The Monster Boom was cresting the ocean and descending upon the country of Japan like one of the Antediluvian monstrosities it was popularizing.
Until 1965 however kaiju were basically the sole property of Toho, and Toho’s creative team. Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya were the godfathers of the genre, and only one kaiju film existed that didn’t see them collaborating. That one film was Godzilla Raids Again, which saw Honda stepping down. In 1966, Ultra Q and Ultraman would burst onto the scene, two series run by Eiji Tsuburaya without any involvement from Honda (at least until Return of Ultraman). However there was no reason other studios couldn’t get in on the ascension of this burgeoning genre. Toho may have been the father figure to the kaiju genre, but there were certainly no legal obstacles between another studio and the kaiju concept. Consequently Tsuburaya Productions would be beaten to the punch – another studio would be able to claim the first kaiju franchise built independently of Toho.
Daiei Studios was part of a governmental effort to reorganize the film industry during World War II. Shinkō Kinema, part of Nikkatsu (Japan’s oldest studio), and Daito Eiga were merged in 1942. The resulting amalgamation was named the Dai Nippon Eiga Seisaku Kabushiki Kaisha. Daiei was the much needed short form. Daiei was more of a prestige pictures studio. They produced Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, and the incredibly popular Zatoichi series (which came later). Observing the rising popularity of the Godzilla films, Daiei decided it was time to muster up a competing monster.
Masaichi Nagata would take the role of executive producer on the film. He’d worked on some of the studio’s most successful films, and would serve as their biggest name on the team. It was actually producer Yonejirô Saitô who would come up with the story’s concept. Not all that impressive a feat, given that the movie is almost unapologetically a rewritten version of the original Godzilla film. There are a few different features, if anything marking a recent viewing of Godzilla’s close brethren The Beast from 20 000 Fathoms. The film was directed by relative newcomer Noriaki Yuasa, a child actor turned filmmaker. In fact Yuasa would go on to become the key figure in Daiei’s new creation completely by accident.
To become a director Yuasa basically just had to show up at Daiei. After filling out a written test, doing an interview, and receiving a physical examination he was allowed to join the studio’s ranks as an assistant director. He worked on ninety movies over ten years while working as an assistant director. The studio’s first plan was actually more influenced by 50s American science fiction. It was called Giant Group Beast Nezura, and was to be about one giant costumed rat and a swarm of real rats terrorizing a town. The studio had models ready, shot a few scenes, and scrapped the whole project. The real rats were carrying parasites, which didn’t just shut down the production; it stopped other directors from wanting to tackle the replacement.
When Noriaki Yuasa took over the project the script had all ready been written by Nisan Takashi, another key figure in Daiei’s kaiju series. Noriyoshi Inoue had designed the monster (the studio wanted parts of the Nezura costume included, but the team thought it was horribly subpar and refused). The film was a B class production, meaning it had a third of the budget of an A class production. Surprisingly the cheap Godzilla knock-off would go on to become an incredibly successful franchise.
The team went so far as to attempt to create a name using similar sounds as Toho’s monster names. The result was “Gamera.”
Perhaps one of the key features was this new kaiju’s elegant design. Gamera was designed and explored in over 500 preproduction sketches by Noriyoshi Inoue. Gamera is technically a daikaiju, like Godzilla. 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. The final creature is simultaneously delightfully silly and wonderfully iconic. Designing a kaiju is all about creating a distinctive silhouette and a memorable, simple, dynamic design. Gamera is all these things.
The restrictions on the production were challenging. Noriaki Yuasa recalls that, “Unlike Toho, Daiei had no in-house film developing laboratory. It also had no optical laboratory. So, I’d have to calculate the exact cost of development and optical work. I remember that each time Gyaos used his sound beam in Gamera vs. Gyaos, it cost Y3,500.”
The film’s plot was also a nice blend of silliness and drama.
Gamera’s origins 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 a hydrogen bomb being tested lands nearby. This is very similar to the frozen monster in The Beast from 20 000 Fathoms. He starts rampaging through Japan, however, at one point, he saves a small kid who spends the rest of the movie championing the idea that Gamera is a hero.
Gamera doesn’t appear frequently in this movie; he’s kind of relegated to the sidelines. This largely seems to be a budgetary decision. The costume was clearly made on the cheap. 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.
