Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Gamera vs. Jiger (1970)

Director: Noriaki Yuasa
Writer: Nisan Takahashi
Featuring: Tsutomo Takakuwa, Kelly Varis, Kon Omura

Gamera movies are well known for being simultaneously more childish and considerably more gruesome than their more famous counterparts from Toho. It's hard to say how much of this is due to directorial choice, how much is due to Eiji Tsuburaya's love of entertaining children and not wanting to horrify and traumatize them, and how much is due to simple practicality. No matter how bad one of Godzilla's foes got their ass kicked, they always just sort of slunk off with their head (or heads) hung in shame, to fight again another day (unless they didn't sell enough tickets). Being able to reuse the monster suits was a huge cost saving measure, and it's kind of hard to do when they're ripped or blown to pieces and drenched in purple ichor. Even for a series known for serious kaiju carnage though, this one goes above and beyond. It is, after all, the one where Gamera gets raped by a jet-powered telekinetic Pachyrhinosaurus and two little kids have to drive a toy submarine inside his body to give him an abortion. Yes, you read that right. I'll give you a minute to wrap your mind around it and then we can continue.

All better? Good. I hadn't seen this movie in years. I bought it on bootleg VHS back before YouTube and cheapo DVD sets, when tape trading was still the only way to see rare and unreleased-in-the-States movies. I remember its inaugural viewing, when my friend Bob and I got sent home early from our overnight temp shift at the Kraft pudding factory (we weren't in trouble, they were just way ahead of schedule and didn't want to pay to keep extra people around with nothing to do). So I said, “Hey, I just got a box of bootleg kaiju movies and neither one of us is going to bed any time soon, let's Gamera it up.” I was surprised when I put the tape in again recently that it opens with a montage of monster fights from all the previous movies which shows (as would a glance at the release date, but I didn't have that handy at the time so you just stuff it) this came after the painfully cheap and doofy Gamera vs. Guiron. Gamera vs. Jiger not only looks to have had considerably more money spent on it than its predecessor, it's also a good deal more mature in tone. Sure, we still have to listen to that horrible song sung by Japanese children and the dippy little tune that Joel and the 'Bots had such fun inventing lyrics for (“Let's watch the kids go to their fate/They ride their bikes into the woods/It will be weeks before they're found/Cornjob will be blamed”), but the two main kids are a good deal older than usual – probably around 13 or 14 – and an actual reason is given for why the authorities give their advice serious consideration. I'm not saying it's anything close to what Shusuke Kaneko did with his 90's trilogy, but it's a damn sight better than prattling on about other “stars like Earth where there are no wars or traffic accidents”.

The 1970 World Expo (this was an actual thing, and some of the movie was shot on location there, so that could account for a portion of the higher production values on display) is preparing to open, and the families of close friends Hiroshi and Tom are all involved. Hiroshi's dad is working on a prototype submarine designed for kids that he'll try to sell, and Hiroshi's sister is dating one of the planners of the event. Tom's dad is an archeologist, who has recently discovered a statue on Wester Island (I wish I was making that up) which he plans to unearth and bring to the Expo as part of the cultural and history exhibit. A member of the Wester Island tourism board has arrived at Expo headquarters to beseech them to leave the statue alone. He says it's called the Devil's Whistle, and that a horrible curse will befall anyone who touches it. You have to see it for yourself to get the full effect, but this dude from Wester Island is...well, he's dressed in some kind of generic African garb, and speaks through a translator at whom he basically yells, “Ooga booga booga!” over and over. In a movie like this, it takes a lot for something to stick out above the general background weirdness, but this guy is really something special.

Meanwhile, on Wester Island, the statue is being airlifted to the ship that will transport it back to Japan, when Gamera arrives and makes some aggressive moves toward the camp where Tom, his parents, and the rest of the team are assembled. It's interesting that this far into the series, when Gamera has been firmly established as Friend to All Children for several movies, they chose to once again call his benevolence into question and make it seem as though he may pose a threat to humans. Indeed, we'll see later that Shusuke Kaneko may have taken quite a few cues for his brilliant trilogy from this movie. Distracted by a nearby volcanic eruption, Gamera lets them go, but it's clear that he's not happy about the statue leaving the island. A few minutes later, we learn why. The mound of rocks where the statue had its long shaft (yes, yes, giant stone dildo, can we move on now?) buried begins to move, and out comes Jiger. Earlier I called him a Pachyrhinosaurus, and that's fairly close to the mark, but there's also some Dimetrodon and warthog DNA in there somewhere. He has no neck frill, tusks, and a dorsal sail. Still, the general theme is ceratopsian, and in keeping with that, this is actually the best quadrupedal kaiju suit not just in the Gamera series, but in any kaiju flick period. Be it Barugon, Anguirus, or any of the various four-leggers Ultraman threw down on, a common flaw with all these monsters is that they were designed so that the stunt man playing them was crawling around on his hands and knees. Various degrees of care were taken to not show the creatures dragging their hind feet around behind them, but it was never less than obvious. Jiger, on the other hand, is built so that the performer is walking around on his hands and feet with his ass in the air. This results in the back legs of the suit being longer than the front, with a steep slope up from the shoulders to the hips and the feet able to be planted square on the ground as they should be, and a much more natural looking gait for the beast.

