Gamera: The Early Years of a Healthy “Godzilla” Alternative
Yes! That is absolutely a giant fire breathing turtle flying through space. It’s Gamera! He is perhaps the Pepsi to Godzilla’s Coca-Cola as far as Kaiju (Japanese monster) movies go (although Gamera is maybe more like Dr. Thunder).
Gamera’s initial run of films, often referred to as the Showa series (1965-1980), never had Godzilla’s budget, but made up for it by offering buckets of charm and gory, absurdist fun.
Words like “best” and “worst” may vary depending on what you look for in a series about a giant turtle, so let’s just say these rankings go from most commendable to most sleep through…able(?).
Off we go!
1. GAMERA VS. GYAOS (1967)
When Gamera of fire and water, meets Gyaos of ice and wind (and lasers) it truly feels like we’re witnessing arch-nemesis love at first sight. Sure, they are screaming hunks of rubber, but it’s like seeing Spider-Man meeting Green Goblin, the Joker meeting his beloved Batman. They complete each other, and the result is one of the best monster battles of its time, sporting gallons of multi-coloured blood, and off the wall Loony Tunes antics.
The human story wisely stays out of the way, in fact, the great strength of this one is that you never have to go more than ten minutes without a monster swooping in and smashing everything!
The battles are dark and visually dynamic, and almost always begin at night and reach their climax as the rays of the red sun begin to burn the skin of the nocturnal Gyaos. There is an absurd yet undeniable kind of beauty here that even some of the best Godzilla flicks fail to reach.
2. GAMERA VS. GUIRON (1969)
“Vs. Guiron” is for sure one of the most uniquely off the wall films in the Kaiju genre. If you have forgotten what your nightmares felt like as a child this film will jog your memory! It comes at you like a bizarre fusion between a ’60s monster movie and a drugged-out version of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
There is no military here, just two boys who have been brought to a strange planet by “space girls” who plan to eat their brains. One of the highlights is perhaps the goriest scene in Kaiju history, where the knife headed beast Guiron, slices a newly resurrected Gyaos into little pieces, and sends his decapitated head shrieking into the air.
Another highlight is when Gamera shows up and swings around on a bar like a gymnast. It’s gotta be one of the campiest things ever put to film. Its two-star film making that somehow creates a four-star children’s nightmare.
3. GAMERA VS. BARUGON (1966)
Barugon, with his explosive rainbow blast, may just be the gayest Kaiju ever. He rules! Like many Gamera foes, he doesn’t look like much but he is a total swiss army knife of wacky, devastating abilities. This was Gameras’ second outing and the larger budget really makes a difference here.
The human story, while it gets tedious from time to time, is actually one of the best of the genre. The themes of selfishness and greed are directly tied to Barugons’ rampage.
Fans often rank it as the best of this series, but personally, it’s sheer lack of Gamera screen time is a bit of a bummer. That being said, the purple blood-soaked finale, for lack of a better word, is totally metal.
4. GAMERA VS. JIGER (1970)
By 1970 the franchise was clearly trying to make things more kid-friendly, and what could be more kid-friendly than throwing in some body horror? Kids love that! This bonkers movie centers around Jiger, who like Barugon, seems unremarkable, until he sticks his tail into Gamera and impregnates him with his monster child. From there, things go full Osmosis Jones as it is now up to two young boys to pilot a tiny submarine inside Gamera in order to kill the monster baby that is growing inside him.
At one point scientists trying to illustrate Gameras plight show real-life footage of an elephant being cut open, revealing the worms crawling around inside it. Ya know… kids stuff!
5. GAMERA VS. VIRAS (1968)
This one is a great lil’ Saturday morning cartoon. It’s for sure the point where Gamera fully embraced his “friend of all children” persona. As with Jiger, it centers around two boys who also ride around in a tiny sub. Viras himself is endearingly goofy but is far from being Disney approved. At one point he beheads six of his henchmen in front of the boys in order to grow Megazord size and impale Gamera with his pointy head.
This is also where the series begins shamelessly relying on stock footage, at one point splicing in confusing black and white footage from the first Gamera movie without batting an eye.
6. GAMERA: THE GIANT MONSTER (1965)
While it lacks the charm and the raw entertainment value of later entries, Gamera’s debut remains the most traditionally well-made film of the bunch.
Despite this movie being an obvious Godzilla clone, it contains one of my favorite moments in the entire series. A “turtle obsessed” young boy is ordered by his terrible dad to throw his pet turtle off a cliff. Just as he tearfully does this deed Gamera appears prompting the kid to believe that his pet has become a large vengeful monster. Also, Gamera looks surprisingly great in black and white!
7. GAMERA: SUPER MONSTER (1980)
The final Showa film is one of the most fascinatingly bad movies ever. There are perhaps twenty minutes of original footage here. The rest is a bizarre tapestry of previous Gamera films, and at certain points, clips from various anime shows. It also involves a preposterous cast of super girls who drive around in a flying hippie wagon. Rock ‘n’ roll!
It’s worth it just to witness the audacious cheapness as well as the unexpectedly tragic ending this one has to offer. Honestly, though, I imagine any viewer under the age of ten (the target audience for this one) would probably choose this as their favorite in the series. What does an adult like me know?
8. GAMERA VS. ZIGRA (1971)
Yikes! It feels like everyone involved was sleepwalking through this one. It clearly suffers from a lack of budget and ideas, and there really isn’t enough campy monster action to hide the fact that this one isn’t even “fun bad”… its just kind of dull.
There are upsides of course (there always are with this series), one being that it takes place at Sea World and the other being a scene where Gamera plays the xylophone with Zigra’s back. I love you Zigra, but you deserved better than this lazy movie!
Despite the Showa Gamera series’ slow descent into phoned in, stock footage madness, this was not the end for our hero. The great turtle had his revenge in the 1990s, returning with a trilogy of films that many regard as some of the greatest giant monster movies ever made.
But that is a story for another time.
Author: Seth Troyer
Seth is a Columbus Ohio based writer, musician and filmmaker. He earned his BA for communications and creative writing at the University Of Akron. He has written for Dread Central, the Maddwolf film site, and has contributed to various writing anthologies such as Between The Lines, and Purpled Palm Press.
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