Tomorrow will mark Gamera’s 50th anniversary since the release of his first film in 1965. It would be tempting to celebrate by sharing the trailer for the upcoming Gamera movie, but I want to discuss something truly special about the character in honor of this occasion. More specifically, Gamera’s early appearances in American pop culture. Gamera movies had very little impact for a surprisingly long period of time despite Gamera having been released in US theaters as Gammera the Invincible in 1966 and having the other Showa films play on television. If you had never seen any of the films, you might find a reference to Gamera in monster magazines and reference books. Gamera seems to have been the inspiration for Triax from Marvel’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters comic book, but this has never been confirmed. The first definite reference in an American work comes from Blue Oyster Cult’s Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, who released a song called “Gamera is Missing” as part of the 1989 album Guitar’s Practicing Musicians. Not being confined to an instructional album, the Gamera reference in Elvira’s 1994 “Monsta’ Rap” did get more exposure but still failed to create wider knowledge of the character among the general public.
1994 turned out to be a big year for Gamera in the states, as he made an appearance in Bubba Ho-Tep scribe Joe R. Lansdale’s short story “Godzilla’s Twelve Step Program” and made his first visual appearance in the video game Gex. Well, sort of. The flying turtle depicted in the game was a mechanical monster referred to as “Toxic Turtle” but the game’s protagonist sometimes references Gamera by name during the encounter. Presumably this was done in order to keep the developer from getting sued. But it was a big shock for Gamera fans who either played the game or caught brief glimpses of it during the publicity campaign for Gex. I remember searching out the game’s strategy guide to get a better look at the character (and to see if it was referred to as “Gamera”). Thanks to Varuna Kozuka, you can see this historic moment for yourself:
While the sequel Gex : Enter The Gecko had a level called “Gexzilla vs Mecharez,” Gex 3: Deep Cover Gecko surprisingly did not feature any tokusatsu references. The Gamera reference in Gex was very appropriate. Not the part about a Japanese movie monster appearing in level based on Chinese martial arts movies, mind you. That was just stupid. But using him in a video game based around a character being pulled into worlds based on television programming is perfect because that’s where the bulk of Gamera movies appeared in America. American International Pictures released the bulk of the Showa films to television in edited form, with Gamera vs. Monster X (which is more commonly referred to as Gamera vs. Jiger these days) being the only one to mention Gamera in the title. Everything else had generic titles like Attack of the Monsters and Return of the Giant Monsters. So if you had seen Gammera the Invincible, you weren’t likely to figure out it had sequels. Unlike the case with Godzilla movies, there weren’t a flood of posters, trailers and radio spots to promote the Gamera films. So there was no chance of people who had never seen the films being even vaguely aware of the character and he rarely showed up in trailer compilations. The films often appeared as fodder for local horror hosts or as random time filler on independent stations.
Things changed in the 80’s. That’s when Sandy Frank Productions obtained the license for most of the old films. In addition to often having new dubs and extra footage, these prints had titles which actually let you know they involved Gamera. Gamera vs. Viras and Gamera vs. Jiger were mysteriously absent, but Gamera vs. Zigra made its US debut. However, AIP successor Filmways Pictures released Gamera, Super Monster directly to television rather than Sandy Frank. But Sandy Frank’s Gamera movies had home video releases unlike the Filmways release. But good luck finding them at rental stores. I’ve visited countless establishments in several states and only saw Gamera tapes twice (and one of those times was just a sealed copy in a “For Sale” bin). Once again the films were treated as filler and horror host fodder, but they started appearing on cable stations as well. Gamera, Super Monster appeared on the syndicated series Movie Macabre and clips from the Sandy Frank catalog appeared on the “Accidental Playhouse” episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1990. But their most famous appearance has its origins in an independent station called KTMA picking up the Sandy Frank package of films. This led to their being mocked on the original version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the staff had so much fun they decided to revisit the movies when Comedy Central picked up the series in the 90’s. The popularity of the show and its numerous reruns on a major cable station did more for Gamera than most kaiju fans would care to admit. ADV’s release of the Heisei Gamera trilogy also helped boost his popularity both among critics and the public, but I suspect Joel and the bots had more to do with Gamera references being made on shows like The Simpsons, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy and Justice League Unlimited. I also suspect these references will breed further references to the titanic turtle in future works of American pop culture.
Happy (Early) Birthday Gamera!