Gamera vs. Guiron may be one of Gamera’s most recognisable outings; in no small part, I’m sure, because of the remarkable design of the titular Guiron. The knife-headed Guiron arguably epitomises the levels of fantasy and spectacle that the Showa Gamera series allowed itself, gleefully experimenting with weird and imaginative ideas that other films may have avoided. While the film’s child heroes grow tiresome and their performances sometimes stifle engagement, the imagination on show throughout is a testament to how fun this movie is. It is unabashedly silly, and all the better for it.
Gamera vs. Guiron sees two young boys, Akio (Nobuhiro Kajima) and Tom (Christopher Murphy), find an empty spacecraft in the woods near their homes. Climbing aboard, the boys activate the craft which departs Earth. Hurtling through space, the boys eventually land on a mysterious planet, Tera. Akio and Tom eventually meet two alien women living there, whose friendliness doesn’t last long, and we soon learn of their plans to eat the boys’ brains. With the two children in mortal peril, the friend of all children, Gamera, arrives to save them and to do battle with the pet of our antagonists: Guiron.
This isn’t the best that the Gamera series has to offer, but it is supremely enjoyable. A far cry from the darker tones of Shusuke Kaneko’s incredible ‘90s Gamera trilogy, and detached from the more introspective feel of 1966’s Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs. Guiron is, perhaps, the pinnacle of the series’ call to its child-oriented demographic, going largely without adult characters for much of its run-time. Indeed, the very setting displaces Gamera vs. Guiron from the rest of the entire series; let alone the Showa era. Mostly taking place on another world, the production design is let loose with gleeful abandon.
Gamera vs. Guiron is fun, light, and entertaining. Much of the scorn that the Gamera outings of the ‘60s and ‘70s face seems drawn from an unspoken belief that, because their target audience was children, they are lesser works. Indeed, today these films are typically reviewed by Western adults (yours truly included), whose perspective is somewhat detached from that of a ten-year-old child sat in a cinema in Japan in 1969. Because of this, we don’t tend to see these films as totally as they were likely intended; and it’s important to remember that. Perhaps spoilt by Kaneko’s stunning ‘90s trilogy, or simply from the fact that a majority of monster movies aren’t explicitly aimed at children (though they are enjoyed by children the world over), we have certain expectations for the ‘60s Gamera films that they cannot meet because they were not made to meet them.
Taking Gamera vs. Guiron at face-value, as a children’s monster picture, the film is good-hearted fun (though the levels of gore on display in the monster battles are somewhat bewildering, but then again, look at Tsuburaya Productions’ Ultraman shows throughout this period…).
The production design is delightfully pulpy; the vivid covers of a ‘30s science-fiction magazine come to life. Indeed, the rounded shapes of the architecture on the strange planet perfectly complement the equally-striking Guiron. Gamera’s rival here is a sight to behold, and a credit to the special effects crew. Unburdened by the often-stifling pursuit of realism, Guiron exists despite all protestations of anatomical impossibility. This is truly a good thing.
Part of the reason that much of this film works is because of Gamera himself. Japanese monster movies have always imbued their beasts with character and soul in ways often absent from many Western productions. Gamera vs. Guiron is no exception, and Gamera is as much a character as Akio and Tom. From anthropomorphic touches like Gamera putting ice on his wounds, to the wild image of him doing gymnastics, Gamera is easy to root for and connect with. This firm engagement with Gamera helps to put us in the position of Akio and Tom; which is helpful because, admittedly, neither Christopher Murphy nor Nobuhiro Kajima are brilliant in their roles.
Indeed, the human characters of Gamera vs. Guiron are where the film stumbles. Fantasy, vivid production design, and a knife-headed monster are all well and good, but the best children’s films still retain heart and meaning in their characters. Furthermore, Akio and Tom often come off as brattish in their behaviour (just look at the near-constant contempt Akio shows for his younger sister), which sometimes means you come close to sympathising with the alien gals. Towards the film’s climax, Akio and Tom also have little more to do than just watch the proceedings taking place. This is to say nothing of the lack of any significant depth to the pair.
Gamera vs. Guiron may be too weird for most to fully enjoy. But, putting your mind in a childlike-state and enjoying this film for the entertaining spectacle it is, Gamera vs. Guiron can be fun. This is also not to talk down to the perception of children, for the film is clearly self-aware enough in its humour and light moments to show that yes, it is aimed at children, but that it doesn’t condescend to them either.
This is a film that doesn’t have a good or sustained human drama to drive its monster narrative, nor does it have performances that are particularly engaging. Yet, I cannot bring myself to dislike this film. The sheer audacity it boldly parades in its monsters and their action earns my utmost respect. Indeed, Gamera and Guiron become the characters to engage with that the human drama fails to deliver. While the film would have undoubtedly benefited from a more engaged human cast, one cannot ignore that which is drawn from Gamera and his knife-headed foe. Whether it’s Gamera’s palpable pride in sticking a perfect landing, or Guiron’s grim laughter after slicing another monster into pieces, these monsters have personalities and personas that are joyous to watch.
Gamera vs. Guiron is far from perfect and far from the best that Gamera has to offer, but this 1969 outing is a remarkable moment of vivid imagination. Recommended.