By 1971, everyone’s favorite flying turtle was in trouble. The studio behind the famed ‘friend’ of children, was going bankrupt, and they hoped that their latest entry in the franchise would reverse that financial tide. Utilizing the product placement pitch of a local attraction (the Japanese version of Sea World) and a pro-ecology narrative so popular at the time, another kid vid style Gamera adventure failed to resonate with the demo. A trip to court, and Daiei Motion Picture Co., Ltd was no more. Nine years later, the conglomerate holding the rights decided to make a routine retrospective of the airborne amphibian’s “greatest hits”. Gamera: The Super Monster would suffer from a Star Wars inspired wrap around that made the collection of ’60s stock footage clips seem even more silly.
As part of a ditzy double feature from Shout! Factory, Gamera vs. Zigra/ Gamera: The Super Monster are a marvel of mediocrity. They struggle for any semblance of series significance and beg for a beating at the hands of something like Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which, oddly enough, did dissect most of the movies in the franchise). They illustrate a kind of hackneyed commerciality where cynical adults believe – perhaps rightfully so – that children will sit through just about anything. Without the amusement park footage of killer whales getting their teeth brushed and seals playing basketball, Zigra would be one long slog to an anticlimactic kaiju beatdown. While it’s all highlights (arguably), Super Monster shows that, all updated starship technology aside, Gamera’s man in suit scenarios were better appreciated by previous generations.
In Gamera vs. Zigra, the title space monster arrives on Earth via a destructive detour at the Moon. Hiding deep under the sea, the extraterrestrial gets a fetching young lady in pastel leggings and go-go boots to do most of his evil bidding. That includes kidnapping various nondescript members of the cast and causing cataclysmic earthquakes of “Magnitude 13!!!” All of this is meant to show the planet how pitiful it is, structured in a surreal message that argues against pollution and for cosmic conquest. Of course, the shelled one shows up to kick ass and spread salmonella…and he’s all out of motile enterobacteria. In Super Monster, an alien race gathers together the famous fiends from the previous Gamera films – Barugon, Gaos, Viras, Giron, Jiger, and Zigra – and prepare to unleash them on a hapless humanity. Thanks to some undercover E.T.s in human form, and a boy who really loves his flaming turtles, and reels in a film vault, we witness the standard monster vs. monster mashings that were questionably convincing the first time around.
For many, the giant monster movies of Japan present an interesting aesthetic quandary all their own. For decades, the only way to experience these supposedly stupid pieces of cinematic schlock was to wait for a Saturday afternoon TV screening on your local horror host’s UHF creature feature. Poorly dubbed and dismantled by their US distributors (including the oft-maligned Sandy Frank), they were windows into a world few thought they would ever experience outside a farcical foreign film centering on guys running around like insane sports mascots. Now, with DVD and Blu-ray offering a more preservationist view of the artform, purists balk at the legacy left behind by such Westernized works. They want audiences to experience the “real deal,” so to speak. Thus Shout! Factory’s digital doubling down, though in both cases, the completists’ need countermands whatever entertainment value the previous cheese provided.
From the outset, the clip factory formulations of Super Monster undermine its effectiveness. We get caught up in the last act confronts, realizing how much we enjoyed the original Gamera vs. Gaos or Gamera vs. Barugon. In the meantime, the staining of sci-fi by George Lucas begins unabashed as Imperial Cruiser like spacecraft motion control their way across the frame, everything coming across as a less convincing version of the original Battlestar Galactica. Even worse, the stilted subplot involving Marsha, Kilara and Mitan is beyond pointless, sandwiched awkwardly inside all this stock material. Luckily, the irritating little Keiichi is around to remind us that, for some reason, Gamera is very fond of the wee ones – and not as some manner of tasty turtle snack.
Irritating little brats form the basis of most of Gamera vs. Zigra‘s first act as well. After stealing their father’s food and complaining of a bellyache, they are whisked off to the bowels of the title monster’s bowl-like ship, all so that the creature’s earthling avatar can explain and exposition the audience into a coma. These kids also end up in a diving bell at the end, because nothing spells suspense like whiny children demanding rescue. With its lesser quality and smaller budget, this final installment in the “original” Gamera series definitely feels subpar. On the other hand, it does continue the kind of ersatz epic spectacle the other films follow, from the meticulous miniature backgrounds and model planes to the fascinating beast on beast fisticuffs. While definitely not in the same category as his cinematic cousin Godzilla, Gamera has his moments, and there are a couple of clever ones here.
Indeed, one can look at both films as examples of how to string out a success well past its sell-by date. Zigra zips along, the entire mod, mod, mod world of the alien vessel as wonderful bit of pop art nostalgia. Even the cobwebbed creature in the ceiling seems to make sense. As for the lightsaber lifting of Super Monster, it’s enlightening to see how rapidly a cinematic concept can travel (and engulf) the globe. Years before, tiny model airplanes and clunky vehicles filled the Toho/Daiei skies. A couple of camera tricks later, and the Japanese had caught up with the Hollywood hit machine. While the DVD gives us glimpses of the old school F/X previously utilized (in a nice behind the scenes photo gallery), the jump to something more sophisticated would truly mark the end of the “classic” kaiju phase.
It’s just too bad that Gamera vs. Zigra and Gamera: The Super Monster aren’t better representations of the genre. They have their individual moments and place in the series’ lexicon, but for the most part, they are unfocused and lacking fun. Watching a once favored friend struggle is never easy. In this case, Gamera, and those who gave him life, were their own worst enemy.