[Blu-ray Review] Arrow Video's 'Gamera: The Complete Collection' Gives Gamera the Treatment He Deserves
You yell Gamera to Americans, they look around and say, huh, what? You yell Godzilla to Americans, and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the fourth of July…
…Or any other day. When it comes to Kaiju monsters, Godzilla is the one that nearly anyone will recognize. The King of the Monsters, he has always stood atop the pillar of great giant monster movies. Few have ever challenged his place there, except one: Gamera, the Protector of Children, and one of the few Kaiju worthy of dethroning Godzilla. Now, with Arrow Video releasing a jaw-dropping collector’s set of the complete Gamera collection on blu-ray this month, more will learn the glory of his name.
For those that have been depriving themselves of the wonder that is Gamera for decades, Gamera was Japan’s Daiei Film Studio’s answer to Godzilla, who had been dominating the Kaiju market with virtually no competition. Gamera, a giant, fire-breathing, flying turtle first appeared in 1965 with director Noriaki Yuasa’s Gamera: The Giant Monster, a film made on such a low budget for the time, that they couldn’t even afford to shoot it in color. Which is fine, because the black and white gives the film more of that classic monster movie vibe that gets my nostalgia bones tingling, and makes Arrow’s 1080p transfer all the more impressive when every scale of Gamera comes to life with glistening realism…a credit to the effects team on the film as well.
The original Gamera follows in the same enormous footsteps of the 1954 Godzilla film, with Gamera rising up from a deep slumber in the arctic during tensions between Japan and America, and setting its sights on the destruction of Tokyo. The difference here is that, unlike Godzilla’s angry rampage through Japan, Gamera is a much more reactive and frustrated creature, showing early signs of being the heroic “Protector of Children” that he’d later become during interactions with turtle-loving kid Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida), in which Gamera actually saves the clumsy tyke from a fall.
You never saw Godzilla saving children! At least not intentionally. That’s part of what made Gamera an instant hit, immediately leading to a sequel in Gamera vs Barugon.
All throughout Gamera’s initial run, dubbed the Showa period (1965-1980), the fire-eating—yes, he eats fire—turtle, did what Godzilla did. Know that phrase “The Simpsons did it”? That was Gamera with Godzilla. Mothra vs Godzilla (1964) introduces a creature and mythology coming from an island of natives? Gamera vs Barugon (1966) takes us to an island in the South Pacific. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) introduces aliens? Gamera vs Viras (1968) introduces aliens with Power Ranger-like powers to merge into a giant squid alien! Invasion of Astro Monster (1965) actually takes Godzilla to space? Gamera vs Guiron takes Gamera to space, with Gamera flying like a turtle out of Hell on a mission to save them kids!
Throw in baby Godzilla’s, movies featuring loads of previous villains, sea monsters, etc, Gamera did them all, usually not long after Godzilla had done the same. In fact, outside of a Mecha-Gamera, there’s very little the turtle Kaiju didn’t do where Godzilla hadn’t already beaten him to the punch.
The major difference between Godzilla and Gamera that’s endeared Gamera to fans all across the world for generations? The franchise’s casual mix of fun stories starring children and a heavy dose of monster violence. And I don’t mean two dudes in rubber costumes play-fighting. I mean actual, visceral monster gore, and premises that left kids trembling with their sippy cups.
Through pretty much every film up until the Heisei era (1984-1995), Godzilla was relatively tame in terms of traumatic violence. Not Gamera. In just the second Gamera film, the two creatures claw, bite and tear the shit out of each other, spilling enough monster blood to fill half of an Evil Dead movie, with Gamera literally drowning Barugon in his own blood! The film after, Gamera vs Gyaos, introduces Gamera’s most often recurring villain, a giant, laser shooting bat-pterodactyl that lives on human blood. Inspired by the popularity of Universal’s monsters, Gyaos is a goddamn giant vampire, who is at one point lured into a trap by the humans with what is basically a revolving bloodbath vape bar filled with synthetic human blood. I mean come on, Godzilla’s third film, King Kong vs. Godzilla, laughably had King Kong flown in on yellow balloons to face his foe in a slap fight. I love the hell out of that goofy movie, but it just goes to show how, between the two, Gamera was the hardcore Kaiju franchise for kids that wanted something a little scarier in their giant monster movies.
