1966's Gamera vs. Barugon is particularly noteworthy in the Gamera series for three reasons. Firstly is that this first sequel to the previous year's Gamera was in color, where its predecessor was not; it's frankly not clear to me why the original was in black-and-white, at that point in time, but it left that film with the definite sense of being a bit of a cost-conscious cheapie (an impression furthered by the sets, costumes, effects, and acting), which Gamera vs. Barugon therefore doesn't quite suffer from. To the same degree. For the same reasons. I mean, it's still cheap as all heck. But we'll get back there.

Secondly, Gamera vs. Barugon is the only film in the series prior to the 1990s that wasn't directed by Yuasa Noriaki; instead, it was handled by the far more seasoned Tanaka Shigeo, whose career stretched back to the early '30s (Yuasa, in contrast, had only directed one feature prior to Gamera). And this, too, was perhaps critical, for I suspect it has a great deal to do with why Gamera vs. Barugon, generally speaking, looks quite a bit more interesting than Gamera: Tanaka and his cinematographer, Takahashi Michio, might not have had a lot to work with in the script - written by Takahashi Nisan, the author of all of the classic era Gamera pictures - but goddamn if they didn't do absolutely everything in their power to make it look halfway decent. But we'll get back there, too.

Thirdly, Gamera vs. Barugon is the only film out of twelve without a single child in the cast. And this is most critical of all, since it very nearly ends up feeling like a half-way serious movie, as a result. I am not sure if it immediately follows that this makes it better; the rather frivolous, silly attitude that Gamera adopted, in no small part because its junior protagonist forcibly injected a degree of frolicsome nonsense into the proceedings, made it its own very distinctive, delightfully off-kilter thing. Whereas Gamera vs. Barugon has just enough grown-up sensibility and a barely complex enough plot that it ends up feeling like an abnormally shitty Godzilla movie.

After some blue-tinted footage from the previous movie with a quick bit of catch-up narration (Wakayama Genzo narrates in the original Japanese, and oh, how weirdly present he will be throughout), we're off to the races. Having been shot into space in the nose cone of a giant rocket, Gamera was thought gone for good, but a meteor slams into his vessel, freeing him and sending him zooming towards Earth as only a zoom bipedal tusked turtle with jet engines can zoom. There, he destroys a dam to devour its energy, and makes his escape - not merely from the human authorities, but nearly from the movie itself.

For we now change gears so abruptly that viewers not wearing their seat belts are like to be thrown out of the movie altogether. Four men are gathered in dimly lit room, discussing a great plot to find a magnificent jewel and sell it on the black market (this is one of the scenes that's especially easy on the eyes, where Tanaka and Takahashi seem particularly hellbent on making the movie look better than ti deserves). One of the men, Hirata Ichiro (Natsuki Akira), discovered a giant opal on New Guinea when he was there during the Second World War; it's he who has arranged for his brother Keisuke (Hongo Kojiro) and two mercenaries, Kawajiri (Hayakawa Yuzo) and Onodera (Fujiyama Koji) to travel back to the island to find it in the cave he hid it. And this they do, against the strenuous objections of the locals, including the Japanese transplant Dr. Matsushita (Sugai Ichiro), an anthropologist with an adopted daughter Karen (Enami Kyoko). It's she who tells the travelers the story of Rainbow Valley, from which no-one can return, but being good civilised folk, they disregard her warnings as superstitious rot and head into the jungle. Onodera starts to get a little opal-crazy through all this, and makes ready to steal it for himself, first by allowing Kawajiri to die from the bite of an enormous scorpion, then by triggering a cave-in to deal with Keisuke. Except that Keisuke lives, nursed back to health by Matsushita and Karen, the latter of whom demands that he take her back to Japan so she can retrieve that opal.

Which, we're about to learn, is actually an egg; as Onodera sits in a room receiving an infrared treatment to cure some annoying jungle disease, he leaves the light trained on the exact pocket where he had stashed the rock, and in short order it hatches out a blue lizard about the size of a guinea pig. But it's not that size for long: it grows at an enormous rate, large enough to sink the ship containing it, and then attacking the harbor buildings in Kobe. And it is now that we first get to see the beast, and the enormity of what a crazy bad movie Gamera vs. Barugon shall be reveals itself in all its splendor. Because Barugon - as Karen identifies it - looks like this:

You know how sometimes, you just have that feeling? I don't even know what feeling I'm talking about. But Barugon makes me feel it. The eyes are definitely part of it. They're like Muppet eyes. And when the suit is in motion, they never seem to be staring at anything all, just kind of gazing out arbitrarily. The skin is also part of it: it suggest leathery plastic. It's like a toy, a really nice toy. Or a prop made by the most uncommonly gifted high school film club members you ever met. All I know is that the first time I ever saw Barugon in all his glory, I bolted upright and thought to myself, "I am watching one of my new favorite bad movies". And that was without the benefit of seeing his two signature attacks: his tongue shoots about half the length of his body, completely rigid, and sprays icy mist from the tip, like a fire extinguisher; also, he can shoot a rainbow from the back of his spikes, and it's a kind of death ray. This is, I want to hasten to remind you, the film that's typically regarded as the "adult" entry in the classic Gamera series.

So anyway, Gamera is attracted by the energy of Barugon's rainbow beam, and the two monsters fight, with Barugon freezing the turtle into a statue. The fight is, in all honesty, pretty terrific: it has raw animal power that recalls the earlier Godzilla fights that had already, by 1966, been replaced by more theatrical, sumo-influenced choreography. And there's a particular shot of Barugon in the foreground, watching Gamera slow to a crawl in the background, that's one of the loveliest individual images in any 1960s daikaiju eiga with which I am familiar. It never ceases to be an uncommonly handsome film, truly.

At about this time, anyway, the film which has been bogged down by its fascination with the intricacies of Onodera's betrayal of his colleagues, to drop into a marvelously repetitive second half, which consists of several cycles of somebody coming up with a plan to stop Barugon, after which that plan fails, after which another plan is concocted. This plays out until at long last, Gamera thaws out (the rather bored-sounding narrator even phrases it as such), and finally, with less than ten minutes remaining Gamera vs. Barugon depicts Gamera vs. Barugon. Not that even the most action-packed Godzilla films have a lot of monster action in them, but the disappearance of Gamera from his own movie is extremely noticeable.

I won't call it boring, precisely: the first half, with the human plot that feels like it takes place in another universe than a giant monster thriller, that's boring (the Godzilla films from around the same time that add in a gangster subplot generally did it with much more wit). The second half is too crammed full of random strangeness to qualify: the beautifully cheap, reliably bizarre Barugon alone is enough to guarantee that the film continues to be captivating, if only in a negative sense: what the hell magical nonsense are they going to come up with now? And while the film ends up with a punishingly generous 100-minute running time, the longest of any Gamera film until the 1990s, it doesn't really feel too bloated.

It's probably fair to say that, objectively, Gamera vs. Barugon is the "best" of the early Gamera films; to a certain degree that works against it, since it's still not actually good, and it's probably a bit easier to actually enjoy a real howler of a terrible monster movie than one that's kind of almost functional in some ways. But Barugon himself is absolutely enough to keep this one firmly in the bad movie lover's wheelhouse: he looks like hell, and his powers are ridiculous, and hearing straitlaced Japanese men talk about those powers and how to counteract them never ceases to be hilarious. Not the funniest of the Gamera films, nor the most fun, but a fine continuation of a franchise that would drive off a cliff soon enough.