Shout! Factory completes the Showa Gamera series with another well put together double feature starring the turbo-powered terrapin. Unfortunately the two films on this double feature showcase little more than how far down into debt Daiei films had sunk, and how little creative imagination Gamera series creator Noryuki Yuasa actually possessed. Before we get to the films, let's break tradition a little and talk about what Shout Factory brings to these releases. For one thing, it's great that we giant monster fans finally have access to the Showa Gamera series at all. Until now the only releases we've been able to snatch up are tenth generation crap-fests on multi-film DVD collections usually culled from the public domain versions of these films. I happened to look at one this weekend and it had like 40 films on it and cost $14. Seriously? 40 films for 14 bucks?? Anyway, what you usually get with these prints are muddy, grungy, washed out, hiss-filled, old UHF TV edits in clipped for TV aspect ratio and not even panned and scanned so half of the film takes place off your TV screen. And as far as I can tell, Zigra and Super Monster never make it onto those collections anyway as they never really made it onto TV in the USA in the first place.
What we get from Shout! Factory are the original unedited Japanese versions in widescreen struck from glorious vibrant prints that don't show so much as a scratch from start to finish. We also get extremely literal English subtitles (more on that later) and some version of the English dub done back in the 1970s when these were sold into UHF syndication. Zigra and Supermonster were handled exclusively by Sandy Frank so we're stuck with their trademark terrible dubs here, but for the most part it doesn't matter because you don't watch these two films to study the dialogue. Shout Factory also includes some nice production stills on each film. There aren't any commentary tracks here, but that's totally okay with me as listening to two Kaiji-con personalities read essays about Gamera and list all of the Japanese movies that each of the actors made is considerably less fun than creating my own commentary track about how these films were written in a Japanese insane asylum and filmed by brain damaged snow monkeys in the shadows of Mt. Fuji after a particularly awesome LSD and bourbon bender.
One significant quibble with Shout! Factory's release of Gamera: The Super Monster and the English Dub, it's not right. The audio is hissy and muted so badly I had to crank my TV to hear even some of the dialogue. There are some places where it clears up for like two minutes, then squashes back down like the audio wasn't processed at all. This made the film REALLY hard on the ears, and for so much work that's gone into these releases, a real surprise that the last film had such a bad soundtrack. Hopefully they'll remaster the audio of the English Dub in the next printing. Zigra doesn't have any issues at all, the Japanese and English tracks are both flawless.
Okay, so let's talk briefly about Gamera vs. Zigra (1971). Like Gamera movies? Like especially Gamera vs. Viras? Well good thing because this is almost exactly that same movie minus a mini submarine and an American actor kid costar. When some monster from the planet Zigra (not ironically also named Zigra), blows up a table top moon base then attacks Earth (represented by a disembodied voice harassing three Japanese kids) it's up to Gamera to save the day. This film follows most of the beats of the alien invasion Gamera films except this time Gamera doesn't get nearly killed then return to beat down the alien monster later. He just beats Zigra to death for the last ten minutes of the film. There's an environmental message buried in here too about taking care of the Earth and seas but that gets lost under the relentless hilariously stupid monologuing of the goblin shark inspired Zigra who spends 90% of the film like a trophy head on a safari club brandy room talking to his female whatever. Gamera doesn't fare any better and looks like 100 miles of well traveled road. His costume and smaller models are in astonishingly rough shape, even for a Gamera film. Like the film we'll discuss next, Zigra is a Poverty Row crap shoot where Daiei tried to stave off bankruptcy. It failed.
Noryuki Yuasa was making these films solely for the kiddy set by this time so any attention to detail is scrubbed in favor or more screen time for annoying Japanese kid stars and really clumsy monster fights. The Zigra suit starts to fall apart on screen during the climactic battle. That said, this is fun to watch with really little kids as they immediately fall asleep and that leaves you freedom to laugh at the idiocy of the film.
