Monday, April 21, 2014

Gamera vs. Jiger (1970) review


Tsutomu Takakuwa (Hiroshi Kitayama), Akira Hayami (Keisuki Sawada), Kelly Burris (Tommy Williams), Katherine Murphy (Susan Williams), Ryosaku Kitayama (Omura Kon), Junko Yashiro (Miyako Kitayama), Chico Roland (Gimbo), Franz Grubel (Dr. Williams)

Directed by Noriyaki Yuasa

The Short Version: Gamera returns for a sixth juvenile adventure, and an immensely enjoyable one compared to the budgetary blandness of VIRAS ('68) and GUIRON ('69). Sort of a last hurrah from a studio about to crumble under the mighty footfalls of Daikaiju Bankruptcy, Yuasa and his crew manage to devise some truly creative set pieces for what little resources they had at their disposal. Ostensibly a reworking of GAMERA VS. BARUGON (1966) -- the entry with the best production values -- one can tell a huge difference from the Daiei of just four years earlier. Unfortunately, the company would revert back to poverty-stricken methods for the next, and last entry of the 70s.

The Osaka World Expo is a theme park for the promotion of international culture, science, and harmony for all of mankind. Nearing completion, the park is awaiting the arrival of an ancient artifact from Wester Island in the South Pacific. An African envoy for the indigenous people of the island is furiously against the removal of the divine statue. The explanation that the study of ancient cultures for a better future doesn't interest the irate emissary in the slightest. Uncovered by archaeologist Dr. Williams, the 33 foot statue known to the natives as 'The Devil's Whistle' is transported to Expo 70 anyway despite both the natives, and Gamera's better judgment. After the removal of the stone effigy, the demonic monster Jiger is awakened and attacks Japan. After being defeated during their first confrontation, Gamera is nearly killed the second time after Jiger lays eggs inside of his body. It's up to two boys to help save him with the use of a mini-submarine before Jiger destroys Osaka and all its citizens.

After two disastrous, stock footage-filled Gamera films, the sixth entry in the series actually looks like it had something resembling a budget behind it. Reportedly director Yuasa was able to coerce then Daiei president Nagata Masakazu to fork over an additional allotment of 30 million yen (approximately 290,000US dollars at that time) to beef up the effects budget. The film is peppered with elaborate ideas, and a return to widespread city destruction that hadn't been seen since 1967s GAMERA VS. GYAOS. However, the miniature work isn't up to Toho standards; who were likewise going the stock footage route at this time. 

Other than a brief recap during the opening credits, everything in GAMERA VS. JIGER is brand new. The amount of monster action is increased from the two previous films (only once in VIRAS, and twice in GUIRON). The two monsters battle it out on three different occasions, on three different settings -- the first is on Wester Island; the second in Osaka; and the third at Expo '70. City destruction is limited in the last duel. 

Niisan Takahashi's script (that began as 'Gamera vs. Giant Monster X') is arguably the most ambitious of the series even if the budget can't match its aspirations. He borrows elements of his own work for GAMERA VS. BARUGON (1966); primarily the South Seas Island plot device that swaps out the mysterious opal (actually an egg) for a huge ancient statue. Instead of an outer space creature crashing to Earth, it's a beast from the long dead Mu civilization that is let loose.  Comparing the two films, though, shows a world of difference, particularly where the budget is concerned. The earlier movie had the best production values of the entire Showa era Gamera franchise, but was "bogged down" by an unusual amount of character development. JIGER abandons all that exposition and focuses more on the monsters, which is what the kids wanted more of anyways.

Another series mainstay is implemented yet again, but in an unusual move, it's turned into a set piece of its own. In every sequel, Gamera is put in peril, or incapacitated in some way; but here, his life is nearly snuffed out on two separate occasions. This second near death experience is the most interesting, and a highlight of the Gamera series. After Jiger stabs Gamera in the neck with a needle in its tail, the two boys of the cast (one Japanese, one American) man a mini-sub and go on a FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966) inside of Gamera's body in an attempt to save the titanic turtle. Once they've breached Gamera's gigantic frame (which looks like ziploc bags filled with air and covered in green goo), the boys discover Jiger has laid eggs inside of him!

