Saturday, March 1, 2014

Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)

Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, but really it's sometimes just the quickest way to make a buck. If you need proof of that, look no further than Daiei Studios of Japan in the early 1960s.

Daiei was already about ten years late when they decided they were eager to cash in on the success that Toho was enjoying in the daikaiju (or "giant monster") genre, but they didn't actually go about trying to capitalize on it the way you would expect. Rather, they decided to cash in on it by copying the formula of Them! or The Beginning of The End by going for a swarm of giant animals rather than one extra big monster.

They decided to follow the approach of the latter film and, in true Bert I. Gordon fashion, they settled on Dai Gunja Nezura, or "The Giant Rat Swarm" and decided to let live rats loose on miniature sets. Unfortunately, they didn't bother to make sure their rats came from a reputable source and the rats brought an actual swarm of regular-sized fleas. The infestation put the axe to Daiei's big plans and they were left with a bunch of miniature sets they had no use for.

Luckily for Daiei, some demented soul came up with the idea of a giant, tusked, fire-breathing turtle that can fly like a flying saucer as a replacement for giant rats--and the rest is history.

Now, given Toho's track record of being exceptionally quick to sue anyone who tried to move in on their territory, it makes sense that Gamera The Giant Monster would be as different from Godzilla as Daiei could make him. So I've therefore always found it curious that for his follow-up, they chose to name his opponent as close to one of Toho's monsters as they possibly could.

In 1965's Frankenstein Conquers The World (or Frankenstein vs. Baragon), Toho debuted the most adorable killer dinosaur you ever saw--Baragon, who looks like a lizard, a French bulldog, and an armadillo got fused in a teleporter accident and came out the other end with a horn and big, floppy ears. In the film's biggest miscalculation, Baragon is the villain.

I'm not sure how immediate Baragon's popularity was, but in Japan he's certainly one of Toho's most popular creations. Just look at the fact that several Pokemon are as shameless a copy of Baragon as you can get, and the fact that he was still popular enough to remain in the roster of Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! when Toho nixed poor Anguirus and Varan for not being a big enough draw.

Well, his popularity in Japan certainly seems to have been immediate--or at least Frankenstein vs. Baragon was popular--as I can think of no other reason why Daiei would so blatantly copy his name for Gamera's first opponent. "Barugon" is the equivalent of creating a superhero duo callled "Badman and Rolin." And, lest you think it's just a matter of mistranslation, the Japanese words for Baragon and Barugon are four characters in length and correspond to "Ba-Ra-Go-N" and "Ba-Ru-Go-N." And they are pronounced almost identically.
Barugon (left) and Baragon (right). Yes, these are from my collection.
Beyond their names and the fact that both creatures are primarily quadrupeds with curved nose horns, there's really no other similarities between them. So basically Daiei pulled the kind of shameless move that would make The Asylum infamous.

Gamera vs, Barugon is a sequel, of course, and like most monster movie sequels it follows a film where the titular monster was defeated. So it is therefore necessary to A) explain how our monster is back and B) catch up those who haven't seen the prior film.So we start off with a quick montage of the first film.

Now, Gamera The Giant Monster was shot in black and white to save money, but this film (presumably with a higher budget) is shot in glorious color. To make up for this, they slightly tint the original film's footage a lightly bluish hue. Long story short: a plane carrying an atomic bomb crashed into the Arctic and the resulting explosion freed Gamera, whereupon he attacked Japan before being defeated by "Z Plan"--luring the monster into the nose of a giant rocket and shooting his ass to Mars.

Now, hopefully the scientists were under the assumption that Mars is a dead planet devoid of any civilization. Because if there were a civilization on the planet they aimed the rocket at, I can only imagine that dumping a pissed off overgrown fire-breathing snapping turtle on them would be viewed as an act of war.

It's a moot point, because Gamera never reaches Mars. The rocket collides with a meteorite and Gamera wastes no time flying right back to Earth to attack the Kurobe Dam in Japan so he can feed off the energy created by the dam. After destroying the power plant at the base of the dam and "eating" the flames he created, Gamera proves himself to be a gigantic asshole by deliberately flying into the dam until it cracks apart and sends a torrent of water flooding into the valley below. (And knock the effects all you want, Superman: The Movie featured a dam break about as convincing) Gamera then flies off to go lounge around an erupting volcano at the equator.

And I'll just take a moment to say this is my favorite original Gamera suit, and possibly my second favorite overall. It just looks so fierce and malevolent.

