One of the most unique elements of the Gamera series is that unlike the Godzilla films, which began dark and gradually transitioned into being kid-friendly, the Gamera films had a pronounced orientation towards their child audience from the very beginning. Indeed, the most important character relationship in the first Gamera film is the relationship between the title monster and a child who idolizes it! That said, the first films contained enough intensity to their monster elements that they didn’t come off as pure kiddie fare.
However, the tide changed with the fourth Gamera outing, Gamera Vs. Viras. This time, there isn’t a Gamera-idolizing kid subplot. Instead, the kids are as important to the main plot as Gamera itself: mischief-minded boy scouts Masao (Toru Takatsuka) and Jim (Carl Craig) spend most of their time hiding out from their scoutmaster Mr. Shimida (Kojiro Hondo) and playing pranks. However, their fun and games come to an abrupt end when they are captured by an alien spaceship seeking to conquer and colonize earth.
The only thing standing between these aliens and terrestrial domination is Gamera, the only being powerful enough to defeat them (a fun prologue depicts Gamera taking part the aliens’ first sentry in outer space). The aliens are crafty enough to figure out that Gamera is a softie when it comes to kids so they hold Masao and Jim hostage to keep Gamera from attacking and then plant a mind-control device on him to transform the creature into their own personal weapon. Thus, it’s up to the two scouts to figure out a way to free Gamera so he can take on the silver, squid-like leader of the aliens, Viras.
The results can be fun but are much more juvenile than previous Gamera outings. In this film, Gamera is totally domesticated (he’s first introduced having a swim-race with the two earthly heroes!) and the film makes him a second banana to the adventures of its young protagonists. Even the monster battle scenes feature frequent cutaways to the kids as they shout encouragement and advice to Gamera. The rest of the plot functions at a Saturday morning cartoon level, with no attempts at themes as in previous Gamera outings and adults exclusively serving as bumbling straight men to the kids.
Gamera Vs. Viras is also noticeably cheaper than past Gamera outings. Despite some nice miniature work and sets for the alien ship, the action itself is scaled down. There are no attempts at military or scientific attacks that would involve any costly resources. The film also beefs up its spectacle level (and pads its slender running time) by incorporating a reel’s worth of stock footage from past Gamera outings, most of it used in a sequence where the aliens “read” Gamera’s mind to learn his history.
These changes make Gamera Vs. Viras a pretty goofy affair but it can still be entertaining for those viewers in the proper, light-hearted frame of mind. Director Noriaki Yuasa handles the effects scenes with the expected aplomb, the design of the spaceship has a nice retro-futurist feel and the scenes with the aliens can be surprisingly creepy for a kiddie-oriented affair (look out for the scene with a disembodied alien arm and a bloodless but still shocking scene where Viras beheads five crew members in one fell swoop to usurp their energy).
Also, the final monstro-a-monstro battle delivers the goods with the expected kaiju-eiga elan despite the film’s pre-teen tone. In fact, the way it veers back and forth between cartoonishness (Gamera uses Viras as a jet-ski at one point) and brutality (Viras wounds Gamera in a surprisingly vicious fashion) make the final battle an amusingly schizoid experience.
In short, Gamera Vs. Viras is a lesser entry in the series but fans will still want to check it out – and its kid-friendly silliness is warped enough to be amusing to non-fans in search of weirdness from the Far East.