1971 was the swan song for the Gamera series. Increasing competition from Ultra-style television shows and smaller budgets meant that Gamera vs Zigra was the seventh and last Gamera film until 1980's Gamera: The Super Monster.
As with other films before, Gamera vs Zigra combines the science fiction, and a touch of nationalistic pride. (As with Yongarry, Invasion of Astro-Monster, and Destroy All Monsters, the desire for a national space program is strong. Japan has built a moon base. But in the first two minutes of the film, some nonhuman space jerks in the most outlandish UFO yet come along and blow it up. Gear up for another set of space invaders.
Some of the action centers on Sea World, which is given plenty of screen time. I’m unsure if the original film can’t tell the difference between dolphins and orcas, or if it’s the translation, although I suspect it’s the original film.
Like Godzilla vs Hedorah, there is a social message on the evil of polluters, as the camera impresses on the viewer the friendliness and intelligence of sea lions and killer whales, rather than shown the terrible fate of fish in a tank. Science always creates pollution, we are told,and this is followed up when Zigra claims that he's from a scientifically advanced civilization the polluted its own planet. Zigra also has the shirt to dictate that if they leave the planet to the humans, we’ll cover the sea in sludge. But considering the later-revealed nature of Zigra, this isn't so strange in hindsight.
When two marine biologists and their underage stowaways are hit by the UFO's beam, we learn that it’s not destructive, but rather a transport beam. So we get to see the interior of the UFO. And it’s a pretty strange. Panels with moving, glowing lights are de rigeur at this point, and the quite attractive lady wearing a tight costume isn’t unexpected. The giant head of some sort of shark beast that’s covered in spiderwebs is definitely different. And it gets weirder. Apparently, it’s the commander of the ship. When the kids cleverly escape, the shark head starts giving the Zigran orders.
The pretty lady is eager to show the primitive hu-mans her advanced science. So she creates an earthquake of unimaginable power–magnitude 13, in downtown Tokyo. The scenes of destruction are reminiscent of those from Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, with askew lamp posts, rubble, and smoke. We are only shown these scenes briefly, and through the viewfinder of the Zigran ship, so it doesn’t have the same effect it did in the 1954 films. But it’s a more serious moment in a film that is overall silly. Like the destruction of the moon base, this is undermined by the fact that it's never mentioned again.
Zigra plans on keeping humans as livestock, the same way that humans get fish from the sea. Again another dark moment, especially as it's underscored by footage of fish lined up on docks, ready to be shipped to market. Of course, if Zigra ate all the humans, a lot of species would bounce back, and there would be a greater variety of things to eat. But that might be too long-term of me. That the giant shark head explains this to the pretty lady on the bridge, letting us know that she is not Zigran after all, but a human super-hypnotized to do Zigra's will.
After Zigra threatens the world, the UN decides to attack, and we get some very pretty footage of real F104s taking off and flying in formation. But they’re no match for a single UFO with multicolored popcorn on its roof. Gamera must confront it underwater. It's well worth noting that both Gamera's leg jets as well as his fiery breath work perfectly well underwater. How that works, I don't know.
When the flame touches the UFO, it explodes, leaving Zigra, sort of a gigantic goblin shark, free. Now, Zigra has top fins rather like the UFO, so I'm not sure if it was imprisoned in the UFO, or if the fins were a stylistic parallel to make sure the two were identified. This feels like a repetition of Gamera vs Viras, substituting a shark for Viras' squid.
Like the Smog Monster, Zigra changes from its initial appearance. When first released from the UFO, Zigra is small, less than a fifth the size of Gamera. After a little swimming around, it grows massively, easily matching Gamera for size. Gamera hauls it to the land, where it learns to walk upright. Once we are comfortably in man in suit taking on man in suit, the battle begins. Zigra hits Gamera with its beam weapon, and the gigantic turtle falls into the ocean, where the light in its eyes go out. That's right, Gamera dies.
At the same time, the woman from the Zigra ship is looking to kill the two kids who escaped from the space ship. In order not to arouse suspision, she takes the clothes of the first person she meets. Which happens to be a bikini. And the camera makes sure you're quite aware that Eiko Yanami is quite lovely.
Left to their own devices, the humans figure out how to break the Zigran hypnotism, and as it turns out Celestial Body 105, the woman who first met the humans on the Zigran ship, is Chikako Sugawara, a geologist from the moon base whose destruction we never hear anything about. How she was able to hypnotize people so instantly with her red eye flashes? We dunno. An alteration to her brain waves, I guess.
Fortunately, a thunderstorm rolls up and brings Gamera back to life. And just as humanity is getting really depressed about begoming fish food, Gamera confronts the Zigra. Who is asleep at the bottom of the sea. asleep. Does Gamera take the initiative and attack the giant shark as it snores? Of course not! It steals a bathysphere! Because that's not something it'll be able to do when Zigra is dead, or something.
Zigra is a pretty interesting monster, very sharklike, and unapologetically evil. I mean, really evil. It tells people it's going to keep them like farm animals and eat them. It's got a couple of ray weapons, neither of which is really well explained. Zigra also has very sharp fins, and cuts Gamera with them. In fact, it's the first enemy to penetrate Gamera's lower shell. Like Viras, Gamera neutralizes Zigra by throwing a rock on its nose. Gamera then plays its own theme on Zigra's sharp spines. As the kids shout encouragement, it roasts the shark with its fire breath. Then it's all over but the anti-pollution message.
And that's it for Gamera's initial run. There's another Gamera film after nine years, Gamera, the Super Monster, but that's got its own problems. Gamera hasn't been my favorite film series. The rapid descent into kids' fare really crippled the series for me, making it difficult to appreciate. Watching them in such rapid sequence also reinforces the repetitive and formulaic nature of the narrative. Gamera encounters the bad monster, makes a wounded retreat, then returns with a successful counterattack. Gamera is not my favorite monster mostly because it does not take itself or its narrative seriously. Until Shûsuke Kaneko and Kazunori Itô get their hands on the franchise, the Gamera films are meant to be one-off films that don't require much thought. Something that doesn't stand up to analysis because the creators weren't creating something deep. They were creating something for right now.
Next week, Godzilla battles his first cyborg.