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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gamera Super Monster (1980) review


Mach Fumiake (Kilara), Yoko Komatsu (Mitan), Yaeko Kojima (Marsha), Koichi Maeda (Keiichi), Keiko Kudo (Girugi)

Directed by Noriyaki Yuasa

The Short Version: A super cheap, yet fun last ditch effort to make Godzilla's chief competitor a viable commodity in the 1980s. Most fans despise this one on a level rivaling the worst of both franchises for its soulless reliance on stock footage for most of its running time. However, the streamlined editing of those monster scenes, an energetic soundtrack and scenes involving a group of female caped crusaders from another world led by wrestler and singer Mach Fumiake ensure a good dose of brainless, childish entertainment. Think of it as 'Gamera's Greatest Hits' and you'll do just fine.

A gigantic spaceship bearing a striking resemblance to a certain Galactic Empire warship is on course to the planet Earth with plans to subjugate mankind, or destroy them. It's a trio of interplanetary spacewomen and Gamera to the rescue challenging the various outer space monsters via stock footage from all his old movies.

Noriaki Yuasa returned one final time to the Gamera universe with a film that's miles away better than 1971s GAMERA VS. ZIGRA, despite a heavy reliance on stock footage lifted from all the previous movies.

Having went into bankruptcy in 1971, the production company Daiei, was revived a few years later despite only being a shell of its former glory as a major market player. Considering Kaiju-Eiga movies were out of vogue in 1980, it's perplexing the company would attempt one, especially a film padded as healthily with old footage as this one is. GAMERA SUPER MONSTER failed to attract enough attention to revive the series (if that was even the intention) and it would be 15 more years before the world would be saved by Gamera again.

Regarding SUPER MONSTER, most fans seem to hate this one, although it isn't the only movie to feature the jet-propelled turtle that relied on a lot of stock footage (such as the bizarre GAMERA VS. VIRAS from 1968). On the bright side, if you ever wanted to see colorized footage of the original B/W Gamera picture, you'll see it here (see screen cap above).

The script for SUPER MONSTER (by series regular Nisan Takahashi) is standard alien invasion fluff lazily constructed to fit snugly around the various scenes taken from other films. There's between 3 and 5 minutes of new monster footage to accentuate the older shots. The new bits consist mostly of a flying Gamera model. However, none have him in spinning mode, just standard shots of him in the air, mouth opening and closing. There's a rather funny new shot of Gamera stomping down a street knocking over a sign for what is presumably MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964). There are also two dream scenes that feature Gamera coming into contact with footage from animation favorites STARBLAZERS and GALAXY EXPRESS 999.

The "special effects" crew also manage to utilize a model spaceship that looks like the Siamese twin brother to the Star Destroyers of the STAR WARS series. SUPERMAN (1978) is also invoked with the inclusion of three caped superwomen from another planet. It was as if Daiei were desperately trying to become a major player in the film industry again by including whatever was huge at the time, yet pinching pennies at every corner.

Still, the movie is a great deal of fun. I never even knew it existed till catching it on the great WGGT-TV 48 back in the mid 1980s on a Saturday afternoon. I think what aroused my curiosity even more by this movie was that a book I had titled The Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films claimed there was another Gamera film from 1971 entitled GAMERA VS. LEOMAN. Apparently there was another Gamera film in the planning stages, but it was never made because of the company's financial problems. The book (the first printing of which was in the late 1970s) made no mention of the 1980 production. Most likely the one I had was a reprinted edition.

The entire plot point of the three Superwomen (Kilara, the leader, runs a pet shop; Marsha works in a car dealership; Mitan is a schoolteacher) is a novel one, if incredibly derivative of one mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. However, instead of ducking into the nearest phone booth, these ladies perform some modified version of the YMCA dance in order to magically change into their red and white spandex super suits. 

Sometimes they do this in crowded locations and within plain view of others, yet nobody (save for one shot) seems to notice them; or their van that transforms into a red dot before taking flight via bad opticals and matte work. SUPER MONSTER wholeheartedly embraces the kitsch aspect of  what is essentially a Japanese version of a Sid & Marty Krofft program.

This last of the old school Gamera series could be viewed as Daiei's answer to Toho's GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1970) from a decade earlier. In that film, a little boy imagines himself befriending Godzilla's son, Minya interspersed with stock footage primarily from GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966) and SON OF GODZILLA (1967). The monsters are all in his mind, yet the boy learns how to stand up to school bullies, and even musters courage to help foil some bumbling crooks. For the first, and only time, Godzilla is perceived as a strictly cinematic creation.

