Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Gamera (1965) – MST3K Review

In the arctic circle a few jet fighters get into a bit of a mess. One of them goes down with a nuclear warhead and crashes into the ice. This releases the giant jet powered turtle GAMERA! Capable of flying around like a flaming Frisbee and able to devour and shoot fire, this huge creature makes a beeline straight to Japan, where he promptly terrorizes the populous.

A young boy, Kenny (Yoshiro Uchida) has a close encounter with Gamera, but the huge reptile saves his life instead of devouring him. Thus a bond is formed, with Kenny telling everyone that Gamera is a good turtle, all the while Gamera is trashing Tokyo, destroying natural resources and making a general mess of things. In the end the worlds scientists come up with the ultimate plan, one last hope that may defeat Gamera and save the world. But will Kenny help or hinder the plan?

Movie Review:
I know what you’re thinking. Is this a Godzilla rip-off? Pretty much. Toho studios unleashed Godzilla on the screens in 1954, and really kicked off the giant monster craze in Japan and around the world. But rival Japanese studios all wanted a piece of that sweet pie and so they came up with their own versions. Gamera came from the Daiei studio and was fairly popular spawning many, many sequels. While both series were targeted toward kids, Gamera especially became a kiddie favorite, with his tag line becoming “Gamera – a friend to all children”. The line is uttered for the first time here, but the rest of the movie doesn’t really match the later flicks.

Gamera attacks a toy boat, toy boyt, toy bot!
Much like the first Godzilla film, Gamera comes across a bit more serious. It doesn’t dwell on the horrors and fears of the atomic age like the older film did. But Gamera is the real threat here. There was no other monster to face and thus turn Gamera into the hero. Instead you get a lot of supporting human characters running around trying to figure out ways to defeat Gamera.

This goes through all the regular attempts. They get the military to come in and attempt to blow him up with tanks and missiles. Soon it becomes apparent that all the explosions and fire only feeds Gamera. So then they switch and try to use cold against him, kind of like The Blob. But Gamera is able to escape that trap by turning into his flying flaming discus form. They finally use fire to lure Gamera to a rocket to Mars and send him flying into space.

Truth be told, for the type of movie it is, Gamera is pretty solid. It’s got the amazingly goofy model work, the bad dubbing, the nonsensical dialogue and the massive destruction. But because the plot points are so familiar and the characters aren’t terribly interesting the whole thing seems to move at a slower pace than it should. It’s also in black and white, while the later films were all in a rich color. As much as I enjoy black and white films, the Gamera series really benefited from color. Also keep in mind that as the movies continued, they became more outlandish and over the top, and thus more entertaining. You’re also missing the classic theme song that becomes an earworm to anyone that hears it. It’s interesting to see where the series started, but in the scope of things it’s not the best of the bunch – kind of like Dr. No.

Kenny: one of the most annoyingly dubbed characters
in a Gamera film.
The real oddity of Gamera is the way Kenny is used. He’s the only character who seems to actually have a more than one dimension. When we meet him he is obsessed with his pet turtle Tibby. He keeps bringing Tibby to school and will only draw pictures of the little beast. The other kids mock him and he’s a bit of a loner. Well his parents force him to get rid of Tibby, and that is when Gamera shows up.

Kenny nearly falls to his doom when Gamera destroys the lighthouse that Kenny is hiding in. But Gamera catches and saves him. Why? Well Kenny is convinced that Gamera is a friend to all children, and therefore “a good turtle”. He spends the rest of the movie bursting into rooms and telling every adult he can find (including military personnel and scientists). They all think he’s a bit touched, and frankly the English voice actor doesn’t help matters. In the end Kenny gets himself and other people in constant peril as he runs around trying to talk to Gamera and tell others that Gamera is good (while the huge beast is destroying everything and presumably killing people).

"Check it out, it's Japanese Colonel Sanders!"
I’m not sure how we are supposed to feel about this kid. He’s at once pathetic and incredibly annoying. I don’t care if he puts himself in peril, but people keep constantly running off to save his sorry ass and nearly get killed. I say if he wants to be with Gamera so badly, let him go.

The English presentation isn’t great. The dub is poor with many of the actors sounding bored, or having trouble matching the lip flaps. The film was originally in a wide screen presentation, and instead of panning around, they just hacked the frame up. This leaves the viewer with scenes of people talking to nothing and other scenes that seem to stretch out too long, because something is happening off on the side that we can’t see. Aside from these issues, Gamera isn’t a bad film at all. I think later films like Gamera vs. Zigra and Gamera vs. Guiron are more interesting. But the real question is, did it give enough for Joel and bots to use?

Episode Review:  
"I don't think braces are going to help his dental issues."
Season 3 of the show is known for it’s Japanese films ported over to the English speaking work via Sandy Frank’s production company. It gave us some great episodes like Fugitive Alien and Time of the Apes. But for many fans of the show, the Gamera episodes are some of the real favorites. They offer some great material being weird wild and rubbery all at the same time.

Well the team at Best Brains enjoyed riffing the movie back in their initial cable access season (back in 1988), that they sought it out for another go in 1991. This means they got to rework some of the riffs, adjust the pacing a bit and give us a really solid riffing.

Dr. Forrester introduces the film as “A love story about a giant turtle and downtown Tokyo”. And he’s actually correct, the riffing paints this as a love story between Kenny and Gamera, and it works to wonderful effect. The best jokes come as Joel and bots try to figure out what the hell is going on with Kenny. During a close up of Kenny as he stares blankly at a child who is mocking him, the boys start chanting in a style very similar to Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen. Later when Gamera randomly destroys the control tower at an airport Joel observes, “Well there goes Kenny’s theory about Gamera being good hearted.”

