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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 power 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. Mill Creek's second region-free budget Blu-ray collection offers the last four films in the original series in no-frills editions on just one disc, which means quality is about on par with the earlier DVD releases from Shout Factory. Sadly this volume is more for the die-hard completist, with only one of the films much good.
"We'll eat their brains raw while they sleep!"
GAMERA VS. GUIRON is a definite step back after Gamera Vs. Viras (to be found on Mill Creek's first collection of Gamera films) despite not having nearly half as silly looking a monster for our giant fire-breathing flying turtle to battle. Once again the plot revolves around a Japanese and a foreign sales-friendly American boy, but this time the pair are younger, blander and not only devoid of much in the way of personality but, more damagingly, lack the screen chemistry of Toru Takatsuka and Carl Craig. While you could believe their predecessors really were best friends, these two only seem to be together because the casting director put them next to each other and because of their ability to remember their lines and to stand where the director tells them. Which is a problem when most of the plot evolves around them. It's another exercise in juvenile wish-fulfilment, a Hansel and Gretel in space story that sees the two would-be astronomers who dream of a world without wars or traffic accidents spot a flying saucer land in the woods near their house and, naturally, fly it to its home planet, whose last two inhabitants welcome them with open arms, beaming smiles and drugged donuts, planning to use the spaceship to escape their Gyaos-ridden world and use the boys as rations en route - but not before eating their brains to assimilate their knowledge so they can fit in on Earth. Naturally Gamera is in hot pursuit to save the children, facing off against the aliens pet attack-monster Guiron with his knife shaped head and his love of slicing his opponents into little bits and throwing them around.
While it's always fun to watch Guiron slice'n'dice, the film's just rather flat, the budget struggling with the script and frequently losing - the interior sets are okay but the model spaceship never looks more than three inches tall and the alien world seems a bit on the make do and mend side: films like At the Earth's Core managed to do much more with what were probably even smaller resources. It's unengaging stuff but fairly painless to watch.
After the limp and disappointing Gamera Vs. Guiron, Daiei pulled their socks up a bit with GAMERA VS. JIGER, giving it a noticeably bigger budget, better monster smackdowns and a better script. Set around Japan's Expo 70, which gives them a huge ready-built set to play with, it plays a bit like a spin on Mothra without the singing fairy girls and the native dance numbers as archaeologists arrogantly take a statue from a remote island to put on display only to release yet another monster who's soon heading for Tokyo having left Gamera stuck on his back - well, he is a turtle...
By now the series was unashamedly aimed at children, set in a world where no-one is to surprised when monsters appear and when the solutions are only found when adults listen to children in a modern day fable. There's even a Tinker Bell element to it - you have to believe in Gamera for him to win. Once again it offers a Japanese and American juvenile lead, and while there's not much spark between them they're better actors, though as always the real stars are the men in the rubber suits. It helps a lot that this time the hero in a half-shell gets to face off against one of his best opponents (the film even offers a neat solution to why the statue kept him trapped for millions of years). Just as welcome is the fact that they don't scrimp too obviously on the budget as they would in later entries. Though the appearance of a minisub makes you think you'll be seeing the minisub vs. Gamera race from Gamera Vs. Viras again, it's put to rather more imaginative use - the only recycled footage this time is in the title sequence. Even Gamera's theme song gets new lyrics. It's naturally silly stuff, but it's certainly entertaining for kaiju fans even if it isn't up to Toho's standards.
After raising their game with Gamera Vs. Jiger, it's back to the minors for Daiei with 1971's GAMERA VS ZIGRA, which is not only so poor it never got a release in the US but unsurprisingly put the series on hold until the largely compilation flick Gamera the Space Monster nearly a decade later - not least because the studio went bust before it came out. As so often in Japanese monster movies, there's the obligatory eco-message: man is too 'ugly' to use the oceans and simply pollutes them, which is just inviting aliens to invade the Earth with their giant metal alien goblin shark (think swordfish) and replace humans' brains with those of dolphins and save them for food. As you do. Naturally it's up to everybody's favourite fire-breathing flying turtle to save the day in another smackdown, but not before alien babe Eiko Yanami has chased children around the Kamogawa Sea World, who probably gave them a good deal to get some publicity that helped keep the budget at rock bottom.
Once again the target audience is small children, which is one reason why the theme tune is shouted out by what sounds like a bunch of hyperactive kids having a Who Can Be The Loudest competition. The kids at the centre of the story aren't likeable but at least they behave like believable real kids, bored and smartarse with adults, attention spans that make goldfish look nostalgic and unable to see a camera without sticking their tongue out at it. They don't really serve the drawn out plot much - they never provide the vital information needed to defeat Zigra and though they're around for the major setpieces they play no active part in them, more or less spectators for most of the running time. It's as if the audience were in the movie but just standing around watching and occasionally shouting something at the stars. Miss Yanami has more to do, and she's largely there to give the dads something to look at.
It does have perhaps the most surreal moment in the series' history that puts Godzilla's much derided shay dance in Invasion of Astro-Monster into context - Gamera doesn't just defeat Zigra, he actually plays his theme tune on its spine as if it were a xylophone before breaking into a disco dance. It's worth the price of the disc on its own, but you do have to watch the whole film to get there....
The best that can be said of 1980's GAMERA THE SUPER MONSTER is that, thanks to Gamera Vs. Zigra, it isn't actually the worst Gamera film. Which isn't the same as being much good. A Kind of That's Gamera! stringing together greatest hits footage from the first six colour sequels, now reduced from Scope to 1.85:1 widescreen, with a new plot involving three space babes exiled on Earth tracked down by evil aliens who threaten the Earth with their army of monsters, it's not good. Trust me: that is an understatement.
Once again it's a kids film, our juvenile hero this time a comic-book reading Hammond Organ playing kid who can talk to his pet turtle and helps bring Gamera to save the world. Most of what's going on in the new framing footage has no impact on the stock footage or plot - the characters do little more than stand by watching on the beach or on TV - and the finale, with Gamera taking on the star cruiser, happens offscreen just to add to the sense of irrelevance and disappointment. The new effects are a mixed bag, with obvious early video effects combined with more traditional model shots (though the flying shots are surprisingly good), the look of the film low budget and second hand, throwing in bits of Star Wars - the opening live-action shot after a space battle shown in still paintings is a direct copy of its overhead spaceship opening shot - and Superman with very 80s family film comedy and Japanese children's fantasy shows like Ultraman. There are a couple of in-jokes where Gamera scares off an animated Space Cruiser Yamato and knocks down a Godzilla poster, to which the only logical response is "In your dreams, Shellboy."
As with the previous collection, there are no extras, with all three films offered in unexceptional 2.35:1 widescreen transfers with only the original subtitled Japanese soundtracks offered (the Shout Factory NTSC DVD releases also included English dubs).