When it comes to classifying kaiju pictures, I’ve noticed that guide books and merchandise lines tend to split things into more-or-less three buckets: Toho (with its Godzilla, Mothra, et al.), Tsuburaya (with Ultraman and associated creations), and everyone else. “Everyone else” is loosely defined, but usually consists of movies from Daiei (e.g. Daimajin, Yokai Monsters), Shochiku (The X From Outer Space), Nikkatsu (Gappa the Triphibian Monster), and occasionally Toei (The Magic Serpent, Daiyogen, even the Korean Yongary). Without a doubt, the biggest star of these collected also-rans is Daiei’s giant, fire-breathing, flying saucer/turtle monster, Gamera.
The Gamera franchise is very much the Pepsi cola to Godzilla’s Coke: Gamera has never been the ubiquitous cultural icon that Godzilla is, but very much fancies itself a rival, as can be seen in 1980’s Super Monster Gamera (okay, technically this is slamming something called “Dodzilla”):
The two franchises have similar histories. Both began with cancelled projects opening a slot in the studio schedule, although Toho’s failed Thai co-production that allowed Godzilla to happen doesn’t sound nearly as awesome as Daiei’s giant-rats-running-amok project Nezula. (If that project had come to fruition, it would’ve been something along the lines of Bert I Gordon’s Food of the Gods on a massive scale, but it turns out that using electric shocks to coax hundreds of feral rats into performing for a movie, while filming in a massive metropolitan neighborhood, is… well, not a good idea. The production fell apart and all of the footage was destroyed. Still, it’s pretty cool that we got Nezula toys and model kits, nonetheless.)
Anyway, the similarities continue. Gamera was allegedly inspired when Daiei’s president, looking out of a plane window over the ocean, saw a cloud that looked like a flying turtle (with Godzilla no doubt on his mind), very much like when Tomoyuki Tanaka got the idea for Godzilla on an oceanic flight himself (with The Beast from 20000 Fathoms no doubt on his mind). Gamera’s first film, like Godzilla’s, was monochrome (despite it already being 1965), with Gamera as the sole antagonist, due to quickly reform and fight nastier monsters in color sequels (aping Godzilla’s heroic transformation). Both franchises eventually crashed in the 70s, then had triumphant reboots on their respective 30th anniversaries, eventually going back on hiatus in the mid-2000s. So what makes them different?
There are certainly a few points that one could make distinguishing Godzilla from Gamera: The Godzilla series has much more anthropoid monster designs (i.e. actors not having to crawl around on all fours), more advanced sci-fi military hardware, higher budgets, less stock footage, less violence, and less pandering to small children (although, by the 1970s, Godzilla was definitely taking a page from Gamera’s book on those last few points). However, I think the key difference is that Godzilla was a part of a cinematic universe, while Gamera was not. Godzilla could meet other Toho creations, from Mothra to Rodan to Atragon to Matango, but Gamera never interacted with Daiei’s pantheon of creatures like Daimajin (though the character was originally conceived as the monster’s first enemy) or Warning from Space’s Pairans or Spook Warfare’s Daimon or, mercifully, anything from La Blue Girl (no matter what Iris looks like). Godzilla also quickly crossed franchises, encountering everything from King Kong to the Avengers to Hello Kitty, while Gamera… well, he sort of met the Galaxy Express 999 and Space Battleship Yamato in dream sequences once, but nobody likes to talk about it. (Oh, and maybe the Kaiju Quiz TV special with Ultraman and Godzilla, or that one Sailor Fight short, but really, who’s seen those?)
So I guess that’s it, then: The King of the Monsters has a glorious canon of multimedia with unending complexities while the Gamera series is limited to a paltry twelve films, right? Well, not quite. Gamera certainly doesn’t have footprint that Godzilla does, but there are still a lot of interesting apocryphal adventures to fill out your collection. And that, to make a long story short, is what this retrospective will focus on.
Starting stuff at the beginning, there’s another similarity between Gamera’s lifeline and Godzilla’s, and that’s that each has a separate, Americanized version of their first film. Much like Godzilla: King of the Monsters added in new footage with Raymond Burr, Gammera the Invincible added new footage with Albert Dekker, and in both of those cases, studios didn’t really bother with giving the sequels similar treatment (King Kong vs. Godzilla and Godzilla 1985 notwithstanding). Gamera gets one up on two counts against Godzilla in this regard, however: The original, untampered version of Gamera got an English language release before Godzilla did, and unlike Godzilla, Gamera’s name doesn’t suffer an irreversible pronunciation change from the localization.
