In the mid-60s, Daei Motion Picture Company produced their first kaiju eiga (monster movie) in direct competition with rival Toho Studios' popular Godzilla franchise. Helmed by neophyte director Noriaki Yuasa, the ambitious production was shot in B&W (to help camouflage the special effects team's inexperience) and released in 1965 as DAIKAIJU GAMERA, or GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER.
An unidentified, though clearly hostile (the U.S. version explicitly calls it Soviet) bomber plane is shot down by the U.S. Air Force in the arctic, and its nuclear payload detonates, releasing a gigantic, prehistoric turtle from the ice. This monster, Gamera, which can breath fire and actually fly by means of jets which cause it to spin like a flying saucer, heads South toward Japan (of course), and begins to wreak havoc as it searches for nourishment in the form of thermal energy (i.e. fire). As Japan's Self Defense Force and an international group of scientists attempt to find a way to halt the titanic tortoise's rampage, a young boy becomes convinced that Gamera is his pet turtle and keeps interfering with the authorities' efforts.
Released in America in heavily-altered form 1966 as GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE, this new DVD release from Shout! represents the first time that the film has been available in this country in its original form. In this film, Gamera is definitely a threat, creating considerable havoc, and laying waste to much of Tokyo in its search for sustenance. Even here, though, the monster shows signs of becoming the "friend to all children" that he would later become, when he (inadvertently?) saves the life of a small boy (much to the viewer's annoyance).
DAIKAIJU GAMERA is a very entertaining sci-fi movie with a decidedly goofy, but endearing creature. Although not as technically accomplished as the kaiju films produced by Toho, there's a real charm to the film and its mon-star that struck a chord with audiences - especially kids - and Daei went on to produce seven sequels by the same filmmakers. These follow-ups were even more geared toward young boys, and featured a wild array of truly bizarre beasties. In the 90s, three excellent Gamera films were made that were somewhat more adult in nature, and in 2006, the creature returned in a delightful children's film, GAMERA THE BRAVE.
Shout! Factory's DVD of GAMERA is something of a revelation. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is near-flawless, with a perfectly-balanced black & white image with good contrast and sharp detail from a new, high definition master. The original Japanese audio is intact, with English subtitles scripted by author and Asian fantasy aficionado August Ragone. Ragone also provides an informative and often amusing audio commentary for the film, which provides considerable insight into the creation of the film and the backgrounds of its cast & crew.
Additional bonus features include a retrospective featurette, in Japanese, that includes on-screen interviews with director Yuasa and several other key players in the making of the original film series. There is an extensive publicity and advertising still gallery and the original Japanese trailer. There's also a highly informative, 12-page illustrated pamphlet tucked in the case.
The American version of the film was originally intended to be part of the package, but the owners of the only high-quality film print apparently wanted more money than Shout! had budgeted for the disc. It's a shame, but there are lots of budget labels out there with that version (looking pretty shoddy) if you really want a copy for your collection and don't have one already.
Overall, GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER is a fantastic package, with an eye-opening transfer and solid extras. If you've only ever seen the pan & scan, badly-dubbed TV prints of the U.S. version (or the later entries - which are scheduled for future release by Shout! in their original Japanese form), you'll be surprised at how much fun - and how good - this movie really is. If you're a kaiju fan, it's an essential purchase.
BUY: Gamera: The Giant Monster