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Kaiju Classics - Gamera the Invincible (1965) Review

Updated on December 11, 2016

The 1954 monster movie Godzilla was a major hit, both in Japan and abroad, breathing new life into the giant monster movie genre of the time as well as spawning a number of movies to cash in on its success. In the years following Godzilla's first outing, several movies, such as the 1961 British movie "Gorgo" and the 1967 South Korean "Yongary: Monster from the Deep", were released, each one following the same general formula of a giant reptilian monster that make their way to one of the world's major cities, with conventional military attempts to stop them failing in the process.

Easily the most notable, as well as most successful, of these "Godzilla clones" would be Gamera, a giant, fire-breathing, flying turtle that spawned a series of movies from 1965 through 2006. Initially seen as a "poor man's" Godzilla, Gamera has endured over the years and is considered by many to be the second most famous Japanese monster.

The Backstory

In the mid 1960s, the production company Daiei Film Co., Ltd., wanting to cash in on the giant monster movie craze sweeping the science fiction genre of the time, began production of the film "A Swarm of Beasts", which was said to depict an invasion of giant rats. In order to make a relatively small rodent the size of a house, the technique of rear projection was used, which involved filming footage, and then projecting it onto a background while filming actors and parts of the set in the foreground. This trick was popular in the 1950s when it came to the giant monster genre, since it allowed for film makers to take footage of animals like insects and turn them into gargantuan creatures capable of destroying cities.

This proved to be problematic, however, partially because it was difficult to coax the live rats used for the footage to perform as they were intended, and more notably because of a flea infestation that plagued the set. As a result, the project was scrapped, work soon began on another monster movie, using men in rubber suits rather than attempting to use rear projection with another kind of animal for the effects.

Rumor has it that the idea behind Gamera, whose name is based on the word "kame" or "game" (meaning "turtle" in Japanese), came when the president of Daiei at the time, Masaichi Nagata, envisioned a turtle shape in the clouds as he looked out his window during a flight. Like its kaiju "brother", Godzilla, Gamera's first outing was meant to portray the dangers mankind may face when tampering with nature, and, like Godzilla, would also see this message fade in subsequent movies of the Showa era before emerging again during a Heisei reboot to the franchise.

The Cast of Gamera the Invincible

Dr. Eiji Hadaka - Eiji Funakoshi

Kyoke Yamamoto - Harumi Kiritachi

Aoyagi - Junichirô Yamashiko

Toshio Sakurai - Yoshiro Uchida

Nobuyo Sakurai - Michiko Sugata

Professor Murase - Jun Hamamura

Mr. Sakurai - Yoshirô Kitahara

Mr. Ueda - Ichigen Ohashi

Eskimo Elder - Yoshio Yoshida

Plot Summary

A research ship, the Chidori Maru, carrying a joint nation expedition of North America, Canada, and Japan, is piercing through sheets of ice in the harsh, Arctic environment; the expedition a planned attempt to locate a safe water route across the top of the North American continent. The expedition's zoologist, Dr. Eiji Hadaka, and his companions, Kyoke Yamamoto and photojournalist Mr. Aoyagi, come across an Eskimo village after leaving the boat to travel across the ice by jeep. Within minutes of reaching the village, sounds of airplanes fill the air as four Russian fighters rush overhead.

Gamera emerges from the ice.
Gamera emerges from the ice.

On the ship, the communications officer sends a signal to a North American Air Defense in Alaska, which quickly scramble a squadron of fighters to intercept. The Russian planes, refusing to answer attempts by the American jets to identify themselves, open fire, resulting in a dogfight over the Arctic. In the brief scuffle, one of the Russian planes is hit and crashes, and its payload, a low-yield nuclear weapon, detonates upon impact, causing the thick Arctic ice to crack and break open. Jets of steam and streams of bright light burst from beneath the ice, followed by a giant, dark mass. A creature, resembling a huge, bipedal turtle with tusks jutting upward from its lower jaw, crawls out from the snowy canyon before letting out a loud, echoing roar.

Kyoke tries to radio the Chidori Maru, but tells Dr. Hidaka that she's unable to due to some kind of interference, which they believe might be due to the atomic explosion, so they decide to leave the village to return to the ship. The village elder stops Dr. Hidaka and gives him a stone with an ancient carving on it depicting a "cloud of death" which Dr. Hidaka believes is a depiction of an early form of sea turtle. He asks the village elder if there's any legend behind this carving, who replies that there is one fortelling of "Gamera", a bringer of death. Kyoke notices certain markings on the stone near the carving of Gamera, that she believes are ocean waves, but the elder isn't certain of their meaning.

Meanwhile, the crew of the ship are pondering why a Russian fighter would be carrying an atomic bomb when one of them spots Gamera making its way towards them. Attemping to get away, the ship lets out an S.O.S. as the captain orders everyone to abandon ship. Before the captain, helmsman, and communications officer is able to escape, Gamera capsizes the Chidori Maru and sets it aflame with a stream of fire from its mouth.

Learning of the ship's destruction and the appearance of a giant turtle by one of the American fighter planes as it made its way over the area, news of Gamera spreads around the world, meeting with criticism by some scientists who believe that the pilot's account was a result of a hallucination. Dr. Hidaka however, believes that there is truth to the Eskimo stone and the pilot's account, and likewise believes that recent sightings of UFOs since the ship's destruction may be related to Gamera.

Toshio sees Gamera for the first time.
Toshio sees Gamera for the first time.

