Let’s cut and poke / OK, go-go-go / Using spinning jets, he will win! / You are strong, Gamera!

— The Gamera song

Gamera is really neat / Gamera is filled with meat / We’ve been eating Gamera!

Mystery Science Theatre 3000

I took a break from kaiju for a little while after completing my opus Are You There Godzilla, It’s Me Evan? Had to. Was tired. Not of Godzilla — never of Godzilla — but of watching the genre in general. There are other movies to watch.

Hanging over my head, though, was a discount DVD set of all the Gamera films (save one) I’d purchased while working at Half Price Books years ago. It called to me. Gamera, if you’re unaware, is a flying, fire-breathing turtle, the creation of Japanese studio Daiei Film in the mid-1960s to compete with Godzilla, whose franchise (and genre) was taking off at the time.

Like Godzilla, the Gamera series spans three eras in Japanese culture over 50 years of time. For the sake of classification, Gamera franchise entries are referred to in regard to their corresponding eras as a way of differentiating the aesthetic and tonal shifts in storytelling.

I’ll be using these terms frequently, so here they are for clarity:

  • The Showa Era of Gamera films was released between 1965 and 1971, with a lone clip-show entry in 1980.
  • The Heisei Trilogy of Gamera films was released between 1995 and 1999.
  • Gamera the Brave, a standalone reboot, rounds out the Heisei Era.

Daiei, as a studio, is also known for Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the long-running Zatoichi blind swordsman series. Gamera is a budget character whose low-quality Showa Era series gained a following in the United States for their schlocky poor dubbing and, later, become fodder for hit episodes of the comedy commentary series Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

The Heisei Trilogy is conversely regarded among kaiju aficionados as among the best-such modern films ever made. So much so that the director, Shusuke Kaneko, went on to make one of the best Godzilla movies in that character’s more recent era, Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: All Monsters All-Out Attack (GMK). After watching the Heisei Trilogy it’s hard to argue: Although Godzilla has always had the budget, cultural clout and creative willpower to dominate the kaiju space, the ’90s entries in his franchise are largely mediocre, ugly and nostalgia-driven. The Heisei Trilogy is action-packed and brilliantly directed with ahead-of-its-time special effects.

Unlike Godzilla, whose series spans over 30 entries, Gamera’s adventures are chronicled across only 12. His villains are less memorable and far cheesier, and as a character he is more obviously heroic than his bipedal lizard counterpart. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by some of these movies. Their content is more childish yet somehow more overtly violent, scarier and odder than those of his superior competitor.

As with my final entry in Are You There Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan, I’m going to do a quick rundown of every Gamera film in order, with some thoughts on each. Then, I will rank my top five — with the Heisei Trilogy listed as a single entity because otherwise it would occupy most of the list).

Showa Era (1965 – 1971)

The Showa Era spanned Gamera, the Giant Monster (1965) to Gamera vs. Zigra (1971). Gamera: Super Monster was released in 1980 and, although it belongs in this era, is basically a clip show of the previous films with a tacked-on gonzo framing story. Unlike the Godzilla franchise’s three Showa Era directors, each with their own tonal and visual aesthetics, these Gamera entries were by-and-large directed by Noriaki Yuasa. They represent almost the entirety of his film career.

Gamera the Giant Monster

The first Gamera film is also the series’ only black-and-white film. Don’t let it fool you: Nothing that Yuasa does comes close to the cinematographic masterpiece of the early Ishirō Honda Godzilla pictures — or even his pitch-hitter Motoyoshi Oda’s work in the rightfully maligned Godzilla Raids Again. The model and suit work ain’t shit, either. But to compare Gamera to the Godzilla sequence, particularly Godzilla’s Showa Era, is cruel and useless. The competition set a bar for kaiju cinema that has rarely been cleared, and even at the time Daiei wasn’t in the business of spending money to make money.

So: Giant Monster is a fine film, the only one of these I’ve watched more than twice as an adult. It opens on an Antarctic base. Gamera’s origins are nuclear, like so many of his cinematic kin. He’s a big monster who eats radioactive energy — an element later added to Godzilla during the Heisei Era, FWIW. He’s also beloved by children who own turtles and who believe Gamera is not malevolent but just lonely. Nonetheless, humanity shoots him in a rocket off to Mars at the end of the story.

