Gamera: The Complete Collection (Japan, 1965-2006, Arrow Video, 8 Blu-ray discs, NR, 1,174 Min.). For the first time all 12 Gamera films have been gathered together in a deluxe box set that traces the evolution of the flying turtle from the “friend of all children” in the more child- and family-oriented early films to the leaner, meaner “Guardian of the Universe” version of the acclaimed 1990s reboot trilogy, which are often hailed as three of the best kaiju films ever made. The limited-edition set comes loaded with extras, including alternate versions of the first two films and the fourth film.

The Gamera films supposedly were inspired by the head of Daiei Studios seeing a turtle shape in the sky when flying by airplane back to Japan. The studio had been looking for its own kaiju – Japanese for “strange beast” – to compete with Toho Studios’ highly-successful Godzilla film series. In addition to the films, Gamera has appeared in comic books, manga, anime and video games.

Gamera: The Giant Monster (1965, 78 min.). In this introductory film, shot in black-and-white as a money-saving choice (lack of funds would plague the series throughout the first eight films) as no one knew if the film would be successful and given to Noriaki Yuasa to direct, as everyone else at the studio passed on the project, Gamera emerges from beneath the Arctic icecap after one of the Cold War superpower’s planes is forced down during a skirmish and the crash sets off one of its nuclear bombs. At the same time, Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), a zoologist, is visiting a nearby Eskimo tribe and witnesses the crash. Hidaka has just been given a stone that depicts a turtle, whom the Eskimo chief calls the Devil’s Envoy, a giant turtle or chelonian that lived on the lost continent of Atlantis.

Indeed, Gamera turns out to be a giant turtle, some 200 feet tall when it walks on its two hind legs. It has the ability to shoot flames and, the viewer later learns, to ingest flames as well. It also can retract its legs and use those “ports” to issue flames that give it the ability to fly, rotating like a flying saucer, which Gamera soon is confused with.

The storyline of Gamera being a friend of children begins somewhat inadvertently here as, while destroying a lighthouse, Gamera actually stops to rescue a young boy (Yoshiro Uchida as Toshio) who had climbed into the lighthouse to get a better view of Gamera. Toshio happens to be obsessed with turtles.

Gamera then heads for a geothermal power plant in a quest for more energy. Luckily, in the first of ongoing governmental development coincidences that fill the early films, the government is working on a secret freeze bomb, but it only lasts for 10 minutes. That’s when everyone learns Gamera can fly. (One nice touch by Yuasa has the film switch in mid-Gamera cry to the sounds of a swinging jazz band in a noisy, packed nightclub.) Then Gamera moves forward to attack Tokyo.

Eventually scientists come up with a plan to contain and remove Gamera, but it is the most unlikely one you could imagine, and obviously is foiled when the film is proved a big success and an immediate sequel was ordered by the studio. What these films do so well is the miniature work for the destruction scenes, particularly in the various cities. The kaiju often are less convincing, although Gamera improves a bit over the first seven films and then is spectacular for the 1990s trilogy. Five of the next films also would play up Gamera as “friend of all children,” with the exception being the next film, “Gamera vs. Barugon.”

Extras for this first film include audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert August Ragone, who also does an introduction for the film (13:12), as he does for 10 other films in the set. Also included is the American theatrical version, called “Gammera the Invincible” (85 min.), with English dubbing and additional scenes set in the United States, including group meetings at the Pentagon and United Nations. The film also is given an upbeat opening theme song in this version. The song, which also is presented separately by itself in both vocal and instrumental versions (4:08 total) is performed by The Moons, who amusingly are advertised as “the most exciting group since The Beatles” with their psychedelic sound. Of course, The Moons totally disappeared; however, the song’s writer, Wes Farrell, also penned the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy” hit.

There also is the 1991 documentary, “Remembering the Gamera Series” (23:13), with interviews with director Yuasa (he would not direct the second film, but returned for the six after that) and screenwriter Niisan Takahashi, who would go on to write the first eight films and the final, 12th film in the series. Included in the documentary is discussion of the unmade “Gamera vs. Garasharp” film project, using miniatures and illustrations.

Additionally, there is a 2002 interview with Yuasa (13:11); a two-part “Gamera Special,” with a compilation of fight scenes (29:32) and trailers for the first eight films (28:20) from a 1999 VHS release; and an image gallery.

