Written by Danny Toth
Destroy All Planets Daiei was a Japanese film company who was in the red in the mid-1960′s. To escape the threat of being completely bankrupt, they gave us another monster movie series that was heavily influenced by Toho’s successful Godzilla films to rake in some of that yen that poured into the box office. They gave us giant turtle Gamera, the Friend to Children.
At first though, just as Godzilla, Gamera was a villainous beast that ravaged Tokyo. In his second film, he became the protagonist and battled the lizard-like Barugan (I think of a certain Toho monster when I hear that one’s name). In his third run, he fought the Rodan-like Gyaos. Though they were successful with children, fans of the Godzilla films often referred to the Showa Gamera films as the “poor man’s” Godzilla series.
The fourth film to star the saber-toothed turtle was GAMERA vs. VIRAS from 1968. This was the first film that cemented Gammy as the official “friend to childen,” a title which haunts him to this day, even with the inclusion of the adult-oriented Gamera films from the 1990′s. GvsV is hard to review. It’s such a strange movie and so centered around kids, that the only thing that can be said about it is how cheesy it is.
The film opens in outer space, just above Earth’s atmosphere. A very cheap looking spaceship spins around, scouting Earth for the relocation of its crew. Then, as they send their report to their own planet, Gamera comes out of no where! He crashes his head into the command bridge and lets loose great balls of fire, destroying the weird looking starship. Well now, you think. That was easy. What’s the point of continuing a film when the enemy is already dispatched within the first couple minutes?
But wait…another goofy-looking ship, this time aware of Gamera, is sent to avenge the last goofy-looking ship he attacked.
Down on Earth, we see a Japanese/American boy scout crossover group (beware the scout masters, kids). The leader is a very stern man, with no sense of fun whatsoever. Assisting him are three young girls, probably between 18 and 21. Why three sexy Japanese girls are with a boy scout group is never clear, but who cares. Apparently, I believe they were there for eye candy to keep straight, masculine thoughts in the minds of every little boy present (that’s what they did for me, anyways). But our main characters are two boys named Jim and Masao.
They are the kids left over from the “Our Gang” comedy series from some forty or so years back. They are mischievous and like to play pranks on their elders. So what? They’re kids having fun and the adults punish them for it. Not right by my standards.The kids get to ride a mini submarine, which they nearly sabotaged earlier by switching the controls. Masoa is a wiz with electronics, and Jim likes to explore. So, leave it to them to take the mini sub for a spin up and down the coast of Japan. They meet up with Gamera, swimming by offering to challenge the boys in a race. Whee.
Suddenly, Gammy and his little buddies are caught off guard by a weird beam of some sort. Gammy is captured, but manages to let the boys escape by blocking the beam with his hand. Once ashore, Jim and Masao try to convince the authorities that Gamera is in trouble and needs help (though Gamera isn’t as indestructible as Godzilla, he has character and is sort of the Batman of the kaiju genre).
While Gammy is kidnapped, the aliens tap into his memory, which is just stock footage from all the previous Gamera films. This goes on for about twenty minutes (literally). When all that stock footage passes, Gamera is under the aliens’ control after they attach this weird little radio receiver to his head.
So blah blah blah…they find that the aliens are trying to take over the Earth, the kids get kidnaped by them and all this weird stuff. Oh, almost forgot to mention, the aliens are wearing human skin as suits to live in our atmosphere, a concept that was later used for GODZILLA vs. GIGAN and again in GODZILLA: FINAL WARS. When the aliens are in dim light, their eyes emit this very, very eerie glow that would probably scare the hell out of little kids (as of this writing, I’m almost 21, and I still shiver at the sight of that).
The aliens have a secret cargo, their master Viras, a squid-like creature about the size of an average man who sits in some sort of cage thingy. Viras is a simple design, with cat-like eyes and a beak making up its small face. Tentacles drape down from its cone-shaped body. All in all though, its particularly ugly. I mean ugly.
The kids foil the aliens’ invasion plot, and soon Gammy is back to his good ‘ol self again. This time, though, he’s pissed and ready to stop the invaders from going any further. The kids run up and down the beach, and Gamera listens to their advice and starts to blow fire at the spaceship. Even when it separates into multiple vessels, the turtle is able to bring it down permanently. One section, which just so happens to be the section with Viras and his goons, lays on the ground with a big hole in its side. While the two boys watch, Viras knocks the heads off his thugs. They all really pretty much look like him. He tells them that he needs their lives to be able to kill Gamera and forces them to merge together with him. Within no time, he’s sized up to Gammy.
The monsters engage in a long and bloody fight. Gamera shoots his fire (not too often, though) and Viras uses his weird-shaped head as a giant spear and literally drives himself into Gamera, stabbing him violently over and over (to tone the violence down, Gamera’s blood was always blue or green, but it still looked like it was extremely painful). Viras latches onto Gamera, so the turtle fires up his jet-propelled shell and flies up and up and up, until the two of them are so high up that Viras gets frosted! Then, Gammy dives down and Viras crashes into the water…dying instantly
Everyone cheers. Gamera roars. Earth is safe from squids (alien squids, that is). What else is there to say but this:
GAMERA vs. VIRAS was a success. The reason why the film series itself was so popular was because they didn’t revolve around politics, scientific explanations and anything else that were typical in a kaiju film. They were pretty much strictly about the monsters and what the monsters do. Sure, they weren’t seen all the time, so when they were off screen, the kids in the theaters would go out into the lobby and have themselves a snack, boosting Japan’s economy and keeping Daiei in business until the company went under in the mid 1970′s.
The special effects in the Gamera films were kind of generic, but gave them the charm that we all know and love. What was done that was out of the ordinary was the constant movements of the eyes. The monsters blinked and their pupils moved, an effect rarely seen in the Godzilla series.
Another SPFX feat was Gamera’s flame. An actual flame was shot out of Gamera’s mouth (on a special suit with no actor inside), and it often went where it wanted to on the sets. The crew, most of the time, had to be ready to dodge the flame in case it decided to spray in random directions all over. This was an interesting effect that was fairly cheap, but extremely dangerous.
Gamera often is considered a rival of Godzilla as far as franchises go. There were even talks of making a “Godzilla vs. Gamera” if Toho gave the green light to a director. However, I would be against this concept due to the fact that the late Moriaki Yuasa, director of the Showa Gamera films, explained that Godzilla was Gamera’s teacher, and the turtle would never rise against his teacher (I actually was doing a fan film with that idea, but I lost ambition and my budget dried up…plus, I read what Mr. Yuasa had said to the kaiju fan community). It is my belief that to make the two battle each other as enemies would be disrespectful to Yuasa, but I would like to see them as allies.
So, GAMERA vs. VIRAS is one moldy piece of cheese. It’s not horrible, but it is easy to see why it, along with the other Showa Gamera films, ended up being heckled relentlessly on the cult TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” But, it is an enlightening film that is both fun and warm-hearted.
Well, that sums up what I have to say about this little bit of film reeled together in a canister somewhere in a fan’s basement. It did have an American release, and is titled here in the states as DESTROY ALL PLANETS, mainly to capitalize the success of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. Gammy was always accused of riding Goji’s success, but that was the marketers’ fault, not his. But Gamera is still a great monster on his own, and will always hold a special place among the fandom.
(Carl Craig, who played Jim Morgan in GvsV, often appears at conventions oriented around kaiju fandom and recounts his experiences on the set to audiences. I hear he’s a good guy.)