Gamera vs. Barugon is the high point of the original Gamera franchise. After the (relative) success of Daikaiju Gamera, the far-sighted and responsible men of Daiei Studios could have carried on, as their fellows at Toho have for years, mining the tried and true formulas of the giant monster genre to wildly varied, but none-the-less consistent, success.
But the times were, sadly, a’ changing. Those who pine that American cinema is slave to every idiotic trend that comes down the pike obviously haven’t watched enough Japanese monster movies. They provide quite the handy cultural history of Japan, and can be enjoyable on that level even if one has no interest in giant monsters (narrow minded philistine that you are).
Case in point: 1966’s Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster…which, theoretically, shared the field with our current subject. As the sociological forces that gave birth to the first generation of giant monsters (Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Varan, Gamera) faded from collective memory, traditional dramatic pictures lost a bit of the favor they enjoyed throughout the 1950s…particularly with that most coveted of all Target Audiences: the Youth Market.
The American Youth Market of that period grew up on Westerns, War films, and bargain-basement sci-fi pictures. Their contemporaries in Japan were raised on much the same, minus the war films, with one notable exception: Japanese television of the 1950s was positively saturated with stories of ridiculously-dressed superheroes repelling alien invasions. By ’66, the war babies (on both sides of the Pacific) entered young adulthood and (re)discovered science fiction. Thus, 1966 found Godzilla repelling the first of many extra-solar incursions. Ultraman, which also debuted that year, told the same story from the superheroic side of the sub-genre fence. Its fusion of giant monster, superhero, and alien invasion motifs continues to inspire imitations today. It’s a formula so diabolically brilliant it could only be the work of Satan himself. After all, it gave us the Power Rangers.
At the same time, an obsession for crime dramas swept the cinemas of Japan. Then as now, the vast majority of stories ran in similar circles: either (a) the Big Bad Man is punished for ignoring the Greater Good of All or (b) the Good Man Gone Bad is redeemed through some form of self-less sacrifice to the Greater Good of All. Witness the bank robber/slave-freer/Terrorist freedom fighter in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. Or the unnamed prisoner in 2002’s Versus.
More to the point, witness the hero of tonight’s film, Keisuke (Kojiro Hongo). And it’s dastardly villain, Onodera (Kôji Fujiyama)
But we last left Gamera speeding toward Mars in the hollow, rocket-propelled fruits of “the Z Plan.” Why Mars? Why not, say, the cold black depths of space, which would certainly exploit Gamera’s weakness to the chills? Assuming that he hasn’t suffered from explosive decompression?
Alas, our Humble Narrator is incapable of taking audience questions. Instead he describes the events transpiring on screen and pauses to dole out unnecessary exposition. A passing meteor is kind enough to free Gamera from rocket prison, allowing him to return to Earth no worse for his time in the vacuum. (Guess he can survive explosive decompression. Who knew?) He attacks a dam (“the largest of its kind in the Orient”), absorbs whatever energy he might need from that snack, and flies away for the next half-hour of screen time.
Back to Our (human) Hero. Being a pilot, Keisuke dreams of owning his own aircraft company. “It’s no use working for other people,” he says soon after we first meet. Rather than run down his years on the corporate treadmill (and face the wrath of that great and monstrous god, the Layoff) Keisuke decides to liquidate his pension and throw in with his brother and some of their mutual friends. They have a plan, you see.
Keisuke’s brother, Ichiro (Akira Natsuki), lays it all out for us (literally; he begins with, “Now that you’re all here, I’ll tell you the plan.” Implying…what? That you haven’t shared this plan with your co-conspirators beforehand? The one on your left is your brother for Christ’s sake!)
“During the war I found a huge opal. Believe me, it was the size of an ostrich egg. I found it in a cave. Just before I was taken to a Prisoner of War camp, I managed to hide the opal in the cave where I found it.”
Seems simple enough, despite the obviously-late stage of their planning. Ichiro”s pragmatic co-conspirator, Onodera, still questions the opal’s existence…to say nothing of the chances that it’s somehow remained hidden all these years. Ichiro insists that “the cave lies deep in a dense jungle where even the natives never go.” And why do you suppose they never go there, hmmmm?