All 12 films are presented in high definition with lossless original Japanese audio and a complete collection of English dub tracks. Each of the films will be ranked separately in this review. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 4 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Gamera vs. Barugon (1966, 100 min.). For the second film, direction was turned over to Shigeo Tanaka (“Typhoon Reporter,” “Underworld’s Number One”) and, after a prologue that sees Gamera get out of the previous film’s closing dilemma and begin more rampaging, including making a dam burst, a scene that will again be used in two future films, Tanaka’s film seems like a completely different story, as a trio search for a giant opal that was hidden in a cave on New Guinea during the war.

Those living near the cave forbid entrance to that area, which they call Valley of the Rainbows. The opal, of course, turns out to be an egg that hatches Barugon, an amphibian, whose tongue can surge out and unleash a spray that can drop its surroundings to 20 below zero. It promptly destroys part of Kobe. The new kaiju also has a rainbow ray that can destroy missiles and which it uses to attack Gamera, who has arrived to battle it. It is at this point that Gamera starts being a protector of humanity or perhaps it is just being a protector of the planet.

Bonus features include audio commentary by Ragone and Jason Varney, plus an image gallery and Ragone’s introduction (7:57). Also included is the U.S. release, called “War of the Monsters,” trimmed to 88 minutes. “War of the Monsters” would also be used as the U.S. title of “Gamera vs. Jiger” in 1970. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967, 86 min.). With Yuasa back in the director’s chair, a series of volcanoes erupting, including Mt. Fuji, lead to Gamera’s return. Apparently, the big guy likes lava as an energy source. The human story this time has to do with construction of a highway through some mountainous terrain; however, some of the local villagers are protesting, hoping to drive up the compensation they will receive for having their land near Mt. Futago taken for the project. In charge of the highway construction is Shiro Tsutsumi (Kojiro Hongo, who would go on to play a scoutmaster in “Gamera vs. Viras”).

A pulsating green light is seen up on Mt. Futago and a green ray cuts a helicopter in half. Investigating the pulsating light are a young boy (Naoyuki Abe as Eiichi Kanamura) and a photographer. The creature, Gyaos, is kind of bat-like, with huge forceful wings to cause wind, but also has a flat shield-like head. The filmmakers had a vampire in mind when creating the monster, which also dislikes sunlight. The monster also shoots yellow rays from its mouth, which at one point, slice a car in half from front to back. Gyaos also slices the top off a moving passenger train car. During an early battle between Gyaos and Gamera, Gamera saves Eiichi from falling to his death and gives the child a ride on his back, thus reinforcing the “friend of all children” motif.

The aerial battle between the two kaiju is the film’s highlight. Gamera takes quite a beating and we start to see a lot of green gore emerge from its wounds, something the Godzilla films would not show. The film ends with the first of two Gamera theme songs.

Extras include audio commentary by Stuart Galbriath IV, an image gallery and Ragone’s introduction (9:12). Grade: film 2 stars; extras 2.25 stars

Gamera vs. Viras aka Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (1968, 81 min. director’s cut). This film was the first to have Gamera battle an alien monster, named Viras, after its home planet. The spaceship is kind of silly looking, like four bee-colored hives stuck atop it. After Gamera destroys the first spaceship, a second one is sent, which captures two boy scouts so Gamera, a “friend of all children,” will not attack it. The spaceship uses a “super catch ray” to trap Gamera on the bottom of the ocean.

Between these actions, there is a wasteful 10-minute recapitulation of the previous films, as the aliens study Gamera. There was even more reused footage in the 90-minute U.S. version, released as “Destroy All Planets.” When director Yuasa got control of the film back, he trimmed nine minutes.  Yuasa’s original theatrical version was 72 minutes. All three versions are included on this disc.

Gamera proves difficult to control until the aliens affix a “brainwave control device” to its head. They then order Gamera to destroy things, including the same dam as in the last film and the same destruction in Tokyo. Gamera gets even more gored in this film as his monster opponent is a squid-like creature. The film has too much padding from previous films in the series.

Extras include audio commentary by Carl Craig, who played the American boy scout Jim, and Jim Cironella and an introduction by Ragone (11:14), who points out the budget was cut by a third and there were only 25 days to shoot, but that American International Pictures signed on to distribute it and subsequent films in the U.S., with the stipulation that the two child leads would each be one Japanese and one American. Here, Toru Takatsuka plays Masao, the Japanese child.