The plans to defeat 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, the idea of electrocuting a rampaging kaiju having become a legitimate trope by this point. The trope always concludes with failure, and Gamera is no different. The army has pretty much exhausted conventional means of fighting the monster and they start to consider the experimental weapons they naturally have lying around (another kaiju staple if there ever was one, although one that the Gamera series turns to more often than Godzilla). This experimental weapon comes in the form of a freeze ray. Their plan, in its entirety, is to freeze Gamera and flip him onto his back. They’re counting on his abject turtle-ness to prevent him from righting himself (despite the fact that he’s bipedal). When they flip him over they discover another one of Gamera’s key features. He retracts his legs and head, shoots fire from the holes, and flies through the air like a flying saucer.
In the end they actually can’t beat Gamera. So they trick him into climbing onto a spaceship and fly him to Mars. The idea is to strand him across space and let him starve to death elsewhere in the Solar System. It seems like a large part of the plot was designed around a desire to one up the King of Monsters.
The movie was an unexpected hit. Daiei’s attempt at capitalizing on the Monster Boom had gone better than they ever could have hoped. Young employees of Daiei flooded to Noriaki Yuasa, having grown tired of the entrenched elder staff members. Yuasa thought that the more optimistic outlook of Gamera might have had something to do with its success:
The people who took part in the production of the Godzilla movies had been involved in World War II, so I can understand why they made GODZILLA – KING OF THE MONSTERS the way they did, but to me, showing casualties was outrageous. I had a very strong reaction against it. It was not an accurate portrayal of the aftermath of war.
Toho cooperated with the military during the war. For example, special effects footage that it created showing American planes being shot down was passed off as real footage. I think Toho’s executives felt guilty about that.
Hydrogen bombs were part of GAMERA, but only provided the explanation for Gamera’s appearance. They were not used to symbolize man’s malevolence. I think that may be another reason for GAMERA’s success.
At Toho, Eiji Tsuburaya was thoroughly distracted by his work on Ultraman at this point, however he continued with the necessary Toho jobs. The studio had planned a sequel to Frankenstein vs. Baragon. The project was known as The War of Gargantuas. The script, penned by Takeshi Kimura, was even more of a departure from the typical kaiju stylings than the first film. The plot was built around two giant Frankenstein creatures, one semi-aquatic and one mountain dwelling, which grew from the remnants of the Frankenstein’s monster in the last film.
The aquatic Frankenstein was named Gaira. He’s a massive humanoid creature with a Frankenstein-style square head. He has thick green, matted fur and distorted human features. He’s first seen in the ocean, attacking ships and eating people. Like the mythical troll he resembles he suffers from an aversion to daylight. He and his brother briefly work together, before Gaira’s habit of eating humans gets the better of him and drives a wedge between the two mutated giant Frankensteins. Gaira was the creature portrayed by Haruo Nakajima.
Gaira’s brother was christened Sanda. He was captured by scientists and studied before he grew to his full height. He then escaped and ended up in the mountains. He has a more oval head than Gaira, as well as red-brown fur. Both kaiju were designed by Tohl Narita. The Neanderthal resemblance was increased from that seen in the first Frankenstein design. Now they had fake heads as opposed to the make-up of the first film. They had shaggy, massive shoulders made from football pads. They’re pretty unique looking when compared to Toho’s past creations.
The octopus created for the deleted scene in Frankenstein vs. Baragon makes a wonderful comeback during the film’s opening sequence. A boat is attacked at night by the thrashing tentacles of the cephalopod mollusc. The smaller scale of the film’s monsters meant that Yasuyuki Inoue could create intricately detailed monsters, much like the last Frankenstein film. One scene in particular took a ton of effort on his part. The two monsters were set to fight in a forested chunk of scenery. Easy enough for Toho’s skilled team in theory. However the script called for one of the monsters to uproot a tree and swing it at the other. This meant the tree needed realistic roots. Rather than create one tree and mark it, the team decided not to hamper the actors’ freedom during the fight. In the end every tree in the forest had to have realistic roots. They used small pine trees to make branches, then the roots from a plant called goldenrod; they stitched them together and filled the forest. After a few days the branches would look dead and have to be replaced. Hundreds of fake trees had to be planted to pull it off.
Like most of Toho’s movies it did fairly well, and had its fans. The American release removed all references to Frankenstein, convinced the new appearance of the creatures would confuse audiences. Gaira and Sanda became the Brown Gargantua and the Green Gargantua. Among the film’s fans is director Quentin Tarantino, who based a fight in Kill Bill 2 off the clash between the two monsters.
It was that year Toho decided their kaiju series needed to be freshened up. The next project they released would be done without Ishirō Honda and with Eiji Tsuburaya taking the role of a supervisor. This potentially risky choice would start a major change in the studio’s kaiju output.