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Articles & Reviews by Mike Bogue

Gammera! Gammera!

by Michael Bogue

(Originally appeared in G-FAN #63: July/Aug. 2003 Issue)

Gamera Still.

It’s fun!  It’s cool!  It’s more yucks than a day out of school!

These are some of the sentiments kaiju eiga fans might give to explain their appreciation of the genre.  No true G aficionado would disparage any of those reactions; however, for some of us as we grew up, giant Japanese monsters meant more than mere entertainment.  When some of us were kids, kaiju eiga acted as nothing less than life preservers in the turbulent and uncertain sea of childhood segueing into adolescence, and I don’t believe I am overstating the case.  During just such a time, Gammera the Invincible came to my rescue.

A little “case study” background:  At the age of twelve, not only was I a physical and social klutz, but I was also the new kid in school during my sixth grade year of 1967-1968.  My family had moved to a new and (supposedly) more prestigious neighborhood of , Texas.  That meant I began attending Western Plateau Elementary School in the fall of ’67, and I entered this anxiety-provoking brave new world of popular people and pecking orders bereft of the psychological defenses of adulthood. 

Now if you’ve ever been an outsider, I probably don’t need to explain what it’s like to endure peer ridicule.  To be sure, most of my “new” classmates responded to me with utter indifference – I might as well have been a doorstop.  But when it came time for P.E., the indifference morphed into irritation at best, and hostility at worst.  “Bogue, you idiot!” typified the peer response whenever my peerless athletic ineptitude was revealed for all to see.

P.E. came just before lunch, and scorn usually greeted me during and after stomach-scalding games of basketball, softball, volleyball – you name it.  Afterwards, I would wander off by myself to eat lunch at home (it was only two streets away), though sometimes my sandwich seemed more than a little blurry, and my psyche more than a little bruised.

But what could I do?  I had to attend school.  I had no choice.  Which meant I had to re-enter the ruthless world of adolescent social castes five days a week, and find some way to cope with the P.E. peer putdowns.  I had no tranquilizers to resort to – at least, not of the medicinal variety.

But I did have monster movies.  And of that wonderful genre of cinematic creaturedom, my favorite category was the Japanese monster movie.  I had other devices to help me cope with early adolescent shunning – radio, records, monster magazines, comic books – but my favorite outlet was always the monster movie, and Godzilla was by far my favorite mon-star.

Gamera Still.

Unfortunately for me, by my sixth grade school year, the local TV stations had stopped running monster and sci-fi movies on a regular basis.  From 1962 through 1966, I could always count on Channels 4 and 10 to run one or more genre movies on Friday and Saturday nights and/or Saturday afternoons.  But by 1967, the former oasis of monster and horror films had suffered an irreversible drought.  Now genre movies popped up on the order of maybe one every two months or so – and that’s if you were lucky!

I present all this early adolescence angst to explain the exultation I felt any time I spied the title of a potential Japanese monster movie in the TV listings.  Even before my sixth grade school year of ’67-‘68, the local channels had treated Toho fans to only a couple of Rising Sun creature features – Rodan and Gigantis, the Fire Monster, both of which had played on the weekend Late Show on Channel 7.

Unfortunately, during ’68, Channel 7 developed a nasty habit of listing a genre movie they were going to show, only to replace the announced title with a non-genre film at the last minute.  The most egregious case of Channel 7 movie-substitution concerned the listing of “Godzilla vs. The Thing,” which the affiliate had scheduled to show at the ridiculous time of on a Sunday night – a school night of course!  Still, Mom and Dad let me stay up to watch it, and I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when instead of witnessing “Godzilla vs. The Thing’s” opening hurricane, the title of some dumb European non-genre movie filled the screen.  I slunk to bed angry and let down.  Later, Channel 7 duplicated this feat by announcing that Majin, the Monster of Terror would show on a Saturday night – only it didn’t, natch.

Well, in this vast wasteland of “mundane” programming and sometimes undependable TV listings, I spied the title of something called Gammera the Invincible in a 1968 winter week television schedule.  The TV Guide entry noted it was a 1966 Japanese monster movie – hey, a Japanese monster movie! – about a giant prehistoric turtle.  A giant prehistoric turtle?  Hurrah!  As an already devoted follower of Japanese fantasy cinema (I’d seen a slew of kaiju eiga in walk-in movie theaters), I could hardly wait; I of course wondered what Gammera was going to look like.

But, Mom warned me, the movie might not air, the way “Godzilla vs. The Thing” hadn’t.  However, Gammera was scheduled to debut on the usually dependable Channel 10, so I crossed my talons and sweated it out until Sunday night.

Yes, Gammera’s Sunday night debut was on a school night.  But again, Mom and Dad had granted me a special dispensation to let me stay up and view Gammera the Invincible in all its hoped-for glory.  When the time drew near, Mom and Dad had already gone to sleep.  I hoped that the title Gammera the Invincible and not some mundane romance or drama would fill the screen of the 13” Sears black-and-white portable.  And sure enough, when the appointed time came, I heard a peculiar rock song with the lyrics “Gammera!  Gammera!” and I saw miniature jets zooming over a miniature North Pole.  What else could it be but a Japanese sci-fi movie?  Banzai!

