It seemed so innocent: a show about a janitor, exiled to a satellite and forced to watch “cheesy” movies with his robot friends. In its heyday, Mystery Science Theater 3000 introduced an entire generation to a slew of movies, long forgotten and no longer shown on television. Many old 50s and 60s science fiction films found new life with the help of “Joel and the bots.” It wasn’t long before MST3K began using Daiei’s Gamera series for its experiments, utilizing King Feature’s re-dubbed versions of Gamera (1965), Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), Gamera vs. Guiron (1969) and Gamera vs. Zigra (1971). The already popular MST3K would get a tremendous boost from the supermonster’s exploits and in turn would introduce Gamera to a new generation of fans. But it has also been suggested that MST3K “discovered” Gamera, making it more palatable to the masses. Hence the reason for this article: to provide a record of history for those who were unfamiliar with Gamera prior to MST3K, as well as those who have forgotten Gamera’s uphill struggle in American pop culture which, as you will soon see, had very little to do with MST3K.
1966 – World Entertainment releases Daikaiju Gamera as Gammera the Invincible theatrically in the United States!
With the backing of a $1,000,000 advertising campaign (so sez the pressbook,) the addition of an extra ‘M’ in his name and the inclusion of English-speaking actors to tie it all together, World Entertainment introduced Daiei’s homegrown Godzilla competitor to theaters and drive-ins across the United States. Its advertising heralded, “The Mystery of the Flying Saucers Solved!” “See Gammera Defeat the World’s Greatest Nuclear Armies!” and my personal favorite, “Can Plan Z stop Gammera the Invincible?” Gamera took American audiences by storm: a giant, flying, fuel-injected, fire-breathing turtle! Fantastic! But like so many of our country’s love affairs, Gamera couldn’t survive on its own merits forever. Gamera did not have the 10-year tradition that Godzilla had to fall back on. Towards the end of Gamera’s dramatic US landfall, his first movie was marketed as a double bill with a Cameron Mitchell film entitled Knives of the Avenger, a movie detailing the exploits of Rurik the Viking. “Gammera the Invincible vs. Rurik the Viking” screamed the ads in hopes of attracting crowds. But it was too little, too late.
Later that year, the show business newspaper, Variety, reviews Gamera vs. Barugon (referring to it as “Gambara“ vs. Barugon). Seemingly unaware of World Entertainment’s venture with the first Gamera film (although the reviewer does acknowledge that the film is a sequel to “Gambara”), the article gives a brief description of the plot and ultimately recommends that the film would be best for the “flea-house circuit” (i.e. drive-ins and inter-urban theaters). One of the things that most impressed the reviewer was the fact that Daiei packed the movie with monster scenes. He mentioned that you have to wait almost halfway through a Godzilla film before you get to any monster scenes. (I will admit that this is a slight over-exaggeration, but you do get more monster scenes per minute in a Gamera film.) The author also points out that the “poorly-chosen” camera angles dictate that the monsters appear as men in suits “to all but the youngest” in the audience.
1967 – AIP-TV releases Gamera vs. Barugon under the title War of the Monsters to television!
Daiei’s kaiju star would not be denied his right to compete with other giant monster movies in the US market; Gamera was now ready to rumble in color in the comfort of your home! Now I would imagine that some viewers watched War of the Monsters and thought, “Hey, haven’t I seen Gamera before?” (Only the optimistic speculation of a dedicated Gamera fan, but hey, it could have happened.)
1968 – AIP-TV releases Gamera vs. Gyaos under the title Return of the Giant Monsters to television!
Viewers sat in awe of Gamera putting a little kid on his back and flying him safely away from Gyaos: “Wait a minute, this big monster is a good guy?” Indeed, a heavy concept for 1968. That same year, Walter-Reade Sterling also released Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster straight to television, while King Kong Escapes was released theatrically by Universal.
1969 – AIP-TV releases Gamera vs. Viraas under the title Destroy All Planets to television!
