1967 was a big year for Toho. Not because of the introduction of Godzilla’s son, but because it was their thirty-fifth anniversary. Eiji Tsuburaya and Ishirō Honda reunited to work on their penultimate collaboration for Toho. The project was close to Tsuburaya’s heart. Toho was co-producing the film with Rankin/Bass, an American company that held the rights to a Saturday morning cartoon featuring King Kong. The King Kong Show was produced in Japan for American distribution. The show featured international espionage and a villain named Dr. Who (no relation) who created a giant mechanical version of King Kong that appeared throughout the show. Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya were tasked with loosely adapting the television show for the big screen. It was to be the second and final Japanese film starring King Kong, a character still very dear to Tsuburaya. A lot of the movie reads as a passionate variation on the original film, with slightly mismatched elements from the show worked in. It’s an elaborate special effects piece that eschews urban environments for a variety of natural settings and far more monsters than the average kaiju film.
The film was written by Takeshi Kimura under his Karuo Mabuchi pseudonym. It was the first kaiju movie he’d written since the previous year’s War of the Gargantuas. The movie, King Kong Escapes, was almost a complete reunion of the team behind King Kong vs. Godzilla, but this time with a few key differences in the execution. Perhaps the biggest change was the gorilla suit. King Kong vs. Godzilla’s costume was more reminiscent of a child’s homemade Halloween costume than anything else, and it dragged down scenes with otherwise excellent effects. King Kong Escapes presented a chance to redo the gorilla suit. GoroKongu wasn’t that different than the previous effort. The big change was the costume’s head, which was now far more convincing and expressive. The film handles a concept from the first attempt far more deftly as well. The first Kong suit employed two different arm lengths, which was notable and distracting. Eiji Tsuburaya tried this again, but was more careful about it. Unfortunately the previous Kong suit was actually reused for some underwater scenes, which does lead to some jarring mismatched visuals. The suit also hides Haruo Nakajima’s face, when it might’ve been wiser to draw on the lessons taught by War of the Gargantuas – humanoid monsters gain a lot from expressive eyes.
Yasuyuki Inoue was still working on the designs for this film, and he got a chance to make three different daikaiju for Kong to fight. Gorosaurus basically presented the team with a chance to create their own variation on a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Eiji Tsuburaya planned to do an almost shot for shot recreation of the Tyrannosaurus fight from the original King Kong. Gorosaurus essentially looks like an Allosaurus with a less pronounced neck, triangular dorsal-plates and an overlarge head with a surprisingly slender lower jaw. Shortly after the fight between King Kong and Gorosaurus a sea serpent appears in the water. One would be forgiven for expecting the studio to reuse the sea-dragon puppet Manda, created for the film Atragon, but the sea serpent that appears is actually an entirely new invention. It exemplifies that tell-tale Yasuyuki Inoue design technique where, instead of creating a new creature, the monster is basically an enlarged version of a real animal, in this case a snake. The sea serpent is considered one of the four Showa era “minor” kaiju, who never reappear and feature only briefly in their films. The others are the giant lizard and octopus from King Kong vs. Godzilla, the giant condor from Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, and a skeletal turtle from Mothra vs. Godzilla. The snake was an effectively used wired puppet.
The film’s most notable antagonistic kaiju is Mechani-Kong, a robotic version of the giant gorilla. The design is actually substantially different from the TV show character that it draws on. The show’s depiction was simpler (better for cheaper animation) and featured two tones of brown. The film’s version is chromed and looks more like a suit of King Kong inspired armour than anything else. The design has armour like shoulder plates, and the back of its head looks like the back half of a samurai helmet. There’s a protruding rectangle sticking up out of the robot’s head with a speaker set into it. The top of this protrusion opens to unveil a hypnotic device used against the real Kong. Mechani-Kong also sports a belt with explosives attached to it that can be detached and thrown. These devices are mainly used as a mining tool, which, shockingly, is the intended purpose of the 20-meter robot Gorilla. The design is fairly striking and contrasts Kong nicely.