Of all the films, this is amongst my least favorite. Like the rest, it lacks sophistication. But unlike its sequels, it has nothing to offer in its place.

Gamera vs. Barugon

Barugon is generally considered one of the Showa Era’s best Gamera films, but it did little for me. The titular foe is one of the least-inspired designs in, frankly, a run of very silly monsters. Each of them has issues that stem from lacking creative imaginations and even cheaper budgets, most notably in their frozen, lifeless eyes. Barugon’s a weird one — a lizard with a prehensile tongue that can freeze enemies, as well as crystal spikes on his back that shoot hyper-destructive rainbows. Yes, it’s exactly as it sounds — pretty awesome but also annoying. Most of the human story is wrapped up in criminals and adults being dorky, pushing the plot along. At least it introduces some of the trademark shocking violence to move things along.

Gamera vs. Gyaos

The Gyaos are often seen as Gamera’s arch-foes thanks to their appearance in the superlative Heisei Trilogy. But here, the Gyaos is a giant vampire pterodactyl with a suit so poorly designed that the actor’s legs are basically visible. This never happened to the other kaiju pterodactyl, Rodan, he of the distinguished competition.

Gyaos is at least notable for the presence of a child character who develops a close relationship with Gamera, a theme that would come to define this era and some later films. It also shows the Gyaos graphically eating bystanders. Seriously, these are much more violent films than you’d think.

Gamera vs. Viras

Viras is a squid-monster who psychically controls a spaceship full of motionless actors who look like men pulled off the street in front of the studio and told to stand still on camera in exchange for a free lunch. However, when the lights are off, their eyes glow with creepy cat-eye prosthetics that are very clearly worn like goggles, which are visible in some scenes.

Anyway, Viras is easily the start of Gamera’s Showa Era Golden Age, as its shockingly creepy villains antagonize two boy scouts whose misadventures in a submarine land them smack dab in the middle of a clash between an alien invasion and Gamera, who is defending the Earth and all its children. The Gamera song debuts here, as do Gamera’s token silly takedowns; he rides Viras through the ocean like a jet-ski. It took three films, but Viras is where it all starts to truly gel, and establish Gamera’s brand as Baby’s Fire Kaiju.

Gamera vs. Guiron

Without a doubt my favorite of the Showa Era Gamera films, Guiron also happens to be the only movie in the series that I watched as a child. I remember renting the VHS from our local Blockbuster at its 1990s location; it moved down the street when I was 10 or so to the location at which it festered and died. So I must have rented Guiron before I was 10 years old — the perfect age for it. The title monster is a knife-nosed dog with projectile ninja stars. He’s bloodthirsty and cruel. An early fight between Guiron and a Space Gyaos ends with him dismembering and attempting to eat it, purple blood splattering everywhere.

Perfect for a kid. But wait, there’s more!

Guiron introduces Gamera fans to a common kaiju trope — the pretty female villains who tempt our heroes into certain doom while secretly controlling the monster. This time, the witch-like alien duo from Earth B want to eat the two lead children’s brains (and are quite graphic about it). Overt cannibalism, kaiju dismemberment and Gamera doing gymnastics on an alien world to defeat the villain — truly the high point of a cinematic era.

Gamera vs. Jiger

Jiger rhymes with “tiger,” but he’s actually a triceratops-like creature linked to an ancient totem. Japan steals the totem to display at its 1970 World Fair — a cool miniature set for the monsters to smash. So the name is confusing. Like Guiron and Viras, Jiger follows two kids on an adventure that happens to coincide with a new kaiju terrorizing the world and Gamera showing up to get his ass kicked. Naturally, the kids figure out how to save Gamera. In this case, they go inside him and defeat a bunch of small Jigers that infected his innards after the first bout. Gamera then saves the day with his fire-breath. It’s a pretty fun, if standard, entry for the time. Lots of good action and bizarre plot contrivances keep it interesting.

Gamera vs. Zigra

I watched Zigra twice — once for real, and once with the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 commentary. Both recommended! Zigra is the apotheosis of Gamera’s corny era. He fights a giant fish alien from space and, to finish him off, uses him as a xylophone to play the Gamera song. You heard that right! It’s a wacky romp with an utterly incoherent plot that tries hard to find an environmental message beneath the fight scenes and dorky kids. Gamera disappeared for nine years after Zigra, but even then only for a clip show; he didn’t really surface again for another 25 years, at which point Gamera lost his “hero of the children” persona and became much fiercer and, actually, much better. But Zigra is by far the silliest kaiju film I’ve ever seen, and also a pretty great one.

