For many of us growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a post-Saturday morning cartoon and cereal ritual. Once the sugar had subsided and the prepackaged product placement had eased, we’d settle into a comfortable chair, dial up the local UHF station, and sit back as Dr. Paul Bearer or Count Shockula (or if you lived in Chicago, and it was Sunday, the oddly conservative Frazier Thomas and Family Classics) unspooled yet another unknown genre gem from the recent past. It was during these homebound matinees where we first learned of the names Toho, Sandy Frank, the oddball Eastern obsession with giant monsters, and the man in suit brilliance of such Japanese icons as Godzilla, Ultraman, and everyone’s favorite flying turtle, Gamera.
Fast forward a couple of decades and cable TV shows like Commander USA and the brilliant Mystery Science Theater 3000 presented the same, edited for America artifacts, films now completely devoid of the sense of panic and paranoia that swept through Japan post-WWII. Few found the real message behind these movies within the funny business. A new generation of gullibles were too busy snickering at the special effects and riffing along with Joel and the ‘Bots to appreciate the sense of doom and gloom being channeled. Granted, it was visualized via a surreal combination of social commentary and b-movie schlock, but the producers of these films took their post-nuclear fears to heart. Given an opportunity to view something like Gamera vs. Barugon (new to DVD from Shout! Factory) in a pristine, original language print, the differences are readily apparent, and quite startling.
After being banished to Mars in a massive rocket, flying reptile Gamera is released by a random meteor and comes hurtling back to Earth. Desperate for a jolt of power-giving electricity, he destroys an important dam. Meanwhile, a band of criminals plan on visiting a Polynesian island to steal a local tribe’s treasure. Through cutthroat antics and deadly double crosses, they wind up with what looks like a giant opal. A few more murderous backstabbings later and the final possessor of the gem winds up back in Japan, greedy and ready to cash in. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a valuable jewel, but the egg of monster Barugon. When a heat lamp hatches it accidentally, the beast goes on a city destroying rampage, using its freezing mist tongue action to paralyze the populace. It will be up to Gamera, as well as a native girl with a giant diamond, to save the day.
Sure, it sounds loopy, and when experienced with bad dubbing and even worse editorial choices, Gamera vs. Barugon is nothing short of ridiculous. Listening to Western actors misinterpret Japanese performance as part Jerry Lewis, part Pearl Harbor payback is painful and distributors like the infamous Mr. Frank could jerryrig a narrative to undermine everything the original Tokyo talents intended. As with the recent rerelease of the Godzilla movies in uncut, original language DVDs, Shout! Factory’s take on the “friend of children” is equally eye-opening. Mostly gone are the goofball elements – the out of sync conversations and “Hello Joe” hate crime accents. In their place is a disaster movie mentality that would shape and inspire a dozen Irwin Allen/Roland Emmerichs and imitations. The monsters may have been the draw, but the various underlying stories kept the series fresh.
This time around, we have a typical criminal cabal running afoul of their own lack of loyalty. For most of the first 45 minutes, we get goona-goona gratuity, sweaty villains working out their vendettas, and a trip to ‘Rainbow Valley’ that accents the Japanese approach to action. The element that we bratlings of the ’60s and ’70s loved best – the cheap F/X – are now given their full matte painting miniature artistic glory, and they are indeed a joy to behold. Sure, Gamera and Barugon look tacky, but the huge landscapes and cityscapes are epic in scope. Even better, for every army man manipulation of model artillery and firepower, we get vast vistas and valleys overrun with brilliantly staged tsunamis. Remember, this was pre-CG, and no one could destroy a meticulous created tundra better than the Asians.
Indeed, one finds themselves getting caught up in the elements that director Shigeo Tanaka wants to emphasize. His actors respond in pristine, pre-Tarantino fashion and the setpieces percolate with purpose and presence. Yes, some forty-five odd years later, it’s hard to take the small scale battles seriously, and there is nothing remotely frightening or ferocious about watching two costumed stuntmen roll around on a mock-up of a Tokyo suburb – and that’s where something like Mystery Science Theater 3000 is partially to blame. The amazing comedy showcase created by Joel Hodgson and his Midwestern stand-up pals did the unthinkable – they took the group think groan of the home audience and expressed it out loud – literally, and laughably. While kids in the comfort of their wood paneled rec rooms yelled “fake” and mocked the movies in private, MST made such ridicule a public – and prolific – amusement.
It’s a pall that something like Gamera vs. Barugon has a hard time overcoming. Even with the fact-filled and fascinating DVD commentary track (from knowledgeable narrators August Ragone and Jason Varney), the movie just lends itself to derision. It’s almost impossible to divorce oneself from Tom Servo’s love song to his own turtle Tibby, the cast sing-along of the iconic creature’s theme, or the various sketches centering on Sir Sandy and his debasement of Japanese popcorn entertainment. As fans of the Comedy Central/Sci-Fi Channel series, these indelible imprints are hard to shake. Even when stripped back to their original big budget bombast, a movie like Gamera vs. Barugon appears to be missing something. You soon realize that the absent element is a group silhouette at the bottom right of the screen, a trio spitting out riffs that put the monster mayhem in comical perspective – and then some.
Just like those long lost salad days sitting in front of the huge Zenith stereo cabinet system, movies like Gamera vs. Barugon have an inherently complicated time regaining the respectability their creators hoped for when they were conceived. Sure, Gamera was just trading on Godzilla’s success, the Daiei Motion Picture Company hoping to compete with Toho and their iconic lizard. But each film tried to find its footing, be it with criminal activity, alien invasion, or pro-environmental messages. While far from great, many of these movies were good in their own right. Gamera vs. Barugon is an example of something that truly succeeds in spite of itself. It should also exist outside of the by now well known jibes and jokes. While the two may seem mutually exclusive, history and memory would argue differently.