This film’s best special effects are perhaps the sets. Initially the film takes place on an island, King Kong’s default residence and, while it’s not significantly different than some of the past islands, it is a top-notch variation. The set is realistic, features a few differently scaled versions, some realistic trees, and a great cave set. Dr. Who’s elaborate underground base only required two scaled portions, one wall and two adjacent cells, but both are well done. There are a few scenes set in icy caverns, and these are some of the studio’s best icy environments yet. The techniques are visibly improved from, say Godzilla Raids Again.
The movie’s most impressive set piece comes during the climactic fight between King Kong and Mechani-Kong. For this fight, Toho’s craftsmen built an elaborate series of varied scale portions of Tokyo tower for the two monsters to clamber on. Different scale versions of the two daikaiju had to be created just for this sequence, and the extra effort shows. The size of the tower and the site of the two kaiju climbing upon it mark one of Toho’s most impressive, yet elegantly understated, effects scenes to date. The hands of Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya are instantly recognizable, and the fact that this was their penultimate Toho project makes the whole thing that much sadder.
While Toho’s classic team was crafting their swan song, Daiei’s new team was cementing their hold on the kaiju market. Despite the relative weakness of Gamera vs. Barugon, the team’s new film would only improve their reputation and introduce a new iconic character to the long-lasting franchise. In fact Gamera vs. Gyaos introduces an antagonistic kaiju that would return during every iteration of the character, sometimes multiple times.
Gamera vs. Gyaos starts with a series of earthquakes and volcanic activity striking Japan. This geological catastrophe concludes with Mount Fuji erupting. The heat and energy attract Gamera, who feeds on that sort of thing. Gamera doesn’t really do anything, except suckle at the reinvigorating volcanic heat. The volcanic eruption slows down work on a new expressway being built. This introduces us to the human element of Gamera vs. Gyaos. There’s a small child who lives in a village that sits in a location integral to the new freeway. The villagers are protesting and sabotaging the attempts of the heroic freeway construction workers. No shoehorned ecological message to be found in this movie. The freeway isn’t carving out natural habitats or endangering the villagers’ quaint way of life. Instead it’s progress, and the villagers are foolish and close-minded to fight against it.
A plane surveying the forest near the village is caught off guard when its pilots spot a glowing rock formation that looks kind of like a face. A yellow laser beam spouts from the rocks cleanly slicing the plane in half (an image suggested by director Noriaki Yuasa). Afterwards Eiichi, the aforementioned kid from the village, is climbing through the forest. He comes across a rather suspect reporter who convinces him to guide him to the rock formation. There’s something to be pointed out in how automatically the movie vilifies a reporter that tries to get a look at something the government is hiding. He’s cowardly and manipulative in a clearly politicized way. The two make their way towards the caves. When they get there, an ominous green light is pulsating and emanating from the grottos. They creep inside the caverns when suddenly the franchise’s newest kaiju, Gyaos emerges.
So the energy coming from Gyaos attracts Gamera and they fight. It’s a pretty effective fight scene, now that Yuasa was back directing and no longer directing special effects. The two exchange laser beam and fire attacks for a while. Gamera seems to notice the danger Eiichi is in and scoops him and deposits him on his back, flying away. This is one of the first notable instances of Gamera’s fondness for children, a trait very tied to the character. Gamera is later called “a friend to all children”. It’s helps set the character apart from Toho’s more aggressive roster of morally grey kaiju. Mothra may be good hearted but not to the extent Gamera is. Gamera flies Eiichi to a carnival conveniently located close by. The heroic construction worker ascends the Ferris wheel to grab Eiichi off Gamera’s plated back. The Ferris wheel makes for a nice set, and the effects are all well incorporated.
Gyaos is a kaiju that spends a lot of time flying. Especially in later redesigns he could be compared to a bat. His long arms each have two hands, one at the elbow, so when he folds up his wings he has hands roughly where a human’s would be. The other pair of hands is at the end of his outstretched mammalian wings. His head is harshly angular, actually sort of resembling the MUTOs in the 2014 iteration of Godzilla, or the head of Guilala. It makes for a unique mixture of elements unlike any preceding kaiju. His glowing green warning lights and yellow lasers are iconic, making up for the gross fire-extinguisher foam he blasts from some area vaguely under his wings. It’s either his nipples or his armpits, either way it’s not nearly as striking as his nice animated attacks. This is the franchise’s second poor dalliance with foam as a practical effect. The true point of Gyaos’ design becomes clear when he flies. He folds up his body, perks up his previously unnoticeable tail, extends his wings, tucks his head flat and soars through the air. His silhouette looks exactly like an airplane, which is certainly unusual. Almost certainly flying Gyaos is literally a small plane model with rubber glued on it. It still manages to add up to a convincing whole. It’s easy to see why the character was so long lasting.
