I think it’s fair to say that I grew up watching a lot of media from Japan. A lot was anime such as Tetsujin 28, Mach Go, Go, Go, and Gatchaman, perhaps better known here in the United States as Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Battle of the Planets respectively. However, I can’t overlook the role of giant monsters, or kaiju. Godzilla is clearly the most famous, but when I was a kid, my hero was Gamera.
I was thrilled to find Blu-ray copies of Gamera’s first eight films a few weeks ago. I’ve slowly been working my way through them. I’ve run into some people who think Gamera is part of the menagerie who battled Godzilla during his ongoing reign as King of Monsters. In fact, Gamera was the property of an altogether different movie studio. Godzilla’s stories were filmed at Toho Studios. Gamera was competitor Daiei’s entry into the kaiju arena.
For those not familiar with Gamera, he’s a giant fire-breathing turtle with tusks awakened from arctic ice during a dogfight between US and Soviet forces. Although he goes on a rampage for energy in the first film, he seems to have a soft spot for humans, and children in particular. In later films of the series, he’s revealed to be something of a guardian for humanity, protecting them from other monsters. The first eight films take place during Japan’s Shōwa period—the reign of Emperor Hirohito.
To be perfectly honest, the first eight Gamera films are far from great cinema. There’s a good reason several of them were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, I’ve long had the sense that the people behind the film series knew their limitations and had fun with them. At one point Gamera defeats a shark monster called Zigra, then plays a couple of bars of his own theme song on its back. Afterwards, he does a little dance. Another great moment comes in Gamera Super Monster when Gamera is ordered to go on a rampage by aliens and knocks over a sandwich board advertising a Godzilla film. Scenes like these make me think the Shōwa Gamera films have more in common with the 1960’s televised Batman than with films like Manos: The Hands of Fate filmed just down the road in El Paso, Texas.
As it turns out, Gamera was reimagined for a trilogy of really good films in the 1990s. These Heisei-era Gamera films gave a solid backstory to the titular turtle. He still attempts to protect mankind as a whole, but he’s still a giant monster and is prone to mass destruction. Not everyone likes Gamera in these films. The Heisei-era Gamera films also presented some cool glimpses into life in many different parts of Japan. I highly recommend Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and its two sequels.
My love of these films is a small part of what makes me the writer I am today. As a kid, I was drawn to the action and good-natured humor of these films. If it weren’t for these films, I probably wouldn’t have sought out more serious Japanese films like those of Akira Kurosawa, which gave me a deeper appreciation of Japanese culture and storytelling. Writing what we know is, among other things, writing what interests us. So watching Gamera films as a kid, was a first step toward writing my novel The Brazen Shark about samurai resisting cultural change in an alternate, steampunk Japan.
If you’d like to learn more about The Brazen Shark and my inspirations for the novel, I’ll be interviewed on the radio this Friday, July 13 on KTAL Community Radio from 12:30 to 1:00pm Mountain Daylight Time. My friends in Las Cruces can listen on the radio on 101.5 FM. For my friends outside the area, you can listen at: https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html