Essays · Movies

Gamera: the Godzilla Knockoff That Became So Much More

Gamera may have begun as a cheap Godzilla knockoff, but the flying fire-breathing turtle has earned his place at the big boy kaiju table.
Gamera Guardian Of The Universe
By  · Published on March 25th, 2021

In the world of kaiju cinema, Godzilla is widely believed to carry the crown of the king. As the monster responsible for kicking kaiju films into full gear, it’s a rightful title. But lurking in the shadows, often forgotten or cast aside, despite a loyal legion of followers, is the fire-breathing turtle Gamera. Written off by many as a poor imitation or kid-friendly version of the giant lizard, Gamera is treated like a little brother. It’s cute that he tries hard, but not everyone takes him seriously.

Overlooking him, however, would be a mistake. While Gamera does not have Godzilla’s polish or notoriety, he’s every bit as worthy of sitting atop the kaiju throne.

The Birth of Gamera

In the early 1960s, Daiei Films was looking to capitalize on the success that Toho had with Godzilla. The studio initially tinkered with the idea of a movie about giant rats. However, special effects failures forced the production to use real rats, which eventually caused health concerns. The giant rat film was scraped, and Daiei was forced to audible. Insert Gamera.

Where the idea of Gamera originated from is the source of some debate. According to the 1991 retrospective “Remembering the Gamera Series,” the then-President of Daiei Films, Masaichi Nagata, had the idea come to him while on a flight from the United States to Japan. He claims that he imagined a giant tortoise flying alongside the plane. Masaichi’s son and Daiei producer Hidemasa Nagata and fellow producer Yonejiro Saito have also claimed credit for creating the flying turtle.

Filmmaker Tomio Sagisu laid claim to being Gamera’s creator as well. His account of the story is that years prior, he pitched the idea of a kaiju television series to various studios. During this time, he shared a demo reel with Daiei executives featuring a stop motion turtle that could fly. Sagisu believes this to be the original reference point for Gamera.

While the true origins are unclear, there is no doubt what happened next. Nissan Takahashi and Noriaki Yuasa — the writer and director of the defunct rat project — helped flesh out the idea. Using the premise of a flying tortoise, they developed a plot around a giant prehistoric turtle frozen in the Arctic. After a plane crash lands and accidentally detonates an atomic bomb, the colossal beast awakens and goes on a rampage across Tokyo. A franchise was born with Gamera: The Giant Monster.

With the release of this first film, it’s easy to see how Gamera earned a reputation as the store-brand version of Godzilla. It’s a cheaply made film — the studio chose to make it in black and white to save money — and the razor-thin plot is quite absurd. After Gamera is released from the ice, he’s upset, presumably because he hates being bothered while trying to sleep, but it is never clear what exactly he’s trying to accomplish. So he goes on a rampage, destroying everything in sight.

Toshio, a small boy with a fondness for turtles, is convinced Gamera must be good since he is a turtle. Gamera proves this theory by rescuing Toshio from certain death, although he is the one who put Toshio’s life in danger. Gamera surely killed hundreds, if not thousands, stomping through Tokyo, but he saved this one boy, so he’s cool. This act of heroism is enough to convince authorities that Gamera means well, and instead of destroying him, they give him a one-way ticket to Mars so that he can live happily in peace.

Shōwa Period (1965-1980)

The Gamera films can be split into two different eras with slightly varying origins for the behemoth. The first is the Shōwa Period, beginning in 1965 with Gamera: The Giant Monster and concluding in 1980 with Gamera: Super Monster. This fifteen-year period saw eight total Gamera films released, with the first seven being released in subsequent years, from 1965 to 1971.

During these early years of Gamera, the backstory is pretty lean. He’s linked to the lost city of Atlantis, and stories of Gamera, or Gamera-like creatures, have been passed down through folklore over the years. Eskimos are the most familiar with Gamera, passing down a stone tablet about the beast and referring to him as “The Devil’s Envoy.” At some point, he got trapped in an iceberg in the Arctic, and that’s where the Shōwa Period begins.

The Shōwa films are light-heartened and kid-friendly, with children heavily factoring into many of the stories, providing Gamera with a reason to save the day. This does not mean the films are light on kaiju action, however. With the exception of Gamera: The Giant Monster, Gamera squares off with a different kaiju enemy in every Shōwa film, including two in 1969’s Gamera vs. Guiron.

