Thursday, July 29, 2010

GAMERA VS. BARUGON

The second film in Daiei Studios popular kaiju franchise featuring a giant flying turtle, GAMERA VS. BARUGON (a/k/a WAR OF THE MONSTERS, 1965), recently received its first, uncut, widescreen, Japanese-language U.S. video release from Shout! Factory. Having never seen this particular entry in the series - and being a big Gamera fan - I was especially eager to spin this new DVD.

At the end of the previous film in the series, GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER, the towering terrapin known as Gamera was lured into the nosecone of a giant rocket, trapped, and shot into space. GAMERA VS. BARUGON begins with his space capsule being hit by a meteor en route to Mars. The collision frees the creature, and he promptly flies back to Earth (and Japan), where he attacks a power-generating dam before disappearing for most of the rest of the movie. But that's okay, because we're introduced to a group of treasure hunters who travel to New Guinea in search of a huge, priceless opal. They find the jewel, but one of the men double-crosses the others, and heads back to Japan alone with his prize. Unfortunately, it's not an opal at all, but an egg, and soon it hatches - unleashing a legendary creature called Barugon (with its freezing breath and rainbow death ray) upon Japan. When the nation's military might fails to destroy the creature, the authorities are forced to pin their hopes on the mighty Gamera....

GAMERA VS. BARUGON was directed by Shigeo Tanaka, while the director of the original, Noriaki Yuasa, was put in charge of the special effects. This appears to have been a good decision, as this sequel is considerably more polished than its predecessor. Shot in color, and featuring a notably strong cast, BARUGON is a somewhat unusual kaiju caper, with a surprisingly adult sensibility. While the story itself is pretty standard genre fare - and at times, just plain ridiculous (Barugon is attracted to the "radiance" of diamonds? Really?) - the characters are portrayed very seriously. One character, in particular, is among the most despicable villains in the genre; greedy, brutal and remorseless. Unfortunately, it also sets a pattern that would persist in the series - remarkably little screen time for its titular monster.

Gamera really only makes three brief appearances in this 105-minute movie: once at the beginning, when he returns to Earth to wreak havoc on the hydro-electric station, once in the middle, where he is quickly dispatched by Barugon, and again at the climax, for a well-staged but all-too-short, monster melee.

The music by Chûji Kinoshita is quite good, and Michio Takahashi's camera work is excellent, providing a cinematic look that is a vast improvement over the rather primitive-looking original film. The special effects are actually quite remarkable, with some elaborate and extremely detailed miniatures, effective animation/opticals, and plenty of classic, cool, "man in suit" monster action. I was particularly impressed by how well the performer in the Barugon suit pulled off the creature's four-legged movement - instead of crawling on his knees (like, say, Toho's Anguirus) the actor actually used his feet, giving the creature a very lizard-like gait.

Shout! Factory brings their second Gamera release to DVD in grand style, with a stunning, uncut, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and the original Japanese soundtrack and dialogue in 2.0 mono. Obviously culled from a pristine source, the image is sharp, detailed and colorful, with no evident damage or fading. Extras include an informative audio commentary by kaiju fans August Ragone and Jason Varney, a publicity still gallery, and facsimile of the original film program. In addition, they've tucked a 12-page booklet with liner notes into the DVD case. It's another great package.

(FYI: It looks like Shout! will be releasing the remaining vintage Gamera titles on double-feature discs starting in September, with GAMERA VS. GYAOS / GAMERA VS. VIRAS and GAMERA VS. GUIRON / GAMERA VS. JIGER due on 9/21.)

For American fans of Japanese giant monster smackdowns, picking up GAMERA VS. BARUGON - which has never been released in the U.S. in its original form - is a no-brainer. The DVD looks incredible, and watching the movie in its intended form is a vastly different experience than viewing the old, dubbed, edited, pan & scan WAR OF THE MONSTERS television version. It's still not the greatest kaiju film, but it is a lot of fun. For the less-rabid monster movie fans - you might want to give it a rental first and see how you like it.

Recommended.

BUY: Gamera Vs. Barugon