Personally, the Maser Patrol crew aren’t really fans of the American version, but a lot of other folks really prefer it to the Japanese cut. At any rate, it’s in the public domain (for now), so it’s no trouble to acquire a copy and try it for yourself.
The brass at Daiei didn’t exactly have a lot of faith in Gamera at its inception, so the first film was given to Noriaki Yuasa, who’d only directed one film prior and was generally assumed to only be at the studio due to nepotism. When the picture exceeded expectations, Yuasa was replaced by veteran director Shigeo Tanaka for the much more lavish sequel, Gamera vs. Barugon (again, we’re ignoring the three Daimajin movies that also spawned from the Gamera sequel brainstorms). The second Gamera flick failed to live up to expectations, and the remaining five films in the original cycle were directed by Yuasa.
In 1971, Daiei was in financial trouble, and barely managed to complete Gamera vs. Zigra, even going so far as to inform the crew that they’d have to work weeks pro-bono to finish the picture. Even so, the creatives labored on, and planned another Gamera flick right up until Daiei’s bankruptcy and acquisition by Tokuma. According to Yuasa, the intention was to have the next monster be the equivalent of a King Ghidorah (keep in mind that this was when Toho was prepping The Return of King Ghidorah, which eventually morphed into Godzilla vs. Gigan) and early concept art depicts Gamera fighting a two-headed wyvern. However, what was settled on was Garasharp, a giant snake monster who’s pretty much Gamera’s equivalent of Toho’s Bagan. While Gamera vs. Garasharp was cancelled in pre-production (i.e. after the monster suit was made but before filming), the concept stuck around, eventually making it into a short compiled from storyboards and models in 1991 for the laserdisc set (now available on Shout Factory’s DVD of Gamera the Giant Monster!)
Unlike Bagan, however, both Garasharp and Marukobukarappa (which I believe was based on one of Viras’s concept designs, and also appears in the short) have had a lot of merchandise produced, elevating them to a nigh-mythical status of semi-canon. Keep these two in mind; we’ll get back to them in a bit!
The end of an independent Daei wasn’t the end for Noriaki Yuasa, though. He had a prolific filmmaking career after (and even during) the production of the Gamera series, but despite it all, Gamera seemed very much to define him. In 1980 he returned to the monster for one last hurrah, to squeeze out the notorious Super Monster Gamera. That movie was not the highest note to go out on, a stock-footage piece meant to capitalize on Star Wars (also premiering a mere two weeks before Yuasa’s new show, Ultraman 80, hit!), but it seems that the director could never truly leave the giant turtle behind. Keen-eyed observers will still notice hints of Gamera popping up in Yuasa’s movies right up until the end of his career:
So, when Daiei decided to relaunch the Gamera series for its 30th anniversary (like a certain other franchise), Yuasa would’ve leapt at the chance to be involved again, and Showa Gamera scribe Nisan Takahashi wrote a treatment for Yuasa to direct. Of course, if you know your kaiju history, you know that what we got in 1995 was not their proposed idea, but a revolutionary reboot from director Shusuke Kaneko and writer Kazunori Ito, the classic Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. The Kaneko Gamera trilogy was indubitably the correct choice on Daiei’s part, since those films remain to this day the finest collective work the genre has ever offered (with the arguable exception of Godzilla 1954). Still, as fans and completists, we have to wonder just what the old team’s film would have been like…. or do we?
Takahashi wasn’t exactly thrilled to be cut out of the picture, considering that he *had* been given perpetual ownership rights to the character when the studio went bankrupt, a deal which was pretty much ignored later. Rather than filing his story away in a drawer somewhere and sulking, he instead went ahead and published Gamera vs. Phoenix as a novel in 1995. I admit, I’ve only read the brief synopsis (it’s the year 19XX, something’s hurting the ozone layer, the Nazca lines are magical, Gamera fights a phoenix), but there are some great illustrations from legendary Showa kaiju illustrator Shuji Yanagi:
But anyway, back to Gamera’s lost years. The monster really didn’t do a whole lot during the hiatus between 1980 and 1995.