And the battles are often quite violent. Perhaps the most fierce fight comes in that 1969 film. Guiron, a monster with a knife-like head, squares up with Space Gyaos, a space version of the pterodactyl-like creature that is Gamera’s biggest nemesis. The fight ends with Guiron slicing Space Gyaos into many tiny pieces.

Heisei Period (1995-2006)

After fifteen years in hibernation, Gamera returned in a reboot in 1995 with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. This was the start of the Heisei Period: eleven years of four films, including a trilogy widely regarded as one of the best and most important series of kaiju films ever made.

The Heisei Period gave Gamera a much more thorough backstory. He wasn’t just an ancient monster from the city of Atlantis but was instead human-made. In Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, it’s explained that the city of Atlantis was an extremely advanced civilization that possessed great technology. The people of Atlantis first created Gyaos to clean up their pollution. The abundance of pollution allowed Gyaos to grow to great strengths and eventually turn into a man-eater. The scientists of Atlantis responded by creating Gamera to defend them from Gyaos. Gamera worked in defeating Gyaos, but in the process, he destroyed Atlantis.

There is a clear message present in the Heisei trilogy: humans are destroying the planet. It’s an excellent addition to the Gamera mythos and gives the franchise a bit more weight. Rather than being merely light-hearted, goofy monster fun, Gamera is goofy monster fun with a commentary on global warming.

Turtle Power

Gamera’s design has remained essentially unchanged over the years. He’s a giant, dark green turtle with sharp claws and a mouthful of sharp teeth. He also has two protruding fangs, similar to that of a sabertooth tiger or warthog. He also likes to walk on his back legs like he’s people. Of course, that’s not his only means of transportation. He can walk on all fours, and he’s a skilled swimmer like most turtles. What sets him apart, however, is his ability to fly. Gamera retracts his limbs, and they turn into jet rockets, zipping him through the air like a flying saucer.

This method of whipping through the air is also used as a form of attack. Gamera is capable of staying low to the ground and spinning into enemies, essentially turning himself into a flying disc of destruction.

While flight is Gamera’s most famous skill, it’s not the only trait that sets him apart. Gamera spits fire, and it’s his primary method of attack. This skill is derived from Gamera’s internal thermal energy, which he generates with his unusual diet of fire, oil, coal, lava, and any other flammable substance known to man.

Gamera does have one glaring weakness: the cold. He just doesn’t like it. He’s more of a tank top weather kind of guy.

The idea of a creature like this existing is preposterous. A giant fire-breathing turtle with fangs that can also fly? The entire concept is silly and yet, at the same time, perfect. Gamera fully leans into his goofiness to the point that it’s cool.

The Legacy of Gamera

More than fifty years after starting as a cheap money grab to cash in on the Godzilla fame, Gamera has crafted a lasting legacy of his own. With twelve feature films, a comic book miniseries, and multiple video game appearances, the cult of Gamera is one that cannot be denied.

At Bloody Disgusting, Brian Solomon ranked Gamera eighth on his list of twenty-one most kick-ass giant monsters, calling Gamera “nothing short of a cult icon.” Sharp‘s Rick Mele also placed Gamera eighth on a list of giant movie monster rankings, calling the big turtle “the Pepsi to Godzilla’s Coke.”

Director Guillermo Del Toro has heaped praise on Gamera, calling the films the perfect “mixture of silliness and charm with the staples of a great kaiju movie.” Del Toro went one step further and placed Gamera: The Giant Monster among his top five kaiju films of all time.

Here at FSR, Gamera vs. Guiron made our list of 37 must-see monster movies. This was also the first time I publicly declared the Gamera franchise to be better than the Godzilla franchise, a statement I still stand by to this day. Gamera just has that extra something. He’s a flying, fire-breathing turtle that is a friend to all children. He also has his own theme song, and as the kids say, “it’s a banger.” Gamera will never dethrone Godzilla as the kaiju king, but he’ll always wear the crown in my heart because he is so very strong and has mighty jet propulsion.

Related Topics: ,

Chris Coffel is a contributor at Film School Rejects. He’s a connoisseur of Christmas horror, a Nic Cage fanatic, and bad at Rocket League. He can be found on Twitter here: @Chris_Coffel. (He/Him)