Other extras include a new retrospective with grown-up Craig, who shows props he kept from the film and a photograph album, as he had a photographer assigned to him at the time (12:29), plus 60 minutes of highlights from the 2003 G-Fest in Chicago, with Craig and director Yuasa. Additionally, there are highlights from Yuasa’s 1966 film of the 4th Nippon Jamboree (6:18) and an image gallery. Grade: film 1.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Gamera vs. Guiron (1969, 82 min.). The film opens with two boys – Christopher Murphy as Tom and Nobuhiro Kajima as Akio – seeing a spaceship land, which they find, enter and take off in. When they are threatened by a meteor, Gamera comes to their rescue. The boys continue on, eventually landing on the planet Terra that is always on the opposite side of the sun from the Earth and thus has never been seen. The planet appears to have a space Gyaos, but is called a Guiron and has a long, razor-sharp snout that goes up to the top of its head. The lads encounter two female aliens, Barbella and Florella, who want to eat their brains!

The sets and layout of buildings on Terra are nice, but the monster action is a bit tired. Why does Gamera swing on a high bar for so long and why are there three minutes of reused footage. Gamera does somehow manage to repair the spaceship (figure that out).

Extras include audio commentary by David Kalat; Ragone’s introduction (11:25), who says the creature was supposed to be shark-like; an image gallery; and a Neptune Media Archive gallery. Grade: film and extras 2 stars

Gamera vs. Jiger aka Gamera vs. Great Demon Beast Jiger (1970, 82 min.). This time the film is centered around Japan’s Expo ’70, where Keisuke Sawada (Ryo Hayami of the “Kamen Rider” films and TV series) works. Keisuke is a friend to Hiroshi’s (Tsutomu Takakuwa) family. Kon Omura, who plays Hiroshi’s Dad, played Officer Kondo in “Gamera vs. Guiron.” Hiroshi is the Japanese half of the young boy pair, with Tommy (Kelly Varis) as the American half. Tommy is with his father as workers prepare to life the 33-foot high Wester Island statue, called the Devil’s Whistle, from its setting and transport it by boat to Expo ’70.

However, an island native is all upset over the moving of the statue, predicting bad things. Indeed, Gamera shows up as the statue is being moved to the ship. A bit later, a volcano erupts on the island and the buffalo-like kaiju Jiger awakes. The crew on the ship that had anything to do with the statue all get sick, but it does not matter anyway, as Jiger swims towards the Expo site at 190 miles per hour, splitting two ships in half, including the one carrying the statue.

There is some nice Jiger destruction and, in what was becoming a theme, this time it is spears ejected by Jiger that stick in Gamera’s feet, preventing him from turning on flying mode. Jiger also has a super heat wave. This time, the children are mostly bystanders until they come up with a couple of possible solutions late in the film. Jiger apparently has sent in a baby version of itself inside Gamera to hatch, which naturally is making Gamera sick. Borrowing liberally from 1966’s “Fantastic Voyage,” the children take a minisub through Gamera’s mouth and down through his system to try and kill the baby.

Extras include audio commentary by Edward H. Holland, Ragone’s introduction (8:39) and an image gallery. In the United States, the film was released as “Gamera vs. Monster X.” Grade: film and extras 2.5 stars

Gamera vs. Zigra aka Gamera vs. Deep-Sea Monster Zigra (1971, 88 min.). The film opens with a spaceship attacking Japan’s space station on the moon. Then most of the action takes place in and around Kamogawa Sea World, with a heavy initial ecological message about water and ocean pollution. We see orcas perform and seals play basketball. This time the child pair is made up of cousins Helen (Gloria Zoellner) and Kenichi (Reiko Kasahara).

After previously unheard-of magnitude 12 earthquakes in Arabia and Peru, a spaceship lands sea and its transfer ray brings on board Helen, Kenichi and their fathers, along with their small boat. The spacewoman from 480 light years away, knocks out the two dads, but tells the children she will cause a magnitude 13 earthquake near Tokyo. (No earthquake is shown, just three afterwards photos.) The woman (Eiko Yanami as Sugawara) says she has been sent to conquer Earth because her home water world has been polluted.

The children manage to escape by reversing the ray, so Sugawara is sent to Earth to kill them as they know too much. To do this, she dons a bikini and hitchhikes to Sea World. She also controls the Zigra, a shark-like monster (based on a goblin shark and a sailfish). Her spaceship, laughingly, looks like one of those balloon-filled jumping pits.

Extras include audio commentary by Sean Rhoads and Brooke McCorkle; Ragone’s introduction (8:23), who says because of budget cuts, one of the monster battles was axed and there were more of the children being chased around Sea World; and an image gallery. Grade: 1.5 stars; extras 2 stars

Gamera: Super Monster (1980, 91 min.). The nadir of the original series, a full half of this film consists of repeat battle sequences from the earlier films, and some of the new material is ludicrous. After opening with a song, a space battle takes place, but is only depicted by drawings. Looks like another low-budget production is underway. We are told the spaceship Zanon is headed to Earth to take over. Next, on Earth, three women receive a signal and, after doing a ridiculous series of arm movements – after an earlobe pull! – they transform into three flying aliens.

