Home > Reviews > Thoughts on Gamera: The Heisei-Era trilogy (spoilers)

Thoughts on Gamera: The Heisei-Era trilogy (spoilers)

The main reason I decided to do this Gamera watch-through is because of the acclaim I’d heard for the Gamera reboot trilogy made in the ’90s, and after slogging through the mostly childish, cheesy, formulaic films of the original series, I’m finally there. Intriguingly, these were the first kaiju films directed by Shusuke Kaneko, who would later direct Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, the best of the Millennium-era Godzilla films. They also have the same composer as that film, Kow Otani. So this should be interesting.

Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe (Gamera: Daikaiju Kuuchuu Kessen, literally Gamera: Giant Monster Midair Battle, almost the same title as the original Gamera vs. Gyaos) came out in 1995, a year after the end of the Heisei-era Godzilla series, and follows its lead by rebooting in a much more serious, mature vein. After a Naval flotilla transporting plutonium has a nearly disastrous collision with a mysterious floating atoll, conscience-stricken officer Yonemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara) convinces Professor Kusanagi (Akira Onodera) to let him join the study of the atoll. Meanwhile, ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (the lovely Shinobu Nakayama) investigates her mentor’s disappearance along with the nervous Inspector Osako (Yukijiro Hotaru), who takes his sense of style from Lt. Columbo. They discover that the mentor was devoured by three giant “birds” that soon come after them, though Nagamine discovers the nocturnal creatures are repelled by her camera flash. Though Nagamine is wary of the government’s plan to capture the creatures alive, she and Osako cooperate, coming up with a clever plan to lure the creatures to a stadium and trap them under its retractable roof. (The 1957 American movie The Black Scorpion used a similar gambit on its Willis O’Brien-animated title monster, but without the roof.)

On the atoll, Yonemori finds several bits of comma-shaped jewelry and a stone plinth bearing the same symbol and other writing. When he touches the plinth, it shatters and the atoll’s stony covering breaks apart to reveal a tusked turtle kaiju that then heads for the stadium and attacks the smaller winged creatures. (In a bit of a sight gag, it emerges at a Shell oil refinery.) In an interesting quirk that’s never come up before in these films, it’s pointed out that the Japan Self-Defense Force is prohibited by law from attacking any foe that hasn’t already opened fire, so they can do nothing but watch as the “sea monster” tears through the city and attacks the stadium to get at the captive “birds,” which use their sonic cutting rays to escape. The sea monster rockets off after them like a whirling “flying saucer.”

Translation of the plinth’s runes reveals an inscription identifying the turtle kaiju as Gamera, destined to awaken to fight the “bird” kaiju, the Gyaos. Dr. Kusanagi speculates that Gamera came from Atlantis and that the comma-shaped charms are made of orichalcum. Yonemori gives one charm to Kusanagi’s teenage daughter Asagi (Ayako Fujitane), and it glows when she holds it.

Later, Yonemori helps Nagamine rescue a boy from a village the Gyaos are attacking, and when Gamera seems to protect them, they realize Gamera is on their side. That doesn’t stop the SDF from attacking him, though, and when Asagi finds herself drawn to the battle site, she suffers the same injuries as Gamera. After the wounded Gamera retreats, he and Asagi both go dormant for a while.

Genetic analysis shows that the Gyaos were artificially engineered; the ancient Atlanteans were destroyed by their own creation. Gamera was their counterweapon, created too late to save them, but left for posterity in case the Gyaos ever returned — which is possible now because pollution has changed the world’s conditions enough to make it amenable to Gyaos. Yonemori and Nagamine reflect on the parallels between the past civilization destroying itself and our own civilization’s hazards.

With Gamera off healing in the ocean, Gyaos is able to feed unfettered and grow into the massive Super Gyaos, which attacks Tokyo — and has developed eye shields so that daylight no longer bothers it. In a subversive twist, for once it isn’t the kaiju that wrecks Tokyo Tower, but the military’s own missiles. (Kaneko doesn’t seem to have much regard for the authorities. There’s been an obstructionist government official whose insistence on capturing Gyaos alive for study has allowed matters to get to this point.) Super Gyaos nests atop the remains of the landmark, and we get a newscaster montage talking about the evacuation, the stock market panic, and other generally-overlooked consequences of a kaiju disaster. (Another interesting touch of realism: Nagamine remarks that it would take ten days to evacuate Tokyo, in contrast to the mere hours usually implied in these films. And Zack Snyder wanted us to believe Metropolis could be evacuated in minutes…)

Dr. Kusanagi’s love for his daughter seems to revive both her and Gamera, and he and Yonemori realize that she’s become his “priestess.” That link lets her offer guidance to Gamera in his massive final battle with Gyaos. Gyaos’s death throes are shown much the same way as in the original Gamera vs. Gyaos, with its cutting ray firing skyward and fizzling out. Gamera swims away under a blatant knockoff of the Jurassic Park theme music, but Nagamine realizes there may be more Gyaos eggs out there. Asagi promises her and the audience that Gamera will be back.

Well, this was a good revival, taking a realistic tack that couldn’t fully cancel the inherent silliness of a giant, tusked, bipedal turtle that can fly via rocket propulsion from its leg holes, but that came pretty close. It has some of the same subversiveness we’d later see in GMK — toward the kaiju genre itself and its conventions, toward the military and government establishments, and a bit toward the general public, remaining fixated on their mundane concerns and failing to take the threat seriously enough. The characters and actors weren’t bad, although Ayako Fujitani (Asagi) was kind of bland. There are influences from the Heisei Godzilla series, such as the darker and more naturalistic take and the focus on a young heroine with a psychic link with the hero monster. But there are elements that presage later Godzilla films, and not just GMK. The idea of Gamera having been created to defend against more malevolent kaiju is very reminiscent of the 2014 Legendary Godzilla.

