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Why Gamera vs. Viras is the Perfect Showa Gamera Film

By Christopher Stewardson


It’s been said before that 1968’s Gamera vs. Viras marks a decline in quality for the original Gamera series. For years, critics have bemoaned its conspicuous stock footage from prior entries and the narrow scope of its production, indicative of the film’s reduced budget. However, these strike me as shallow arguments which overlook the film’s individual merits and its place in the series’ development. This is a film with charming leads, a menacing villain, and a consolidation of what a Gamera film looks and feels like – influencing the series going forward. When these contexts are considered, I think it’s arguable that Gamera vs. Viras is the perfect Showa-era Gamera film. 


Gamera vs. Viras follows Masao (Toru Takatsuka) and Jim (Carl Craig), two boy scouts from a joint US-Japan troop who find themselves caught in an alien invasion. The squid-like Virans have arrived with plans to conquer the Earth, and the invaders initially control Gamera and have him attack Japan. However, the monster is eventually freed thanks to Masao’s genius for mechanics, setting the stage for Gamera and the now-giant Viras to battle to the death. 


Jim and Masao make the film what it is. They’re mischievous, charming, and kind-hearted. We see this early in the picture. Once the Virans discover Gamera’s dedication to children, the invaders capture the boys to force him into submission. While aboard the Viran spaceship, the pair finds a squid-like creature held in a cage. We eventually learn that this is actually the Viran leader, but the boys simply assume he’s another prisoner like they are. In turn, they immediately start searching for a way to free their fellow captive. 


More significant – and affecting – is a show of heart yet to come. Under Viran control, Gamera ravages Japan, with the invaders threatening further destruction unless mankind surrenders. The United Nations hatches a plan to attack the Viran spaceship, but Jim and Masao are still on board. Through Masao’s wristwatch communicator, the boys hear of the terrible dilemma. With a brief look and a nod to one another, the boys insist that their lives must be sacrificed. “We don’t care about ourselves!” they cry, pleading for the attack to go ahead while their parents listen in distress. These two funny, likeable kids are willing to sacrifice themselves to save everyone, and without a hint of doubt in their decision. Their noble selflessness always gets me. 


Masao and Jim also consolidate the series’ increasing focus toward children. The seeds of Gamera’s image as the “friend of all children” were sown in his debut film (1965’s Gamera, the Giant Monster), though it would take time for them to fully bloom. His first sequel, 1966’s Gamera vs. Barugon sported a higher budget and colour photography (thanks to its predecessor’s success) and is demonstrably grimmer in tone. Children were absent that time around, but they reappeared in 1967’s Gamera vs. Gyaos via Naoyuki Abe as Eiichi, the grandson of a village elder whose community is caught between the forces of capital (a motorway construction company) and the forces of nature (Gyaos). 


Gamera vs. Viras would consolidate this focus on children with its two child leads, a dynamic that would continue for all but one of the remaining Showa films. This development was partly economic in nature. In 1966, the Film Export Promotion Association was established within Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry. In effect, it subsidised the production of export-appropriate films through government loans, aiming to help the flagging Japanese film industry. Gamera vs. Gyaos had been the first Gamera film to receive such funding, and Gamera vs. Viras followed suit. In producing “export appropriate” films, American actors were often included, as evidenced by Jim. This trend would continue for both Gamera vs. Guiron (1969) and Gamera vs. Jiger (1970). Moreover, director Noriaki Yuasa also recalled a meeting with representatives of American International Pictures (whose TV arm would release several Gamera films to US television), during which it was suggested that including American children may help overseas marketability. 


Production expediency aside, featuring two children in lead roles allows Gamera vs. Viras to fully embody the spirit that director Noriaki Yuasa had hoped for. In a 2002 interview, Yuasa explained that “there were messages I wanted to convey, such as listening to children’s voices”. Certainly, Jim and Masao completely save the day, with their cunning and spirit actively encouraged by the adults around them. Even more touching, however, is Yuasa’s explanation for why he had this approach. The director recalled filming at an institution for abandoned children, witnessing so many kids in great sorrow. It made him determined to be on their side. “You don’t have parents, but you have Gamera”, he said. Gamera would be there for them. And that’s really at the core of Gamera vs. Viras, affirmed any time Gamera steps into harm’s way to help Masao and Jim. 


While this author finds it difficult to understand criticisms of Jim, Masao, or the spirit of the film, I can follow the dissatisfaction from some critics with the film’s use of stock footage. When Gamera attacks Japan, we’re watching special effects sequences taken (in almost their entirety) from both Gamera vs. Barugon and Gamera, the Giant Monster. While the footage is well-integrated into the proceedings, the black-and-white shots from Gamera, the Giant Monster are obviously noticeable. However, it's fun and fascinating to consider the mechanics of how the film was assembled, considering the production contexts that necessitated such measures. 


That said, the film’s new special effects material is praiseworthy, adding another point in the picture’s favour. Gorgeous low-angle shots abound with brilliant foreground miniatures to accentuate scale. These compositions complement the creative flare on show during the climactic fight between Gamera and Viras. At one point, the fallen Viras anchors itself on some rocks, latches onto Gamera’s legs, and then pulls itself up while sending Gamera tumbling back. Later in the battle, Viras presses its head into a sharpened point and launches itself, only for Gamera to throw a boulder and thwart the attack. This is an entertaining monster brawl with a palpable sense of humour. 


When Gamera vs. Viras was released in Japan in 1968, it played on a double bill with the first of Daiei’s Yokai trilogy, 100 Monsters. That film is a marvellous tale of power, hubris, and supernatural retribution. Paired together, this combination makes for a terrific day at the pictures, chock full of special effects spectacle, monsters, ghosts, and wild imagery. Thankfully, we can recreate this double bill at home, meaning its magic can live on. 


One last point in the film’s favour, and perhaps one of the most significant reasons why I believe Gamera vs. Viras is the perfect Showa Gamera film, is that it introduces the famous Gamera march to the series. It remains a memorable and delightful tune, instantly selling Gamera as the friend and ally of all children – another facet of tonal consolidation achieved via Gamera vs. Viras


The Showa-era Gamera films are accessible to anyone who is open to the wonder and joy of having a giant turtle as a friend, or anyone who shares the ethos of Noriaki Yuasa. And Gamera vs. Viras may be the most brilliant of them all. 

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