This review is of the original Japanese version of the film.
Movie fans with vague but happy memories of of watching giant monsters attacking Japan on TV may wonder why Gamera (the giant turtle) never battled Godzilla. It's because Gamera came from Japan's Daiei Studios, while Godzilla and friends were from Toho. In fact, Gamera is undoubtedly the most famous non-Toho monster to ever hail from Japan. From 1965 though 1971, Daiei released seven Gamera films, and these are the films many fans remember not only from late night or Saturday morning monster movies shows but from Comedy Central's Mystery Science Theater 3000, which roasted several of the Gamera films during its run in the '80's and '90s.
While the series would turn silly (yet still lovably weird and violent!), the original Gamera film was clearly an attempt to match Ishiro Hondo's 1954 classic GOJIRA. The story - what there is of it - is the same. A giant monster is awakened by an atomic blast, heads for Tokyo, destroys stuff and the authorities are helpless to stop it. GIANT MONSTER GAMERA (hereby shortened to GAMERA for convenience) lacks both the nuclear subtext and the special effects to truly rival GOJIRA as a film, but on its own, it's lots of fun. For starters, Gamera makes his debut appearance about ten minutes into the film and from then on is never more than just a few minutes away from causing more mayhem. The cast of characters often seems unconcerned with their own safety. At the beginning of a film, after a Soviet jet is shot down over the Arctic, causing its nuclear payload to explode, the arctic scientists look at the looming mushroom crowd in the distance and then go about their business as usual. At other moments, when Gamera is looming over a hill or rising from the ocean, characters seem to have no qualms about standing twenty feet away from him!
Although the idea of a gigantic turtle who walks on two legs seems silly - hell, it IS silly - Gamera is still very cool. He's basically Godzilla with a shell and two tusks jutting from his lower jaw. He does all the same things as Godzilla - walks through power lines without a problem, knocks down structures that are in his way - but he's got some advantages over Toho's greatest monster. He can exhale fire like Godzilla, but he also can inhale fire, which gives him power. When in trouble, he can retreat into his shell and then spin off into the air like a UFO, with fire spewing from all the shell holes. (Gamera is all about the fire). He also seems to have a brain, and a soft spot for little kids, at least for Toshio, the film's turtle-loving urchin who is a lot less annoying than many of the other little urchins who showed up in Gamera and Godzilla movies over the years. Two advantages - he's quiet, and he's not wearing micro-shorts!
Some of the other special effects are not so special, and that goes for some of the acting too. At Toho, they tried to make the model buildings that monsters destroyed look real by filming them in slow motion. When Gamera knocks over buildings, many of them just completely fall apart like the empty balsa wood models that they probably were. And the less said about the horribly wooden performances of the Americans playing military men near the film's beginning, the better!
By the time GAMERA came out, the Godzilla films had already crossed into Wackyville with such entries as GHIDORAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER and MONSTER ZERO. Compared to those films, GAMERA was a serious film. If you don't compare it to those films, and take it on its own, GAMERA is a film about a giant turtle stomping around all over Japan while scientists come up with one useless plan after another to stop him.
To me - that's entertainment! - JB