Gamera Still.

I sat spellbound before the TV for the next hour and forty-five minutes.  I loved Gammera’s Arctic debut, as well as the opening credits and the thunderous monster movie music.  Of course, Gammera, being a man in a monster suit, rarely walked on all fours the way your average prehistoric turtle would have.  But so what?  Your average prehistoric turtle didn’t breath (or eat) fire either!

I grooved on Gammera’s assault on a hapless light house, though the mega-turtle inexplicably saves a young boy (the lad in question has a strange fixation on turtles).  This seemed a bit peculiar, but hey, this was a Japanese monster movie, and I was parked in front of the TV screen to watch Gammera trash cool miniatures, not to question arcane plot points!

To my twelve-year-old delight, the upright prehistoric turtle next made short work of a geothermal power plant.  Military might proved useless against the creature, a life-form based on silicon instead of carbon; the monster absorbed energy and literally ingested fire.  But suppose the rampaging kaiju were to be frozen, as he was in the Arctic before a nuclear missile thawed him out?

Miniature jets subsequently bombarded Gammera with freeze bombs said to last only ten minutes.  During this time, the hill on which Gammera rested was filled with explosives.  When it went KA-BLOOEY! the prehistoric turtle tumbled to the earth and fell on his back.  Unable to right himself, Gammera twitched his legs in vain.

The heroes congratulated themselves – too soon, of course.

For Gammera subsequently drew into his shell, shot flame from his legs, and began spinning.  Soon he became a whirling flying saucer that lifted from the earth and zoomed into the night; the protagonists once again admitted defeat.  (I really loved that animated flying saucer effect!  It looked as neat as anything I’d seen in “legitimate” sci-fi movies.)

As was inevitable, Gammera naturally found himself drawn to Tokyo. There his saucer form obliterated an airport control tower, then he landed and smashed through a model cityscape, much to the chagrin of the fleeing populace.  The miniatures seemed A-okay, and one especially impressive scene had Gammera looming over a building whose roof had been torn away; on the top floor, tiny humans panicked as the monster turtle towered over them.  Hey, this was as good an effect as I’d seen in any monster movie!

Of course, like any good Japanese monster, Gammera seemed unstoppable.  What could be done?  Could the super turtle be defeated?

To the relief of all, Plan Z is announced and rushed into effect on a nearby island!  (The underground base for Plan Z was neat-o mosquito, somewhat reminding me of some of Forbidden Planet’s visuals.)  But as man-made flames lured Gammera to the atoll from which Plan Z was to be launched, a sudden squall washed out the flames.  However, an equally fortuitous volcanic explosion on the island lured Gammera into place.  The massive turtle stepped into the trap, and soon two halves of a colossal nose-cone sealed the fire-eating monster atop a gigantic rocket aimed at Mars!  Next, the rocket lifted off for the stratosphere as Gammera’s “friend,” the turtle-obsessed kid, bid the prehistoric turtle a fond farewell.

Gamera Still.

Gradually, I returned to 1968 reality as the quasi-rock “Gammera!” theme song that had opened the movie played once again, and all was well with the world.  I went to bed satisfied with the movie I had just seen.  It might not have starred Godzilla, but it had still been a fun-filled Japanese monster movie brimming with all the familiar trappings.

I thought about Gammera the Invincible for days afterward; the pleasant memories of the model-smashing mega-turtle helped me to cope with the usual peer jeers during P.E. the following week.  My monster fix had been sated, and it was good for at least a month or two (probably the time it would take before any other monster movie graced the local television airwaves).  To my twelve-year-old sensibilities, Gammera the Invincible was just all right.

And speaking of all rights, this nostalgic anecdote closes with two upbeat post-scripts:

(1) Gammera the Invincible was to again appear on TV just two years later, this time on a summer night – no school the next day!

Then, many years later, calamity struck: only the insipid Sandy Frank version of Gamera was available.  Yech!  Mr. Frank’s Gamera featured awful dubbing and horrendous segments with so-called Western “actors.”

BUT, in the late nineties, Neptune Video released a beautiful letterbox video of the original Gammera the Invincible, complete with that version’s competent dubbing and decent American-made segments featuring Brian Donlevy, Albert Dekker, and several others.  It also included the original American and Japanese theatrical trailers!  Wow, what a great surprise, and what great memories filled my heart and soul when I saw the “real” classic Gamera for the first time in almost thirty years!

(2) Also, though sixth grade P.E. class remained pretty much the same in 1968, something strange happened – despite my athletic incompetence at sports, when we ran races in the spring, it was discovered that I could sprint faster than most of the guys in the class!  In fact, the P.E. teacher chose me as one of only six guys from the class to compete against the other sixth grade classes!  When race day came, I didn’t win – but I did come in third.  So, a happy coda to my otherwise unhappy sixth grade year.

Moral of the story?  Don’t hesitate to use Japanese monster movies as a healthy escape from the pressures of life.  In the process, you’ll probably have fun – and you might just find you’re able to face the “cold, cruel world” in a more positive frame of mind.

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