One of the nicest things about the DVD format is that it has allowed material that had previously been dismissed as kiddie fare – Warner Brothers cartoons, Three Stooges shorts, etc. – to receive new treatments on home video that not only improve the A/V quality but also treat them as cultural artifacts that are worthy of respect and serious critical thought.
The Japanese giant-monster subgenre of sci-fi, known to its fans via the homegrown name of kaiju-eiga, has benefitted greatly from this trend, with films like Godzilla and The Mysterians getting the kind of treatment that the subgenre’s devoted fanbase has always yearned for. The latest classic kaiju-eiga to get the royal treatment is Gamera The Giant Monster, which just received a handsome DVD release through Shout! Factory.
For the transfer, the company went back to the vault elements to create an HD master that is presented anamorphically in its original scope-format. The results look fantastic, with a nice level of detail and texture in how it presents the film’s moody black-and-white cinematography. It sticks with the original Japanese version of the film so viewers do not see the additional scenes that were shot for the American version of the film with actors Brian Donlevy and Albert Dekker. Seeing those scenes would have been fun but the film actually plays better without them.
This disc also uses the original Japanese mono soundtrack and includes English subtitles. It has been mastered well and the subs are easy to read. Fans of MST3k version of Gamera will no doubt miss its awful English dub but its omission suits the serious treatment this disc gives to the film.
Finally, the Shout! Factory disc offers some noteworthy bonus features. The original Japanese trailer is included (with English subs) and a talking-heads retrospective video segment that interviews director Noriaki Yuasa and several of the crewmen involved in the production. Everyone involved in this segment approaches the film in a humble, unpretentious style and it is interesting to hear their behind-the-scenes tales (Yuasa, always quick with a childlike grin, admits he got the job to direct Gamera The Giant Monster because no other director at Daiei wanted to do it).
However, the most noteworthy of the extras is a substantial commentary track from author/kaiju-eiga historian August Ragone. He establishes a blistering pace in the track’s opening minutes, firing off stats for every actor who appears on screen and filling every nook and cranny of the running time with appropriate kaiju-eiga lore. Ragone even notes the differences between the script and the film, right down to pointing out how scenes from the script were restructured in the editing. He also throws in a ton of amusing trivia, like how the child actor who played Toshio went on to a professional singing career and how staffers drew lots to determine who would wear the Gamera suit on a particular day. However, the best bit is an explanation of how the use of a turtle for the film’s central monster reflects its status as a symbol of strength and longevity in Japanese society. All in all, this track is likely to give you a brand-new perspective on the film.
The care used in producing this disc also extends to the packaging. For instance, the see-through interior of the case allows the buyer to see a mock-scientific diagram of Gamera. There’s also an excellent, full-color insert booklet included that features an English translation of an essay on the film by director Yuasa and biographies for the film’s major characters.
In short, this disc represents the intelligent, informative treatment of this property that kaiju-eiga fans have been waiting for and is hopefully a harbinger of good things to come for Shout! Factory’s future Gamera releases. If you like this subgenre, it’s a must.