Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Gamera Trilogy (1995-1999)

“I asked the actors to move in an inhuman way. Because they are kaiju, you know… So they must move like kaiju. Another thing I requested from the actors was, since the two monsters hate each other, I wanted the fights to be very fierce.” – Shinji Higuchi (Special Effects Director)

Daiei Film’s Gamera has commonly enjoyed lesser status, compared to rival studio Toho’s Godzilla (Pepsi versus Coke, if you will). Gamera’s reputation as a sloppy second to his more popular counterpart was only reinforced by Mystery Science Theater 3000’s skewering of his ‘60s and early ‘70s adventures. To be fair, Joel and his robotic companions took a couple potshots at Godzilla too, but the prevailing message was always that Gamera was little more than an inferior knock-off. After Godzilla himself fell on hard times in the ‘70s, he experienced a re-birth in the ‘80s and ‘90s, emerging bigger, meaner and more dynamic than ever. Now with Toho handling the distribution, the giant turtle underwent a similar makeover, thus entering a new era. So, how does this modern reboot of Gamera stack up? Read on…

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (aka: Gamera Daikaijû Kuchu Kessen)(1995) Directed by: Shûsuke Kaneko; Written by: Kazunori Itô; Starring: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Akira Onodera, Shinobu Nakayama and Ayako Fujitani

Rating: *** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

All of the usual ingredients are present: men in rubber suits bumping into each other and knocking down miniature buildings, Tokyo Tower* is destroyed once more, and people flee in terror, but that’s selling the movie short. Akin to comparing your favorite local eatery to a homogenous chain restaurant, it’s all about how they combine things to freshen up a familiar recipe. Director Shûsuke Kaneko (who directed all three movies, and would go on to helm the fine Godzilla film, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) and writer Kazunori Itô create a rich backstory and mythos about the origins of the giant turtle as the product of a long- extinct, advanced civilization. The first film in the trilogy also revives one of Gamera’s classic foes, Gyaos, a giant, birdlike creature with a hunger for human flesh.

* Considering all the times that iconic landmark has suffered kaiju-related calamity, you’d think they’d just give up or change locations, but I suppose that says something for the indomitable Japanese spirit.

Released just a couple of years after Jurassic Park, which represented a quantum leap for creature effects, the special effects in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe have a quaint throwback charm. Direct comparisons are unfair, since Japanese films tend to downplay creating realistic environments, and favor suspension of disbelief. By any standard, the effects are certainly passable, with detailed miniature cityscapes, compared to the crude models in earlier Gamera films. The new, improved Gamera is superior in every way to the previous Daiei efforts, comparing favorably to and even surpassing the Godzilla films from the same era. Among the film’s many strengths are the strong female characters. Instead of passively sitting on the sidelines or cowering in fear, the heroines take on an active role: Shinobu Nakayama as an ornithologist who studies Gyaos and Asagi (Ayako Fujitani**), a teenage girl with a psychic link to Gamera who can also feel his injuries. Presented at a breakneck pace, the monster action is virtually non-stop, and sets the stage for further adventures of Japan’s favorite giant turtle. Sure, if you stop to think about it, it’s all fairly silly, but it doesn’t matter when you’re having so much fun.
** Fun fact: Fujitani is martial artist/nominal actor Steven Seagal’s real-life daughter.

Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion (aka: Gamera 2: Region Shurai)(1996) Directed by: Shûsuke Kaneko; Written by: Kazunori Itô; Starring: Toshiyuki Nagashima, Miki Mizuno, Tamotsu Ishibashi and Ayako Fujitani
Rating:  *** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The second entry in the Gamera trilogy pits our shelled hero against a new, powerful adversary from the depths of space. Once more, a seemingly unstoppable foe descends on Japan to wreak havoc with humanity. This potent enemy, dubbed Legion, consists of hordes of smaller, insect-like baddies controlled by one giant creature, and is one of the more unique kaiju enemies to emerge in recent years. The smaller creatures create their own oxygen-rich, high pressure environment in the Tokyo subway, and target anyone carrying personal electronics (we’d all likely be doomed today), with messy results.

The pacing, similar to the first film, is refreshingly brisk. Overwhelmed by Legion’s onslaught, Gamera’s down, but not out for the count. Asagi returns from the first film, assisted by plucky journalist Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno). Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion clarifies Gamera’s role as more than just the “friend of all children” as in the originals, but a savior for humanity. Compared to Godzilla’s, he’s not simply the result of human meddling, but the protector of life on Earth, waging war against all who would dare threaten it. A conversation during the film’s conclusion raises the question, with our continual destruction of the environment will we eventually end up on Gamera’s bad side?

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (aka: Gamera 2: Region Shurai)(1996) Directed by: Shûsuke Kaneko; Written by: Kazunori Itô and Shûsuke Kaneko; Starring: Shinobu Nakayama, Ai Maeda, Yukijirô Hotaru and Ayako Fujitani

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Gamera might be the savior of humanity, but that doesn’t mean everyone appreciates his presence. Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris goes where few kaiju films ever tread, exploring the human loss associated with the wholesale devastation of cities. Teenager Ayana Hirasaka (Ai Maeda) harbors a deep hatred for the giant turtle, blaming him for the death of her parents. In a flashback to the first film, we learn that she witnessed the destruction of her childhood home, collateral damage from the scuffle between Gamera and Gyaos. She vows revenge against Gamera, befriending a mysterious baby creature, Iris, she encounters in a sealed cavern. But Iris is the sort of friend who takes more than he gives, sapping her energy, and attempting to incorporate her into his body.

We don’t see as much of Gamera in this move as the previous entries, which in the hands of less capable filmmakers would be a fatal misstep, but his absence creates tension and mystery, not resentment. In the opening scene, a discovery on the ocean floor provides tantalizing insight about Gamera’s apparent invincibility. The movie’s conclusion, which some might argue is a little too open ended, leaves Gamera facing the renewed menace of Gyaos, mutated into a new form. Although Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris ends before it’s completely resolved, from another perspective it re-affirms Gamera’s ongoing commitment to fighting the good fight, protecting Earth from outside forces.

Gamera returned several years later for a reportedly inferior semi-sequel, which regressed to his dubious roots as kiddie matinee material. Rumors abound that he will make another return sometime this year, in conjunction with his 50th anniversary, but hopefully any future filmmakers will forget about the latest detour, and refer to the 90s trilogy as a template. It would be even better if they somehow tied it into Toho’s pending revival of Godzilla, with a match-up between the two titans, although that might be taking things a bit too far.


  1. I haven't seen these three newer Gamera movies, but they sound like loads of fun. I recall watching reruns of the older movies when I was kid, with Gamera flying through the air with what appeared to be sparklers stuffed in his leg holes. Of course, those older movies never had the advantage of the Seagal bloodline coursing through any of them to really put things over the top. I watched the very first Gamera movie again a few years back, but I recall it was unfortunately kind of underwhelming. Some things are just better left as fond memories from childhood.

    1. Well said. The early Gamera films were goofy, shameless knock-offs of the Godzilla movies. The '90s Gamera movies, however, are a different beast (pardon the horrible pun), well worth checking out. In many ways, this trio of films surpasses the Godzilla productions from the same decade. It ain't Kurosawa, but it would have made Mr. Honda proud.