Yeah, yeah, that other colossal reptile from the Far East is once again about to stomp his way into theaters. Whatever. You can have your King of the Monsters. Me...? I'll take Gamera, a friend to all children! If you didn't grow up with a late night UHF creature feature, Gamera is a gigantic, fire-breathing, jet-propelled turtle that keeps the galaxy safe from any monsters savage enough to threaten it.
In the weeks leading up to Godzilla's latest theatrical reboot, Mill Creek is issuing all eight of the Shōwa-era Gamera films on budget-priced Blu-ray collections. Volume one tackles Gamera's earliest adventures, from his self-titled debut in 1965 all the way through 1968's squidtacular Gamera vs. Viras. This second volume picks right up with 1969's gloriously surreal Gamera vs. Guiron and takes the mighty tortoise to his cut-rate farewell in 1980's Gamera: Super Monster.
Gamera vs. Guiron (1969)
A couple of junior astronomers spot some kind of flying saucer from a bedroom window. When they track down the spacecraft in a remote field, they do what any red-blooded kids would: play Johnny Spaceman and start mashing buttons. Oops! That's all it takes to fling them into the far reaches of space. Gamera bumps into them and tries to send 'em back home, but it's too late! A tractor beam has gotten a chokehold on that adorable little spaceship, and before you can say "friend to all children", the two boys find themselves trapped on the surface of Terra. Who knew? It's on the other side of the sun from Earth. Been there the whole time, and we had no idea. Too bad they won't have time to enjoy it! A pair of Space-Women fill them in that Terra is mere hours from becoming a frozen wasteland. All that wonderful technology and all those ::gulp!:: monsters: soon to be gone forever. That's okay. The kids' new friends Barbella and Florbella are repairing that busted spacecraft and have given 'em all the powdered doughnuts and glasses of milk they can stomach in the meantime. Ooooh, but these two Space-Women might be busy cooking up a diabolical scheme all their own...and they might be cooking up more than that before too much longer!
Honestly, Gamera vs. Guiron is the whole reason that I threw my hat into the ring to write this review. It's not just my favorite Shōwa-era Gamera movie but is in the running as my all-time favorite kaiju flick. There's just a wide-eyed fun and innocence that's seeped its way into every frame of the film. Transporting a couple of kids onto a thoroughly alien planet keeps things from ever feeling stale. Gamera vs. Guiron doesn't get too distracted by whatever it is that's going on back home, instead keeping a tighter focus and reveling in its colorful, otherworldly production design. That certainly sets it apart from the three tethered-to-Earth movies elsewhere in this collection. Despite its candy-colored visuals and powdered doughnuts and stuff, Gamera vs. Guiron has still been sharpened to a gleaming edge. Its central badnik is a glorified attack dog named Guiron that has a colossal knife for a head and can psychically fling throwing stars (!). He's introduced defending his masters' territory against Space Gyaos, and to show what a force Guiron is to be reckoned with, he faces off against a monster that had Gamera on the ropes for an entire movie and dismantles him in mere minutes. Actually, "dismantle" isn't the right word. More like "dismember"! Geez, for a kids' movie, Gamera vs. Guiron sure isn't afraid to slosh any of that neon-colored blood around.
There really isn't much of anything about Gamera vs. Guiron that I'm not head-over-heels in love with. The creature design of Guiron is phenomenal: easily my favorite of these first eight Gamera movies. (...and Gigan is my favorite Godzilla monster. Something about knives, I guess?) Plus you get Gamera gymnastics, Chekhov's rubber dart gun, and more fun than I know what to do with right now. On a scale of zero to five Kennys, Gamera vs. Guiron scores a perfect five!
Gamera vs. Jiger (1970)
Gamera may be a friend to all children, but to adults...? Urgh. They live in fear and mistrust of this forty story tortoise, throwing the entire might of the Japanese military his way. Nothing -- neither man nor loggerhead -- can be allowed to get in the way of the World's Fair in Osaka, and the Japanese government has just discovered the perfect piece of eye candy to earn the admiration of millions. Wait, though! All they did was yank this ancient statue out of the ground. Why is the crew of the transport ship doubled over in pain? What does that have to do with the triceratops looking beast that's carving a path of destruction through Osaka?
Jiger is a glorious kitchen sink monster that can blast quills, unleash Super Ultra Wave death rays, inject mini-Jigers into its prey, and deafen giant turtles with its lethal sonic blasts. There's a sense of stakes here that's lacking in the other movies on this volume, at its most horrifying when Jiger's Ultra Wave attack strips the flesh all the way to the bone from a gaggle of people. Yikes! For a sizeable chunk of the movie, Gamera is frozen and helpless thanks to the mini-Jiger parasite stomping around his innards. Thankfully, a couple of kids in a mini-sub are game to help out their pal with a little Jiger-ectomy. As a counterbalance to all that darkness, you also get some teeter-totter-fu with a radio tower during one of many battles between Gamera and Jiger.
