It is widely accepted that Gamera films have originated as a competition to the Godzilla series and aimed to replicate its success and cultural footprint. In fact, from among all Godzilla knock-offs, the series about a giant fire-breathing (and fire-eating) flying turtle ended up the most sustainable, as it spawned twelve entries spread across four decades.
Interestingly however, it must also be pointed out that the 1954 seminal Godzilla film wasn’t entirely original as it is dangerously close in spirit to The Beast from 20000 Fathoms and that its lineage can ultimately be traced to King Kong. Therefore, while Gamera, The Giant Monster could essentially serve as a remake-once-removed of the Ishiro Honda picture from 1954 – perhaps additionally bolstered by the international success of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds that reinvigorated the love for creature features the world over – it is probably better to see it as a product of its time.
Better yet, the realization Gamera, The Giant Monster was both a retelling of Godzilla with a few tweaks here and there and a product of its own time – nearly eleven years after the time the world was introduced to the iconic radioactive reptile – is in its own right a powerful political commentary on the crystallized spectre of The Cold War enveloping the entire globe. Thus, Yuasa’s film is more than a knock-off but rather a reappraisal of the political climate of the time, which could easily serve to underscore how the world had changed. In 1965, The Cold War was a much more serious affair. The Vietnam War was still raging on and the two foremost global superpowers were no longer just nuclear powers, but thermonuclear ones to boot. The world had come dangerously close to an all-out nuclear exchange during The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets had flexed their muscles by detonating the largest ever nuclear device (Tsar Bomba) and – worst of all – everyone had slowly grown accustomed to the idea of living with a gun pressed against their temples, ready to fire at any second. This was the kind of a world Gamera, The Giant Monster had to grapple with and make comments about.
However, it would be foolish to assume the filmmakers embarked to make this movie with a crystalline intent to serve the world (or at least Japan) a poignant social commentary indicting the current asphyxiating geopolitical status quo. It’s probably easier to accuse them of trying to capitalize on the cultural impact of kaiju films and establish a me-too franchise generating revenue for Daiei films, historically most well-known for producing Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Hence, it is by far the easiest to look at the seminal Gamera film through the Godzilla lens and see it more as a piece of homage, complete with heavy reliance on ‘suitmation’ special effects, wonderful miniature models, matte paintings, rear projection and strategically deployed stock footage to enhance the film’s perceived production value attempting to hide some truly amateurish acting and downright ridiculous elements of plotting.
Nevertheless, some key distinguishing features introduced in Gamera, The Giant Monster do amplify the film’s subtextual interpretation. Although the titular monster is implied to have awoken thanks to a nuclear explosion – which in its own right serves as a piece of commentary about the dangers of toying with potentially civilization-ending weaponry – its powers invite a much broader commentary that happens to be lasting and important even today. Gamera is a fire-eating monstrosity drawn to sources of energy, be it nuclear or conventional. This makes its existence a knee-jerk response to humanity’s growing reliance on fossil fuel and the fact that our civilizational development is directly tied to natural resources we burn as a matter of course. It is as though Gamera was an early herald of what we are currently living through – a stark climate change. Moreover, this commentary on Gamera’s destructive force goes further when we factor in the manner in which humanity deals with it. While Godzilla was defeated using an Oxygen Destroyer, Gamera is outwitted and sent into space. Therefore, if we are to assume that it somehow reflects on not only the global arms race but predominantly on the human tendency to set the natural world ablaze in order to bankroll its own evolution, then the fact it is dealt with in such a manner can be read as a proper slap on the face. It’s right there on display: our destructive tendencies create a problem for the natural world, the natural world fights back by sending a fire-breathing interventionist force and what do we do as a species? We don’t reflect on our shortcomings. We don’t stop and rethink our consumerist tendencies. We don’t even contemplate the idea of world peace. Instead, we fight the intervention and send it off to Mars.
However, there is a silver lining to all this as Gamera has another distinguishable trait, which is most likely lifted not from Godzilla but from King Kong: Gamera has a soft spot for children. It saves the life of a little boy in a scene that almost directly homages the 1933 King Kong and thus reveals itself as a fundamentally benevolent force of nature. Its interests are not to extinguish the human race but to coax it to change direction. Unfortunately, older generations are incapable of changing their ways; you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Therefore, it seems the film’s subtextual pro-environmentalist, pacifist and anti-consumerist message is aimed squarely at the youngsters who will one day grow up and take over the reins.
Well… It’s rather sad to realize that this once-young-and-hopeful generation grew up and ruined the world even more, but at least from the vantage point of 1965, things were looking positive. A beat-by-beat knock-off of Godzilla managed to deal quite a blow to the milieu of its time even if the audiences were simply incapable of comprehending where the world was headed. But we do now. Therefore, maybe we need someone to greenlight a Gamera remake and will it to exist alongside the currently smouldering MonsterVerse, as it seems its message not only still holds true, but is even more relevant now than it was nearly sixty years ago.