The original Gamera films are generally considered to be the kiddie-est of kiddie fare in the world of kaiju-eiga cinema. Like the later Godzilla movies, they generally feature child protogonists and treat their iconic monster like a hero to children rather than a villain. one film that stands apart from the rest of the original series for its darker, more adult tone – well, as dark and adult as a giant monster movie can get – and that film is Gamera Vs. Barugon.
At first, Gamera Vs. Barugon seems like the typical monster mash: Gamera is freed from his rocketship prison in outer space by a colliding asteroid and returns to earth, promptly destroying a power plant/dam to recharge his batteries. However, the plot then shifts gears to focus on the plight of Keisuke (Kojiro Hongo), a young man in search of quick wealth. He becomes involved in a plot hatched by his brother Ichiro (Akira Natsuki) to retrieve a gigantic opal from a cave in New Guinea. Unfortunately, neither knows that this exotic gem is not an opal – it’s actually a dormant but still living egg containing an ancient creature called Barugon.
The egg is stolen by double-crossing associate Onodera (Koji Fujiyama) and smuggled away on a ship back to Japan. On the voyage home, it is accidentally exposed to infrared radiation adn this causes its growth cycle to accelerate. Before the ship can dock, Barugon tears the ship apart and begins stomping its way across Japan. Keisuke makes his way back home with gorgeous New Guinea native Karen (Kyoko Enami), who is knowledgeable about her home’s legends regarding the creature. The two work with the military to try and stop Barugon but man-made methods fall short. Japan’s one hope may lie in the other local giant destructive creature – Gamera.
Gamera Vs. Barugon is a surprisingly ambitious variation on the typical kaiju-eiga style. The human part of the plot is just as important as the monster-stomp elements and the early section of the story dealing with the retrieval of the “opal” has an unexpectedly grim crime/noir feel to it. In fact, that noir element permeates the entire film: crazy as it might sound, the storyline of Gamera Vs. Barugon works as an allegory about the destructive power of greed – with Barugon serving as the gigantic, slimy manifestation of the robbers’ greed writ large.
This ambitious scenario is aided nicely by skillfully work from the director and actors. Shigeo Tanaka directs the proceedings in a stylish, moody manner that fits its dark undertones nicely and gets solid performances that keep the human-based story fairly engrossing: Hongo makes a good “tormented hero” protagonist, Enami is alluring as his equally intense love interest and Fujiyama is great fun as the sleazy, perpetually nervous/desperate villain Onodera.
That said, Gamera Vs. Barugon has one key problem – Gamera is basically an extra in his own film. Everyone’s favorite fire-breathing turtle spends at least two-thirds of the film on the sideline and his plot thread doesn’t become fully integrated with the main storyline until the third act. The fact that Gamera is more a plot device than a guiding force in the story can be a bit distracting at times.
However, Gamera Vs. Barugon delivers beautifully on the key requirements of the kaiju eiga: you get two great giant monsters, wanton destruction of several scale-model buildings and some great monster wrestling matches between the titular stars. The filmmakers also dreamt up some intriguing psychedelic touches, like Barugon’s ability to project a rainbow-colored death ray and his propensity to ooze purple blood when exposed to water (he’s also got a lengthy, phallic tongue that shoot an arctic blast from its tip!). Noriaki Yuasa, director of the first Gamera film, directs the special effects here and they’re wildly entertaining in the monster-mash tradition: the opening destruction of the dam/power plant and the two battles between the two monster stars are effective stuff in the accidentally surreal kaiju-eiga tradition.
In short, Gamera Vs. Barugon is a kaiju eiga epic with a difference, suffusing the expected elements with a sinister undertone that gives it all an added kick. Despite some story issues, it’s a really strong genre entry that is distinctive enough to be worth viewing for cult film fans not normally interested in this sort of film.