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Monster Bites - The Duel

GAMERA VS BARUGON (1966)

While the Gamera films are generally considered fare made for children it's interesting to look back and see exactly when that transition came around. The original film mixed up the typical kind of city-wide death and destruction with some elements of this, but overall it's a pretty straightforward monster movie. The next two sequels on the other hand? Well it's interesting that the first entry I'm looking at here doesn't include a child actor at all. In fact it's more in line with the kind of stories that spawned from King Kong, in which creatures are brought back to the modern world from the unknown parts of the map. The next instalment on the other hand... well I will get to that in good time.

The first monster clash in the series is handled with a lot of interesting touches. Gamera was expelled from planet Earth last time around but it's obvious this trip into the solar system can't last. Or at least it's apparent that any travel to other worlds won't be taking place, at least not yet, because the film-makers haven't reached the bottom of the barrel. Instead, to mark the change from black and white to colour, the craft containing the giant turtle hits a meteor and somehow makes it back to Japan. It's a great visual moment that shows things are being taken seriously with some kind of a budget; which is also true when a power station and a dam are destroyed. It's also clear that the big guy is still a villain of sorts in this stage of the franchise.

Meanwhile the main plot of the film revolves around pilot Hirata (Kojiro Hongo) quitting his job for a travel company. It's a pretty straight laced effort in terms of a story about ambition and greed for the most part, with Hirata's brother sending him and two other men to a jungle in which he was trapped during the Second World War. Somewhere in New Guinea is a cave containing a giant opal that will make them all rich; all they have to do is work together. Which of course is unlikely. Maybe it's just a predictable situation, or maybe it's that team member Ondera (Koji Fujiyama) is clearly the other villain here. Maybe it's his attitude, or perhaps it's just the way he's unshaven and wears sunglasses all the time.

Still, the journey to a mysterious island and a forbidden valley is done with a consistent amount of detail. The matte paintings look good and the pacing is well measured. Character deaths along the way are notably sombre even if the effects depicting deadly scorpions and quicksand are less impressive. After meeting a conveniently placed foreign doctor and his native assistant Karen, (Kyoko Enami) both who speak Japanese, there are a lot of vague warnings about evil spirits. Which of course the visitors take as nonsense to keep them from the treasure. Why Ondera thinks he can keep it for himself when Hirata's brother is waiting is a mystery. Then again so is how he gets back to the ship when Hirata was brought along solely to fly their helicopter.


There's no time to worry about this kind of thing when the jewel is clearly a monster egg. After some pretty neat hatching effects the ship lands in Kobe, where it suddenly explodes and sinks in the harbour. Here things are pretty compelling as Barugon, some kind of dinosaur with a chameleon tongue, wreaks havoc. The pyrotechnics are good and the creature is shot at night with a lot of dramatic lighting. Its frost and energy emitting powers are completely bizarre, but there's a grim sense of realism to the evacuation scenes. When Gamera eventually shows up, apparently drawn to the same energy, it's a fun brawl with a surprising amount of green and purple blood. Unfortunately the rest of the story is less engaging.

Ondera's money fuelled rampage is just a violent, and he occasionally shows up to get in the way of the efforts to stop Barugon. However, the film gets bogged down once too often in monster lore and sci-fi weapon plans. Hirata brings Karen back to Japan just so she can talk about how diamonds can stop the newly born creature. Which leads to things like a 'ruby death ray' and a giant mirror being built. There's also a narrator talking over many sequences to delivery yet more exposition. Gamera is out of action thanks to an injury for a long stretch of the running time (something which happens a lot in later sequels) which means that the human cast are left to talk about Barugon... who is often asleep.

It's an interesting mixture of ideas that perhaps should have been a stand-alone monster movie instead of part of this franchise. Then again seeing how Hirata and Karen's sappy and forced romance comes around maybe bigger changes should have been made. The kaiju set pieces are fun and the miniatures are well made, but all the melodrama and military dialogue in the third act gets in the way of the fun. Still, while it's uneven it's got a certain amount of charm. It's often contrived and clich├ęd but when things are actually moving forward this is a surprisingly dark creature feature. Perhaps the last of its kind during the Showa era of Gamera.

3/5

BONUS REVIEW
GAMERA VS GYAOS (1967)

Volcano stock footage signals a change in the series in what is a notably less impressive affair. Gamera (he loves lava) and Gyaos (named by a tiny child) look pretty crummy in terms of design and detailing. Gyaos might have a slick profile, with the same simple shapes of many later monsters, but Gamera just looks kind of bad. It wasn't a great suit to begin with, particularly when it had to walk, but the angry face has been replaced by a wide-eyed vacant stare. The teeth look like something from a plastic toy and they haven't even given the model any nostrils. It was probably inevitable when they started to make this series an annual affair, but the downgrades are obviously right away. Which goes for the human cast too.

There's another plot about greed but it's just a bunch of villagers who want cash for a land deal. A road is being planned, but they aren't opposing it, they want more money. Which is an odd way to skip over any potent ecological themes. Less interesting is the inclusion of local boy Eiichi (Naoyuki Abe). He wears a baseball hat and knows all about what's going on; it's a sign of things to come. They nearly got away from this after the first sequel avoided it, but it's here to stay. Probably due to research on their target audience. This could have been a film about avarice stirring up the wrath of supernatural beings. Or a tale of ruthless journalists doing anything to get a story. While it's true that these elements are present they're not the focus.

Instead it jumps from ridiculous moments in which Eiichi flies on Gamera's back, to absurd set pieces in which Gyaos is lured to some kind of spinning hotel. A sinister plot about feeding Gyaos synthetic blood is totally glossed over, and nobody ever comments on the vampire bat-like nature of the villain. After a large amount of time is spent a daylight based strategy. Someone does say that the frothy pink substance is exactly like real blood, which is at least very funny. As is the x-ray diagram of the monster they drew after barely seeing it. Their plan to burn the forest, instead of just following a clue that Gyaos can't turn its neck, also sets a certain tone.

There are fun moments involving the villain firing out laser beams (or apparently sonic beams) and fire retardant gas, but once again Gamera is wounded and sits out half of the film. It's occasionally colourful and occasional brutal, with missing cattle and missing people clashing with the child-friendly tone. It's clearly a test bed for the kind of antics that would be coming up in the subsequent releases. The neck biting finishing moves and a volcano finale clash with things like Eiichi surviving his monster encounters. There's even a sing-a-long theme tune at the end, although it's not the same one that would be re-used many times later on. It's often entertaining, and it has a certain charm, but it's a mess.

2/5