Perhaps the most prolific of Godzilla's rivals, Gamera is one of the more bonkers kaiju creations: a giant fire-eating nuclear-powered flying turtle that eats fire and is nourished by radioactivity. Gamera may trash the odd city and pwer plant or incinerate terrified bystanders when he gets cranky but he wouldn't dream of hurting a child, which is just as well since his films were increasingly aimed at small children as he graduated from menacing Japan as "the devil's envoy" to defending the Earth over the course of eight films between 1965-80.
The first, Gamera The Giant Monster, was more of an old-fashioned monster movie clearly influenced by both The Beast from 20,000 and Gorgo (the latter at one time intended as a Japanese co-production). Like Gorgo, there's a mysterious affinity between the creature and a young boy who wants to protect it ("Please excuse him, he's overly fond of turtles.") Like Ray Bradbury's beastie it's awakened from its centuries-long slumber by a nuclear explosion, here the result of an unidentified plane being shot down in the Arctic with its nuclear payload, and like Bradbury's beastie he makes his next appearance at a lighthouse. And, naturally, the authorities try everything and nothing can stop it...
Some thought has actually gone into why conventional weapons have no effect on him, while the fact that he's nourished by radioactivity means they can't just drop a bomb on him. So the finest minds in Japan decide to do what children have been doing to turtles for centuries - turn it on its back so it can't right itself. When this doesn't work, it's time for Plan X, which will at least ensure a sequel.
It's certainly not up to the standard of even Toho's non-Godzilla movies, often clumsily made and clearly shot on the cheap in black and white (the last kaiju film to do so), though the budget did at least stretch to widescreen. The effects are variable, some charmingly weak, others about as good as you can possibly expect a man in a turtle suit to look in the film's big rampage that sees Tokyo get it again - including a bunch of hip kids who won't listen to their elders and abandon their happening club ("Nothing's gonna stop this shindig, so let's dance!"). The main characters are one-dimensional at best, while the bit parts don't often get that lucky. As was common for Japanese and Hong Kong films, the American characters are played by ordinary people the filmmakers found in Japan, and boy does it show. While the Japanese cast struggle with their few lines in English, the Americans fare even worse, not least the American general reading. His lines. From. A piece of paper. It doesn't help that they have to contend with direlogue like "Huge turtle. 60 metres. What's going on around here?" "I don't know, sir. Looks like a huge turtle made its appearance." Thankfully they're only in the movie for a few minutes, but they sear themselves into your memory.
Yet the film has a kind of charm going for it even in its cut-rate third-hand way, at least in its original Japanese version, and you can see why it had enough appeal to launch a series that would add colour and new monsters for Gamera to vanquish in increasingly silly scenarios. Unfortunately Shout Factory's NTSC Region 1 DVD doesn't have a great transfer. It's certainly better than Public Domain releases and is in its original 2.35:1 ratio with English subtitles, but it's a little flat-looking and lacking in detail and contrast in places. The infamously atrociously dubbed and re-edited US version is sadly not included because the owners of the only decent widescreen copy wanted too much money to license it, but it does compensate with better extras than the subsequent films received - an audio commentary by August Radone, an interesting half-hour featurette covering the series that includes interviews with director Noriaki Yuasa and writer Nisan Takahashi as well as a reconstruction of the intended final film in the series, a booklet and the original Japanese trailer that's largely made up of specially filmed footage of the cast delivering dialogue that bears little relation to the film while falling pillars bounce off their heads.