GAMERA: THE GIANT MONSTER
B&W, 1965, 80m.
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Starring Eiji Funakoshi, Harumi Kiritachi, Junichirô Yamashita
Shout Factory (US R1 NTSC), Daiei (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

GAMERA VS. BARUGON
Color, 1966, 106m.
Starring Kojiro Hongo, Kyoko Enami
Shout Factory (US R1 NTSC), Daiei (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

GAMERA VS. GYAOS
Color, 1967, 87m.
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Starring Kojiro Hongo, Kichijiro Ueda, Naoyuki Abe
GAMERA VS. VIRAS
Color, 1968, 90m.
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Starring Kojiro Hongo, Toru Takatsuka, Carl Craig Jr.
Shout Factory (US R1 NTSC), Daiei (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

GAMERA VS. GUIRON
Color, 1969, 82m.
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Starring Nobuhiro Kajima, Miyuki Akiyama, Chrystopher Murphy, Yuko Hamada
GAMERA VS. JIGER
Color, 1970, 83m.
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Starring Tsutomu Takakuwa, Kelly Varis, Katherine Murphy, Kon Omura
Shout Factory (US R1 NTSC), Daiei (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)


Among the numerous oversized reptiles who terrorized Japan onscreen in the '60s and '70s, Gamera is usually the one people think of right after a certain fire-breathing lizard. An enormous turtle capable of standing upright, roaring, spewing flame, flying in his spinning shell, and kicking lots of monster tail, Gamera first appeared as Daiei Motion Picture Company's competitor to Godzilla in the kaiju eiga (monster movie) sweepstakes with 1965's Daikaijű Gamera (Gamera: The Giant Monster) (shown in America as Gammera the Invincible and Giant Monster Gamera), though he didn't really achieve major English-language popularity until TV afternoon immortality turned him into a children's favorite. Gamera enjoyed an original eight-film run from 1965 to 1980, with a crackerjack late '90s revival bringing him into the CGI age with a few tweaks.

As with most imports, the Gamera films were heavily cut and shown in dubbed form in most countries, which makes Shout Factory's release of six titles from the original run a major cause for celebration. The original classic, Gamera the Giant Monster, experienced a fate similar to the first Godzilla as it was heavily altered for American audiences, with new scenes shot and added featuring Brian Donlevy and Albert Dekker (not to mention a catchy new theme song). This is the one beaten to death by countless public domain labels over the years, including a really terrible version from Alpha Video. Another, more traditional dubbed version was also prepared for home video (as part of the infamous Sandy Frank library) and turned up from Mystery Science Theater 3000 along with TV versions of other titles in the series. No matter how you see it, the plot is essentially the same; an atomic explosion awakens the prehistoric Gamera from his sleep during a skirmish between American and Russian jets, and he soon makes his way to Tokyo while attacking a hapless ship in his path. Soon the entire city is under siege from the lumbering beast, and when his flying abilities stymie the military's attempts to crush him, scientists come up with a novel way of dealing with their big turtle problem. Fast-paced and entertaining, this is easily the most serious film in the serious as well as the only one shot in black and white. Perhaps the most startling element is the leading man, Dr. Hidaka, is played by Eiji Funakoshi, best known for much more traditional dramatic fare like Fires on the Plain, An Actor's Revenge, and a slew of Yasuzo Masumura films like Blind Beast and Manji; apparently he had a good time, since he returned to the series again a few years later.

Shout Factory's special edition DVD respectfully presents the initial Gamera adventure in a remastered widescreen transfer (mastered in HD), with slight windowboxing on the sides for some reason. Picture quality is excellent and obviously blows away any other version on home video, while the option to stick with the original Japanese track with optional English subtitles is a very satisfying one. As with many Japanese-sourced transfers, the black levels are a few notches brighter than American NTSC; you may want to adjust the brightness down on your set a bit for the best picture quality. Anyone with a fondness for the padded American dub can find that one very easily for a couple of dollars, but this is the real gem to seek out. Extras include the original Japanese trailer (with optional English subs), an excellent commentary with Japanese monster historian August Ragone (who seems to know everything possible about this film), and an enjoyable subtitled retrospective featurette with some of the original crew including director Yuasa.

While the original Gamera was considerably more upbeat than the stark and grim first Gojira, the series darkened a bit for its second and most serious entry, Gamera vs. Barugon, which, like all the following films, was shuffled off to American TV, this time under the title War of the Monsters in heavily edited form. The opening finds Gamera freed from his cosmic prison after being blasted into space, but much of the plot follows the disastrous consequences when some thieves trying to steal a valuable South Pacific opal instead get their hands on the egg of Barugon, a deadly lizard monster with icy blast breath and wild rainbow beams. Sure enough, an infrared beam aboard the ship causes the egg to hatch, and a new terror is born. With Osaka under attack, the military comes up with an elaborate defense plan called the Infrared Diamond Lure and an exploitation of the monster's weakness to rain, but ultimately, only the returned Gamera may be its match.

