Saturday 27 September 2014

Gamera vs Guiron (1969)

Director: Noriaki Yuasa
Stars: Nobuhiro Kajima, Miyuki Akiyama and Christopher Murphy
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Tonight we went to the drive in for free movie night, but we left after Guardians of the Galaxy as the other half of the double bill was the reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Once through that mess of a movie is enough for me, so I avoided a second viewing by heading home instead to watch a memorable turtle picture, Gamera vs Guiron, the fifth movie in Daiei's original Gamera series which was released Stateside by American International Pictures as Attack of the Monsters. Even in their television print, in a full screen ratio with an English dub and notably faded colour, it's still a great deal more fun than that latest Michael Bay debacle. Seen as it should be seen, in the widescreen version issued by Shout! Factory on DVD in the original Japanese and with crisp colour, it's a real treat. It's also a wilder ride because it restores the fight scene between Guiron and Space Gyaos to its full glory, one of those gloriously inappropriate moments in Japanese children's entertainment that make us wonder if we're watching a movie or dreaming one.

Now, let's be clear before we begin. This is an awful movie by most standards and it's not surprising that Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed on no less than five of the eight Showa era Gamera movies. In fact, it did so twice, firstly with a five episode marathon during its initial run on KTMA in Minneapolis, currently the earliest surviving episodes of the show, then again in episodes scattered throughout season three of the regular syndicated show, its debut season on Comedy Central. They riffed on another version of this film, dubbed into English by Sandy Frank Entertainment so poorly that its voice acting became a running joke in itself. However awful the film is, we shouldn't forget that this was a movie for children, with a pair of boys in the lead roles, and, kaiju fans aside, it's easy to see how it would play much better to a young audience. Akio and Tom go on a great adventure, flying a spaceship to an alien planet, where they watch monsters fight, meet strange ladies, get saved by Gamera and return home safely. What glorious fun!

Bizarrely, it starts out in a completely boring fashion, especially for kids, with no less than three sections before we can finally be introduced to Akio and Tom and get down to business. First up is an introduction that effectively lets us on in the scientific secret that space is big, before pointing out to us that a star is in trouble. Then we get the opening credits, which unfold over some sort of lava flow, which I hope isn't supposed to be the star in trouble. Finally, we meet Dr Shiga, in the form of Eiji Funakoshi, who returns to the series after playing the lead, Dr Hidaka, in the first Gamera movie. He's supposedly here to explain to the assembled press that the strange waves from space they're receiving aren't the same ones the Brits are getting. We hear delightfully squeaky space age sound effects, courtesy of some delightfully squeaky analogue technology. Really he's in the movie to explain to the kids watching why none of the planets in our solar system are viable candidates for the source, which is nonetheless somewhere nearby!
Fortunately, we have Akio and Tom on the case. They've been trying to figure out where the waves have been coming from too, using the portable telescope they keep on Akio's balcony. Akio is a believable boy scientist, as Nobuhiro Kajima ably captures a magic combination of knowledge, optimism and discovery. Surprisingly, this was his only film. Tom, on the other hand, who is as Japanese as the name suggests, is very much stuck in the role of Akio's sidekick, Christopher Murphy proving endearing but apparently not capable of actually displaying emotion on screen. He does appear to be fluent in the Japanese language; if he was dubbed, it wasn't by Sandy Frank Entertainment! The kawaii factor is reserved for little Tomoko, Akio's younger sister, left behind when the boys embark on their adventure for no reason other than to be disbelieved when she explains to mum that they tracked a spaceship on their telescope to the vacant lot where they play, cycled over in the morning and promptly flew away in it. That's every day in Japan!

The spaceship is an obvious model, of course, but it's a cool one with huge fins and a revolving top. It's designed in a minimalist style with a few abstract wall designs and a preponderence of triangles, but few actual controls. Then again, it is flown by apparent remote control, even if we're supposed to believe for a moment or two that the kids successfully launched it themselves. We are asked to buy into a great deal here. Given that they're hurtling into space at ludicrous speed, the sparkly meteor that quickly threatens to fly into them must really have been flying backwards at just less than ludicrous speed. Either that or the laws of physics don't apply and we don't want to go there yet, given the early emphasis on science. Fortunately for them, Gamera is apparently cruising in their immediate vicinity and he promptly steps in to save them, before flying in convoy for a while so that we can sing along with the Gamera theme song. Sure, this is a kids' movie, but these plot conveniences aren't just ridiculous, they're blatant too.
Then again, we can't argue too much about little details like this when we're watching a movie featuring a giant, jet-propelled, spacefaring turtle, hardly the most grounded character in Japanese cinema; even Godzilla seems completely believable by comparison. However Gamera was one of the major box office successes of Daiei, one of a half dozen great studios of postwar Japan. They produced Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, the first Japanese film to win an international award, both the Golden Bear at the Venice Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award (the Best Foreign Language Film award hadn't been introduced yet). They produced Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell, the first Japanese film to screen internationally in colour; it also won an honorary Oscar and the Palme d'Or at Cannes. They also produced such legendary Japanese films as Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds and the long running Shintaro Katsu series, Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman. Gamera was in good company.