Gamera: The Super Monster (1980) makes Gamera vs. Zigra look like Touch of Evil. Daiei was gambling that one minor success could stave off the horrors of bankruptcy in1980 (again with the bankruptcy!) and gave writer/director team of Nisan Takahashi and Noryuki Yuasa a shot with a new Gamera film. Clearly this was made without anything resembling a budget and the result is sort of like a Godfrey Ho movie only less coherent and featuring exactly no ninjas. What we get here is yet another alien invasion story, this time from the evil Zanon (never seen but endlessly heard) flying through space in his ersatz star destroyer which alternates between being painted and being a model though most often it's a model – and some "super" alien women charged with protecting Earth from Zanon. However, every time they change into their super form (essentially they change clothes and wear capes) Zanon's star destroyer shoots at them. Enter a kid with crazy eyes, a turtle fetish, and an overzealous imagination for Gamera and before you can say, "hey, didn't I just watch this like five minutes ago?" the alien invasion plot appears. What does Zanon want? No idea.
What follows are several scenes of monster mayhem edited together from all of the previous Gamera films, a few shots of the worst Gamera toy ever made, and the film spirals out of control from mildly confusing kiddy flick to wildly entertaining insanity. It's sort of structured like two earlier films Journey into Space, and Evil Brain from Outer Space, the first of these collected an entire season or two of Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot into a 90 minute movie where Giant Robot beats the shit out of a seemingly endless parade of monsters sent by Emperor Guillotine, Evil Brain from Outer Space was the same only it was Super Giant and made even less narrative sense. So in Gamera: The Super Monster, what Zanon does is ostensibly send or release all of Gamera's old foes back to fight him again in exactly the same locations, with the exact same outcome as before.
See, no one notices the giant monsters trashing Tokyo, or Osaka, or anywhere else except for the kid, the super chicks, and those of us tricked into watching this DVD, so even after catastrophic battles are relived, parents still tell the kids that they imagined the whole thing even though they are watching the news reports about the monster fight in the same room as their kids. Seriously. The super chicks are super useless and appear only to have the power to change clothes, fly, and shrink down to be carried in a Mothra Fairies case when it's convenient to the plot – what tiny bit there is. Worse, only one of the super chicks is even necessary to the story as she's really the only one who interacts with the kid the other two just reinforce a few of the things she says.
Also, the kid plays the Gamera song on his organ like ten times.
On the trail of the super women is another alien who can track the super women only when they are in their super form. The super chicks figure this out right away and for most of the movie simply refuse to change into the super chicks from their secret identities. Therefore, for most of the film the alien assassin girl stalks the kid and makes weird conversations with him that are, I kid you not, like she's hitting on him – AND HE'S 7 YEARS OLD! She even wakes up in his bed, dazed, later in the movie.
So the monster fights from all of the previous Gamera films are edited together here in a different order so that even they don't make narrative sense, the redemption of the alien woman who hates the super chicks is pointless, there is stock footage from the anime film Galaxy Express 999 stuck in here, and a scene where Gamera does a flyby to the Space Battleship Yamato. I mean, why not, right?
The whole point of this movie was to allow Daiei to raise some quick capital and stave off their creditors for a bit. Well it didn't work out as well as they'd planned. 6 months after Gamera: The Super Monster failed to make any money (and that's damn hard with a film that looks like it cost 4 dollars to make) they filed for bankruptcy. There are no interior spaceship sets as used in any of the other films, no moving vehicles, no model sets, one interior set of a living room, and a new terrible wakka-chikka guitar score that ruins the monster scenes where you expect to hear the original music.
So, worth getting if you're a Gamera completist or have a bunch of smart-ass friends who won't care about the muddy sound in Gamera: The Super Monster because they'll be creating their own dialogue track as the baffling narrative tries to find its way. As for anyone else? Well, even the kids will pass on Zigra and Super Monster when given the choice. An especially fun way to watch these is with the English dub on and the English subtitles on too so compare the spoken lines with the almost mechanically translated subtitles. Man, it's funny.
Now, (rubbing hands together maniacally) Shout! Factory needs to get their hands on the Heisei Gamera titles directed by Shosuke Kaneko and written by Kazunori Ito and release them.