Ichiro bows out of the expedition due to injury (he spends the whole movie walking with a crutch) leaving Keisuke, Onodera, and the squirrely Kawajiri (Yuzo Hayakawa) to depart for their treasure via cargo ship. They land in New Guinea where Keisuke (the pilot) arranges for a helicopter ride into…whatever backward island they happen to be visiting. And what a surprise. The “island” consists of a single village, full of extras in what we might as well call “blackface.” They dress in grass skirts, carry spears, and enjoy long, primitive lives deep in the matte-painting jungle. Pretty much your typical picture of a “native” village, as seen by Japanese pop culture, circa 1966. If this movie were of America or English make, Our Heroes would be in deepest, darkest Africa, as played by SoCal or a backlot somewhere on London’s north bank.
Instead, they land in the center of the set/village…and are immediately greeted by a girl named Karen (yeah, right) who speaks Japanese (and thus dubbed English). She learned it from “the Doctor” (but not that Doctor) who came to this island to study “exotic diseases.” Karen is his “assistant” (wink-wink). Both Karen and The Doctor warn our conspirators not to seek out their cave…for it lies in Rainbow Valley. A huge notch stone in the center of town warns all who can read it to stay the hell away from that place. “He who disobeys it will not return,” Karen says. “…an evil spirit dwells there.”
To Onodera, this is proof positive that Rainbow Valley holds some great treasure. “They’ve even created a legend to protect it,” Kawajiri says. Keisuke, in a sudden (and useless) display of scruples, wonders, “What if the treasure really does belong to these people?” “Well, we’re gonna take it anyway,” Onodera counters…and so they do.
Guideless and clueless, the three intrepid fools make their way to Ichiro’s cave. They find the opal, and here, at last, Onodera reveals just what a rat bastard he really is. The Big Bad Man allows Kawajiri to get far too friendly with a payload of scorpion venom…before using the trio’s dynamite to entomb Keisuke within the cave.
Or so he thinks…The next scene finds Keisuke within the Doctor’s hut, torso wrapped and quite peeved at the last scene’s double threat of death and betrayal. His feelings are for not compared to the Doctor’s and Karen’s. They insist that Keisuke has unearthed something eeevil, and unless it is returned “thousand and thousands will die.” Karen spends an unnecessarily long time pleading with the Doctor for leave to go to Japan. And while this is a prime dramatic moment for the actress (Kyoko Enami, winner of Daiei Studio’s New Face Talent Search of 1959) it goes on far too long. You and I both know we can’t have a monster movie without A Chick (unless you’re British and the movie is Gorgo) so the outcome’s pre-ordained…like most of Gamera’s fights.
Thus Onodera and the opal make their way to Kobe, Japan. (Somehow…after all, he just killed the only helicopter pilot for miles around.) The only thing troubling him is a slight case of athlete’s foot which the ship’s doctor treats with infrared rays. Inevitably, the opal gets an unhealthy dose of that greatest of monster makers: radiation. Enter Barugon, first among Gamera’s enemies (chronologically, at least). In form he most resembles a giant salamander with whitewashed fence posts sticking out of his back. In execution he (surprise, surprise) is a man in a big rubber suit.
Now, remember, human beings are (generally speaking) bipeds. Thus any suitmation actor portraying a quadruped is going to face a whole ‘nother level of acting challenges. Apart from spending eight hours stewing in a poorly-ventilated suit under the torturous glare of stage lighting, said actor is forced to spend the entire time on his flippin’ knees. My hat’s off to the poor bastard who considered playing Barugon a necessary step in his career. And to director Shigeo Tanaka, who (either through happy accident or conscious planning) seems to keep the camera away from Barugon’s hindquarters as much as possible. Nothing ruins the illusion faster than a close up of the monster’s scuffed knee pads.
Barugon, in name and form, is a direct and blatant rip-off of Toho’s Baragon, last seen here in our review of 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah. With Baragon’s screen debut (Frankenstein Conquers the World) less than a year old, Daiei was no doubt hoping to cash in on the vague word-and-form association. Both monsters are horned quadrupeds with a penchant for jumping. Both project some kind of ray from their calcified protrusions. And both are eventually defeated by a misunderstood biped (from here on out, Gamera would rarely lower himself to all fours) who saves the world even as he tramples anyone dumb enough to get under his feet.
Yes, from here on out the movie follows standard monster vs. monster formula. The “good” monster is defeated in the initial battle and disappears for most of the film. This allows the “bad” monster plenty of time to ravage the countryside and thwart all puny, human attempts to halt it. While the Gamera franchise did not invent this particular plot formula (exemplified, par excellence in King Kong vs. Godzilla) it did take the slavish repetition of this formula to new and incredibly silly levels. Which we’ll now proceed to explore.