Gamera, friend of all terrified children!
With that out of the way, our story proper begins in Osaka. Keisuke (Kojiro Hongo, who looks a lot like Toho actor Kenji Sahara) retires from his job as a pilot so that he can take part in a scheme his brother has been plotting for years. During World War II, Keisuke's brother was stationed in New Guinea and he found an enormous opal in the jungle. Unfortunately, with the tide of war turning against the Japanese he had no way of smuggling the opal away and hid it in a cave before he was taken to a POW camp. He's certain it's still there, however, as not even the natives go into that section of jungle.

Unfortunately, since Keisuke's brother was wounded in the war he isn't well enough to go back to New Guinea to get the opal. So he has assembled Kawajiri (Yuzo Hayakawa) and Onodera (Koji Fujiyama--whose ethnically ambiguous features means he played everything from samurai to token foreigners in his career), with Keisuke going in his stead. The three are to head off for New Guinea by boat, using forged papers to pass as sailors. Once they arrive, Keisuke will fly a chartered helicopter to the village near where his brother found the opal. Their cover is that they are going to retrieve the bones of friend who died in the war.

In a bit that I'm sure will have no bearing on the plot, Keisuke's brother warns them to watch out for the jungle's deadly scorpions as one sting from the dastardly arachnids is lethal.

The first leg of the trip goes as planned, but once they land in the village things start to unravel. The first sign of trouble is that natives are a bunch of Japanese extras--only some of whom wear blackface. (Makes you wonder why they didn't just choose a Polynesian setting if they were going to do such a half-assed job of covering for the fact they had no black extras available) The actual sign of trouble is that the natives do not allow anyone into "The Valley of Rainbows," where the opal lies.

They find this out through the two Japanese-speaking denizens of the village, Karen (Kyoko Enami, who has not a drop of dark makeup on her but is clearly meant to be a native) and Dr. Mastsushita (Ichiro Sugai), a Japanese doctor who came to the village to cure a horrible disease that ended up claiming his wife--since he had no reason to return to Japan, he simply stayed in the village. Karen and the doctor attempt to explain that no one who goes into the Valley of Rainbows comes out alive because an evil spirit dwells there. Keisuke, Kawajiri, and Onodera decide this legend is a cover for the treasure the natives have hidden in the valley and Onodera begins showing his ruthless side as he frightens the natives off with gunfire before the three plunge forward into the jungle.

Naturally they're about to find out that, despite its seemingly harmless name, the Valley of Rainbows really does mean death. Hell, if this place had a Lollipop Lagoon, I'd advise staying away from it.

The three brave quicksand and find the cave and, sure enough, the fist-sized opal. Unfortunately for Kawajiri, a scorpion finds its way onto his leg. Onodera sees the scorpion in time to warn Kawajiri, but he just deliberately watches as the oblivious man celebrates finding the opal--and then the scorpion strikes. Now the share of the profits for the opal have increased for everyone, but Onodera isn't satisfied with that. He uses the grenades they brought with to collapse the cave, sealing in Keisuke as Onodera makes off with the opal.

Keisuke awakens in the native village and when he tells Karen and Dr. Matsushita that they found a large opal, Karen decides it is imperative that she go back to Japan with Keisuke and retrieve the opal before it's too late. You see, it's not really an opal. Karen won't say what it is, but we're about to find out what it is. See, Onodera picked up a case of athlete's foot in the jungle and the ship's doctor prescribes treating it by shining an infrared lamp on it a few minutes each day. Except, when the ship is just outside of Kobe, Onodera forgets to turn the lamp off when he goes to play Mahjong and leaves it shining on the opal.

The "opal" hatches and disgorges a little lizard that quickly grows big enough to tear a hole in the side of the ship and escape into the bay. Keisuke's brother and an interested Chinese buyer arrive in time to see the ship explode. Onodera makes it to shore and is forced to explain to Keisuke's brother that Keisuke and Kawajiri fell off a cliff and he just lost the opal when the ship sank. Neither has time to dwell on this before something large beneath the surface of the bay makes it to the dock--remember this bit as it will be important later--and then Barugon bursts up through a dockside warehouse and begins his rampage through Kobe.

Now, Barugon is my absolute favorite Gamera foe and his rampage through Kobe and Osaka demonstrate why. Given that Barugon looks rather like a Jackson's Chameleon it's not surprising that he he has a long tongue that shoots out to destroy buildings. However, I bet you wouldn't have guessed that his tongue sprays freezing mist from the tip.
So Osaka quickly becomes a frozen wasteland. Tanks and jets are no match for the freezing vapor. So the military attempts a long-distance sneak attack with missiles as Barugon naps at the foot of Osaka Castle. Unfortunately, he hears the missiles taking aim and uses his other weapon--he launches a rainbow from the spines on his back that destroys everything it touches.
Somewhere, over the rainbow / Our flesh has been vaporized
And that is why Barugon is the best.

