When a nuclear incident in the Arctic awakens an ancient monster, humanity must come together to prevent it destroying them. Doctor Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), his assistant Kyoko (Harumi Kiritachi), and a reporter Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashita) are in the Arctic on a research mission, while the Cold War rages around them. A nuclear-armed plane is brought down, the shock awakening the ancient monster Gamera from its long slumber beneath the ice. The mysterious being, that looks like an enormous turtle, heads to Hokkaido, where it continues to rampage, drawing energy from attempts to kill it, and causing mass devastation. A young boy, Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida), becomes obsessed with the creature, while scientists and politicians race to find a solution to the problem.
Following the success of “Godzilla” (Ishiro Honda, 1954), studios were looking to capitalise on the demand for more monster movies. Directed by Noriaki Yuasa, with a screenplay by Niisan Takahashi, “Gamera” draws much inspiration from that film, both in style, plot and substance, but adds a few new elements. It also takes more inspiration from science-fiction, with a heavy focus on reason and attempts to understand the monster, as opposed to the horror influence on Godzilla. The background of the contemporary Cold War provides a thematic depth, with humanity’s militarism and inability to resolve its own differences brought into stark relief when they are faced with an interstellar enemy that cannot be reasoned with. “Gamera” has a very internationalist feel, beginning in the Arctic, and featuring foreign military and diplomats, like many films of the era recognizing a shift in Japan’s own understanding of its place in the world and a need to engage positively with the global community. The plot is straightforward and action packed, with enjoyable miniature special effects, explosions, and Gamera playing a prominent role. Special effects director Yonesaburo Tsukiji (who previously worked on Warning from Space) does a good job of making Gamera a believable threat. There is only a short preamble before the first appearance of the monster and perhaps a sense of one-upmanship with the earlier “Godzilla” in the amount of destruction caused and the spotlighting of the creature as the main attraction. The seeming invincibility of Gamera helps build a sense of fear as humanity’s go-to solutions fail repeatedly.
“Gamera” is a film that speaks to many concerns of the era. Most notably the dangers of nuclear destruction, the force that both awakens Gamera and also makes him increasingly powerful. There is a realisation that humanity has discovered, or developed, forces that are no longer within its control. Gamera is a physical manifestation of the scale of the threat faced by the world, something that has the capacity to obliterate all life, and cannot be destroyed (without making things many times worse). There is also a hopeful element to the film, again something common to science-fiction of the period, which sees global co-operation and using science for the good of mankind as the way forward. The film begins with the Cold War, but ends with people coming together to face a common threat. The satire of beaurocrats and politicians, who cannot agree how to deal with the situation, is also timeless and made apolitical with the giant rampaging turtle. A classic science-fiction monster movie that stands alongside “Godzilla” in being both entertaining and thought-provoking.