As discussed in part 2 of our kaiju retrospective, the success of the original Godzilla kicked off a Toho Kaiju Cinematic Universe. The Godzilla that featured in the original 1954 film, a towering threat to civilization representative of collective trauma to nuclear warfare, and the ambiguous defender of Japan in the 1970s, were somehow the same creature, yet barely recognizable, as Japanese political prosperity and change left the creature needing a new purpose. Yet kaiju wasn’t limited to Godzilla in the Showa era; as Godzilla raised a child, Daiei created a creature dedicated to protecting the children of Japan: Gamera.
Protector of Children, Eventually
Gamera’s initial creation and Showa-era demise can’t be separated from the turbulent life of Daiei Film, the studio which created it.
Daiei was formed during World War II to help the government consolidate power within the film industry, eventually becoming a major studio independent of government control following the end of the war. The studio made a name for itself producing several critically acclaimed features including Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Ugetsu, and more.
While other studios were dipping their toes into the kaiju genre after Toho’s success, either through their own productions or through the localization of American monster movies, Daiei never invested in the sector due to the cost of production on these films and the risk. When they did make a kaiju film in Gamera, a young director in Noriaki Yuasa was considered for a reason: while it may have been a risk to create a (relatively) big-budget film with an inexperienced director, the work involved for lower pay made it a turnoff for more experienced creators.
Even as a company that was considered one of the major Japanese studios of the time initially founded by the Japanese government, they were the smallest of the major studios compared to Toho, Toei, Shochiku, and Nikkatsu. As noted by Yuasa in Stuart Galbraith’s ‘Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo’, when initially pitched within Daiei as Fire-breathing Turtle Attacks Tokyo by Nisan Takahashi, the risk was considered severe and the first movie was given a relatively small budget for kaiju films at the time.
The creature of Gamera was initially designed as a giant prehistoric turtle who could fly through the sky and breathe fire. Daiei lacked the budget to do anything close to replicating the stunning effects seen by Eiji Tsuburaya and Toho for Godzilla, so having the creature breathe fire and fly was a way to use pyrotechnics to mask this. As sparks fly from its body as it spins through the air like a UFO, or it breathes a flamethrowers-worth of fire out of its mouth at kaiju and cities alike, it gave the creature a powerful air entirely through the use of practical effects.
Many of the effects for Gamera are created mechanically with minimal suit-based effects as opposed to Godzilla (even if miniatures and the like were used in both productions), offering arguably the starkest departure between the two kaiju franchises. While clearly limited, it does allow Gamera to be somewhat more expressive through facial expressions, if not through body language. To avoid large movements that would be more technically challenging, there were far more close-ups of Gamera’s head throughout the Showa series, and the creature’s eyes and mouth would move in turn. Mechanical, sure, but at the same time distinctly not human, which, mixed with the creature’s vague origins, deepens the mystique.
The first film, Gamera, The Giant Monster, was shot with a relatively small 40 million yen budget compared to the 132 million yen Invasion of Astro Monster for Toho in 1965, the same year as Gamera’s release. The first film, to save money, was even shot in black and white at a time the industry was heavily shifting towards color film production, especially in light of combatting the threat of the increased proliferation of TVs in the home.
Despite a lower budget, the film was a big success, and this can at least be partially be put down to being a pretty enjoyable origin story for a kaiju that was setting itself up as something distinctly different to his rival. While Godzilla was becoming less combative and more of a public defender, albeit one with a direct connection to the people of the planet he defends by battling various other kaiju and alien forces, Gamera’s initial outings were somewhat darker in tone.
Gamera had a similar nuclear background to Godzilla’s. It was awakened following a nearby nuclear test that sent him on a rampage across the world. Based on such a description and even the black-and-white cinematography, you’d be forgiven to assume that this was Daiei’s attempt to recreate the original Godzilla film, and you wouldn’t be wrong. While lacking the thematic weight or gravitas that made that film a success, it’s a decision that made for an entertaining kaiju film, and one that performed above expectations for Daiei’s small budget.
One crucial moment that later helped define the character was his connection to children. Gamera is somewhat protective of a child he comes across who mistook him for his lost pet turtle in this film, despite what would have had to be a very large growth spurt in just 12 hours were that true. They weren’t close, but it gave Gamera a notable character trait, and a layer of empathy unique to Daiei’s creation.
The Films Weren’t Very Good, But They Were Successful
From Gamera’s success, Daiei spun the creature off into a yearly franchise, something that no company outside of Toho had attempted. Even with attempts to create successful kaiju films elsewhere, none tried to spawn these one-off productions into anything larger, and yet Daiei was more than willing to up the budget in future installments.