Of course, Barugon's rainbow is a source of energy. Gamera loves energy. So he quickly arrives in Osaka and confronts Barugon. The two grapple briefly, but when Gamera uses his flame breath on Barugon, the newcomer retaliates by freezing Gamera. Barugon doesn't freeze Gamera completely, though, and Gamera buries his claws in Barugon's snout--just missing his eye and leaving his opponent gushing purple blood. So Barugon flips the semi-frozen turtle onto his back and then finishes the job of freezing him. Now nothing stands in the bastard's way.

So the situation in Japan is pretty dire when Karen and Keisuke finally arrive. Worse, in the meantime Onodera accidentally let slip that he killed Kawajiri and Keisuke while in the company of Keisuke's brother and the brother's wife. So he was forced to kill them, too, or possibly just incapacitate them and let Barugon do the job. It's not quite clear which, but the important part is they're dead and it's Onodera's doing.

So Keisuke takes time out to beat the crap out of Onodera and tie him up before going to the authorities about Barugon. It seems Barugon has one weakness--if submerged in water he will not only drown, but hemorrhage purple blood. And, in fact, rain will render the creature temporarily inert.* Now, obviously Barugon won't willingly drown himself--but to solve that, Karen has brought a 5000 karat diamond from her village. In centuries past, when a Barugon hatched the villagers would throw a diamond such as the one Karen brought into a lake--Barugon, being helplessly drawn to the diamond, will then drown himself.

[* Notice that this means the movie should have ended the moment Barugon dove into Kobe Bay, as he should have immediately drowned and bled to death. The movie hopes you will ignore this, as no explanation is ever given for his brief immunity to water. Unless, of course, only fresh water will harm him]

However, when the diamond is dangled in front of Barugon via helicopter, he just ignores it. However, the doctor aboard Onodera's ship comes forward, having made the connection between the infrared light and Barugon hatching. Indeed, Karen confirms that a Barugon normally takes years to attain the size of this creature.So, the military puts the diamond into an infrared projector on an amphibious jeep and Barugon follows it into the shallows of Lake Biwa. It seems to be working--until Onodera shows up in a boat, having gotten free and heard of the diamond. He steals it at gunpoint and flees. However, Barugon's tongue catches him and into Barugon's gullet go Onodera and the diamond.

Now the military must come up with another way to defeat Barugon. Of course, given that Osaka has begun to thaw, the revived Gamera may take care of their problem for them...

Reading this far, you may be wondering why I chose to start reviewing Gamera films by choosing the second one instead of the first. For starters, it's my favorite of the original Gamera films. And part of that may be because it was the first Gamera film I ever saw.

As a kid, I didn't have access to the internet until I was maybe 11. So the only way I heard of new monster films was through the film books at my school and local libraries, and by finding them at a video store. One day, my parents decided to take me to a new video store--and there, in the sci-fi section I discovered Gorgo, several Godzilla movies I hadn't yet seen, and the Sandy Frank VHS of Gamera vs. Barugon.

I loved it at once, but as the video store didn't have any of the other Gamera films I wouldn't see them until I bought them myself years later. And none of them ever measured up to this.

For one thing, if anybody knows of Gamera at all then they know of him as the "friend of all children." Every Gamera film in the original series--even the first film--has Gamera befriending and protecting a child. This film does not have a single child character in it. In fact, the film feels nothing like a "regular" Gamera film. It's much darker and, quite frankly, it borrows a lot of its structure from Mothra vs. Godzilla if you really look at it. Though I find it amazing that, despite the film being the least kid-friendly of the original series, it is the least bloody and gory of the series, second only to Gamera The Giant Monster as that features no blood.

The original Gamera films are, deservedly, notorious for their awful effects. This film is easily the best effects that the original series had to offer. The miniatures are elaborate and, while not nearly as effective as Eiji Tsubaraya's work on the Godzilla series, they are pretty damn decent. And Gamera and Barugon look great, and are easily the most detailed suits of the original films. Also, the fact that this film is in color is something the production design takes great advantage of--just look at the fact that Barugon shoots a rainbow.

Popular opinion is that the following film, Gamera vs. Gyaos, is a step up from this one. I strongly disagree. Not only is this the better film, Barugon is the better monster. So naturally, I have no choice but to cross my arms and "harrumph" at the fact that Barugon never got a second role, but Gyaos never stops showing up in the newer Gamera series.

If you don't love giant monsters, this film probably won't change your mind. However, if you do love giant monsters and you don't like this one? Well, then I'm afraid I just don't get you.

This review belongs to the Big Footprints roundtable. Why? Because giant monsters are awesome, why else?!

Checkpoint Telstar -- The Monolith Monsters

Cinemasochist Apocalypse -- Godzilla 1985

Micro-Brewed Reviews -- The Sound of Horror

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