Whilst most people outside of Japan will think of the Godzilla franchise whenever you talk about giant monster movies, a franchise that deserves recognition is Gamera. First appearing in 1965, the titular Kaiju has gone on to become an icon in his own right, and one that has been incredibly popular with children, making him the monster that’s ‘friend to all children’.
Because of his popularity with younger viewers, and the massive success of Kaiju Eiga during the 60s and 70s, several Gamera films were produced over a short period. Unfortunately, this also led to some entries in the series being a bit flawed in quality. Sadly, 1971’s Gamera vs. Zigra is one of these films.
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When an alien spaceship, piloted by the creature called Zigra, attacks a base on the moon and kidnaps a female astronaut, the aliens take control of her, using her as an emissary to the people of Earth. Abducting two marine biologists, and two children, the woman displays her newfound abilities under the control of Zigra, using them to create massive earthquakes that destroy parts of Japan. When the children escape and head back to the mainland the woman goes after them, whilst the giant turtle Gamera attacks the UFO, releasing Zigra into the ocean.
Freed from his ship and exposed to Earth’s forces, Zigra grows to massive size, and begins attacking Gamera. The two giant creatures clash and Gamera is sent into a coma at the bottom of the ocean. With the help of the two children, Gamera is eventually awakened from his stasis and fights Zigra a second time, and manages to completely destroy the monster and save the people of Earth.
Whilst Gamera vs. Zigra begins well enough, with a good sequence showing the Zigran spaceship attacking the moonbase, once things head to Earth the film definitely slows down, with much of the plot centring around the Sea World Amusement Park in Kanagawa, which film company Daiei was in a cross-promotional agreement with. The film is so focused on showcasing the Park that much of the interesting parts of the story, such as the magnitude 18 earthquake, and the Zigran attack on the military, all happen off-screen.
The focus of the Gamera series has always been children, but it feels even more blatant in this film, with several important problems being solved by a pair of seven-year-olds. Whilst it’s important that children’s films put children in prominent roles, Gamera vs. Zigra goes a little too far, and it makes every adult in the film look like a bumbling idiot. The scenes where the kids are getting the best of a powered alien controlled woman are pretty painful, and I think even kids would look at them and feel embarrassed.
Zigra himself has a pretty interesting design, taking the form of a giant goblin shark. The suit looks pretty good, both on land and in the water, where he and Gamera fight. Some of the best moments for the monster are definitely when he’s on land, where he walks around on his tail, giving the creature an interesting look compared to a lot of other Kaiju. There’s one scene in particular where the shark design is utilised well as Zigra slices a ship in half; one of the few stand out parts of the piece.
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Sadly, due to the relatively low budget of the film, neither Gamera nor Zigra get to really show off their stuff, and most of the fights happen either underwater or in sparsely populated areas. The large scale city destruction that has become a staple of the genre is missing, and its absence is definitely felt. But it’s not all bad. There are a few interesting moments, and a few fairly ridiculous ones too. At one point Gamera even plays part of his theme on Zigra’s fins whilst the monster is knocked down. It’s a bit too ridiculous, but you can’t help but be won over by it.
Whilst Gamera vs. Zigra isn’t technically the final film in the Showa era for Gamera, it’s the last entry in the original Gamera series, and is a poor note to leave on. The film was so unsuccessful that it didn’t reach the US until 1987 – sixteen years later!