In the spring 2003, this writer reviewed the Alpha DVD release of a battered and grainy 16mm print of GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE (1966) on DVD Drive-In with the pessimistic thought that the subpar quality presentation was about as good as it would get as far as having the classic Gamera series (1965-1980) out on DVD. Well…thanks to the good folks at Shout! Factory and Gamera’s copyright owners at Kadokawa Pictures, it is indeed a privilege to bring to the readers of DVD Drive-In a review of a DVD which kaiju eiga (Japanese monster film) fans have been waiting a long time to read. This of course is DAIKAIJU GAMERA (GAMERA, THE GIANT MONSTER) which is presented here in an official American DVD release in its original Japanese language version with an all new High Definition and anamorphic transfer from the original vault elements.
Over the Arctic Ocean, a Soviet aircraft carrying an atomic bomb flies off course and is subsequently shot down by a United States Air Force fighter jet. The bomb explodes and the heat from the explosion releases the giant prehistoric turtle Gamera who had been hibernating under the ice since the beginning of time. Of course, Gamera invades Japan and demonstrates his various powers such as the ability to fly as well as spit fire.
It is left up to the great scientific minds of Dr. Eiji Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi) and Dr. Murase (Jun Hamamura) to devise a plan in order to rid the world of the monster. Since no man-made weapon can kill Gamera, it is decided to capture the creature alive in the head of a rocket and blast him off to Mars. The project (dubbed “the Z Plan”) is a success, but since this is the first of seven sequels, the audience can be sure the “colossal chelonian” will be back!!!
As a result of the worldwide success of Toho Company Ltd.’s stable of monsters (Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Varan, et al), it was only natural that other Japanese studios would eventually jump on the bandwagon and produce their own monster films. However, Daiei Motion Pictures was the only true rival to Toho Company Ltd. and their Gamera franchise proved as bankable and popular as the Godzilla films even in the United States. This is in large part due to the “Americanization” of GAMERA, THE GIANT MONSTER in which new, Hollywood-shot scenes featuring Brian Donlevy, Albert Dekker and John Baragrey amongst others were inserted into the existing Japanese film and released by World Entertainment Corporation in December 1966 as GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE in a profitable exploitation double bill with Mario Bava’s KNIVES OF THE AVENGER with Cameron Mitchell. In addition, five of the seven Gamera sequels were later picked up by American International Pictures’ television subsidiary (AIP-TV) and as a result of saturation airings on local television in the 1970s through the early 1980s, the giant turtle became a beloved hero to many American children (and adults as well). In fact, many people of this reviewer’s age group (41 years-old) will no doubt remember the AIP-TV Gamera films airing quite frequently on New York’s The 4:30 Movie on WABC-TV and WPIX’s CHILLER THEATER and SCIENCE FICTION THEATER.
Shout! Factory must be commended for such an excellent DVD presentation, giving this film the dignity and respect it deserves. The 2.35:1 black and white image is impeccably clean and transferred from an all new High Definition master created by vault elements. As already mentioned, it is anamorphic for 16x9 televisions. The subtitles (with a script by August Ragone) are sharp and very clear to read. In addition, the opening credits also have subtitles so all cast and crew are identified thoroughly. The audio is in Japanese language only while the other audio track is an excellent and very informative commentary by August Ragone author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters. Mr. Ragone sheds new light on all of the film's key players like the late Noriaki Yuasa (the creator/director) as well as thorough biographies on all the leading actors and the genesis of what would eventually become Gamera. It seems that Daiei was originally planning on making a science fiction film about a race of giant rats invading Tokyo. This menace was jettisoned, but the giant monster angle attacking Tokyo was retained in the form of Gamera. Mr. Ragone’s playful comments about his distaste for the child character of Toshio Sakurai (played by Yoshiro Uchida) are also amusing as many viewers and fans of the series most likely feel the same way as children would become more and more the focal point of the later Gamera films (although with varying degrees of annoyance).
Other special features include a collectable 11 page booklet, an anatomy diagram of Gamera, as well as a short documentary about the Gamera franchise (in Japanese with English subtitles), a photo gallery and a publicity gallery.
Now for the only real letdown of this DVD release. As excellent as the video/audio quality in this DVD is, it does NOT contain the 1966 American re-cut of the film (GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE). As it turned out (and as has been well reported on various fan websites), the only known 35mm scope print of GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE is housed at the UCLA film library and they wanted an insane amount of money from the producers of this DVD to use their copy. It was the intention of all persons working on this DVD to include GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE as part of the package (even up until the eleventh hour), but they were stymied at every turn from the folks at UCLA. In fact, it was reported that they even considered using a 16mm flat print as an extra, but that would essentially ruin what is a widescreen film. This is in no way the fault of the dedicated fans at Shout! Factory who have obviously poured their heart and love into giving the genre fans the original GAMERA the way Noriaki Yuasa intended it to be seen.
With the scheduled release of GAMERA, THE GIANT MONSTER on May 18th and the 1966 sequel GAMERA VS. BARUGON (original U.S. title: WAR OF THE MONSTERS) already scheduled to be released on July 6, 2010, the remaining films in the series GAMERA VS. GAOS (1967); GAMERA VS. VIRAS (1968); GAMERA VS. GUIRON (1969); GAMERA VS. JIGER (1970); GAMERA VS. ZIGRA (1971); and GAMERA: SUPER MONSTER (1980) will all have their forthcoming street dates announced. All will be reviewed right here at DVD Drive-In. (Joe Cascio)
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