I’m far from an expert in kaiju cinema, but recently catching a couple outliers in the genre, Reptilicus & Pulgasari, has sparked my interest a great deal. I’ve sen a good number of films that feature Godzilla & King Kong, who seem to be the top brass of kaiju fare, but there are so many other giant monsters of creature feature past that I’m missing out on between those borders. You can’t only listen to The Beatles & The Stones and claim to know the totality of rock n’ roll, right? As many times I’ve seen drawings or action figures of kaiju like Gamera, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla, I don’t think I’ve ever given their originating films a solid, up-close look, which feels like a blind spot in my horror/sci-fi film education.
Daikaijû Gamera (literally translated Giant Monster Gamera and re-cut & released in the US as Gamera: The Invincible) doesn’t do much to buck the idea that once you’ve seen one kaiju film you’ve seen them all. It plays remarkably like the original Godzilla film (which was then a decade old) in terms of tone, production, and plot. The most crucial difference between the two works, of course, is the design of their titular monsters. Yes, Daikaijû Gamera is essentially a too-soon remake of Godzilla, but it’s a Godzilla remake that features a gigantic, fire-breathing turtle that can turn its shell into a flying saucer. I don’t think I need to explain any more than that to get the film’s basic appeal across. It’s a concept that pretty much sells itself.
Illegal Cold War nuclear activity in the Arctic frees an ancient beast known a The Devil’s Envoy, Gamera. Yes, The Devil’s right hand demon is a gigantic, fire-breathing turtle that once plagued the lost continent of Atlantis (according to the Eskimo tribes that witness his rebirth, at least). Scientists expect that the nuclear fallout that freed Gamera from his icy prison will be the creature’s very undoing. That is not the case. Gamera not only breathes fire. He inhales it. All weaponry, industry and nuclear destruction thrown in his path only make him stronger. Nations must put aside their potential World War III tensions to peacefully plan Gamera’s undoing, calling into question the way the unnatural power of nuclear war can loosen & anger forces of Nature like typhoons, dead aquatic life epidemics, and fire-breathing turtles the size of mountains. At one point an observer asks, “Something must really be wrong with Earth, huh?” The answer is a resounding yes and a lot of anxieties about the destructive nature of modern life is clearly on display here in the guise of giant monster mayhem.
Although Daikaijû Gamera is a direct echo of Godzilla & in many ways feels like a standard issue kaiju flick (on the sillier side of the genre), it also did a lot to establish that standard in the first place. There’s a brief scene involving a beatnik surf rock band & a major storyline about a little boy obsessed with turtles (and turtleneck sweaters, apparently) that telegraph a lot of the winking camp tone in kaiju films to come. At this stage of kaiju cinema the monsters are supposed to be majestic & terrifying, but Giant Monster Gamera hints at a future world where they function as heroes of children & monsters with a sense of humor. Godzilla may be the most looming influence over the entire spectrum of kaiju as a monster movie subgenre, but Gamera‘s impact is a lot more readily recognizable in the DNA of the genre’s goofy, 70s future in titles like (my personal favorite) Godzilla vs The Smog Monster.
Again, though, there’s really no need to sell Giant Monster Gamera as an innovator or a historical landmark to make its genre thrills feel worthwhile. You can get its basic plot in any number of 1960s kaiju movies, but where else are you going to get a giant, fire-breathing turtle that occasionally functions as a flying saucer (besides its eleven sequels)? This is a genre that survives on the strength and/or novelty of its monsters & Giant Monster Gamera did not disappoint on that end, not one bit.