That same feeling is echoed in SUPER MONSTER, too, but ambiguously. It's never made clear if this is supposed to be real, the vivid imagination of the boy, Keiichi, or even a scripting mishap that was never corrected. Aside from a few background shots of passersby reacting to something, the notion that the Earth is under attack by a horde of monsters and that Gamera has come to save the planet is disregarded by those closest to him as fiction. 

The most indicative moment that this is all in Keiichi's mind is a line of dialog that his mother isn't interested in his fictional stories and that she wishes he'd spend as much time on his homework. Also, Keiichi even makes mention that he's surprised Gamera's defeat of Gyaos isn't in any of the papers.

2006s GAMERA THE BRAVE possibly borrows Keiichi's character quirk that is his undeniable turtle love. Only upon freeing his pet turtle does Gamera appear giving the impression his pet has become the Guardian of the Universe. The 2006 film expanded on this in a more literal sense.

The entire film is virtually a 90 minute scrapbook of the wonders and innocence of adolescence. This is arguably the strongest area of the picture in its depiction of childhood; particularly when compared with the same scenario today in what amounts to an entirely different era where imagination is stunted by technology -- technology via computers and gaming systems that ensure you never need to leave your home to experience life. 

Children's fascination with little animals (in this case, Keiichi's love of all things turtles), a love of comic books and animation are all explored here. There's even an inadvertent message of the dangers of talking to strangers. Girugi, the evil black clad spacewoman, entices Keiichi with hamburgers and promises of seeing the monsters up close, but her real intentions are anything but good. 

Kids in peril were a mainstay of Gamera movie scripts such as the kids who were in danger of having their brains devoured by a pair of evil spacewomen in GAMERA VS. GUIRON (1969) and the sole female alien in the boring GAMERA VS. ZIGRA (1971).


Furthermore, the script for SUPER MONSTER does have the obligatory unfriendly lady alien see the err of her ways during an ending rife with sacrifice; and Keiichi's first step towards growing up dropping the monsters and gaining interest in girls.

The special effects are uniformly poor save for effects shots lifted from the first Gamera movie in 1965, GAMERA VS. BARUGON (1966), and select moments from GAMERA VS. GYAOS (1967). Granted, once the Gamera series went headlong into children's mode, the budgets seemed to get smaller as did the creativity behind the monster action. The new shots in SUPER MONSTER are all dead in the water, but enjoyable in an ELECTRA WOMAN & DYNA GIRL (1976) sort of way.

Wrestler and singer Mach Fumiake throws herself into this role. If she wasn't having a good time, it's never apparent. She imbues a Shatnerian style to her constant posing and vigor. Her fashion sense is also a testament to impending 80s sensibilities with her short cut hair, open collars, ties and rolled up jacket sleeves. 

Keiko Kudo is also a bright spot as the villainous alien woman Gurugi. Her Karate fight with Kilara is a highlight even if it's obvious Kudo is being doubled by a man.

If there's one area where SUPER MONSTER excels it's in its energetically vibrant soundtrack. Sounding for all the world like monster disco music replete with wacka-wacka sounds, prolific composer Shunsuke Kikuchi delivers a score that makes this movie a helluva lot more fun and enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. The tight editing of the older stock footage maintains the up-tempo pace the score sets for the movie. 

While Gyaos gets the most screen time, the other monsters get around two minutes a piece. This works extremely well as the monster fights in Gamera's movies often drag on mercilessly. I wonder if Ryuhei Kitamura was inspired by SUPER MONSTER for his shorter 30 second monster fights in the sadistically awful GODZILLA FINAL WARS (2004)? In Yuasa's movie, this approach works.

Without actually hearing from anybody involved in the movie, one can only speculate if this seemingly desperate mishmash of popular Hollywood sci fi and old monster footage would have led to more Gamera movies. If it had, then we may not have gotten Shusuke Kaneko's vastly different take on the material with 1995s GAMERA, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory double feature paired with GAMERA VS. ZIGRA.

1 comment:

321LetsJam said...

"Super Monster" was never meant to be a revival of the Gamera series and Daiei itself had nothing to do with it. The movie was no more than a cynical cash-grab by Tokuma Publishing, who had bought Daiei's properties at the time (very similar to what Kadokawa has done now). They discovered that the Gamera crew owed one more movie (the unmade 1972 film) and called in their contracts. For whatever reasons, Tokuma refused to furnish the movie with a proper budget. No one involved behind the scenes wanted to make the movie, but were pretty much forced to legally. The original script Niisan Takahashi wrote ended just like the other Gamera pictures, but when Noriaki Yuasa saw what was going on during production, he realized that Gamera could never come back from this, so they killed him (this is why everyone's still happy at the end-- only the rudimentary changes were made). In short, it's amazing how well the movie turned out considering no one wanted to make it. And why Tokuma wanted to do it (other than to be a bunch of sadistic asshats) remains a mystery.

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