The world of cult cinema would be poorer without the kaiju eiga (‘monster movie’), the Japanese fantasy films which followed in the wake of Gojira (1954), released in the USA the following year as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. For the next twenty years, the makers of Gojira, Toho Studios, made a string of sequels and off-shoots to the Godzilla series, such as Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961), along with other horror and science fiction films. Wanting a piece of the action, rival Japanese studio Daiei set up their own series of monster films, and so gave the world Gamera, a 200 foot tall, 80 ton fire-breathing turtle. Gamera took to the cinema screens in 1965, arriving in the USA the following year as Gammera the Invincible, the American distributors spelling Gamera’s name wrong in the title (this is also the film Don Draper and Lane Price watch at the cinema in the 2010 Mad Men episode ‘The Good News’).
After this first film, Daiei positioned Gamera as more child-friendly than the Godzilla movies, which were themselves veering towards a more juvenile market. Gamera became known as the ‘Friend of All Children,’ and the lead characters in Gamera films are usually under the age of twelve. Gamera understands children, rescuing them if they are in peril and call for his help.
New Gamera films appeared annually for the rest of the decade, but by 1970, Gamera, Godzilla, and the rest were waning in popularity in the US. Films that once headlined major theaters were now reduced to matinée showings, down at heel drive-ins, or sold straight to television to make up ‘Creature Feature’ double bills on weekend afternoons; such was the fate of Gamera vs Jiger (1970), (re-named Gamera vs. Monster X for TV) the sixth and penultimate Gamera film of the series’ initial run.
As the saying goes, there’s no show without Punch, and even fans of the Gamera series find the ‘Gamera theme,’ which features in each film and opens this one, teeth-grindingly insufferable. Sung by children seemingly forced to run up and down Mount Fuji wearing army backpacks, the ‘Gamera theme’ exhorts the heroic qualities of our titanic turtle:
“Gamera! Gamera! You are strong, Gamera! You are strong, Gamera! You are strong, Gamera! M! M! J! V! M! M! J! V! [Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus] Monsters coming from Mars, or some other alien world? Come on space monsters, bring it on! Let’s cut and poke! OK, go, go, go! Using spinning jets, he will win. You are strong, Gamera! You are strong, Gamera! You are strong, Gamera!”
Maybe it loses something in translation, although if you’re wondering how ‘spinning jets’ fits in Credit: Wikimedia Commons/663highlandto the story of a giant turtle, we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, our film begins at a port-side boat-making company Osaka, which is hosting Expo ’70, the latest World’s Fair trade exhibition. Hiroshi (Tsutumo Takakuwa, slightly older than most juvenile leads for a kaiju eiga) is waiting for the boyfriend of elder sister Miwako (Junko Yashiro), who works at Expo, to take him to the site. Hiroshi’s Father (Kon Ohmura), the film’s obligatory comic relief and so scrawny he looks rolled for a cigarette, is constructing a children’s mini-sub for the Expo, which may as well have the Japanese for ‘Chekov’s Gun’ written on the side.
Miwako’s boyfriend, Kizuki (Ryô Hayami), shows up with news of a mysterious statue found on Wester Island in the remote Pacific (an area used in kaigu eiga much like Shakespeare used Illyria or Sumaria). As Kizuki and Hiroshi tour the site’s attractions, such as the Hitachi Pavilion, the Fuji Pavilion, the Fairy Tale Pavilion and the unappealing-sounding Gas Pavilion, Kizuki explains the plan to uproot the Wester Island statue for display at the Expo. Yes, it’s cursed, why do you ask? “We will learn from it,” says Kizuki, who clearly has learned nothing of the causes behind Japan's frequent trashing by colossal radioactive varmints.
Kizuki explains to Hiroshi about the site’s time capsule (a reality, though don’t get excited, as it isn’t due for opening until the year 6970) and laments that ancient civilizations didn’t leave time capsules around for us to open in the present, which I guess would make archaeology a lot simpler. Summoned to the Expo’s reception office, Kizuki meets an angry ambassador from Wester Island is protesting at the cultural vandalism inflicted on his homeland, though his translator is making an even poorer job than whoever dubbed this film into English.