Meanwhile, a woman, Nobuyo Sakurai is walking along the shore when she is stopped by Mr. Ueda, the school teacher of her younger brother, Toshio. Mr. Ueda wanted to talk to her about Toshio showing an unusual obsession with turtles, so much so that it's been interfering with his school work to the point that he faced expulsion. Mr. Ueda understands that because his family lives in an isolated lighthouse that it's difficult for Toshio to make friends, but hopes that she'll talk to him about his school work.

That night after dinner, Nobuyo and her father talk with Toshio and insist that he set his pet turtle free, hoping that, with the turtle gone, he'll make friends with other kids. With no other choice, Toshio goes outside and lets the turtle free, then suddenly sees Gamera coming up over the cliffside. Toshio rushes to the top of the lighthouse to get a better look at him, only for Gamera to knock the top off it a quick wave. The monster saves the young boy as he fell from the lighthouse walkway, catching him and gently letting him down on the ground before letting out a roar and returning to the ocean.

Later that night, Gamera is spotted near a geothermal plant in Hokkaido, and Dr. Hidaka, realizing that the heat of from the steam vents supplying energy to the plant wouldn't be enough to injure the creature, suggests to the military that the electricity generated by the plant, up to 350,000 kilowatts, might be able to kill him. However, Gamera is easily able to tear through the electric lines generating the electricity, forcing the military to attack with tanks and cannons, only for them to equally prove useless as the monster tears through the plant. Dr. Hidaka, watching Gamera's attack, realizes his affinity for fire as he sucks up large columns of flame, and goes to consult with a colleague, Dr. Murase.

A plan is soon devised to exploit Gamera's vulnerability to cold, using an experimental bomb created by the military for the purpose of quick-freezing nuclear reactors. The bombs are used, incapacitating Gamera long enough for the military to plant charges underneath him to flip him onto his back. Gamera, however, reveals that it was the source of the UFO sightings previously, as he retracts his arms, legs, and head into his shell before firing jets from the holes where his limbs were. Rotating quickly, Gamera rises into the air and flies off, and Dr. Hidaka, having seen this, realizes that the markings on the Eskimo stone that he thought were ocean waves were actually clouds.

A joint United States and Soviet Union plan, called the Z Plan, is devised to defeat Gamera, and work on the project begins on the volcanic island of Oshima.

Gamera attacks Tokyo.
Gamera attacks Tokyo.

Gamera, having been spotted in the skies over multiple countries in temporary fear of the freeze bombs, eventually makes his way back to Japan and begins an attack on Tokyo. Effortlessly toppling all buildings in its path and immolating people with its blasts of fire, the monstrous turtle leaves a path of death and destruction in its wake. Toshio, who, with his sister, had been visiting his uncle in Tokyo as a result of their home having been destroyed earlier, makes his way to an oil refinery being used by the military in order to keep Gamera busy. Trying to get a closer look at him, Toshio climbs onto an oil tanker being rolled down train tracks to Gamera, but is stopped and pulled away by a worker before the tanker explodes in front of the monster.

Z Plan is finished, and it is revealed to be a project involving a giant rocket housed underground that the military plans to trap Gamera in so that they can launch him to Mars. Gamera is lured to Oshima from Tokyo by ships, heading towards Oshima, dumping fuel into the water as the military sets it aflame with weapons fire. Though a small typhoon striking the area manages to cause some issues, Gamera is successfully lured to the rocket, which closes up around him and launches into space.

Dr. Hidaka, Toshio, and everyone else look on as the rocket disappears into the sky, the result of international cooperation and friendship.

Gamera trapped in the Z Plan
Gamera trapped in the Z Plan

Effects and Music

The effects for Gamera are a bit of a mixed bag. The Gamera suit is, while somewhat simple, effective in giving the monster a menacing appearance. However, it doesn't convey a sense of weight to it very well, and at times seems more like a man in a rubber suit than a giant monster. The miniature Gamera model used in some of the distance shots, such as when he is climbing up the mountain after having fed at the geothermal plant, moved too artificially and mechanically to seem like a living thing. The Gamera head used during scenes when he is breathing fire looks fairly good, though at times it's easy to see the nozzle in the back of the mouth where the fire is coming from.

The miniatures as a whole are also rather hit and miss. Some of the sets and the buildings, such as when Gamera is at the geothermal plant and later when he is attacking Tokyo, look realistic, but others, such as the lighthouse, look very cheaply made. Vehicles, as a whole, look very fake, especially the majority of the aircraft shown. Though you can't see any wires or strings, it's very easy to tell that they're rather cheap and crude models, rather than actual airplanes or jet fighters.

The music is surprisingly sparse, with only a handful of scenes actually having any sort of accompaniment to them. Gamera's first appearance, his attack on Tokyo, and the events of the Z Plan are pretty much the only major scenes that have music. However, this works to a degree, since the absence of music for most of the movie helps to give further weight to those scenes that do have music to them. It helps to increase the feeling of significance to those scenes because the music is there, supporting them. The themes themselves are somewhat minimalistic, but they work at the same time, giving a rather ominous tone while at the same time conveying a sense of urgency. In this case, I find that less is more.

Final Thoughts

It's hard to not draw comparisons to the original 1954 Godzilla, but Gamera is its own creature, and I enjoy it for that. While it goes for a serious tone, I can't help but laugh at the same time at the absurdity of some of the elements to it since, after all, it's hard to take a giant, fire-breathing turtle capable of shooting jets from its shell to fly as a serious monster. I think that Daiei knew that, which is why subsequent films of the Showa series play more to the comedic aspect of monster.

The effects may be cheap at times, the monster absurd, and the ending literally out of this world, but that gives it a charm all its own, and I believe that anyone that gives this movie a chance will find something funny and, most importantly, enjoyable.

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