Now back to the plot. The kid spends a lot of the rest of the time wandering around the military proposing theories about Gyaos, who he names via onomatopoeia, in that his roar apparently sounds like “gyaos”.
Numerous facts are established that would become synonymous with the monster. Gyaos is really old. He was awoken by the earthquakes. He eats people. The most important discovery made is that he’s nocturnal, furthering the bat theme. The light disturbs him greatly. The most entertaining portion of this is when they guess at Gyaos’ anatomy vis-a-vis his laser beam. They conclude it’s a supersonic blast created by Gyaos’ two (utter guess work on the part of the scientists here) throats vibrating like a tuning fork. No word on why it’s yellow. The citizens of Japan get told to stay inside at night and keep as many lights on as possible, hopefully repelling Gyaos. Of course Gyaos pops up again and Gamera engages him in another fight.
Gyaos’ laser deals more than a little damage to Gamera, beating him fairly handily. The fairly injured Gamera flies off to go heal underwater. This is one of the earliest randomly assigned superpowers the testudinatous kaiju receives. This too would go on to become a common trope of the franchise. Gamera has quite a few powers that come and go at the writer’s whims, right up to his last appearance.
Gamera and Gyaos fight again, in the water, as the sun rises. It’s actually a great visual, standing out amongst most of the era’s fights. This movie doesn’t skimp on combat, and most of them are well directed and entertaining. This one sees Gamera half in the ocean holding Gyaos’ foot as the sun rises, trying to let the sun kill him. The orange light washes over the scene and creates a decidedly atmospheric visual. Gyaos ends up tearing off his own foot instead of getting blasted by the sun.
Gyaos flies back to his cave and regrows his foot. Meanwhile the military experiment on the severed foot, discovering that UV light has an instant and violent effect on Gyaos’ flesh. Gyaos doesn’t just hate the light – it injures him. The army figures they can’t make a UV ray big enough to damage him, so they start plotting ways to keep Gyaos in one place while the sun rises. It’s not a proper Gamera movie without a ridiculously convoluted military attempt to beat the villain. The plan is as follows: attract Gyaos to the ceiling of a carnival building using a fountain of artificially generated human blood. Spin the ceiling, trapping Gyaos on it and leaving him too dizzy to effectively escape to his cave before the sun rises. Shockingly the plan doesn’t go super smoothly.
The engine powering the rotating platform overheats and explodes, letting Gyaos escape. Seems like they should’ve factored in Gyaos’ weight a little better. Humanity’s only hope is Gamera, who, in a moment of limited intelligence (when compared to other moments), decides he has no stakes in the fight. The new plan is to generate enough heat to attract Gamera to the fight. Missiles are employed to start fires and attract Gamera. Gyaos keeps putting the fire out with his armpit foam, but before too long Gamera arrives.
The two begin yet another fight. It’s another great scene, with imaginative combat, well designed effects, and good directing. At one point Gamera retracts just his hind legs and rockets towards Gyaos roaring and waving his claws. Like he has rocket boots or something. It’s another iconic image that would later be reused. There’s some aerial combat, lasers, fire, everything you could want from this sort of climax. At the end the sun weakens Gyaos and Gamera hurls him into the now active top of Mount Fuji.
Gamera vs. Gyaos is pretty much everything you could want from a kaiju movie. The movie almost forgets about its human element (the villagers decide money is good and agree to the building of the expressway). The fights are frequent and entertaining. The monster has a cool original design. The powers of the main beast are explored in cool new ways. It’s easy to see why this film both helped fuel future Gamera movies, and clearly presented Daiei as a major player in the Kaiju Boom.