Gamera: Super Monster

A cash-in clip show barely worth watching.

Heisei Era (1995 – 2006)

The Kaneko Trilogy

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

Gamera 2: Attack of Legion

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris

Gamera in the Heisei Era was in part a response to the revived Godzilla series from Toho, a seven-film sequence that climaxed in 1995 with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. Although it had started strong in 1985 with subsequent high points like vs. King Ghidorah and vs. Destoroyah, the ’90s Godzilla movies were a picture of financially and creatively diminishing returns. Kaiju had briefly returned and then fallen back into cliché and nostalgia for the old ’70s creatures and ideas. But director Shusuke Kaneko saw life in the genre, and when Daiei decided to revive its own monster, Kaneko lobbied hard for the job. The result is a triumph of kaiju cinema.

In many ways, this trilogy set the stage for the Monsterverse American-produced series released during the 2010s. Gamera is a monster whose heroism is tied to a mystical connection to Earth and ancient civilizations that worshipped him. His primary foes are the Gyaos (much more terrifying than their original versions), with whom he has battled for a millennium. Human civilization is nothing but eventual collateral damage when the two face off. Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla was popular for its destructive third act in San Francisco, where Godzilla trashes the city from viewpoint of tiny humans running for their lives. Kaneko did that! He did it all first!

The special effects are astounding for the mid-1990s, mixing practical effects and early CGI. Sure, the moments where things go purely computer-generated are wonky and of the time, but those are few and far between. Each of the three films is a gorgeous spectacle of fire and blood. Gamera himself is given a makeover to look more terrifying.

Although the first two are good, Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris is truly the masterpiece. A young woman whose family was murdered during the events of the previous films seeks revenge and finds it in the form of a Lovecraftian monster that hatches from an egg and befriends her. Much of the running time is spent with characters whose lives and outlooks were shaped by witnessing Gamera’s past battles in Tokyo. Through death, they bond. Each of them views Gamera — and his role and legitimacy — differently, another character trait lifted by the later American Godzilla films.

Despite a plot filled with convoluted mysticism, these are on the heavier end of kaiju stories, particularly the bombastic ending that — dare I say it — is on par with the conclusion of Godzilla v. Destoroyah in making a statement about the title character and why we love him. Why he endures. Revenge of Iris is the cream of the crop — just goofy and action-packed enough to be entertaining, but self-aware and thoughtful enough to stick with you. It is the only Gamera entry to rest easy in my all-time top-five kaiju films.

Gamera the Brave

2006 saw the release of Gamera the Brave, another full reboot of the character directed by Ryuta Tasaki, that draws a sharp contrast with Kaneko’s trilogy and returns him to his “hero of children” roots.

Kaneko had moved on from Gamera in 2001 to direct GMK, a pretty good Godzilla film that grafts elements of mysticism onto the most famous kaiju of them all to mixed results. Meanwhile, Daiei was purchased by Kadokawa, another studio, who wanted to use the most valuable IP in its arsenal.

Brave is the polar opposite of Kaneko’s epic and all the better for it. It once again imagines Gamera from a child’s perspective, this time that of a young boy named Toru whose parents died in a past fight with the Gyaos. Toru finds a little turtle named Toto who can breathe fire and fly. Toru believes Toto is the son of Gamera and, along with his friends, fights to protect the little kaiju until Toto eventually grows large enough (into Gamera) to protect Toru from the monstrous Zedus.

It’s a deeply heartwarming story that ends with Toru giving Gamera strength with a mystical artifact while telling his best buddy / former pet how much he loves him. Although still filled with surprising violence for a children’s film, Brave is sweet-hearted and fun from the get-go. Bonus points for an utterly adorable Gamera redesign that makes him extremely cuddly.

Ranking Gamera

Unlike the Godzilla series, I do not feel particularly strongly about most of these movies and outright hated a few of them. That being said, here are the five I enjoyed most.

1. Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris

2. Gamera the Brave

3. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

4. Gamera vs. Guiron

5. Gamera vs. Zigra

In the second part of this article, I will discuss the hypothetical Godzilla v. Gamera.