telling people to leave Gamera alone because he’s just like his pet turtle. He understands turtles, you see, so Gamera is clearly an alright guy. For some reason his parents never really reinforce his claims with the information that they saw Gamera save the brat. Which not only denotes general kind-heartedness but also decent intelligence. His whining is rather ineffectual.

We don’t see a ton of Gamera in this movie; he’s kind of relegated to the sidelines. This largely seems to be a budgetary decision. The costume honestly doesn’t look that good yet. Like a lot of kaiju films, it’s a mix of eye catching and genuinely awesome shots and scenes that look like they cost a penny. Most of the movie is various people meeting in various rooms discussing where Gamera has been sighted and where he might go next and what they should do about it.

What really makes the movie awesome is how insanely hard it is for anyone to do anything about Gamera. Once an atomic bomb is your monster’s wake-up call what’s next? The plans in Gamera get crazier and crazier as the movie progresses. They realize he likes fire and they should stop dropping bombs on him. Using a thermonuclear plant to electrocute him gets suggested. Gamera’s pretty unfazed by electrocution though. My favourite plan comes later on in the movie. The army has pretty much exhausted conventional means of fighting the beastie and they start to consider the experimental weapons they naturally have lying around (another kaiju staple if there ever was one). This experimental weapon comes in the form of a freeze ray. Their plan, in its entirety, is to freeze Gamera and flip him unto his back. They’re counting on his abject turtle-ness to prevent him from righting himself (despite the fact that he’s bipedal). Freeze him, flip him onto his back, and let him starve to death. That is the entire plan. Isn’t that the greatest thing ever? Of course Gamera can fly. So when they flip him over he simply retracts his legs and head, shoots fire from the holes, and flies through the air like a flying saucer (!!!). Just like turtles do, you know?

In the end they actually can’t beat Gamera. So they trick him into climbing onto a spaceship and fly him to Mars. Let him starve to death elsewhere in the Solar System. This is possibly my favourite thing ever. “Fuck it, we can’t beat this guy, let’s leave him on Mars.” It’s like the ending to Warren Ellis’ Ultimate Galactus trilogy, when the force of a Big Bang convinces Gah Lak Tus that earth is slightly too much work to make a good meal. It’s just so ludicrous.

The entire movie is ludicrous, but in that really fun way. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, which leads me to a question: I have ten more Gamera movies to watch. How many of them do you guys want to hear about? Should I write about them all? Should I only write about the especially notable ones? Offer a brief summary and review of each one in a single article? Let me know what you think in the comments please and thank you.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Mario Lebel says:

    Harry, I’m a little surprised you even had to ask. The answer is clearly all of them!

    Looking forward to this.

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