- There was the occasional commercial:
- A rock song by Blue Oyster Cult’s Buck Dharma (again, following in Godzilla’s wake):
- Paleontology aside: A real-life Jurassic-era turtle was christened “Sinemys Gamera” in 1993, beating out the real-life Gojirasaurus naming by 4 years.
- Extended gag cameos in Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump and Dragonball manga, extending to the anime and video game adaptations as well. Dragonball is possibly the most popular anime in history, so this very well might be the first, or only, exposure a lot of people in the world have had to the character.
- Speaking of people’s first exposure to Gamera, it would be irresponsible to omit the movie-riffing paragon, Mystery Science Theater 3000. They first showed the five Gamera films available to them during their first run on KTMA in Minneapolis in 1988, but it’s their redux episodes from 1991 that truly kept the Gamera name alive in American’s consciousness…. all the better to sucker-punch audiences when the 1995 film hit US theaters.
We’ve got one more thing to touch on before we hit the “Heisei Gamera” period (which, like Heisei Godzilla and Heisei Kamen Rider, doesn’t quite match up with the actual cutoffs for the Heisei era), and it’s a doozy: the 1994 Daikaiju Gamera manga drawn by Hurricane Ryu (the credited author is Kenichiro Terasawa, who, aside from sharing a name with the writer-protagonist of Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, I know nothing about). As you may remember, Hurricane, in addition to being a suit actor for most of Toho’s Heisei-era tokusatstu projects and most of Minoru Kawasaki’s filmography, is an accomplished mangaka of insane, hotblooded action comics. On this front Gamera does not disappoint:
There’s a whole volume to work with here, so while this isn’t the concentrated dose of insanity that say, Kaiju Senshi Godzilla is, there’s plenty to go around. The manga also digs deep into the franchise’s past, rewarding hardcore fans with lots of Easter eggs.
And then the Kaneko movie hit, and changed the Gamera franchise forever. Heck, it changed the whole kaiju genre forever, and its effects are still being felt today:
“I got some inspiration for my man-eating giants from Gyaos in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.”
-Hajime Isayama, on the creation of Attack on Titan
So, it was a good move on ADV’s part to release Gamera, Guardian of the Universe across American theaters. Even though a Godzilla flick hadn’t seen a US screen for over a decade, the King of the Monsters was ubiquitous in the mid-90s, and Gamera rode that popularity into shops across the US, despite the movie getting rather limited theatrical play. Dark Horse Comics had recently wrapped a successful Godzilla comic line, and followed up with a four-issue sequel to Guardian of the Universe (never collected into a trade paperback, which is a pity). The comic, while very much a product of 90s American comic camp atonal to rest of the Gamera Trilogy, is fun, with colorful characters and redone versions of Zigra and Viras. Honestly, this comic is about the only thing I can think of where Viras actually feels like a credible threat.
And then Trendmasters, the St. Louis-based company who’d had a lot of success with their Godzilla toy licenses, released a line of figures re-imagining Gamera’s Showa foes (save Barugon) in Heisei/Trendmasters style:
Barugon might’ve been neglected in America, but he got a whole volume of manga to himself in 2003, in a comic retelling the events of Gamera vs. Barugon as an interlude between Guardian of the Universe and Gamera 2. Barugon gets a radical redesign, courtesy of Kazuhisa Kondo (one of the most prolific Gundam manga artists) but Zigra, Jiger, and even Iris make a cameo:
On the subject of gaiden manga, Mahiro Maeda, designer for the Heisei Gamera monsters, did a gorgeous 12-page full-color story about the destruction of the Mu/Atlantis, included in a making-of book for Guardian of the Universe.
