With the commercial success of their 1965 film Gamera the Giant Monster, the Daiei studio were quick to commission a sequel. This second Gamera film benefitted from a slightly bigger budget and a colour presentation, as well as what was seen as a more prestigious director in Shigeo Tanaka (1961’s Kenshin). Original director Noriaki Yuasa was relegated to directing the film’s special effects.
After a brief early sequence that both recounts the events of the preceding film and reverses its ending – a rogue meteorite bangs Gamera’s Mars-bound rocket back to Earth – Gamera vs Barugon embarks on an unexpected and seemingly unrelated first act. Three entrepreneurs team up on an expedition to New Guinea to retrieve a fist-sized opal hidden in a cave during World War II. Ignoring the protests of the local tribespeople, they find the opal only for one of men to betray the others, cause a cave collapse, and escape back to Japan with the opal in hand.
If the above description raises your concerns of casual racism and groups of Japanese extras unconvincingly made-up in brownface to look Papuan, then you are sadly rather good at anticipating this kind of thing. These early scenes have dated terribly, and while they have a sort of old-fashioned charm in places that charm is overrun by just how inappropriate it all feels. One interesting aspect is how the film presents Koji Fujiyama as Onodera, the traitorous member of the group. With his fashionable suit and sunglasses, he resembles the sort of screen gangsters that were popularised at the time by rival studio Nikkatsu. It is a small but welcome pop culture riff, akin to the similar take on the ‘sun tribes’ in the original Gamera.
Onodera’s opal is, of course, not a gemstone but an egg. When it hatches in Kobe harbour, it unleashes a rapidly-growing and dangerous reptile that reaches the size of a large building before going on a destructive rampage.
Barugon, the reptile in question, is not terribly well-realised. Rather than a bipedal giant monster, it walks on all fours – a physique created by putting an actor in a rubber suit and very obviously have them crawl around a model set on their hands and knees. If nothing else he resembles a horned chameleon, with an extendable tongue that can not only flail out and hit things but also secrete a sort of icy freeze-mist. Best of all, the spines along his back can emit a shining rainbow that disintegrates whatever it touches. In terms of concept, if not in execution, Barugon is a simply marvellous slice of bug-eyed insanity.
The arrival of Barugon on Japanese shores gives the authorities a new crisis to tackle, but also attracts the attention of Gamera – who soon arrives to take the potential new rival out of action. Noriaki Yuasa’s action scenes have a very strong eye for both scale and drama, and even manage to pull some quite engaging sequences out of the somewhat lacking Barugon suit. The lack of money with which to execute these scenes is an issue, but they are produced with inventiveness and integrity. There is a solid reason why Gamera has become a cult favourite: low budgets are no obstacle to a good imagination.
The human performances are typical of the genre: a lot of dramatic pointing past the camera in awe of whatever the effects team have produced. It is worth highlighting Kojiro Hongo as the regretful Keisuke: it is his brother who hid the opal in the first place, and he who encourages his companions Onodera and Kawajiri (Yuzo Hayakawa) to come looking for it. Even after Onodera’s betrayal, Keisuke feels the weight of consequences. His story arc, which is played well by Hongo, is a small character study in greed and regret. It may only be a little more nuanced than a typical kaiju film, but even a little is enough to make a difference.
Gamera vs Barugon was theatrically released in Japan with another Daiei giant monster film – in this case the samurai/monster blend Daimajin. The double bill under-performed at the time, which is a shame, but they both remain strong examples of the genre and a cut above the run-of-the-mill.