Gamera returns from the volcano and the monsters have a pretty brutal struggle before Jiger fires bone harpoons through Gamera's arms and legs, preventing him from withdrawing his limbs and flying, and flips him on his back. Superturtle thus incapacitated, Jiger fires ups the rockets located just behind his lower jaw and heads off in pursuit of the ship towing his statue. Meanwhile, on board the aforementioned ship, all the men who handled the statue are suffering from horrible fits of delusion. The sick bay is packed full of men feverishly screaming, “My god, the devil is real!” and other such nonsense. The captain consults the baffled ship's doctor, who, at a loss to explain why otherwise healthy men are thrashing around in their bunks having fever dreams, gives in and says it looks like there must be a curse attached to the statue after all. In one of those odd flashes of realism the Gamera series is also known for, all the more unexpected for how completely bonkers the rest of the movies usually are, rather than immediately accept this diagnosis with a serious frown or sage nod the captain chastises the doctor for not being very scientific about the whole thing and leaves, at which point the doctor just shrugs and takes a swig out of the fifth of whiskey stashed in his lab coat!

It is eventually discovered that the statue, which makes an eerie keening sound whenever wind blows over it (explaining the name, although we in the audience figured it out about ten minutes ago), produces a frequency that causes temporary insanity in humans and stops giant jet-powered dinosaur demons in their tracks. Jiger makes landfall shortly after the statue arrives at the Expo site, and frustrated by his inability to get near enough to it to destroy it, starts tearing up the city until Gamera manages to get those bone harpoons out of his limbs and fly to Japan for round two. Unfortunately for our hero, this fight goes even worse for him. Jiger, in addition to the most staggering array of firepower any of Gamera's foes has ever possessed, is also mightily telekinetic. He pulls Gamera into his clutches and stabs him in the neck with a spine extruded from the tip of his tail. What? Gamera is forcibly held down against his will, violently penetrated, and impregnated with a Jiger egg. That's rape in my book! You didn't think I meant...well, it's a Japanese movie, kiddie flick or no, so you probably did. No, there's no giant monster schlong on display here. Anyway, Gamera staggers off and collapses into the bay, parts of his body calcifying, and although I couldn't find it when I searched just now, I swear I've seen a toy of this particular Gamera suit with the head and left arm crystallized. Just one more thing to love about being a kaiju fan – they make a toy of fucking everything.

While Jiger goes back to smashing stuff, Hiroshi and Tom convince the authorities that Jiger did something that made Gamera sick, that he's not all the way dead and they have to do something. In fact, the specific line is, “Gamera deserves an examination.” Not, “needs”, not, “you should examine Gamera.” Gamera deserves an examination. I believe we have here the world's first and only pro-choice, pro-universal healthcare giant monster movie. Of course, the kids are proven right. Gamera's X-rays show a foreign mass near one of his lungs. One of the scientists then fires up the reel-to-reel projector and shows some seriously nasty footage of an elephant having a horrible mass of larvae removed from a growth on its trunk by way of explaining that Jiger has a parasitic stage in its life cycle and there's one of the nasty little bastards inside Gamera right now draining off his blood supply, hence his head turning transparent. Of course. While the grownups waste more time trying to decide what to do, Hiroshi and Tom take off in the mini sub, piloting it down Gamera's throat and into his lungs to kill the embryonic Jiger (in another cool little detail, the walls of the lung set are covered with plastic bags that pulsate with air to represent alveoli – not exactly convincing, but it shows yet again that thought gets put into realism in these movies in the strangest places).

When they return safely from their mission, rather than be furious, their parents are proud of the initiative the kids showed. It's classic kaiju cliché that little kids in Japan all have level 5 security clearance to run around government buildings at will giving orders. In this flick, the kids have a believable reason to be where they are, and when they give a suggestion, it's taken into consideration because the adults are all at a loss, and figure the kids' world view, free of cynicism and full of imagination, might be thinking of things the jaded adults wouldn't. While inside Gamera, they learned that Jiger was vulnerable to certain frequencies of radio waves, and that sound the statue makes must be what kept the adult dormant. Looks like Ooga Booga was right after all. Of course, the ancient Wester Islanders didn't have a giant turtle to stab the thing through Jiger's skull. This time his hibernation looks to be a deal more permanent.

With all the talk about the Mu continent, ancient monster demigods, and the suggestion that Gamera is a protector of the Earth but that that doesn't necessarily mean a protector of human beings, it seems to me that this one movie more than any others of the Showa series was influential in the way Shusuke Kaneko handled his Gamera. Of course, he took it farther and did it better than Daiei ever could have afforded to in the 60's, but the seeds of greatness were buried there amongst all the goofiness and graphic violence. So there you have it. In a series with a reputation for weirdness, not only does this one stand out in that department, but it also manages to be the darkest and most grounded in reality since Gamera vs. Barugon. That one is still the better movie in terms of quality, but this one is a lot of fun and highly recommended. Especially since you can now get it in a Blu ray pack with a bunch of other Gamera movies that costs less than I paid for a single crappy VHS tape barely more than a decade ago. You damn kids don't know how good you have it.

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