DVD review: Gamera no Godzilla, but has cheesy charms

GameraMake no mistake: Gamera is a Godzilla wannabe.

Created in 1965 by a rival Japanese studio, the monster movie series — whose debut comes Tuesday in Gamera: The Giant Monster fom Shout! Factory — used the same techniques (man in a monster suit stomping miniature sets), plot setup (ancient, unexplained monster unearthed by atomic explosion wreaks havoc in Japan) and crudely simplistic plotting, dialogue and special effects. But then, this was a more innocent time, and Gamera, in a way, was even more innocent than Godzilla.

After all, he was a turtle.

Now, a monster in the form of a dinosaur-like creature is one thing. But a giant turtle? That’s a stretch — and it doesn’t stop there.

You see, while Gamera, like Godzilla, was hounded and hunted and futilely attacked by the military, Gamera was a bit different. That’s because Gamera was a “friend to all children” —  somehow — which became the series’ mantra. And it all started with a young Japanese boy who had a tiny pet turtle which his family inexplicably and cruelly forced him to set free, leaving him to believe the quick appearance of Gamera, while coincidental, marked a new embodiment of his pet turtle.

Yes, Gamera is essentially a “boy and his dog” movie, though this time it’s a boy and his giant turtle — a giant turtle which walks upright on its hind feet, breathes and inhales fire and, after retracting its head and extremities into its shell, whirls and flies like a huge, fiery UFO.

Where are the evolutionary links to this? Go figure.

But within the realm of ’60s monster mashes, Gamera remains nostalgic, campy fun, full of cheesy charm despite itself. This first Gamera (seven were made from ’65-’71) was the only one in black and white and the only one in which Gamera did not fight a rival monster such as Guiron. (To see more, check out several Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, including some on DVD from Shout! Factory. Or check out exclusive Gamera clips on amazon.com at this link.)

On this fine new DVD, it’s presented in the original Japanese with English subtitles (and a few lines of English dialogue). The print quality is very good, which means you can spot the SPFX wires even more clearly, but that just means you can savor the creaky craziness of it all.

The subtitles in themselves can be a hoot, with authoritative scientists making dire orders always prefaced with a polite “Please,” and a few errant spellings (“damndest” instead of “damnedest”).

Indeed, there’s a wacky sweetness at work here, especially if you’ve ever owned a tiny turtle, as I once did, though I never believed it would lead to me having a huge monster turtle buddy. And some of the effects have a quaint sense of awe and mystery.

The DVD also features the original trailer, a publicity gallery and an interesting 23-minute “A Look Back at Gamera,” in which many of the original creators are interviewed, in Japanese with English subtitles. They all take the movie a bit too seriously, but what do you expect? Yet even the director allows that today “I have to say, the filming is technically outdated and juvenile.”

Well, yes. But Gamera is still fun. After all, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Besides, they weren’t trying to be Shakespeare or to compete with Olivier vehicles. Gamera is what it is: a monster mash for every turtle-lovin’ movie lover with a soft spot for flame-breathing amphibians.

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