Akio and Tom soon find themselves in bad company. Landing on an alien planet, the first thing they see is Space Gyaos, an alien version of Gamera's most popular enemy painted silver. Gyaos is a giant airborne monster with a triangular head who had been introduced in the third movie, Gamera vs Gyaos, and would return later in the first Heisei era movie, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, and the Millennium era film, Gamera the Brave. These eras don't denote period Japanese settings, by the way, just the different series that Gamera has appeared in so far: seven Showa films from 1965 to 1971 and an eighth in 1980 as the studio was facing bankruptcy, three Heisei titles in the late nineties and one Millennium picture in 2006. Gamera is portrayed differently in each of these eras, with a different design and different powers. The Showa era saw him released by a nuclear explosion from natural cryogenic storage in the Arctic circle to apparently fly around and save children. He retracts his legs to ignite his jets and is able to breathe fire.

Here's where we get that amazing fight scene that was censored for Attack of the Monsters. It's not a long battle, as the very first blow is a self inflicted injury, with a laser from the eyes of Space Gyaos bouncing off Guiron and severing its own leg. Guiron is an odd monster, not only in how it looks but also in how it fights. Space Gyaos looks like the standard Japanese actor in a big rubber suit, but Guiron mostly restricts itself to crouching on all fours, its huge knife shaped head apparently weighing it down. Then it leaps into the air when the time is right to slice something off its enemy, like the wing it neatly removes from Space Gyaos's body in mid-air, sending it into a spin and a crash landing. Then it jumps again to sever the other wing on the ground, leaving the monster with only one of its four limbs left. Our eyes are already wide as we're not used to seeing severed kaiju limbs wriggling on the ground or spurting purple kaiju blood, but it continues. Guiron decapitates his rival, then proceeds to chop off more slices. Remember, kids' movie!
Of course, we're going to end up with Gamera battling Guiron as the title has to mean something, but it'll take a while before we get there. First, we need to watch Akio and Tom explore the nearby alien city until they run into the only two inhabitants left on the planet. Naturally, they're cute Japanese ladies, but that's amazingly explained, as is their ability to speak fluent Japanese. It isn't explained well, but it is explained! They're Barbella and Florbella, names which ironically translate to Sweet as a Bird and Pretty as a Flower, given that they're planning to eat our heroes' brains and invade the planet Earth with the advanced tech from their dying civilisation. They have teleportation wigwams, a remote control spaceship and a device that allows them to change their speech into any language, really useful when you're the only two people left on the entire planet. Guiron is their watchdog, who protects them from other giant monsters; beyond a giant knife shaped head, he can also hurl shuriken through telekinesis. Remember, kids' movie!

I don't know about you, but when I was six, I'd have fallen in love with a movie where kids accompany a jet propelled turtle to an alien planet in their hijacked spaceship, teleport around an alien city, narrowly avoid having their brains eaten by cute alien women and yet still get home in time for supper. Having a set of monsters like Gamera, Guiron and Space Gyaos is just icing on the cake, especially as it's notably gory icing. You just don't see bizarre monsters counting down to the moment where they decapitate an enemy on Teletubbies or Bob the Builder and they don't feature a single drop of spurting alien monster blood. I could argue that the western world might be a much more interesting place if they did. Don't get me started on Japanese TV shows where child actors get to shoot guns in the holy name of saving their country, their world and their universe. Sure, Japanese children get to spend way more hours at school cramming for exams, but they get wildly imaginative wish fulfilment television, so that's a fair trade off.'

Now that I'm much older than six, it's impossible not to see the wild flaws, leaps and conveniences that pervade this movie, and frankly I'm sure that my grandchildren would see them too. Perhaps I need to introduce them to Gamera movies like this one to see if they find the magic or the stupidity. It would be worth it to hear them singing the Gamera theme song instead of Carly Jepsen or Justin Bieber. I have no idea why Gamera vs Guiron was screened at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, as it didn't tie to anyone attending or any apparent theme. It merely followed another out of the blue classic selection at the 2012 festival, The Brain That Wouldn't Die. That slot didn't exist in the much smaller 2011 event and it wasn't continued into 2014, when the showcase features had plenty of interesting new movies to screen instead. The only classic shown in 2014 was Cujo, with Dee Wallace-Stone there to give a Q&A. Now, I'd have gone to Gamera vs Guiron if Christopher Murphy had been there to talk about it!

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