This installment isn't as endlessly charming as Gamera vs. Guiron, but it's still a heckuva lot of fun, and it's also a lot more varied in size and scale than its predecessor. You know this one had a little more money behind it when the only stock footage is in the opening credits. Guess the World's Fair opened up their checkbook for all that publicity. I'll give Gamera vs. Jiger a respectable three Kennys out of five.
Gamera vs. Zigra (1971)
You don't need me to tell you how it works on our planet: we live on land and feast on creatures from the sea. On Zigra's home world of Zigra (I know), it's the other way around: monstrous sea beasts devour land-dwellers like so much cattle. Wait, cows live on land just like us too, so maybe that's not the best analogy. You know what I mean, though! Anyway, this intergalactic goblin shark is scheming to shatter our planet into an oversized Shoney's breakfast buffet. Hope Zigra's brought his appetite 'cause he's about to get a mouthful of turtle fist!
I guess Gamera vs. Zigra has its moments. Zigra's alien henchwoman dashes after a couple of cloyingly precocious kids in an endless, goofball chase that'd make Benny Hill proud. The whole thing plays like an eightysomeodd minute ad for Sea World, which it turns out is where the Japanese Army plots all their critical strategems. Zigra is stiff and borderline-immobile underwater, and his brawls against Gamera are the most poorly staged and least memorable of this entire volume. Gamera vs. Zigra is halfover before our titanic terrapin buddy does much of anything, and the endless interludes with his fleshy friends are like watching paint dry, even in such theoretically exciting scenes as the one with the quickly flooding submarine. Still, you've got a bunch of Japanese cuties in bikinis, Gamera shows off his ear for the Zigraphone, and I learned that Gamera can still spew fire even when submerged hundreds of feet underwater.
I'll give it one and a half Kennys out of five.
Gamera: Super Monster (1980)
Shoehorning in highlights from previous battles -- entire reels at a time! -- had kind of gotten to be part of the Gamera formula. I mean, Gamera vs. Viras was overflowing with right at twenty minutes of stock footage! This swan song for the Shōwa era careens even further off the deep end, though. Aside from a couple minutes' worth of cut-rate footage of Gamera slooooooowly flying around, everyone's favorite invincible super monster is only seen in excerpts from his earlier movies. It's a feature-length highlight reel of Gamera duking it out against Gyaos, Zigra, Viras, Jiger, Guiron, and Barugon, and...yeah, that's pretty much the plot summary right there.
Okay, Gamera: Super Monster does try to string all that old footage together into some kind of story. An Imperial Destroyer...errr, I mean the starship of the sinister Zanon is bearing down on Earth. The planet's second mightiest protectors, the enigmatic superheroines known as the Spacewomen, and a pre-teen Gamera superfan get caught in the crossfire. With Gamera distracted by having to face down his entire rogue's gallery in a six round battle royale, the Spacewomen and their new sidekick may be Earth's only hope!
So, yeah, Daiei Film didn't exactly save the best for last. This is a limp, lazy, cringingly cheap cash-in. The monster brawl leftovers are hacked apart to the point where there's no real energy or momentum. The story's nonsensical even by Gamera's staggeringly low standards. When Super Monster runs out of stock footage to recycle of Gamera, they throw in poorly composited video footage of everyone's favorite turtle flying in front of anime. It's a shameful, embarassing way for a heavyweight like Gamera to go out. It'd be fifteen years before Gamera would again soar into theaters, and as luck would have it, the best was yet to come...
Gamera: Super Monster scores a dismal zero Kennys.
Yeah, it's a trade-off.
When Shout! Factory decided to go DVD only with their Gamera collection a few years back, I slumped down in my chair and gave up hope of ever seeing any of these movies in high-def. Start playing the hero fanfare, 'cause Mill Creek has swooped in to save the day. These HD masters have their share of flaws, to be sure, but you can tell even with a passing glance that this genuinely is a Blu-ray set. Any of the first three movies on this second volume (and, sure, huge chunks of Gamera: Super Monster too) easily trump the substandard Godzilla masters that Toho's licensees are shopping around, and Mill Creek does it at a fraction of the price to boot. Someone with a corner office at Mill Creek is going out of their way to do kaiju as best they can, and if not for them, we wouldn't have the '90s Gamera trilogy or any of the Daimajin movies on Blu-ray on these shores either.