Gamera is a certified good guy by his fourth film and begins to feel the effects of a smaller budget, as part of the movie is told in flashback with tinted stock footage. However, Viras’s transformation and the “head chopping” scene probably startled more than a few unsuspecting viewers. It also marks the beginning of the much-reviled “Gamera March,” which AIP generously remastered without the lyrics. It would be years before the lyrical version was discovered by American kaiju fans. That same year, AIP released Destroy All Monsters to theaters and drive-ins across the nation, while Walter-Reade Sterling released Son of Godzilla straight to television. Viewers sat in awe of Godzilla giving Minya a ride on his tail: “This big monster has parental instincts?” Indeed, an even heavier concept for 1969.
1970 – AIP-TV releases Gamera vs. Guirron under the title Attack of the Monsters to television!
I would imagine that even the most astute Gamera fan following the films back then would have been surprised by this one. Gamera fights a giant knife-headed beast with a penchant for cutting things in two. It is also discovered that Gamera can weld a spaceship together after it has been split in half and simultaneously restore life support and electricity to the ship! (Hey, even I cannot suspend disbelief in these films all the time!) That same year, Monster Zero was being double-billed with War of the Gargantuas and Godzilla’s Revenge (possibly) saw a limited theatrical release as Minya, Son of Godzilla.
1971 – AIP-TV releases Gamera vs. Jaiger under the title Gamera vs. Monster X to television!
After almost four years of hiding behind practically interchangeable titles, AIP grants Gamera top billing in his sixth film, and what a film it was! Just when the faithful could not be shocked anymore, Gamera is made the unwitting host to Jaiger’s parasitic offspring, only to be saved by two boys in a stolen submarine! Man, this one probably had even the Haight-Ashbury crowd talking for hours! That same year, Yog, Monster from Space was released theatrically, Godzilla’s Revenge was making the rounds on a double bill with Island of the Burning Damned and UPA merged Monster Zero, The War of the Gargantuas and Godzilla’s Revenge for a slam-bang triple feature; the kaiju boom was in full swing!
Later that year, Daiei goes into bankruptcy, but not before releasing Gamera vs. Zigra in Japan, the final entry in the original Gamera series. I always have wondered what people would have remembered about Zigra, had the movie been released here back in the early 70s. Regardless, I’m sure that Agent X walking around in a skimpy bikini would have been a part of that memory. (Well, we were all getting older by that point.) Unfortunately, AIP-TV did not pick this film up for syndication. In fact, by that time, AIP-TV was not releasing much of anything.
1972 – Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster wass enjoying theatrical release; later, along with Yog, Monster from Space, Destroy All Monsters and The Thing with Two Heads, it began making rounds on the “dusk to dawn” drive-in circuit. Such delicious irony that while Gamera had to share marquee space with Cameron Mitchell early in his career, Godzilla shared it with Rosey Grier late into his.
1974 – The December issue of The Monster Times is devoted entirely to Gamera! While the newsprint magazine mentions all seven Gamera films, it only chronicles the first six, since nothing was known about Gamera vs. Zigra at that time.
1975 – Issue #11 of Greg Shoemaker’s JJapanese Fantasy Film Journal delivers the first synopsis and a picture from Gamera vs. Zigra to U.S. fandom!
1976 – “Monster Against Monster, the Ultimate Battle!” After a four-year hiatus, Godzilla triumphantly returned to US theaters and drive-ins with Godzilla vs. Megalon! Although it was one year after Toho stopped making Godzilla films, this film probably had the most aggressive ad campaign since the good ol’ days of AIP. There were TV commercials on every channel, the newspaper ads were huge and the film even enjoyed a prime-time broadcast on NBC where it was shoved into an hour time-slot (to its further detriment). Gamera was still enjoying re-runs on television of his first six adventures but was longing for a return to the big screen. Dino Di Laurentis’ King Kong hits theaters across the US; turns out Godzilla vs. Megalon was a helluva lot better.
1977 – Cinema Shares released Toho’s GGodzilla vs. Mecha Godzilla as Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster (which, several legal threats from Universal later, was changed to Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster) and Godzilla vs. Gigan as Godzilla on Monster Island!
It was a dream come true! During the summer of 1977, Star Wars would change science-fiction fantasy as we knew it for good. Later that year, rumblings of a possible Star Trek movie are reported in Starlog magazine. One of the film’s producers, frustrated with the setbacks and delays, comments, “…at this point, we’d be happy to see Gamera vs. Captain Kirk!” Hey, why not? After all, he fought Rurik the Viking 11 years before!