Everyone settles down to watch a show-reel presentation on the scheme to remove the Wester Island statue, also known as the Devil’s Whistle. It’s never a good idea to mess around the Devil’s Anything; the ambassador agrees and blows his top, shouting “Jiger!” as he leaves. I can’t help feeling the matter could have used a little more diplomacy, if not basic human intelligence.
On Wester Island itself, the removal of the Cursed Devil’s Statue of Certain Doom is supervised by that nice American or maybe English Williams family, with Pop in command although son Tommy and little sister Susie act as aides-de-camp. As the statue is air-lifted from the ground using helicopters, Gamera appears in the sky. Yes, to the uninitiated of you out there, Gamera can fly, by retracting his limbs and firing jets from the holes, like some baroque Catherine’s wheel. Dr Williams commands the understandably nervous pilots to keep pulling on the statue, even as Gamera makes a nuisance of himself and obstructs their work.
Tommy and Susie plead with Dad that Gamera is trying to help in some way. “You can’t trust a creature like that!” says Dad, who has a small army to back him up, firing at Gamera. The bullets do their trick, a first in a monster film, and the giant turtle lands close by as the helicopters leave with the statue in tow. Dad fears a turtle attack, but Gamera flies away, startled by an ominous volcanic eruption on the island. A strange, piercing noise is heard. “Everything’s going perfectly,” says Dr Williams, who is barking mad.
Using some sort of unseen teleportation device, Tommy and Susie arrive at the Osaka port to visit Hiroshi and look at the mini-sub. The pair tell Hiroshi Gamera tried to kill them and accuse their Japanese friend of lying about Gamera’s fondness for children. “He isn’t my friend anymore,” pouts Susie. “I hate Gamera.” Hiroshi asks if anything strange happened during their encounter with the flying battleship-sized turtle with fire blasting out of its leg holes, on a mysterious volcanic island. Believe me, this kid has lived.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Alina ZienowiczA storm breaks on Wester Island, as a monster emerges from the ground where the statue once stood. This is Jiger, part Stegosaur, part iguana, part neighbor’s annoying dog, an unusual daikaiju (‘giant monster’) in that Jiger is both female and a quadruped, a refreshing change in an industry dominated by bipedal Alpha males. As Jiger takes a nice drink from a river, Gamera returns, and we’re on for the first bout of the film.
And there’s part of the reason films like Gamera vs. Jiger went into decline. The monster fights were always the most anticipated part of the film, but you can’t just show two guys dressed up in costumes hitting each other for ninety minutes, and the hero monster can’t win too easily. So, the enemy wins the first battle and the re-match, with antagonist triumphing in the final clash. It’s the same formula pretty much every time, and it’s difficult to fit much in the way of story around the monster fights, although Gamera vs. Jiger does a better job than many later entry kaiju eiga.
Studios enlivened their monster match-ups by giving the ‘guest’ monster interesting methods of attack. Jiger, during the first battle, uses suction control to blast rocks at Gamera, who responds by grabbing his opponent and flying up into the air to drop her from a great height. Jiger retaliates by firing quills at Gamera, impaling his limbs and leaving him flat on his back, unable to fly as the quills prevent his limbs from retracting. Round one to Jiger, who takes to the sea, in pursuit of the statue, which has arrived at Osaka by ship.
But all is not well onboard. A strange mental illness has broken out among the crew, causing them to take to their sick beds and writhe with anguish. A doctor declares “it’s the curse!” and swigs from a bottle of surgical spirits. Well, he looks like a doctor, unless the sickness has caused to just to think he’s a doctor. The only ship more unfortunate is the liner out at sea which Jiger slices in half as she swims to Osaka as the crow flies, if that’s not mangling a metaphor.
Offloading the statue causes the sickness to strike again, just as the piercing sound returns. The port workers don’t have long to worry about the illness, as Jiger arrives, smashes the ship into pieces, leaps regally into town and starts his own urban renewal scheme on downtown Osaka...