One of the three spacewomen’s secret identity is that of a pet store owner (wrestler Mach Fumiake as Kilara), who has befriended neighbor boy Keiichi (Kiochi Maeda), who is obsessed with turtles. Keiichi, by the way, can play keyboards and sings a Gamera song not once, but twice. Sent down from the spaceship to find and eliminate the three spacewomen is Giruge (Keiko Kudo), who does a fairly poor job, although she tries to befriend Keiichi.

The overall reasoning for using the old footage is that spaceship Zanon is sending the various giant monsters to battle Gamera. The film even uses brief animation bits from other Denei projects.

Bonus material includes audio commentary by Richard Pusateri, a Ragone introduction (6:05) and an image gallery. The film premiered in the United States on MTV. Grade: film dog; extras 1.5 stars

Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe (1995, 95 min.). With this, Gamera was rebooted with a much more realistic look (albeit still a giant flying turtle) and some excellent special effects. The film did so well that it became a trilogy of very well-received films. Directed by Shusuke Kaneko (two “Death Note” films, “Summer Vacation”) from a script by Kazunori Ito (2 “Ghost in the Shell” movies) and James Shanks (UK version), the film gives Gamera a backstory that it may have been genetically engineered by an ancient civilization.

When a plutonium-carrying ship runs aground in mid-ocean, it is one of several signs of a traveling atoll, something that is impossible, but turns out to be a previously dormant Gamera. Meanwhile, Prof. Hirata has been after a rare bird on an island, where it is discovered he and half the population – six families – have disappeared. Following up, Dr. Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) discovers three birds with 50-foot wingspans. It looks like the Gyaos are back and the government wants her to capture the birds by luring them to a stadium with a retractable roof.

One of the three escapes, but is attacked by Gamera. This causes the military to concentrate its efforts on killing Gamera rather than the Gyaos. The escaped Gyaos keeps growing in size, eats people and grabs a train car off the tracks. Gamera’s help is very destructive, even Tokyo Tower is destroyed.

Extras include audio commentary by artist Matt Frank, a Ragone introduction (4:34, mostly on the actors) and a 35-minute interview with director Kaneko and special effects director Shinji Higuchi from 2002 (35:48; it opens in a storage area filled with Gamera suits). There also is the first of a three-part, 2010 look at the reboot trilogy, “A Testimony of 15 Years.” This portion is 115 minutes long, while the next to installments, each with a film in the trilogy, are 121 and 134 minutes, respectively. They provide a deep dive into the making of the films. Additionally, there is another, 2001 interview with Higuchi (92 min.); a behind-the-scenes look (16 min.); the production announcement (5 min.); behind-the-scenes material set to music (4:17); a piece of the 1995 Yubari Film Festival (6:13); opening day at the Hibiya Theater (2:55); and an image gallery. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4 stars

Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996, 99 min.). In the second of the trilogy, the Earth is hit by several meteorites, with a couple landing in northern Japan (hence, we get some snowy scenes). It turns out they are an attack by an alien species, which scientists call the Legion. The aliens plant a gigantic seed pod in Hokkaido, but Gamera arrives and destroys it before it can launch its seeds, destroying a four-mile radius in the process.

The invading force comes in two parts, with small, flying solder Legion creatures attacking Gamera. He only escapes when the Legion minions are distracted by nearby power lines. The Legion’s giant leader travels with her swarm to Sendai, where another seed pod is planted. Gamera is drawn to the scene as Asagi Kusanagi, who established a mental connection with Gamera through a small amulet found on the “atoll” in the previous film, is aboard a helicopter that is being threatened by the Legion leader. Later there is a lot of fighting in and around Tokyo. The film has a lot of science in it and pseudo-science (?) with talk of the Earth’s Mana and how Gamera can harness that as a weapon. At one point, in order to revive Gamera, Asagi uses her amulet, which is destroyed in the process.

Extras include audio commentary by Kyle Yount, a Ragone introduction (4:21) and a Lake Texarkana comedy “hillbilly” dub from 2003 (99 min.). There also are outtakes from the comedy dub version (3:56).

