I must confess that as big of a Gamera fan as I am, I never quite saw what all the ado was about his first movie, which I still regard to this day as lackluster and quite dull. However, I am glad that I stand in the minority on that film, for its popularity gave way to much superior successors and I'm not talking strictly about the 1990s trilogy directed by Shusuke Kaneko. No, the first sequel, shot in color and titled "Gamera vs. Barugon" is a beefed-up, complex, and enormously entertaining sequel that outclasses its predecessor in both content and budget. This is what I call great entertainment.
As you may remember, in the last movie Gamera was shot to Mars in a rocket (a climax I was all too happy to laugh off). The sequel spends a little time recapping that, and then reveals to us that the rocket was stopped by a meteor and Gamera returned to earth. Around the same time, an expedition to recover a giant opal in New Guinea results, in ways I shall not reveal for those who haven't seen the movie, in the birth of a giant crocodile-like monster called Barugon, who begins to lay waste to Japan. As the military frets the wraths of both creatures, they do eventually intersect and become locked in a battle to the death.
"Gamera vs. Barugon" was given a bigger budget than its predecessor and it's apparent in every frame. The special effects are much superior. The miniature buildings are very detailed, as are the monster costumes. In fact, even though the Barugon suit was controlled by several wires, you really have to squint at the screen and lean close in order to spot even one, let alone all twenty-some of them. Gamera looks great and what I really liked, and what I wish new Gamera directors would do, is having him crawl on all fours as well as stand on his hind legs. He's more like a real turtle and there's just something aesthetically pleasing about that. But the most beautiful effect is unfortunately the one that gets laughed at the most for its ostensive absurdity: the rainbow that Barugon shoots from his back. Its an eye-candy, gorgeous piece of effects work but because of the inherent zaniness many people tend to laugh it off and that's a shame. The special effects, save for some rather poor model works used in the last few shots of the movie's climax, are thoroughly impressive.
But it doesn't end with the special effects. The acting is quite good, with superb performances especially from Kojiro Hongo as the troubled protagonist, the lovely Kyoko Enami as an omen-speaking native warning of Barugon's rage, and Koji Fujiyama as a greedy, sneering sociopath. The supporting cast also shows class. In addition, the movie was directed by Shigeo Tanaka, whose talents are a whole step above original director Noriaka Yuasa's. But Mr. Yuasa, now director of the special effects, does a fantastic job coordinating the monster battles with terrific inventiveness, wonderful camera angles, and a real sense of how to portray them in an animal-like behavior without them being boring. The musical score by Chuji Kinoshita is an absolute success, much better than that almost entirely forgettable score from the first movie. And there is the much-celebrated fact that there are no little kids in the foreground screaming "Gamera! Gamera!" In fact, the movie is quite gritty with quite a few bursts of violence and human deaths. The monster battles are also quite bloody at many points. This is a movie directed more for adults than children, also with its subtle messages about greed and avarice. These Japanese monster movies seem to do a wonderful job communicating their messages through subtlety while the big expensive ones done elsewhere almost annoy us with their preachiness.
If there is anything wrong with "Gamera vs. Barugon" it is the much-noted fact that Gamera is hardly on screen. This will be a disappointment for some, but I liked that tactic. Giving Barugon a lot of screen time so that he can be interesting (and sympathetic in his own way) and yet giving plenty of moments for Gamera in his scenes so that he builds a lot of presence as well. Maybe he could have been on-camera a little more often, but I think the balance between how much screen time the two monsters get is well-managed.
This is one of my favorite monster movies. I've watched it about four or five times now and I like it more and more each time I see it. The more I come to appreciate the original Gamera series, the more I come to enjoy this one as well. I'm still sad to say that I couldn't care less about the first picture, but there are many wonderful ones that spawned from it. This is one of them.
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