The Gamera franchise is nothing if not a wild ride through varying degrees of quality and badass monsters…
…Having recently reviewed Gamera: The Complete Collection from Arrow Video (out now), I thought it might be worthwhile to explore the franchise a touch deeper and discuss each and every entry, something I didn’t have the word count for in the review. After over twenty hours of films, commentaries, and some movie-enhancing alcoholic shots to the liver, I’ve put together my definitive ranking of this wonderful, insane, heartwarming franchise that deserves to be talked about more when Kaiju movies enter the conversation.
This is just my own ranking, so if you want to breathe rage fire all over me, take a breath, tuck your head back in your shell, and then let me know your own ranking!
12. Gamera: Super Monster (1980)
Oh, what a disappointment this film is. Taking a cue from Godzilla’s Destroy All Monsters, as Gamera often did when it came to his scaly competition, Gamera: Super Monster sees Gamera facing off against aliens who one by one are sending each of Gamera’s past foes at him to take him down. Meanwhile, there’s a trio of women with superpowers and a super assassin trying to hunt them down and destroy them. That all sounds delightfully complicated and absurd, the way any good Kaiju movie should be, but where Gamera: Super Monster drops the ball in a super uncool way is that at least half of the film is just reused footage from Gamera’s previous monster fights. It seems Daiei Studios and director Noriaki Yuasa either didn’t have the time, the budget, or both to build new versions of past monsters and stage new fights, so instead, we get a regurgitated mess equaling out to a “Gamera’s Greatest Hits’ album. Boooo.
The right dose of movie enhancing products makes the scene towards the finale of an animated Gamera flying towards an animated alien ship (because why not), a worthwhile experience that results in the film not being a total loss, so at least there’s that?
11. Gamera the Brave (2006)
Maybe I’m alone in this, but I am not a fan of baby Godzilla. Clumsy baby versions of my favorite menacing Kaiju, while adorable, primo pets that I would love to take home, are not the creatures I want to watch in a fight. Enter Gamera the Brave, the follow up to Gamera’s mind-blowing revival trilogy, one that makes me wish things had ended on the high note of Gamera 3. In Gamera the Brave, we learn that there have actually been many Gameras, with the creature being more of an identity than a single, living, breathing creature (think the code name James Bond in the Bond films). Young boy Toru (Ryo Tomioka) discovers an egg, which hatches into a baby Gamera, which eventually falls into the hands of the military as they try to speed up the process of Gamera’s growth so he can return to his gigantic size and take on the infantile but still devastating Zedus. Ah, the circle of life.
What follows is an E.T. style adventure of a young boy and his monster turtle friend, one that has its charms, but is a chore for any Gamera fan looking for the traditional brutality of the franchise’s monster fights, only to discover a film that eschews anything of that variety for goofy baby Gamera bumbling around and Toru dramatically yelling that he doesn’t want Gamera to fight. I get that director Ryuta Tasaki is attempting to return Gamera to his roots as the “Protector of Children”, but after the awe-inspiring trilogy which came before it, replacing Gamera’s fangs with baby teeth wasn’t the way to go.
10. Gamera vs. Viras (1968)
And here’s where we enter the “it’s all enjoyable, but not all Gamera films are created equal” phase. Flat out, Gamera vs. Viras is absurd. Introducing aliens to the franchise, the film follows two boys who find themselves on an alien ship. True to Gamera’s darker themes, the aliens at first appear human, but are actually much more sinister beings with glowing red eyes that would’ve given me nightmares as a kid. The film employs darker themes such as sacrifice, with the kids telling the military to blow the ship up with them in it for the sake of the planet, but like most Gamera films, counters these elements with a whole lot of goofiness, including a spaceship straight out of Willy Wonka’s factory.
The alien ship looks like it was decorated on the inside by the inventor of Skittles. The boys spend half the time ordering automatically rendered food from the ship’s computer (don’t eat that, you dumb kids), and the whole thing is topped off with a little calamari silliness as the aliens all somehow merge Power Rangers style into a giant squid and slap Gamera around a bit with rubbery tentacles. A blast if you’re looking for something on the dopey level of Godzilla vs. King Kong. But if you want a more well-made Gamera film, not so much.
09. Gamera vs. Zigra (1971)
I swear I’m not biased against aliens. I love me a silly Kaiju film with beings from outer space. But you’re probably starting to notice a trend with Gamera and aliens, and that is that Gamera is better off when he sticks to creatures of this earth. Once again facing humanoid aliens hell-bent on taking over the planet, with Gamera being the only thing in their way, Gamera vs. Zigra is pretty simple in concept and has a lot less story going on than the other films in this franchise. So what puts it just a notch above the others mentioned?