From Kobe, Barugon walks/crawls his way to Osaka, destroying everything in his path. The JDSF is (predictably) unable to halt the creature, falling prey to Barugon’s prehensile tongue. (There’s something you don’t get to write everyday.) Barugon’s primary weapon is a blast of frigid air (probably liquid nitrogen) that shoots from the tip of said tongue, chilling entire cityscapes to “eighty degrees below zero” (damn). All things considered it’s an interesting twist for a Japanese monster movie. Every other giant reptile under the Rising Sun gets to breath fire, but Barugon’s extreme cold is evocative of that bastard storm god who was always giving Amateratsu so much shit. Quite handy when you’re facing (say) Gamera…and come to think about it, just how can Gamera fly through space?
Oh, hell. Paradoxes…no. No time for that now. Back to our story. Onodera, obviously, survived the destruction of his ship. (Why can’t all shipwrecks happen in the harbor?) Being ignorant, he immediately flees to Osaka and Ichiro, plotting to recover the “opal” he believes lost at sea. Being stupid, Onodera let’s slip that he’s “killed two men,” and the first of our human fight scenes ensues.
A little history: I saw Gamera vs. Barugon at the tender age of seven. My father uncovered it for me in a BlockWood video store fifty miles from my house (the closest one we could find). I remember enjoying the film despite the relative lack of monster-on-monster action. Somehow, I managed to forget about the fistfights. True, there are only two…but that’s two more than the average monster movie. Perhaps they just resonate all the more, played against the backdrop of betrayal that is this movie’s (human) plot. The final fistfight, in which Keisuke and Karen confront Onodera, is a beautiful piece of naturalistic brawling, complete with broken bottles, smashed chairs, and plenty of roundhouse punches. It’s as fresh as a newly pressed Hershey bar in this age of Wu Ping fight choreography. For that alone I felt the need to give it at least a paragraph of attention.
The main actors warrant honorable mention as well…particularly Fujiyama’s Onodera. Human villains can rarely compete with the other-worldly, chaotic horror that is the Giant Monster. But Fujiyama acquits himself quite well, playing Onodera as a user and habitual liar…a weaselly, scheming monster who just happens to wear human skin. Slightly smaller props go to Hongo and Enami…for while Keisuke is the consummate Square Jaw of this piece, he’s prone to unusually emotional breakdowns…particularly when the latest Plan to Stop Barugon goes horribly awry. This creates an interesting dynamic between the two, in which (for once) the woman must console the man through the horrific events unfolding around them.
Gamera vs. Barugon‘s American counterparts are fraught with estranged couples who, through the course of their monster-slaying ordeal, reconcile whatever differences they might’ve had and come to love each other once more. In contrast…hell, Keisuke and Karen don’t even kiss by movie’s end (though there is an odd bit involving bloodsucking…but I’ve spoiled far too many of this movie’s surprises). Instead their twin stories (and thus their implied romance) grow from a foundation of mutual, emotional support. Quite a rare thing in movies such as this.
It occurs to me that, though Gamera gets top billing, I’ve barely mentioned him in almost two thousand words. Which is only fair, given that the movie itself gives him similar short shift. Like a latter day Marlon Brando, Gamera shows up, says his lines, and saucers merrily away. He could’ve passed on the film completely were he not so necessary to its resolution. That’s enough to make fan cry…and then demand his/her money back. We paid for Gamera, goddamnit, and instead we get a monster-on-the-loose film with Gamera shoehorned in–a fire breathing duex ex machina, come to save the day.
Thus did Gamera mature from a Threat to All Mankind to a Friend to Children Everywhere. Not through any action of his own, no…but through simple lack of attention. And like so many actors before him, Gamera chose to trade dignity for screen time as budgets shrank and the 60s wound down like a rusted clock. His next adventure, Gamera vs. Gaos, would witness the Return of Kenny, the birth of his most popular foe, and drag the entire daikaiju genre down into a place so dark and awfully silly only those with strong stomachs and elasticized brains dare to visit them more than once a lifetime.
But, again, that’s a story for another day. Today we have Gamera vs. Barugon, which, for all its faults, marks a high water line in Gamera’s original adventures. Faint praise? Perhaps…but its better than none at all.