No, Neo-Tokyo is in "Akira" not "Gamera".
They also get some great quips in when dealing with the special effects. As the army rolls in to confront the turtle menace, and is represented by a bunch of model tanks and vehicles Crow observes “Micro Machines at 12 o’clock and G.I. Joe is there!” I also got a kick out of Joel realizing that Gamera wandering around on two legs ends up strutting a lot like George Jefferson.

For the most part the riffing is steady and solid, but the pacing of Gamera is on the slower side. There’s also the fact that Kenny is a pretty annoying character and the movie spends so much time with him. Sure the boys do a lot with it, but I always end up wishing the movie was over so I wouldn’t have to listen to the little dork saying how “Gamera’s a good turtle”.

The host segments in this one are a good time. Things start off with Joel and the bots doing some classic theater warm up exercises. Having been a theater geek in high school and college I got a kick out of that. For the invention exchange Joel creates a take home version of the all you can eat salad bar. The mads create a vacuum cleaner for your birdcage. It goes badly for Tweetie. At the first break Tom Servo sings a touching tribute to Tibby the turtle. This is one of my favorite songs from the series, and Crow even adds a hilarious verse. At the next break Tom and Crow have had it with Kenny and try to work some voodoo on him. They then ask the audience to write into the show and answer the important question, “Kenny. What gives?” The next break has Gamera (Mike Nelson dressed in green) visits and talks a bit about his past and what was with Kenny. The video below is Servo's ode to Tibby the turtle.

This is a solid episode, but compared to the some of the later Gamera exploits this one just doesn’t seem outlandish enough and a bit too slow. I give it 3 flying turtles out of 5.

This episode is available on MST3K vs Gamera box set (Vol XXI).


  1. I remember seeing this many years go (pre-MST3K) and noting that Gamera was deadly, rather than his later friendly self. If he failed to kill Kenny, it just seemed one of those quirky counterintuitive moments that monsters sometimes have. (Hitler was kind to his dog.) Kenny seems misguided at best. Actually, curiosity about the difference between the original Gamera and later incarnations is the only reason I watched the movie through. The Dr. No comparison is a good one.

    1. I agree. Later films did more to incorporate the children into the story. It was still unrealistic with the kids bossing around the scientists and military men, but it was a lot less bizarre then Kenny's whole relationship. And some of those later films played out like movies made by 10 year old boys on a sugar high. Great stuff and made for some fun riffing by Joel and the bots.

  2. Roman,
    Seeing your post of MST3K was somewhat fortuitous. I was this close to purchasing the Gamera set XXI when I saw your latest review.

    It had me plunging deeper into your blog for these fantastic reviews.

    Needless to say, these are excellent write-ups and I'm going to investigate further.

    I'll check back here as well to see if you recommend that DVD box of the MST3K Gamera films or not.

    In the meantime I will continue to read along for your commentary.


    1. Well if you are a fan of Gamera, and you don't mind MST3K doing their treatment on the films, than that set is a great one. When I was writing for DVD Verdict it was nominated for boxset of the year upon it's release.

      In my opinion the episodes get better and better as the season went along. "Gamera" is a solid 3 star episode. "Gamera vs. Barugon" is about a 3 and a half. "Gamera vs. Gaos" is about the same. But the best episode is "Gamera vs. Guiron". That movie is so out of this world wacky that it gives Joel and the bots plenty to work with. Probably four and a half or five starts for that one. "Gamera vs. Zigra is not quite as good, but is a solid four star episode in my book.

      Shout! Factory released some great versions of the Gamera series. They all include both the subbed and dubbed versions (where available), if not you defiantly get the subbed version. They are all in their proper aspect ratios and have wonderfully cleaned up prints. I reviewed one set for DVD Verdict and was really impressed by the job they did on it. As much as I love MST3K, the versions the got to review really don't do the movies justice. The dubs are so poor and the hacked up frames can get really annoying.

      Hope that helps a bit.

    2. Roman,

      That does indeed help.

      I own a copy of each of the re-done releases by Shout and I have yet to view them all but love the Gamera films.

      Nevertheless, I am not averse to seeing MST3K poke fun at these old films.

      So your input is much appreicated and I will definitely purchase that set in the future then.

      One final question when time permits. Did you enjoy any of the extras? Was there anything Gamera-related worth a look on that set? Or is it mostly humorous? Thanks again Roman.

      Again, really enjoying the depth of your site.

    3. Well you get trailers for each of the films included on the respective discs. A coupe of the episodes include special bumpers made by the crew of MST3K for Comedy Central when they were experimenting with the format of the show. Most of these are pretty funny, with Mike Nelson doing a really excellent parody of Jack Perkins. There are three documentaries in the set. The first is by the crew of MST3K talking about why they picked the Gamera films and how that selection was quite popular with fans and got a lot of viewers into the show. The next documentary is by effects artists the Chiodo Brothers. They talk about how Gamera and Godzilla influenced them to get into effects work. The last is an interview with August Ragone a writer and fan of Japanese cinema and pop culture. He wrote a book about Eiji Tsbaraya and he knows his stuff. He covers all things Gamera including the 1990s movies.

      To be honest I haven't watched these since I got the set, so I don't remember them too well. But I was happy to finally get these episodes, since it sounded for the longest time that these were never going to see the light of day. So in that regard the movies themselves are worth the price of the set. But the amount of extras is actually pretty good for this type of series, and Shout! Factory has been great about putting extra effort into these sets.

      I'm gushing like a fan boy... so I'll stop now. Hope that helps.