Jiger (a demonic monstrosity from the time of the ancient Mu Empire) is another in a long line of quadruped creatures. In a rare turn the suit actor(s) move around on all fours as opposed to the walking on the knees of so many others. In the Gamera canon, Jiger is arguably the most lethal opponent next to Gyaos. It has an array of uniquely outrageous, and deadly abilities. Its most devastating weapon is a death ray fired from the snout that turns buildings into dust and people to bones. The two main spikes on its face fire arrow-shaped needles that come in handy during the monsters first fight with Gamera. It shoots said needles into Gamera's arms and legs keeping him from retreating into his shell. Jiger then casually turns Gamera over to bake in the sun. Its ability to use other lifeforms as hosts for babies is kind of ghoulish, but fits within the grand guignol aspects the series was known for. Of its sillier attributes, Jiger has suction cups on the palms of its legs that act as magnetic force to attract objects into its grasp. Then there are the rocket boosters(!) behind its ears that enable the monster to fly in short bursts. 

The baby Jiger encountered by the two boys inside Gamera's body (where did all the dirt come from?) has its own attack -- it spits a white glue-like substance that holds its prey much like a spiders web.

The filmmakers always found goofy things for Gamera to do that increasingly humanized him; and here, he's probably more resourceful than any other entry in the series. Whether using pieces of buildings to combat Jiger, or ripping telephone poles from the ground to plug his ears, Gamera displayed an ingenuity unsurpassed in Japanese giant monster movies. This is further exemplified during the sequence where Jiger pierces his limbs and turns him onto his back. Gamera maneuvers his body to a protruding piece of rock. Wrapping his tail around it, he attempts to use it as a means to right himself. When that doesn't work, Gamera then uses the rock as balance to push the giant needles out of his legs. Who would have thought a giant jet-propelled turtle could be so sophisticated?

Izumi Umenosuke encores from playing the big turtle in GAMERA VS. GUIRON (1969). He gets a bit more to do this time around with Gamera's additional screen time, thus giving Izumi more of a workout.

Gamera is seen spinning again, albeit briefly during the Wester Island sequences. He didn't spin at all in the previous movie. According to director Yuasa it was very difficult to make the Gamera prop whirl while in the air. Earlier entries he spun very fast, and it was an impressive effect. In Jiger, it's a much slower rotation. When suit actors weren't required, models of the monsters were built for certain scenes.

As for its human cast, this Gamera film is as diverse as the others. Not only is their an American boy paired with a Japanese kid, but a little girl is added to the mix. The lifeforce of the series, children are at the forefront once more; and they're often depicted as far more receptive and less ignorant than the adults. Chico Roland (Arthur Lourant) of BLACK SUN (1964), GENOCIDE (1968) and THE STREETFIGHTER (1974) plays the extremely agitated African emissary, Mr. Gimbo. Famous Japanese comedian Omura Kon plays Kitayama, the kindly shipyard worker who constructs the small kids submarine for use at Expo '70.

GAMERA VS. JIGER (1970) is of great interest for a few reasons. For one, the Osaka World Expo had opened the week prior to this movies theatrical release. The Gamera movie was good publicity; or, more likely, the inclusion of Expo '70 enhanced the marquee value of the picture, especially since Daiei was on its last legs at this point. The Expo is never put in peril till the conclusion, and even then, the monsters third battle doesn't involve the destruction of any of the parks pavilions.

The release of this film marked an occasion where Japan's two biggest box office beasts -- Godzilla and Gamera -- would come together on stage as part of the films advertising campaign. For one day, the King of the Monsters met the Protector of Children. Mr. Godzilla himself, Haruo Nakajima, was called in to play the Big G. Suit actor Izumi Umenosuke was manipulating Gamera. A cinematic 'meeting of the monsters' has yet to take place between these two heavyweights.

For Gamera's sixth adventure, it's definitely a step up for the stagnant series. The effects are uniformly poor, but they're so enthusiastic, it's difficult not to appreciate them for the sheer amount on hand. Some composite work and a lot of rear projection add flavor the two prior pictures were lacking. Unfortunately, things would get worse in the next entry, and the last of the 1970s.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory DVD.
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