Gamera vs Barugon showcases this. An immediate shift to color joined a greater use of effects, including an impressive dam-bursting scene in the opening scene. If the first film could be compared to Godzilla (1954), Gamera vs Barugon holds similarities to Mothra (with similarities also being found in both production’s unfortunate use of blackface) by centering its story on a creature rampaging on the attack after items were stolen from a remote island. The theft of a ‘jewel’ turns out to be an egg that spawns Barugon, a creature Gamera inevitably fights.
It’s another more mature production against the growing family-friendly nature of kaiju rivals, as no kids feature in the film and we witness greed send one man into a murderous fit of violence to keep the rewards for himself. If only the final message of the film matched the tone, as the movie has little more to say than ‘stealing is wrong’.
That is the biggest flaw of the Showa-era franchise, as the rest of the Showa franchise movies can be described as popular, yet poor in quality. It’s in these films the character’s key trait is established, as the decision to protect the child in the first film is milked into transforming the character into a hero protecting the children of Japan. Each film from this point features Gamera fighting another kaiju, struggling at first as he does whatever he can to protect children from harm before winning in the end. All matched to a joyous theme song reiterating the point.
This approach came from research into the audiences consuming the film, who noted that kids often skipped over the adult sections to play on the floor or get popcorn, yet loved Gamera as a fighter. Appealing to this demographic could make the film more entertaining for this audience, so the company leaned in. It turned the creature into a beloved kaiju thanks to explicitly setting them out as a hero and something distinctly different from what Godzilla represented, capturing the imaginations of an entire generation of children.
It’s not a trend that can be seen replicated in the same way outside of Japan. The tendency to syndicate Gamera films for US television endeared them to a generation of Western youngsters in the same way, while the Mystery Space Theater 3000 series featuring five films from the franchise rose the profile of the character.
How Daiei’s Financial Situation Killed a Franchise
Although failing to reach the levels of success of Godzilla, the franchise likely would have received more films than it did were it not for Daiei’s financial situation, which instead forced the series to take a hiatus following Gamera vs Zigra (1971). The struggling financial situation is apparent here more than in the company’s other films, as the shoddy effects of the early films were consistently downgraded as time went on.
Budgets were slashed following the second Gamera film as the company’s finances looked bleak during a turbulent 1960s for the Japanese film industry, when attendance plummeted because of the growing ubiquity of TVs in the home. This, coupled with the rise of independent studios offering radically different programming and the volatility of the decade, transformed the industry and hurt the fortunes of Daiei in particular. Later films relied heavily on long, unedited clips taken from previous films only tentatively tied into the story through flashbacks or mind-reading to pad save costs. Even as one of the company’s top earners, it couldn’t save them.
Not long after Gamera vs Zigra’s release, Daiei went bankrupt.
The company returned in 1974 and eventually produced one more Showa-era film in Gamera: Super Monster, but this film takes up a whopping 1/3 of the runtime with older clips and has been widely panned. It even killed off the creature, ensuring its hibernation.
Gamera eventually returned in the spirit of modern kaiju with a Heisei reboot trilogy, generally regarded as not only being far better than the Showa series that preceded it, but as a pinnacle of kaiju storytelling. I want to refrain from discussing these films until I can properly consider them within the context of the modern kaiju production in the final part of this retrospective series, but it’s worth noting that the end of the Showa era wasn’t the end of Gamera as a property.
Regardless of the quality of the films themselves, Gamera earned its place as the number 2 kaiju monster by being an undeniable force for good that kids could latch on to. The creature became so beloved that the continued love from the generation that grew up with him helped bring about the Heisei revival. The production on the final film in the trilogy was chronicled into a documentary film by none other than Hideaki Anno himself.
With Gamera standing alongside Godzilla in the Japanese box office (and the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair), the kaiju genre has arguably never been as popular as it was during this tumultuous era of Japanese cinema. As the Showa boom died down, kaiju films became limited to Godzilla’s Heisei revival and the occasional big-budget film like Gamera’s revival and Shin Godzilla.
While Godzilla and Gamera have never crossed over on film, in 1970 Toho and Daei had the two kaiju officially meet in a stage show during the Children Festival in the Osaka World's Fair. Only few adverts, pictures, and footage of the stage show are currently known to exist. pic.twitter.com/HKAYQCAMKd
— Gargantucast – ガルガントゥカスト (@gargantucast) November 27, 2020
At the same time as kaiju filmmaking was reaching the peak of its popularity, from the late 1950s onwards several superhero special effects-heavy tokusatsu productions splintered away from traditional kaiju films to create a notably distinct form of filmmaking. This culminated in multi-million-dollar franchises like Super Sentai and, of course, Ultraman, the series which was arguably the most influential in signifying this shift. Even if it wasn’t the first of these new types of productions. To understand kaiju fully, we need to look at tokusatsu, and the birth of Eiji Tsuburaya and Tsuburaya Productions’ Ultraman.
This is Part 3 of a five-part discussion on the history of Kaiju.