When Godzilla was released in 1954 in Japan, it inspired a huge increase in tokusatsu filmmaking in that country in the year to follow, with Japanese studios investing in science fiction in a big way. And yet very little of that influence seems to have resulted in the most obvious possible Godzilla knock-offs (or so you'd think): beyond the walls of Toho itself, very little effort was apparently put into making films about men in giant monster suits rampaging through model cities. Now, even with the aid of the internet, rock solid information about Japanese genre cinema prior to the mid-'60s is a bit difficult to come by in English (and I would both welcome and demand clarification on the subject from any commenters who know better), but the best I can tell is that there wasn't any daikaiju eiga produced by Toho's competitors at the same level of prestige and budget as that studio's A-list projects, and certainly nothing that was even semi-seriously designed as a franchise-starter, until fully eleven years after Godzilla first stomped across the land. For it was in 1965 that Daiei Film finally jumped into the deep end with Gamera, the film that introduced the only non-Toho daikaiju whose cinema appearances have run to the double digits.

There's an important distinction to be made right at the onset between Godzilla and Gamera. And it's not just that only one of them is a tusked bipedal tortoise whose limbs retract into his shell to become rocket boosters. The difference is that, once we've made allowances for budget, genre, and target audience, several of Godzilla's vehicles in the '60s and '70s are genuinely good. You can't make enough allowances for that to be true of any Gamera film. At their best - and the original Gamera from '65 is certainly among the best, though that usually means something a little different than it does here - are hilariously bad romps with dodgy monster suits being greeted by some of the most ludicrous dialogue ever spoken in any human language (and having only ever experienced the films in the notorious dubs assembled by producer Sandy Frank in 1985 (the second U.S. release - the first, 1966's Gammera the Invincible, was considerably re-shot, not just dubbed), until finally viewing the Japanese original for this review, I am ecstatic to report that there is very little difference between the two, beyond a stray line here or there, and the matter of character names). The bad Gamera films are the ones where all that continues to apply, but the level of incompetence is so extreme that they're not even funny.

The ugliness of those days still lies ahead for us: at the moment, we only need deal with one of the most iconically silly movies in the history of Japan. Think about the implications of that statement for a moment or two. And once you're done, we can move on to the Arctic, where a team of Japanese scientists are studying something or other. The local Eskimos, I think. It's a bit fuzzy, but it really doesn't matter, since the only reason they're there is to be eyewitnesses when the Soviets and Americans get into a dogfight (as happened all throughout the Cold War, of course), and the only reason for that dogfight is so that the Soviet plane can crash, igniting its nuclear armaments. None of the Japanese nor Eskimo observers are overly bothered by this development, though they certainly had ought to be, for the nuclear explosion breaks apart the Arctic ice, releasing a 60-meter turtle-beast, as previously described. Roaring in a suspiciously familiar squawk, and breathing fire, it destroys the ice breaker/science vessel Chidori Maru, leaving only a handful of witnesses: Dr. Hidaka (Funakoshi Eiji), his assistant Yamamoto Kyoke (Kiritachi Harumi), and photojournalist Aoyagi (Yamashiko Junichiro). All they have to take to the civilised world is an ancient Eskimo carving on stone depicting a giant turtle, and the words moaned in terror (and in immensely tortured English) by the chief (Yoshida Yoshio), "The devil's envoy! Gamera!"

With everything having gotten too exciting to stand it, we now turn to Toshio (Uchida Yoshiro), a preteen boy and turtle enthusiast living with his his sister Nobuyo (Sugata Michiko) and their widowed father (Kitahara Yoshiro). And for all that Gamera has been an extraordinary treasure trove of campy goodies to this point - between the painted backdrops standing in for the Arctic, the dizzyingly bad dialogue, and performances so ripe you detect even through the usually insurmountable barrier of subtitles (and that's saying nothing about the dismal American non-actors picked up to play the U.S. military men on the ground during the Soviet attack) - there is no mistaking the stratospheric jump the film makes after Toshio shows up; it's what pushes Gamera from just another lousy, but charmingly so, Japanese genre picture, into the echelons of the Bad Movie Pantheon. Toshio - that's "Kenny" to the English-speaking audiences raised on Frank's dub - is the absolute best of the absolute worst, a chirpy voiced little weirdo who seems to be more tolerated than enjoyed by the adults he keeps interfering with, as he continually insists to anyone who stands still for long enough that Gamera is friendly, and Gamera is a gentle animal, and there's no such thing as a bad-spirited turtle. This interspersed with scenes of Gamera destroying ships, power planets, and at least dozens of human lives. Though he does rescue the boy from the devastated wreck of a post-monster rampage, so from Toshio's end of things it probably makes a wee bit of sense.

Toshio's shovey presence in the onscreen action - which is not to say his presence in the story, since strictly speaking he has none - speaks volumes about Gamera's intentions: it wants very badly to be a kids' movie. "Obviously", you are perhaps thinking, "it is a movie about a giant turtle with jet engines". True, but the daikaiju eiga as a genre, though the appeal of giant monsters spreading fantastic mayhem to children is apparent, didn't start out as dippy matinee movie fare, and for most of its early years was at least moderately tied to serious filmmaking even a its most stubbornly inane. The Godzilla franchise itself wasn't even starting to sniff around the possibility of turning into a kiddie series yet: it wouldn't be until 1967's Son of Godzilla that Toho would clearly give up on keeping an adult audience in mind with the Godzilla pictures (in part, I suppose, because Gamera had suddenly horned in on a niche that Godzilla had previously had all to itself.

But Daiei wasn't fucking around: Gamera was a friend to all children, goddammit, even when he was burning their crushed corpses. Thus Toshio, and thus Gamera's absolutely one-of-a-kind bozo sensibility. Because filtering everything through its pee-wee herokin insistently requires that everything about the film be much more flippant than even the goofiest of Toho movies. And this makes its resolutely bad screenwriting, filmmaking technique, and visual effects all feel perfectly, absurdly charming.

For make no mistake: Gamera is lousy as all hell, throwing out a new ludicrous conceit in virtually every scene, from the hypothesis that Gamera was one of a burgeoning race of gigantic fire-breathing turtles known to primitive man and sealed under the polar ice during the last glacial maximum on down. Nor is anything in the film quite as blissfully daft as the desperation gambit, Z Plan, by which Japan saves the world from Gamera once and for all (or not), a bit of frivolous comic book logic so splendid that I couldn't' begin to spoil it. Or Toshio's satisfied, aspirational plan for how he plans to find Gamera again in the future. It's always impressive to find a movie where the stupidity aquifers just keep pumping no matter how much the writer - Takahashi Nisan, in this case - draws out of.

Add to that the hilariously crappy hand puppet used for Gamera's close-ups - when he breathes fire, you can see the pipe feeding fuel out of his mouth - and director Yuasa Noriaki's unceasingly urgent treatment of his actors, who keep getting high-impact close-ups to punctuate even the most routine, bland moments, and the ingredients are all in place for some of the best bad movies that Japan ever exported. Gamera is silly, nonsensical, incoherent, and wildly unconvincing, and there's not a single frame of it that isn't hilarious.