In addition to the aforementioned installment of the “A Testimony of 15 Years” documentary (121 min.), there are 60 minutes of behind-the-scenes production footage and 39:46 of behind-the-scenes special effects footage. Other extras are an image gallery, the 1995 production announcement (6:34), 1996 promotional events (5:16), a backstage clip “Sky” set to music (3:11) and Hibaya Theater on opening day 1996 (3:58). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3.75 stars

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999, 107 min.). In the conclusion of the trilogy, variations of Gyaos are appearing all over the Earth. In further detail of a scene from the first of the trilogy, we see a girl lose her parents and her cat Iris when Gamera’s battle with Gyaos causes their building to collapse. The girl (Ai Maeda as Ayana Hirasaka) is now living with relatives out in the sticks. One day, a trio of unkind female schoolmates talk her into breaking into a shrine to steal a stone. Tatsunari Moribe (Yuu Koyama) is part of the family that has been protecting the shrine for generations, the Ryu-sei-cho spirit is said to be imprisoned inside and, should it ever escape, it will mean the end of the world.

Hirasaka helps a young monster, whom she calls Iris, come to life and she plans on nourishing the monster so it can grow and get revenge on Gamera. Meanwhile, Gamera has been battling Gyaos in Shibuya, wrecking more buildings in the process. With 15,000 to 20,000 dead or injured during the battle, the military again aims at killing Gamera rather than the Gyaos. Eventually, a grown Iris and Gamera meet in combat in Kyoto, with the city suffering much damage and Gamera losing a forward foot.

Iris is a much more elegant-looking super monster. Extras include audio commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski; tongue-in-cheek audio commentary by Gamera (Cameron Beacham III who played Gamera in all the films), Iris and Soldier No. 6; and Ragone’s introduction (4:14). There also is part three of “A Testimony of 15 Years” (134 min.), plus a new interview with Kaho Tsutsumi at the DNA Tokusatsu exhibition of movie props (10:47) and 18 deleted and four extended scenes (10:21 total; some are super-brief). There also is a montage of behind-the-scenes footage called “The Awakening of Iris (Remix)” (37:34). Additionally, there is the production announcement (3:50); a 1998 photo opportunity (55 secs.); a backstage clip (4:41); opening day at Shibuto Cine Tower (6 min.); storyboard animation (6:08); special effects outtakes (2:19; includes a man wrestling with Gamera); comedy dub outtakes (3:24); and an image gallery. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4 stars

Gamera the Brave (2006, 96 min.). This was a second reboot, but one more aimed at children. The storyline is that Gamera perished in 1973, sacrificing himself to kill three Gyaos. It is now 2006 and a young boy (Ryo Tomioka as Toru Aizawa), after visiting his mother’s grave a year after her fatal car accident, sees a flashing red light on the island in the harbor of his town. He soon investigates by swimming over and, on top of the pulsating red stone, he finds an egg, from which a turtle promptly hatches. Toru takes the turtle home and names it Toto. Soon Toto is growing at a very fast pace and can hover and breath fire. Yes, it is Gamera being reborn.

Meanwhile, there have been some shipping disasters, caused by Zedus, a huge amphibian that soon goes on a rampage in the city until Toto, now in full Gamera growth, meets Zedus and they battle on the town’s bridge. Zedus reminds a bit of Barugon.

When the battle resumes in the big city, it is near the hospital where Mai (Kaho), Toru’s friendly young neighbor, has just had heart surgery. Toru gave her the turtle’s stone for good luck, but now realizes it must be given to Gamera/Toto for extra strength to battle Zedus. To get the stone there, it is passed from child to child, with each fighting through the terrified crowd streaming in the opposite direction.

The film has very good special effects. Extras include audio commentary by SciFi Japan editors Keith Aiken and Bob Johnson; the archival “How to Make a Gamera Film” with director Ryuta Tazaki (37:15); an archival behind-the-scenes look (63:39); an archival retrospective of the whole series (43:16); the opening-day premiere (5 min.); an archival interview with actress Kaho (10 min.); a special effects supercut (32:32); and an image gallery. Grade: film3.25 stars; extras 3.5 stars

The set comes with housing in a large-format rigid box with illustrations by Matt Frank; a hardback, 130-page comic book, including all four issues of the 1996 Dark Horse Comics series and the first English-language version of the prequel comic by Frank and Joshua Bugosh; and an 80-page book with a new series retrospective by Patrick Macias, an archival interview with director Yuasa, kaiju x-ray illustrations by Jolyon Yates and Fangoria on-set reports on the three 1990s films. There also is a double-sided, four-panel poster map of Gamera’s Japan and collector’s art cards for each film, illustrated by Matt Frank.