[4 August 2011]
When I was a kid, my mother would load my sister and me into the car, where we’d slide around in the backseat like loose packages. I’d pull on her hair until we got to the theater for free Saturday movies. That’s where we saw our first Godzilla movies, and from there it was a joyous run through tons more Japanese monster movies. Ghidora, Rodan, Mothra: each as much a part of my childhood as baseball and BMX bikes. So it’s with no small amount of fondness that I made my way through MST3K vs. Gamera, a collection of five Gamera movies undergoing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.
This DVD set represents something of a holy grail for MST3K fans. From the first scenes of the original 1965 Gamera, the MST3K crew quickly realize they’re in a sweet spot of men in monster suits, bad dubbing, and cultural differences. They’ve never been available on DVD, though, because the rights-holders, Daiei Motion Picture Company, weren’t thrilled to see a significant part of their company’s catalog, not to mention a treasured part of Japan’s culture, ridiculed. Recently, though, the rights to the Gamera films briefly reverted to a party more than happy to allow the DVD releases, and Shout Factory! jumped at the chance.
Perhaps that history accounts for two of the interviews that accompany the movies. The first, “Gamera vs. the Chiodo Brothers”, finds special effects experts the Chiodo brothers reminiscing about the Japanese monster movies and how they fit into their work in the effects business. The other, “Camera Obscura: A History”, features cult movie expert August Ragone offering an in-depth history of the Gamera movies and how they fit into the Japanese monster movie tradition. They both set a tone of affection for the Gamera movies that perhaps seeks to assuage some of the hurt feelings that the MST3K treatment left behind. Interviews with Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and others from the MST3K fold admit that the show owes much of its own success to the Gamera movies.
If so, it probably won’t work, since Joel and the bots let fly early on with a surprising number of culturally reckless references, calling a group of musical geishas the Joy Luck Blues Band, asking characters to perform kung-fu, claiming one character looks like Chairman Mao, and even engaging in the poor taste of pronouncing “Hollywood” as “Horrywood” and “Regis and Kathy Lee” as “Legis and Kathy Ree”. Hardly shining moments. And then there’s the basic fact that the very premise of MST3K is that Joel and the bots are shown the worst movies that their captor Dr. Forrester can find as part of an experiment. So it’s a losing battle from the get-go if you’re trying to convince an entire country that you’re not making fun of their national identity.
You can’t deny, though, that the Gamera movies also bring out the best in the MST3K joke writers, especially as they get more movies under their belts (perhaps it’s a giddy sort of Gamera fatigue). The fun starts with their rewriting of the first Gamera film as a tale of forbidden love between a boy and a giant mutant turtle, and gains speed through each successive film. As the films become more modern and kid-friendly, they lose any edge (or coherence) they might have had when the Gamera enterprise started.
Things reach their peak in Gamera vs. Guiron, where things get truly convoluted and ridiculous (even for a series of movies about a flying, fire-breathing giant turtle). Where to start with Gamera vs. Guiron? The southern drawl that marks the dubbing of the aliens’ voices? The appearance of Guiron himself, a sleepy-eyed alien dog monster with a knife blade for a head? A fight scene in which Gamera swings on a horizontal bar like a gymnast? The stilted cadence of the dubbed voices? The fact that no one in the film knows the difference between a star and a planet? The uncanny resemblance of a child actor to Richard Burton (culminating in really funny bit that’s supposedly Richard Burton reading a Dylan Thomas poem about Gamera)?
Whatever strengths the Gamera films might have had when they started, or might have regained in later efforts like Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys (according to Ragone), they’re on short display in 1969’s Gamera vs. Guiron and 1971’s Gamera vs. Zigra (an alien that ultimately takes the form of a giant ... goblin shark?). It seems that even MST3K’s writers are stunned into silence when Gamera takes a boulder and plays music on Guiron’s back like he’s some kind of thrashing xylophone.
The framing device for Gamera vs. Zigra is that Joel and the bots are celebrating the fact that it’s their last Gamera movie. At this point, it’s hard to blame them, as much fun as it’s been. After five Gamera films, that sing-songy Gamera song starts to haunt your dreams. Gamera is really neat! Gamera is filled with meat! We’ve been eating Gameraaaaa….