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DVD SAVANT

Savant Guest Review:

Gamera
- The Box


Gamera -The Box
Toshiba Home Video
1965-1980 / B&W and Color / 2.35 anamorphic 16x9 and 1.77:1 flat 16x9/681 m. (features only)/ Dolby Digital Mono / (Region 2/NTSC/optional English subtitles)
Starring Eiji Funakoshi, Kojiro Hongo, Kyoko Enami, Kon Omura, Edith Hanson, Maha Fumiake
Cinematography Nobuo Munekawa, Michio Takahashi, Akira Uehara, Akira Kitazaki
Art Direction Tomohisa Yano
Original Music Tadashi Yamauchi, Chuji Kinoshita, Kenjiro Hirose, Shunsuke Kikuchi
Writing credits Niisan Takahashi
Producers Hidemasa Nagata, Masaya Tokuyama
Directors & Editors Noriaki Yuasa, Shigeo Tanaka

Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV

Taking a cue from M-G-M's successful waves of James Bond box sets, Toshiba/Daiei Video in Japan have released a similarly packaged set of the first eight features in the long-running "Gamera" film series. Gamera, for the uninitiated, is a giant, fire-breathing extra-terrestrial prehistoric turtle. Created at Daiei Studios, this absurd, oddly lovable monster gave Godzilla, whose films were produced at rival Toho, a run for his money in the 1960s and early '70s.

Like all Japanese science fiction/fantasy films from the 1950s and '60s, the Gamera films endured careless dubbing, re-editing, pan 'n scanning, and generally became most familiar to American audiences via blurry 16mm TV prints which belie what Japanese audiences saw in theaters when they were new. Now, with this superlatively packaged set of beautifully transferred, English-subtitled films, American monster movie fans can appreciate the very real qualities these films have to offer. I've tried to emphasize this in my several books on this genre but, even realizing this, I was amazed at just how much better these movies seemed to become.

Synopses:

1. Gamera (1965)A nuclear accident in the Arctic Circle unleashes the giant prehistoric turtle, who attacks Tokyo. Scientists scramble to but the mysterious "Plan Z" into action.

2. War of the Monsters (a.k.a. Gamera vs. Barugon, 1966) Gamera returns to face Barugon, a giant monster unleashed by greedy jewel thieves.

3. Return of the Giant Monsters (a.k.a. Gamera vs. Gyaos, 1967) Gyaos, a winged, bat-like monster, threatens Japan, and it's Gamera to the rescue.

4. Destroy All Planets (a.k.a. Gamera vs. Viras, 1968) Two kids are held hostage in alien spacecraft, threatened by squid-like Viras.

5. Attack of the Monsters (a.k.a. Gamera vs. Guiron, 1969) Two kids are kidnapped by flying saucer, threatened by alien cannibals and sneaky knife-like monster Guiron.

6. Gamera vs. Monster X (a.k.a. Gamera vs. Jigar, 1970) Expo '70 endangered by Jigar, a monster whom impregnates Gamera, Alien-style.

7. Gamera vs. Zigra (1971) Sea World invaded by shark-like Zigra, threatened by low budget.

8. Super Monster (a.k.a. Gamera Super Monster, 1980) Gamera threatened by stock footage; little boy befriends spacewomen.

Like Godzilla, Gamera mutated over the years; his first two films were obviously made to cash in on Toho's success with the kaiju eiga (monster movie) genre. But director Noriaki Yuasa (who helmed all but the second picture, on which he supervised its effects sequences) and screenwriter Niisan Takahashi from the very beginning inched the series toward the look and feel of a children's storybook. From the third film on, the films deviated sharply from Toho's product with scripts told from a singularly childlike (but not necessarily childish) point-of-view. They became movies for and about children and their interests and adventures: kids (often two boys - one Japanese, one American) would watch pseudo-bloody monster battles, pilot mini-submarines, ride in flying saucers, and fly through the sky with alien superwomen. It's a perspective rare in American movies - The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1952), Invaders from Mars (1953), and The Witches (1990) being among the few real examples - and, in the middle Gamera films anyway, the format works a real magic.

The production values vary widely: the first film was regarded as a B-movie by Daiei and filmed in black and white with a modest budget and schedule. It was so successful that the next film was given A-picture status, glorious Eastman Color, and has much more elaborate effects work. By the third film, however, Daiei was in financial trouble-budgets were reduced, stock footage was employed to cut costs, and by the last film the lack of money is sadly apparent.


Gamera made his American debut with Gammera the Invincible [sic], though most of the sequels went straight to television via AIP-TV. These versions were well-dubbed as such things go, though some of the monster action was deemed too violent and subsequently trimmed. The films resurfaced in the 1980s in wretched "Sandy Frank/Hearst Home Entertainment" home video releases which replaced AIP's looping with dubbing so bereft of anything like acting they became the fodder of such programs as Mystery Science Theater 3000. More recently a small outfit called Neptune Media has released three of the films to VHS in both dubbed and subtitled versions.

But none of these American releases can compare with the superlative job Toshiba/Daiei Video has done with these movies. Previously released in murky transfers on laserdisc, these new DVDs are absolutely stunning to watch. All but Gamera Super Monster were filmed in Daieiscope, a 2.35:1 anamorphic process, and the 16x9 transfers are razor-sharp with nearly flawless, rich color. Super Monster, the anomaly of the series, was shot on video and 35mm, and released in what the Japanese call "VistaVision Size," 1.85:1. It's 16x9 enhanced as well, though the limitations of tape-to-film are apparent. The monophonic sound is acceptable.

Super Monster also lacks English subtitles, which are available on all the other films in the two sets. The subtitles are clear and literate, and based on their font and style appear to have been directly pulled from original overlay negatives.

Like M-G-M with James Bond, Toshiba has broken up the Gamera series into two boxed sets. The first contains the first four films, the attractive storage box itself, and a 78-page booklet. The booklet, while in Japanese, includes myriad color and B&W photos (many postage stamp-size) including numerous behind-the-scenes shots, pictures of Gamera merchandise, and poster reproductions. Also included are complete staff and cast lists; production histories; photos from an unmade Food of the Goods type film, Swarm of Rats, which inadvertently led to Gamera's screen debut; lyrics to Gamera's theme songs; interviews with Yuasa, Takahashi, suit-maker Masao Yagi, art director Akira Inoue, and others. The second box contains the last four films and a beautifully sculpted figure of Gamera, as he appears in the first film.

Trailers and brief interviews with Noriaki Yuasa are included with each film. (War of the Monsters includes a combo-trailer with Majin). The interviews, amateurishly shot on video are, like the trailers, not subtitled. The Super Monster disc also includes a smattering of behind-the-scenes photos, and an interesting 10-minute "reconstruction" of what originally was to be the eighth Gamera film, Gamera vs. Garasharp (c. 1972). There are a few other extras here and there, such as a lengthy sequence added for foreign versions of Destroy All Planets (consisting of stock footage best left out of the feature proper).

Ultimately, short of seeing these movies in a theater, these DVDs best recapture their not insignificant qualities. If you have a fondness for these movies, or even a passing interest, these new DVDs (also sold separately for around $37) are most impressive. They are by far the best monster movie DVDs imported from Japan thus far.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gamera - The Box rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: trailers, interviews, booklet (box 1), Gamera figure (box 2)
Packaging: Boxed set
Reviewed: January 23, 2002


Text © Copyright 2007 Stuart Galbraith IV
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson


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