1978 – Bob Conn Enterprises releases MMechaGodzilla’s Counterattack as The Terror of Godzilla theatrically!
At last, all the Godzilla films produced up to this point were now in the US in one form or another. As quickly as this film showed up, it went to television, where UPA changed the title to Terror of MechaGodzilla, added a prologue with footage from Monster Zero and Godzilla’s Revenge, and left in scenes for television that would have given it a PG rating in the theaters. Star Wars clones were now flooding the market! Toho and Toei jump on the band wagon with The War in Space and Message from Space, respectively.
1980 – After almost nine years, Daiei returns! And what better way to say “We are Back!” than to make a new Gamera film entitled Space Monster Gamera!
Well, it seemed like good news. Aside from about two minutes of new Gamera scenes, it is nothing more than stock footage battles from all the previous “Gamera vs.” films used to tie together a story about a young boy and three benevolent space women in tights battling against a bad space woman in black leather. Daiei did what just about every other studio was doing by including a triangular-shaped spaceship that flew overhead in slow motion to dramatic music in the opening minutes of the film. A step back for Gamera, but an invaluable learning experience for Daiei.
1981 – MTV begins broadcasting on cable nnetworks across the United States. They are the first place to broadcast Space Monster Gamera, under its new title, Gamera Super Monster, released by Filmways, a company formed from the then-defunct AIP. Gamera made his return triumphantly to US television! Later, MTV would also broadcast Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster.
1985 – The “new” Godzilla is unleashed uppon US theaters under the title, Godzilla 1985. A kaiju film hits the big screen for the first time in seven years! Though not a critical success in America, the new Godzilla meets with favor and reintroduces the genre of Japanese giant monsters to a whole new generation.
1987 – The USA Network, during prime timee on a Friday night, broadcasts Gamera vs. Zigra! 16 years after its original release in Japan, the film finally makes it to American television. Gamera was back! (But man, does that movie suck!) Later on the USA Network, Captain USA showed Gamera vs. Barugon and Gamera vs. Gyaos. Both films had lost that great English dubbing by Titra, only to be replaced with poor Aussie-accented dubbing instead. However, both films were 100% uncut! Also, available at your video store, under the Creature Features label, you could now buy Gamera, Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs. Gyaos and Gamera vs. Zigra for a reasonable $39.95 each in SP mode! Later, you could also buy them and Gamera vs. Guiron for only $9.95 each in EP under the Just for Kids label.
1990 – Godzilla vs. Biollante is slated for theatrical release by Miramax. It seems that kaiju films will once again see the light of the big screen. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out that way. According to Toho, Miramax defaults on part of a $500,000 payment for the rights and so the deal is called off.
1992 – HBO Video/Dimension (a division off Miramax) releases Godzilla vs. Biollante to video in widescreen! Soon afterward, the film begins making rounds on cable television premium channels. Japanese giant monsters return once again!
The Comedy Channel and HA! merge to become Comedy Central, and MST3K is picked up from the Comedy Channel as the series begins its second season. Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera and Gamera vs. Gyaos are shown in the MST3K format, introducing a whole new generation of fans to the “so bad, they’re good” exploits of Daiei’s titanic super turtle, which brings us full circle to the beginning of this article… (And for all of you devout MSTies out there, I am well aware that the original Channel 23 series featured the first Gamera film, but since it was only shown in Minnesota, it does not really fit into the chronology of this article, so don’t mess with me!)
1998 and Beyond – So as you can see, Gamera has had a rich tradition in American pop culture for over 30 years; the recent US theatrical and home video release of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995) by A.D. Vision films, as well as the upcoming release of an awesome line of action figures from Trendmasters is evidence that a new dawning of Daiei’s supermonster is upon us. Whether or not you think Godzilla is better, you simply cannot deny that Gamera has successfully survived more than his fair share of adversity to arrive at the point that he is at today; chances are that the jet-powered, fire-breathing guardian of all children will still be around to entertain a new generation long after MST3K has been forgotten. As a pop culture icon, it has been proven time and again that Gamera is one tough kaiju to keep down.