Except for when Gurion uses his knife face to chop Gyaos into tiny pieces in Gamera vs. Guiron. Pretty sure that scarred an entire generation of children. Whoops.
The point of all of this is to say that, even though Godzilla was always one step ahead of Gamera, everyone’s favorite turtle with an internal jetpack was always right there nipping at his tail and threatening to become the new king.
That is, until Gamera’s Heisei period.
As Japanese cinema expert August Ragone discusses during his introduction to the first of this new era, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995), the film was to be a one-shot reboot of Gamera, but for the first time, Gamera actually had a decent budget, and it shows, with a film that not only made the return of Gyaos scarier, but made Gamera himself a hell of a lot more intimidating. He’s still a “friend to children” in the film, but no lie, I’d black out from fear and piss my pants if I even laid eyes on him. Many critics considered the film to be a breathtaking reboot that finally rivaled the best of Godzilla’s films, and it was so successful that Daiei turned it into a trilogy, leading to my personal favorite entry, Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris, which emphasizes themes of loss and turns an eye towards unintended victims of Gamera’s destruction, and one girl who hates Gamera so much, she bonds brains with a world-destroying creature to take him on. This film is the Gamera franchise at peak action and emotional tragedy, and was an excellent way for the franchise to go out, if it had to.
Too bad we later got Gamera the Brave, which features baby Gamera. But we don’t talk about that one.
It’s a funny thing, discussing this franchise now, because years ago, I marathoned the entire Godzilla franchise during a period where I was waiting to find out if I had cancer (I didn’t). Now, I’ve just finished marathoning this gorgeous Gamera collection from Arrow, in the midst of a pandemic. And I loved every second. The fun, goofy nature of Kaiju films, they can get you through anything.
As for the special features on the disc, let’s just put it this way: you will never, ever find a more extensive collection of extras to soak up the way Gamera soaks up fire. Each disc comes with commentaries, image galleries, and so on. Some even come with alternate versions of the film. There’s also a horde of interviews, featurettes, highlights from conventions, including the announcement of the reboot…to say that any Gamera fan will be thrilled is an understatement. You’ll be one of a select few Gamera experts after ingesting endless hours of tasty Gamera knowledge. Some might complain that outside of Ragone’s introduction for each film, there’s nothing particularly new included. This is all stuff available somewhere else. But you know what? Altogether, Ragone’s insightful commentary adds up to roughly the length of a feature documentary all its own! So suck a Gamera egg, nitpickers.
If you have even an ounce of Gamera or Kaiju love, Gamera: The Complete Collection from Arrow is a must own set. It’s not even an argument. There is so much care and love put into this set from the fine folks at Arrow, that it is worth every penny. Especially in a pandemic because hey, who doesn’t want to be distracted by infinite hours of Kaiju nonsense these days?
Gamera: The Complete Collection arrives on Blu-ray August 18th from Arrow Video. You can now pre-order the film here, and check out the full list of special features below!
COLLECTOR’S EDITION BOXSET CONTENTS
DISC ONE – GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER
DISC TWO – GAMERA VS. BARUGON / GAMERA VS. GYAOS
DISC THREE – GAMERA VS. VIRAS / GAMERA VS. GUIRON
DISC FOUR – GAMERA VS. JIGER / GAMERA VS. ZIGRA / GAMERA SUPER MONSTER
DISC FIVE – GAMERA THE GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE
DISC SIX – GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION
DISC SEVEN – GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS
DISC EIGHT – GAMERA THE BRAVE
By Matt Konopka