1966 was the pinnacle of the giant monster boom in Japanese cinema. Toho rode high with a healthy Godzilla franchise, Daiei leaped into the fray a year earlier with Noriaki Yuasa's Gamera. Shot on black and white and borrowing somewhat liberally from the earliest Godzilla film, Gamera was a moderate success. Daiei, commissioned the sequel almost as soon as the original hit the cinemas of Japan. This time, Yuasa worked just on the special effects side of the film with the script duties falling back to Nisan Takahashi, and directing duties shunted to veteran Shigeo Tanaka.
What sets this film apart from the others in the Gamera franchise, more than just the movement of principal creative forces to different positions, was the adult nature of the production. Gamera had not been identified solely as the protector of Children, and wouldn't be for a couple more films. So what we're getting here with Gamera vs. Barugon is more of a typical giant monster movie targeted at the widest possible audience. So, no sappy kids, no songs, no aliens, no stock footage (other than to establish that this is a direct sequel to Gamera).
The story borrows elements from any number of contemporary Japanese science fiction and giant monster films of the time, in that a group of explorers retrieve an artifact from a remote tropical island (in this case a giant opal from New Guinea) which unleashes a monster on civilization leaving the puny humans and their HO scale army to deal with the monster.
In fact, minus the whole ten minutes of Gamera in the film this could very easily have been a singular monster epic featuring Barugon vs. Humanity and it would be just about as good — that's real praise. The script here relegates Gamera to a dues ex machina role, he appears, then vanishes, appears 40 minutes later and gets frozen, then unfreezes another 40 minutes later and puts the kibosh on Barugon. In between this we spend the majority of our time with Hirata played by Daiei studio regular Kojiro Hongo, Karen, a Japanese-speaking native from New Guinea (Kyoko Enami), and the evil Onodera (Koji Fujiyama). Onodera, After returning to New Guinea and retrieving what is believed to be a giant opal and actually is a Barugon egg from the mysterious Rainbow Valley, and screwing over his expedition companions Hirata and Kawajiri, unwittingly unleashes Barugon who immediately vents his freezing fury on Kobe then Osaka.
Hirata returns to civilization with Karen in tow and sets about helping the military fight off the monster.
Barugon is a pretty creative creature too, he has a long chameleon-like tongue that squirts super-cold gas and freezes solid anything it touches, plus is brings down the ambient temperatures within 200 meters of its body to below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally Barugon can unleash a "rainbow ray" from the pulsating spikes that lines his back.
It's a nice monster design, really, and compliments the miniature work here. Noriaki Yuasa does a masterful job setting up the cityscapes for Barugon to level and his attention to detail in scenes like Gamera's attack on the Dam, and Barugon's destruction of the military rockets on a hillside, rival most of what Toho was doing at the time. It's a shame then, I think, that Yuasa was put back in the director's chair for the later films as he was clearly a better effects man than he was a director. I don’t know if it was his doing, but Gamera marched steadily towards kid-cinema following this film until, with Gamera vs. Guillion, he might as well have been shown only to kids.
The DVD from Shout Factory presents Gamera vs Barugon, for the very first time ever, in original Japanese, uncut, and in pristine crystal clarity. Keep in mind that, at least with this release, there is no English Language dub. So if you're planning to introduce the little ones to Gamera, plan to stick around and read. Sounds funny, right? But there's a reason that the English version of this film isn't here.
See, back in the stone age when UHF TV was how we monster fans were able to get our fix, the entire Daiei monster catalog was bundled up and sold off to AIP and Sandy Frank for cutting, dubbing, and shoving into the nascent UHF "movie of the week" market. So, for all of us who grew up liking the Gamera series, we've never actually seen the real films. We've seen either the significantly shortened AIP or Sandy Frank edits under myriad of names. And with first the VHS and later the DVD revolution, those version of these films, now in public domain showed up endlessly on cheapy terrible fuzzy crappy collections of fuzzy crappy public domain films. I have a couple of versions of this already and they are nothing like the amazingly good Shout Factory release. The English dubs that were commissioned by either Sandy Frank or AIP are in the public domain and only cover the PD length edits of the film. So, even if Shout factory jammed the PD dub on here, it would only cover about 3/5ths of the films.
The DVD also contains a commentary track with August Ragone and Jason Varney. Ragone is the author of Eiji Tsubaraya: Master of Monsters, a great book about the special effects work of Tsubaraya and the history of his characters. Varney, from what I gather is a scholarly fan of the Gamera franchise. Both men sort of do the same schtick as the Ed Godziewski commentaries for the Classic Media Showa Godzilla Releases in that they both read facts and information from prepared notes as the film spools out. It lacks a lot of the spontaneity that commentary tracks can bring to a piece, and the information here is mostly "this guy starred in these ten films, that guy was know for this role, this guy played this other guy in that studio's whatever" type commentary that doesn't crank up the interest factor much unless you're a super detail oriented fan. Varney also occasionally gets on his "these films are great, see! See!?!" soapbox which can induce eye rolling.
That said, it's better than no commentary track at all.
The DVD comes with a digitized version of the original movie program, and a nice paper insert offering an interview with Koji Hongo about his life at Daiei films and his experiences in the Gamera franchise.
Shout Factory has the rights to the entire Showa Gamera series and have already committed to an aggressive release schedule so fans, like me, can get our mits on these classics for the first time and truly experience them as they were originally intended. Now, I love Japanese monster films, and I know that these are an acquired taste. Gamera will never be as well regarded as Godzilla, and here in the US Godzilla isn't regarded well. This isn't the greatest movie ever made, but it's the best of the Gamera franchise, and is a hell of a lot of fun.