Zigra. No, it’s not because Zigra is some fascinating villain. No, it’s not because his fight with Gamera is all that impressive (it’s not). It’s because Zigra is, for all intent and purpose, a mechanical alien shark with a pointy nose and red eyes, and I’m a simple creature who likes Kaiju that make cool toys. Plus, Zigra is the only Kaiju with a voice, and it’s hard not to laugh at this tin-can shark swimming around and monologue-ing to the government like a Bond villain, buying Gamera time to arrive and kick his ass. Remember future world dominators, don’t waste time spoiling your own plan. Keep that shit a secret!
08. Gamera vs. Jiger (1970)
There are quite a few Gamera titles battling it out for the “most ridiculous entry” title, but Gamera vs. Jiger is arguably right there at the top. Following the removal of an enormous statue/totem, a Triceratops-esque creature named Jiger is unleashed, and of course immediately wreaks havoc on Japan. Gamera begins to come into his own with this film as not just a protector who rises to the occasion when evil shows up, but a guardian flying around out there with his jetpack shell and actively trying to stop humans from getting in their own way! This is one of the few times we actually see Gamera attack the humans as he tries to stop them from taking the totem, knowing what it will bring.
And what it will bring is one of the more powerful (though dopey) looking Kaiju, Jiger, who comes armed with multiple abilities, including needle darts, his own jet propellers, and the ability to levitate boulders! Throw in a pair of kids going Fantastic Voyage with a trip inside Gamera to free him of some kind of blockage in his lungs, and this is one of the more fun, if not bonkers, franchise titles.
07. Gamera, the Giant Monster (1965)
The ripoff that started it all. Gamera, the Giant Monster deserves to be ranked higher simply for that feat alone, and that’s without taking into consideration that, just like Godzilla’s first film, this is one of if not the only times we ever see a darker, more terrifying side of Gamera during the Showa period. The first Gamera feature from Daiei studios, they knew it had to show up and compete with Godzilla, and while it only had half the budget, it has all of the passion.
Shot in black and white due to lack of funds (color was expensive back then, people!), the absence of color works to the film’s advantage, giving it the look of a classic creature feature, while at the same time appearing more advanced in effects (the creature design of Gamera is as astounding as he is gigantic). What cements this original film as a classic though is Gamera’s humanity. We all crave Kaiju films for the action, but the best ones show the human side of the monster, and even in this first film where Gamera is the perceived villain, we get a glimpse into his gentler side as he saves young boy Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida) from a fall. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, Gamera is not the abominable creature the humans think he is, a theme which gives this film more heart than the average Kaiju terror.
06. Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)
As just the second film in the Gamera franchise, this is the one that’s either going to make you a lifetime Gamera fan or not. While Gamera, the Giant Monster is, quite blatantly, a Godzilla ripoff and not much else (though still great), Godzilla vs. Barugon is the film that established Gamera as having his own unique style. The first film in the series to feature Gamera facing off against another creature, Barugon, this entry also takes the Kaiju violence to a level that Godzilla hadn’t at the time, with Gamera and Barugon biting, clawing, and laser-blasting each other to shreds! Both creatures bleed enough blood to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, gushing various shades of purple and green, all of it leading to Gamera literally drowning Barugon in his own blood!
Godzilla gets all the glory, but this was the film at the time that established the King of the Monsters as having some real competition.
05. Gamera vs. Guiron (1969)
One of the most entertaining entries from Gamera’s Showa period, Gamera vs. Guiron originally wasn’t going to happen, as Daiei studios was having financial issues, but American studio AIP saw the potential for the Gamera property, and stepped in to save the day. I have my issues with AIP, but thank the Kaiju gods they did! Following two boys who find themselves prisoners on an alien planet with Gamera slowly soaring through space to rescue them, Gamera vs. Guiron turns the entertainment scale up to 11 on just about every level. There’s more monster mayhem, with fights between Guiron and a spray-painted silver Gyaos (the budget didn’t allow two new monsters) as well as Gamera and Guiron. The violence is at its most child-scarring, with Gurion chopping Gaos into several pieces of giant bat-suey. And while many Kaiju films ask for the monster fighting to be enough for audiences with rather bland human stories, Gamera vs. Guiron involves our two boys consistently battling wits with conniving alien women attempting to scoop out their brains and eat them! This movie was made for kids. Bless the 60s.
04. Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967)
There’s a reason Gyaos became a fan-favorite villain that returned again and again to face Gamera. After not directing Gamera vs. Barugon, Daiei brought back director Noriaki Yuasa for this sequel to get the action moving quicker, and Yuasa did exactly that. Gyaos (named after the sound it makes), is up and terrorizing citizens almost right away with its laser shooting, blood-drinking, stiff-necked ways. The action-packed sequel carries over and expands on the darker nature introduced by the surprisingly gory (in terms of monster blood) Gamera vs. Barugon, with Gyaos absolutely annihilating Gamera with its laser. Add in the fact that Gyaos is basically a thirty-story tall vampire with a craving for blood, and you have arguably the most monstrous creature in Gamera’s Showa period.
These rankings aren’t purely based on the sheer awesomeness of each Kaiju, but when it comes to Kaiju films, that’s a big deal. Let’s be real, that’s almost all that matters. So with the hilarious absurdity of the humans luring Gyaos into a trap with what is literally a giant bloodbath, Gamera vs. Gyaos is easily one of the most unforgettable entries in the franchise.
03. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
And here’s where Gamera finally began to catch up to and in some circles is even considered to have outpaced Godzilla. Gamera had been slumbering for fifteen years when Diaei Studios decided to resurrect the fearsome turtle, and great mother of Kaiju, what a return! Wanting to go with a bigger and badder vibe for the series, director Shusuke Kaneko presents a made-over Gamera that looks like an oversized version of the Ninja Turtles villain Tokka, though not too scary, as producers didn’t want him scaring kids…because the franchise hadn’t scarred them already, Daiei. Anyway, that role was left up to another familiar face, Gyaos, returning as not just one creature, but a whole swarm of monster bats straight out of a Rob Bottin creature feature. These things are uglier, nastier, and as vicious as ever, leading to plenty of scares and a sense of tension for our main characters that wasn’t as always present in the Showa period. The Gamera franchise had always had its moments that scared kids, but Gamera: Guardian of the Universe was the first time a film in the series had potential to scare adults as well. No more “Protector of Children” in this film.
Negative points for the killing of a dog, though. R.I.P. poor pupper.
02. Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion (1996)
Referred to by Japanese cinema expert August Ragone as quite possibly the greatest Kaiju film of all time, Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion originally wasn’t supposed to be, but the success of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe propelled Daiei Studios into giving director Shusuke Kaneko a three-picture deal, and he delivered. It’s easy to see why Ragone has such high praise for the film. The sets are gorgeous. The visuals are extraordinary and extraordinarily terrifying. And the monster battles are insane! In this sequel, a meteor showers pours hot coffee all over Gamera’s day by unleashing a horde of space spiders that quickly begin to multiply and grow in size. If you’re an arachnophobe, no other Kaiju film is going to scare you the way this one does. And if scenes that play out in subways and building with a similar vibe to Arachnophobia don’t do it, images of Gamera being completely covered in giant spiders will! Remember that scene in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark with the spiders bursting out of a zit? That’s nothing compared to how much your skin will crawl seeing every inch of Gamera’s flesh infested by bitey arachnids.
Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion features a web of more action, more scares, more breathtaking cinematography, and more impressive creature designs than any Gamera film and even many Godzilla films.
01. Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999)
So, you’re probably wondering, okay, if Attack of the Legion is so great, then why isn’t it first? Easy. Because I’m a sucker for a good human story, and where Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris falls short compared to Attack of the Legion, it more than blows the legs off of those spider babies with an emotional journey unmatched by any other Gamera film.
Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris takes the focus off of monster fighting and turns an introspective eye to themes of the human cost of those fights. The film follows a woman named Ayana (Ai Maeda) who lost her family to the destruction during one of Gamera’s battles, and has grown up hating him. But she isn’t alone, because Ayana also happens upon Iris, a creature that acts as a sort of Yang to Gamera’s Ying, forever opposed to him and hating him just as much as she does. Ayana forms a bond with Iris, and together, they bring absolute Hell to the world. While not as “scary” as Legion, Iris is the most unstoppable and powerful of any of Gamera’s villains, making for probably the only Gamera film where it never seems like good odds that Gamera will actually survive. Coupled with the tragedy of Ayana and her blind rage of a quest leaving the same destruction behind her that drove her to madness in the first place, and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris is the most moving entry in the franchise. I may have teared up more than once. Yes, it’s okay for a grown man to cry during a Kaiju film! Don’t make me get Gamera.
By Matt Konopka
12/3/2020 12:59:50 pm
The Hesei trilogy is horribly overated...
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