Wild, colorful, and entertaining, this film is easily one of the best in the series and would probably have a better reputation if more people had seen it uncut and in scope. The filmmaking here is vibrant and clever, and while the running time is definitely heftier than usual, the film features enough action and weird plot twists to keep fans occupied all the way. Likewise, Shout Factory's DVD is a much-needed resuscitation for a film treated very, very shoddily over the years, especially with numerous cruddy public domain versions culled from TV prints. Not surprisingly, they only include the original Japanese track with optional English subtitles, as the considerably shorter dubbed version couldn't possibly match up to this. Image quality is excellent, not surprisingly, and worthy of Gamera's first color outing. Ragone returns for another loaded commentary track, this time joined by Jason Varney as they rattle through the entire history of the film; it's not as interesting as the first film since the monster's genesis had already been covered, but it's a good shot given the protracted running time they had to fill. Also included are two galleries spotlighting poster and movie program art, as well as liner notes by actor Hongo and unique but awfully lengthy bios for all the film's major characters (along with the great anatomical diagram of Gamera which adorns each release, plus a bonus one for Barugon).

After this film, the Gamera series took a hard left turn, a decision reflected in Shout's decision to present the next four films in the series as stripped-down double features. Realizing that the lucrative children's market seemed to love the flying turtle the most (not to mention the prospect of selling the films off to TV in other territories), the films took a more juvenile direction in Gamera vs. Gyaos. Just as the Godzilla films began aiming more for the kiddies with fare like Son of Godzilla, here Gamera became "a friend to all children" on a much lower budget with plenty of recycled footage for good measure. Shown as Return of the Giant Monsters on American TV, this one begins with a highway construction dispute at Mount Fuji involving a small nearby village and the Express Engineering Corporation. One of the residents, cute kid Eiichi (Abe), becomes the focal character as chaos erupts with the emergence of a laser-shooting, cave-dwelling bat monster named Gyaos who nearly kills Eiichi, rescued in the nick of time by a nearby Gamera. Soon the monsters are going claw to claw in a fight to finish with Eiichi cheering his turtle friend on.

Surprisingly good considering the change in game plan, Gyaos is a very trim, fun-filled ride if you don't mind the simplified tactics taken with the storyline. Gamera gets loads of screen time here, and Gyaos is a solid enough foe that he was resurrected to kick off the wonderful '90s reboot as well. Watch it in the right spirit, and you'll have a good time. Again the anamorphic transfer looks wonderful, and this time out you get the original Japanese track with optional English subtitles (the best viewing option) and both of the English dub tracks, the okay AIP TV version and the much worse (and worse-sounding) alternate international English dub.

Paired up on the same disc is the much weirder and wildly entertaining Gamera vs. Viras, also known to American TV fans as Destroy All Planets (the title used for Retromedia's version, similar to their pan-and-scan presentation of other films in the series). Once again, Shout turns it into an entirely different and better film with the restoration of the original scope framing and the original Japanese track (plus the English dub if you want it). This time you get an irresistible combination along with your usual Gamera antics: aliens and Boy Scouts! See, a spaceship populated by weird-eyed extraterrestrials decides to go after a couple of young scouts (Takatsuka and the obligatory Japanese-speaking American, Craig), as part of an elaborate plan to have Gamera, their mortal enemy, under their control. Their mind games involve plenty of footage from earlier Gamera antics before our hero faces off against the tentacled alien leader, Viras. This may not be the best Gamera outing, but it might be the nuttiest with some scenes that burst over into full-on surrealism.

The Shout series wraps up to date with another double feature which finds the series turning into something resembling a psychotic kids' playground, starting off with Gamera vs. Guiron, unimaginatively retitled for American TV audiences as Attack of the Monsters. Again we have a pair of kids and some aliens, not to mention a plot set up that seems suspiciously familiar. Some androgynous aliens planning to take over Earth swipe the two children (Kajima and Murphy) and take them to their home planet, which is defended primarily by a truly bizarre monster, Guiron, with a head shaped like a giant blade. Luckily Gamera is hot on their trail, and the story essentially spins off into a string of monster face-offs as the kids and aliens root for opposing sides. The striking monster (who looks like a shark mutated with a Ginsu knife) is the real star here along with some freaky outer space visuals, and again, if you don't mind the kid-aiming storyline and increasingly ridiculous cost-cutting, this one delivers the rubber-suited goods. Shout's transfer is once again well up to par and very colorful, plus the lavish audio options of Japanese (with subs) and both English tracks (the AIP-TV one and the wretched Sandy Frank alternative).

Its partner on the same disc, Gamera vs. Jiger, features Gamera stomping around trying to stop the citizens of Osaka from hauling out a big statue to celebrate their hosting of an upcoming World's Fair-type expo. Not surprisingly, it turns out everyone should have listened to the giant turtle because this move unleashes a wrinkled, tusked, dinosaur-like beast called Jiger who blasts heat rays and stings with his tail. Gamera seems to be mortally wounded in his initial fight, but once again it's up to two plucky kids (Varis and Takakuma) to figure out what's ailing their giant friend and revive him enough to face off once again against his foe before the entire island goes up in flames. Complete with a hallucinatory sequence involving a toy submarine (with a surprise medical revelation) and lots of rousing battle scenes, this entertaining and action-packed entry (also known as Gamera vs. Monster X) is definitely a step up from the previous film and a solid way to round out the initial set of Shout releases. (The original series concludes with Gamera vs. Zigra and the ridiculously padded Gamera: Super Monster, both of which are presumably forthcoming.) This one looks as exceptional as its predecessors and offers the superior Japanese language track (with subs) or the AIP-TV English dub. Very highly recommended for Gamera fans, this essential set of releases for kaiju fans manages to correct several decades of home video injustices and makes for the first truly respectable, worthy, English-friendly presentation of these unique, extremely entertaining films.