For every popular taste, there will always be those who prefer a slightly less popular competitor. Coke has its Pepsi. The Ghost Whisperer has Medium. And Godzilla has Gamera. Godzilla had the field to himself for a while, however, or at least had only to share space with other Toho Studios-created kaiju like Rodan and Mothra. Eleven years after Toho premiered Gojira (later Anglicized as Godzilla) in 1954, a rival appeared in the form of Gamera, a film from Toho rival Daiei. And thus was born a decades-long rivalry between the giant, fire-breathing dinosaur and a befanged, flying turtle, a battle that’s found a new front with the U.S. premiere of the original, Japanese version of Gamera on DVD.
To say that director Niraki Yuasa and others had studied the Godzilla series is to put it mildly. Awakened by a nuclear explosion, Gamera wanders around smashing things not out of any malevolence but because he doesn’t know any better. But where the original Godzilla didn’t seek to soften the terror of the giant beast, Gamera takes cues from later entries in the series by focusing on a kid who loves and tries to protect the big guy, thus doubling as a surrogate for all the monster-loving kids who made up both series’ target audience.
So if Gamera’s nothing but a Godzilla rip-off, why did the series prove so venerable? For starters, it’s a skillful rip-off, delivering the same kind of guy-in-rubber-suit-versus-model-city thrills as Godzilla and its sequels. But, more importantly, Gamera finds the perfect intersection between silly and cool, looking both dangerous and ridiculous as he tromps around. He’s no Godzilla, but he’s got his own thing going on. (Or, to borrow some rhymes from Mystery Science Theater 3000, he’s really neat and he’s filled with turtle meat.)
Key features: A translation of the late Yuasa’s notes for the 2001 Japanese DVD, a 1967 diagram explaining the workings of Gamera’s anatomy—he has a “coal sac,” a “uranium sac,” and a “fire sac,” informed commentary from giant monster historian August Ragone, and a documentary that reveals Gamera partly owes its existence to the collapse of the giant rat movie A Swarm Of Beasts Nezulla and the fact that men in suits are infinitely easier to control than live rats.