Welcome to Angry Turtle!, a series featuring Deadshirt.net’s own Patrick Stinson and guest writer Andrew Tucker. We are going to be looking at the Gamera series, the films made by a rival studio to compete directly with the famous Godzilla series. The name comes from this charming video.
Andrew: This week, we review Gamera vs. Zigra, the penultimate entry into the Showa-era of Gamera films, and after the more traditional and grounded Gamera vs. Jiger, this movie shoves itself in the opposite direction. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Gamera may or may not express his musical side in this flick.
Patrick: In some ways this is the last classic Gamera film, because Super Monster Gamera is a full nine years away. That’s longer than the gap between Gamera the Giant Monster and this film. It’s hard not to see why, as Gamera vs. Zigra is famously underwhelming. It’s a slightly superior remake of Viras, essentially. The formula must have been wearing thin.
Andrew: I will give it that, it certainly is fun to watch and keeps a pretty fast pace, although ironically it doesn’t quite know where to go once it formally introduces its titular monster Zigra, the first primarily aquatic-dwelling kaiju that I can think of—unless you count the original Godzilla.
Patrick: I think of Zigra more as another in the long line of alien kaiju. We start with its ship blasting away at a human moon base, perhaps inspired by 1968’s Godzilla film Destroy All Monsters. The significance of this is not clear until the 3rd act, as this opening vignette is not mentioned by any characters until then. The ship then settles in the ocean, where unbeknownst to all it starts triggering earthquakes. This is around where we meet this film’s Little Thing 1 and 2, a Japanese boy Kenichi and American (?) girl Helen who stowaway with the boy’s father, a marine biologist.
Andrew: Our cast is somewhat changed this time around with the inclusion of a girl instead of a boy. And I, too, was confused by her ethnicity. This might seem like a trivial observation, however the formula of Japanese boy and face-of-the-Boy-Scouts American boy with the occasional whiny sister has been a staple since Gamera vs. Viras. So, it was surprising to see a different aesthetic used not only with a girl but one that was not necessarily obviously American. They are still menaced by the oppressive mother archetype, though.
Patrick: Yeah, even with one female lead, the gender politics of this film are not great. The alien Zigra has a female servant, who given the power to put anyone in a permanent trance. However, she is somehow completely baffled by these moppets, who spend most of the movie leading her on a humiliating chase through Sea World. She even gets a gratuitous bikini scene.
Andrew: The exploitative nature of a lot of the Zigra woman’s scenes led me to wonder if she was a famous model at the time, but I couldn’t find anything that said she was more than an actress. She commits fully to her character, though, and provides one of the more convincing performances in the series thus far.
Patrick: Dadservice aside, I was surprised by how progressive this film is. It treats Sea World as a central location, sort of like Jiger and Expo ‘70. Keep in mind, Blackfish is 42 years out and whale is still hunted and eaten in Japan to this day. We get a character who is compassionate toward his orcas and treats them like people, and flinches even to see an already-dead porpoise dissected for scientific reasons. Moreover, this movie has a robust anti-pollution message, a very radical statement for Japan at this time. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is given a lot of credit for kicking off anti-pollution movements. Zigra beat it to theaters by a week!
Andrew: A compelling radical theme, however, can’t save this movie from its kaiju plot. Zigra, a mysterious mantle-piece for half of the movie, instructs his bikini-minion to wreck the earth into surrendering, a preposterous plot given the fact that the Zigra force consists of one woman and one heretofore unseen kaiju. Yes, there is the ability to put people into a trance, but this is never used to build an invasion army because Zigra needs humans as a food source. The Gamera films have never really utilized the alien takeover plot as well as the Godzilla films, which usually feature a whole race of aliens using kaiju as weapons of mass destruction. In the Gamera series, we’ve had a handful of Boris Karloffs who morph into their kaiju, and two women attempting to use Guiron but clearly being willing to leave him behind. Maybe aliens are more like desperate refugees in the Gamera series?
Patrick: The plot in these films has been at the mercy of formula and resources, and the seams show here more than most. Zigra’s opening move was to cause earthquakes. Two problems follow. One, the “magnitude 12 and 13” earthquakes described would make Earth resemble postwar Alderaan—those are billions of times more powerful than the greatest earthquake ever recorded. Much worse, it’s an egregious violation of show-don’t-tell. All of them take place off-screen. After this, Zigra’s plan becomes “chase down those meddling kids and get my spaceship owned by Gamera.” After that it’s a typical “Gamera gets trashed and comes back” story, with no further exploration of Zigra’s “super science.”
Andrew: Zigra’s reveal is interesting in some ways. As I said before, Zigra looms over the master-death-computer on his ship and instructs his mistress from there. When he is finally revealed, his aquatic form is quite deadly. Resembling the horribly gruesome-looking goblin shark, Zigra whizzes around the ocean floor and has some interesting bouts with Gamera. Then the writers/director/whomever realize that they can’t stage the whole conflict there, and they take the battle to land. And, well…oof.
Patrick: They are clearly very limited on choreography here. However, they work around the limitations to produce some interesting stuff. Zigra’s paralyzing ray is a natural extension of his ship’s technology and facilitates a nice fake-out later on. He shines in the “underwater” scenes, where a prop is used instead of a suit. I’d have to rate Zigra as one of the most influential one-shot kaiju ever, given that a very direct line can be drawn between him and the Pacific Rim kaiju Knifehead and Raiju.
Andrew: I get the impression Guillermo del Toro was more inspired by Gamera and Super Sentai than he ever was by Godzilla, judging by monster designs like Guiron and Zigra.
Patrick: And so the film and series lurch to a conclusion. The Gamera series and the Godzilla series had the same problem—television. Ultraman and its ilk were throwing more monsters at the screen than any film series could, for much less. Godzilla was robust enough to hang on for a few more years. Gamera was obviously a less robust property. This film must have underperformed because a much more interesting entry, Gamera vs. Garasharp, was summarily canceled. This would have featured a parent monster, with Gamera acting as a guardian for its offspring—being as he is, the friend to ALL children. This cookie-cutter entry was probably meant to drum up some funds but wound up shooting down the whole franchise. In fact, Daiei Studios declared bankruptcy by the end of 1971.
Andrew: That’s a shame, because Gamera really gets the shaft in this movie. Previous films focused on his vulnerability and prowess along with his “guardian of children” badge; whoever, in Zigra Gamera does little more than show up, get owned, save the day – and in a much less memorable way than usual. The two scenes that stand out to me involve Gamera laughably attempting to stealth his way past a sleeping Zigra to rescue the humans trapped in a bathysphere, and the widely outlandish bit where Gamera celebrates over a defeated Zigra by playing the xylophone over his back. Oh, and the tune he plays? The Gamera theme of course. Not even Godzilla jumping for joy in Invasion of the Astro Monster could top that camp.
Patrick: Next time on Angry Turtle, we will see the first attempt to revive Gamera, with his original director and creator Noriyuki Yuasa. Have some tissues handy…
Andrew: Supa Gamera!