...and here come the downsides. First, these are some old, musty HD masters. They're interlaced rather than dished out in the traditional 1080p24, no matter what the flipside of the case says. These appear to be the same masters used for the Japanese Blu-ray releases -- also 1080i30 -- from back in 2009. Word on the street is that these masters were prepared at least a few years before that, used as the source for Japan's Z Plan DVD collection in 2006, but I can't speak with any authority about that. To keep the sticker price as low as possible, Mill Creek has crammed four movies onto a single BD-50 disc. To their credit, they seize hold of just about every available byte on the disc, but it's still close to six hours of high-def material in the space of 45 gigs. The strain absolutely shows. The interlacing is mucking up the quality of some of my screenshots, but take a look at the heavy artifacting in the grabs below. You'll want to open them to full-size to get the complete effect.
To be fair, the extreme compression isn't as disastrous as I would've guessed. If you're watching these movies on a smaller display or are sitting a good distance away, you can probably shrug it off as not being too much of a concern. If you're enough of a frothing-at-the-mouth home theater fanatic to analyze the couple dozen screenshots I snapped for this review, then, well... There is an unmistakeably digital quality to the visuals, and the relentless artifacting stomps on film grain and leaves textures looking extremely unstable. Any particularly fast motion struggles as well, such as the Superwomen quickly waving their hands while transforming in Gamera: Super Monster. Because of the relentless hiccups with the AVC encode, fine object detail appears and vanishes from one frame to the next.
The level of detail on display manages to stay somewhat respectable, though, still impressing quite a bit more than the Godzilla double feature I reviewed the other day even though those Heisei-era entries were filmed a couple decades after these Gamera flicks. The same as Toho's high-def Godzilla masters, contrast leans pretty flat. There are sporadic bursts of softness. The palette is generally subdued and skews towards the cooler end of the spectrum. I can't say that the colors ever really pop, standing out as especially undersaturated in the more routine suburban sequences, but they can look nice enough when it counts.
Aside from older masters and intense compression, these movies can also be limited by the way they were produced all those decades ago. Three of the four films on this volume were shot in Daieiscope, and there's some occasional anamorphic distortion as a result. Look at the curvature at the edges of the frame here, for instance:
Some shots do wind up looking almost out of focus:
The final movie in this collection, Gamera: Super Monster, suffers the most from its penny-pinching. The stock footage from the other movies in the series gets blown up and reframed. The newer visual effects work appears to have all been tackled in standard definition video, and the end result is...just...ghastly:
The older masters and low-budget production hiccups are what they are, but honestly, they hold up well enough for my money. I really wish that Mill Creek had spread the collection across two discs rather than just one, though. I woulda shelled out another five bucks without complaint, anyway. The heavy compression isn't a dealbreaker, but it does make it tougher to recommend this set as enthusiastically as I would've liked.
Tech spec lightning round! A single BD-50 disc with right at 5 hours and 45 minutes of material. 1080i30. AVC. Gamera vs. Guiron, Gamera vs. Jiger, and Gamera vs. Zigra are all presented at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1, while Gamera: Super Monster is dished out at 1.85:1.
I guess to play nicely with such a limited bit budget, Mill Creek shrugged off the uncompressed audio from the Japanese BDs and opted for Dolby Digital mono (256kbps) instead. No dubs or anything this time around: just the original, monaural Japanese audio, which is the right way to go. This is in every way DVD quality audio, though. Don't expect much of anything in the way of dynamic range. Clarity and fidelity are passable but don't exactly belie the ages of these four movies. Gamera vs. Guiron and Gamera vs. Jiger easily rank as the best sounding of the bunch. Gamera vs. Zigra is muffled and mixed more meekly than the rest of the lot, and Gamera: Super Monster suffers from the most clipping and heaviest sibilance. The English subtitles are peppered with a few typos -- "consist ofjust one", "let's take look!", "Earth's way the better", "Tera" instead of "Terra" -- but are generally well done.
The short answer...? Keep your expectations in check.
The handful of extras from Shout! Factory's DVD set haven't found their way on here, and neither has anything else, really. That's to be expected for a budget release, though. This set does come packaged in a slipcover, so there's that!
The Final Word
On one hand, these high-def masters from the other side of the Pacific are old, creaky, and interlaced (!), and not even the mightiest Super Monster can fend off this level of hyper-mega-ultra-compression. On the other hand...Gamera! It's such a thrill to at long last have these infectiously fun movies on Blu-ray, and while there's plenty to grouse and groan about on the technical end of things, the extremely low sticker price takes out a lot of the sting. A second disc or less outdated masters would've scored a much higher rating, but what Mill Creek has assembled here still very much comes Recommended.
Additional Gamera vs. Guiron Screenshots
Additional Gamera vs. Jiger Screenshots
Additional Gamera vs. Zigra Screenshots
Additional Gamera: Space Monster Screenshots