There was also a one-shot manga named Gamera vs. Morphos in 1999. It was by Nenpei Moo, artist of the B-Fighter manga adaption, Mazinkaiser vs. Getter Robo, and more, and it was printed in Animage, but I’ve never actually read it and know pretty much nothing else. The two pictures I’ve seen imply that Gamera fights an evil twin, though:
Perhaps the most ambitious of the non-cinematic Gamera projects was Gamera 2000, a Playstation game counterintuitively released in 1997. The format is that of a rail shooter, but the cut scenes (filmed in live-action and in English!) deal with alien invaders creating armies of mutant Gyaos, including the two-headed Neo Gyaos, Gyaos Man, Gyaos Armadillo, Gyaos Dog, Gyaos Ray, and Bionic Gyaos (maybe that’s where Hyper Gyaos and Iris actually came from!). There’s lots of weird alien mecha stuff to blow up as well, and diversity of levels as you play soldiers in planes and hover bikes. The gameplay is fun, but since the graphics are very much of their time, they don’t always fully realize the excellent design work.
Eventually, Gamera 3 rolled around…by the way, have you ever watched Gamera 1999, the “Making of” documentary for Gamera 3? It was directed by one of Shinji Higuchi’s friends, this crazy otaku dude named Hideaki Anno. It probably didn’t have much influence on his own future movies or anything, though.
…er, like I was saying, eventually Gamera 3 rolled around, a high watermark for the genre, completing Kaneko’s take on the character. The ending, while a conclusion in its own way, struck many as an unsatisfactory cliffhanger, including a certain rakugo celebrity/kaiju enthusiast by the name of Shinpei Hayashiya. Hayashiya set about making his own ending to the series, and by 2003 the result was Gamera 4: Truth (“Gamera” is all in kanji, in this case, at least on the poster). This is one of the most in-demand fan films of all time, with solid effects for a fan effort, an endorsement from Kaneko himself, and Yukijiro Hotaru reprising his role from the original trilogy. Unfortunately, Gamera’s new owners, Kadokawa Pictures, is sort of litigious, especially given Hayashiya’s current status as a professional movie-maker, and the film has only been viewable to the public on a dozen or so occasions (for the record, two members of this blog’s staff came super close to one of the screenings, but barely missed it). Still, it’ll be covered in some detail in the upcoming documentary Kaiju Gaiden.
By the mid-2000s, the interest in the kaiju genre was starting to fizzle. Gamera the Brave, released in 2006, was the last of the major, earnest Japanese giant monster movies, before the bulk of content moved into the direction of parody, deconstruction, and micro-budget student films. The movie did have one bit of tie-in fiction, a manga side-story titled Gamera 2006: Hard Link, which is entirely set during Gamera’s time in captivity midway through the picture. With our title character unconscious for most of the story, this comic (from Ark Performance, the mangaka duo behind Arpeggio of Blue Steel) is pretty much a character drama for the government scientists. Not the most interesting thing in the world, but then again, we haven’t bothered doing a full translation, either.
One of the most recent developments in Gamera-land is actually a 2012 mobile game, a sure sign of adapting with the times. Gamera Battle features the full movie monster roster (minus Zedus) in chibi-fied form, battling against military mechs which in turn are modeled after the monsters.
There’s been other stuff in rumors, such as an American animated series, but nothing substantial materialized of it. With the 2015 restructuring of Kadokawa, it seemed like Gamera’s 50th anniversary might go by without much fanfare. I mean, he did show up at the Chofu film festival:
…but it was looking like the only friendly giant turtle on the big screen in 2015 would be in Sion Sono’s movie Love & Peace.
Not quite the same thing, is it?
Fortunately, Kadokawa wasn’t joking when they announced plans for Gamera’s anniversary back in March of 2014. A year and a half later, at NYCC, Kadokawa debuted a new “pilot movie” from the mad genius writer/director Katsuhito Ishii (A Taste of Tea, Party 7), who will be making a full Gamera flick due out in a year or two. Ishii is an eccentric filmmaker and not one I would have predicted (though, funnily enough, he has a history with the director of the upcoming Shin Godzilla; Ishii put Anno in Funky Forest, Anno put Ishii in Cutie Honey), but this pilot film is remarkably competent and captures the tone that I imagine most Gamera fans are looking for in a film. Will this be part of the final project, or an unrelated concept short like the “I am become death” Godzilla trailer with the centipede monster? Time will have to tell.
It’s hard to predict what the next 50 years will bring for Gamera, but I hope it entails more great movies, and even more curious extra-canonical knickknacks. And for the time being…. well, there always seems to be something Gamera-related to fill in the gaps.
Addendum: In response to requests for more Gamera 2000 images, here’re a few more!