Gamera was both a reaction to, and a reflection of, the genre Godzilla1 created. For better or worse, Gamera also helped shape the future of giant monsters (or kaiju2). The character was supposedly created from a vision of a turtle in the clouds on an airplane flight by Daiei Motion Picture Company president Masaichi Nagata. But, it is just as likely an attempt by Daiei to get on the bandwagon created by Toho’s giant monster over a decade earlier. Nonetheless, “whether or not you think Godzilla is better, you simply cannot deny that Gamera has successfully survived…to arrive at the point that he is at today.”3 However crass and commercial the intentions may have been in its creation, Gamera carved out its own niche as a unique, unusual cultural icon.
Daiei studios first attempt at a giant monster movie was a rear-projection based, Bert I. Gordon-esque, giant rat movie called “A Swarm of Beasts,” which was scrapped. Nagata’s turtle idea was taken up, and the decision was made to go with the Godzilla-like method of a man in a suit, certainly helped by “the fact that men in suits are infinitely easier to control than live rats.”4
The first Gamera film in 1965 is very much like the original 1954 Godzilla: a serious reflection on the toll nature can take when provoked by man. “But even here, at the beginning, we can see his creators at Daiei Studios sowing the seeds of their creation’s destruction.”5 Perhaps that wording is a bit harsh, but the idea that would forever shift the kaiju genre was indeed born here... It is commonly known as “The Kenny.”
“The Kenny” is the kaiju archetype of the “whiny, privileged, tiny-shorts-wearing grade schooler who demands to be heard and obeyed”6 and somehow manages to become friends with the movie’s giant monster. The tendency towards short, childish names for such characters is why “The Kenny” is called this. The monster often rescues “The Kenny” at a climatic moment. He is the human protagonist of the movie and the voice of reason in the face of adults who usually want to kill the monster at all costs.
A generalized example:
“It’s dangerous! We must stop [monster]!”
“But he’s my friend! He saved me from [insert other, evil, monster or natural disaster]”
90 minutes later: “I guess [monster] really didn’t want to hurt us. You were right, [Kenny]”
*adults and children stare off into horizon, fade*
The Gamera series took this idea of “The Kenny” and ran with it. Gamera was soon known officially as the “friend of children,” and described as such in the films. This signaled a start in the shift of audiences targeted by kaiju films – from general audiences to young children specifically.
This was perhaps the biggest impact felt on Godzilla. Toho Studios saw how successful the Gamera films were, and started to move Godzilla into a similar hero role and created increasingly juvenile films. Fans argue that this started something of a cold war-style arms race of ‘infantilzation’ in the kaiju genre, until all the film series were drowning in mediocrity and effectively killing their own commercial viability. Of course, this just one opinion.
Following his debut, Gamera appeared in half a dozen sequels over the next several years, fighting such surreal creatures as:
Barugon (1966) -- a giant lizard with a rainbow laser
Gyaos (1967) -- a pterodactyl-like dinosaur that sucks blood
Viras (1968) -- a giant squid with mind control abilities
Guiron (1969) -- a giant lizard with a sharp knife-like forehead
Jiger (1970) -- a female lizard with deadly quills, an energy beam, and an injector to lay eggs into a host7
Zigra (1971) -- a giant telepathic shark
B-movie kings American International Pictures (AIP) saw money to be made and bought the television rights to most of the Gamera series. The AIP TV versions were the main way Gamera was introduced to the USA8. Throughout America in the 60s and 70s, these films were sold to stations by AIP as a part of syndication packages to small stations with no network affiliation. Gamera ended up being a common sight on the UHF dial, along with other inexpensive to acquire films.
“Gamera vs. Zigra” (the 7th film!) was released in the summer of 1971. Daiei, which had been struggling financially for a while, went into bankruptcy around November of that year. A proposed sequel, “Gamera vs. Garasharp,” featuring a snake/dragon monster intended to compete with Toho’s King Ghidorah, was shelved along with other plans. The monster lay dormant for nearly a decade.
In 1980, the new owners of Daiei wanted another Gamera film released as means of earning money to pay off old debt. “Super Monster Gamera” combines stock footage from all previous Gamera films. The framing device contains new footage involving evil aliens (who are coming towards earth in a ship that borrows its design heavily from a certain Star Destroyer circa 1977) and female protectors of Earth (who fly in suits reminiscent of a superhero circa 1978)… clear attempts to get a new generation to see this film by borrowing from then recent mega-hits Star Wars and Superman.
The evil aliens subject Gamera to all his previous foes, meaning we watch the climatic fight scenes from each old movie. In the end, Gamera flies head on into the oncoming evil alien vessel, destroying it and dying in the process. The film was only a minor success. Credit where credit is due, rather than try to milk more sequels somehow, the creators of the franchise realized they were out of resources and left this final sacrificial act be the end of the original Gamera.
My first exposure to Gamera, along with many post-baby boomers, was via MST3K9: everyone sing along with Joel and the Bots -- “Gamera is really neat; he is full of turtle meat!” The films aired there were yet another repackaging of the Japanese original: versions made by TV mogul Sandy Frank, generally regarded by fans as of poorer quality10, though that might have been a boon for their use as comic material.
Nearly 25 years after “Gamera vs. Zigra” and 15 years after “Super Monster Gamera”, a new creative team rebooted the series with a edgier tone. Again this was a reaction and reflection of Godzilla, who had a “gritty” revival already underway since the mid-80s. For Gamera fans, however, the new trilogy (including Gamera: Guardian of the Universe , Gamera 2: Attack of Legion , Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys 11) finally gave a serious nod to the mythology that had built up around the creature, bestowing an almost mystical significance to Gamera. The primary villains were multiple Gyaos monsters, in a nod to the original series, but they were much more menacing. The story continued in yet another reboot, 2006’s “Gamera the Brave.”
The documentary featured here on Network Awesome, “The Story of Gamera” (1991)12, goes in depth into the struggles it took to bring the monster to life, particularly for the first film. They had some knowledge of special effects, but the detailed techniques for the Godzilla films were not common knowledge (nor would Toho want them to be). The team at Daiei may have been attempting to create a kind of duplicate, but they put in as much blood sweat and tears as the originators. Whatever you do, don’t knock the turtle. It’s paid it’s dues.
7 Available here: http://networkawesome.com/show/movie-gamera-vs-monster-x-1970
8 AIP TV versions of Gamera movies were often released under generic “Giant Monsters Attack”-type titles with no direct mention of Gamera (who was an unknown character at first). Also, this was sometimes done as a means of possibly misleading the audience into thinking there were going to be seeing a Godzilla film…
9 Mystery Science Theater 3000: http://networkawesome.com/series/mst3k
10 Sandy Frank did an even more extensive re-dubbing and re-editing job on the anime series “Gatchaman”, turning it into “Battle of the Planets” -- see http://networkawesome.com/series/battle-of-the-planets and http://networkawesome.com/series/gatchaman