The following year, 1996, brought Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (Gamera Tsu: Region Shirai, literally Gamera Two: Legion Invasion, though the onscreen English title text reads Gamera 2: Advent of Legion). This one focuses on a mostly new cast centered on Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno), a Sapporo Science Center staffer who investigates a mysterious meteor fall and comes into contact with the SDF’s Col. Watarase (Toshiyuki Nagashima). At least I think he’s SDF — his helmet at the start says “Chemical School.” Anyway, there seems to be something unnatural about the meteor fall, and soon our old friend Osako — now a security guard because last year’s events were too much for him — spots a monster that eats all the glass in a beer factory. But that’s the extent of his cameo, because next there’s an attack on a subway by some freaky cyclopean bug-like critters that are a couple of meters long. A vast plant pod soon erupts from the site of the attack. Midori deduces that the bugs and the pod are symbiotic, and that the pod will launch a seed to another planet, which is how the combined species spawn. Midori’s colleague Obitsu (Mitsuro Fukikoshi) determines that the launch of the pod will destroy a region miles across. They’re convinced they’re doomed, but Gamera shows up — sporting a new ability to extend his forearms into sea turtle-like wings — and destroys the flowering pod before it can launch. The bugs attack en masse, and a Bible-literate soldier dubs them Legion (albeit with a Japanese pronunciation, “Re-gi-on” with a hard G). Gamera is wounded and driven off, and a giant mother bug emerges, flies off, and is apparently but inconclusively shot down by the military.

Midori suggests tracking down Asagi, having read online about her bond with Gamera, but the government officials are skeptical. She and Obitsu deduce the biology of what’s officially called the Symbiotic Legion — they have semiconductor-like cells (and move by gas pressure instead of muscles), so they must extract the silicon from glass, which releases the oxygen that feeds the pod. They need EM fields to do it, so they’re drawn to cities — with the next city in their path being Sendai. Another pod erupts there and the city is evacuated, and sheer coincidence brings Midori together with Asagi on the same evac chopper, though it’s unclear to me whether Asagi is there in search of Gamera or not. Anyway, Gamera holds the giant Mother Legion at bay long enough to let the choppers get away, but it was a delaying tactic on Legion’s part to keep Gamera from reaching the pod in time. He aborts its space launch just in time, but the explosion destroys the entire city, and Gamera is assumed dead, his body charred and motionless.

Inevitably, the now-desperate Mother Legion heads for Tokyo (and there’s a glimpse of the still-wrecked Tokyo Tower from last time). Obitsu pursues a plan to use a certain EM frequency to lure the Soldier Legion and kill them, by some sort of analogy with pheromones and bee stings, while Midori and Asagi join a prayer vigil for Gamera at the ruins of Sendai. This apparently brings Gamera back to life, but Asagi’s orichalcum charm is shattered. The SDF fights Mother Legion ineffectually until Gamera arrives, and the general is initially reluctant to provide any support to Gamera, having apparently never heard the bit about “the enemy of my enemy.” But eventually they all fight together against Legion and destroy the Soldier bugs, but Mother Legion is so tough that Gamera eventually has to draw in energy from all over the world to power an ultimate weapon called the Mana Blast, which fires out of the middle of his plastron and vaporizes Legion. And it seems to have no negative effect on Gamera, so I have to wonder why it took him so long to unleash that one. At the end, Asagi points out that Gamera is the guardian of Earth, not humanity, so we’d better take care not to be the enemies of Earth.

I gather this is the most acclaimed film of Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy, actually winning a Japanese Nebula Award, but I find it less impressive than its predecessor. It’s a very effective horror movie and action movie, with excellent effects and an imaginative concept and design for Legion; but the characters make much less of an impact, little more than ciphers who are there to deliver exposition, though there are a few nice touches (like when Watarase is told the pod has formed a flower — he asks what color it is, and the nonplussed soldier replies he didn’t ask). It’s also less subversive, a lot more respectful in its portrayal of the SDF. So it feels more ordinary and less edgy, although the production values are really good. Otani’s music is still effective, and he briefly uses an SDF march with basically the same percussion line as his later SDF march in GMK, but then switches to a march that’s basically a pastiche of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall theme.

The series took a break for three years, not returning until 1999 — the year after the abortive TriStar Godzilla and nine months before the Millennium Godzilla series began. The concluding film of the trilogy is Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris (Gamera Surī: Jyashin Irisu Kakusei, literally Gamera Three: False God Iris’s Awakening, though an onscreen title at the end calls it Gamera 1999: Absolute Guardian of the Universe). Perhaps Kaneko realized the second film’s replacement characters were ineffective, since this one refocuses on key characters from the first film, including the lovely Dr. Nagamine (yay!), who’s chasing down new Gyaos mutations that have been emerging around the world. Meanwhile, we get acquainted with Ayana (Ai Maeda), a teenage girl who’s shown in a flashback to the first film, watching helplessly as Gamera destroys her apartment building with her parents inside (along with her cat, Iris) while fighting Gyaos in Tokyo. As a result, she harbors a deep hatred of Gamera and wants him dead. (Hey, isn’t that the setup for Batman v Superman?) When she’s dared by some girl bullies at her new school to tamper with a local temple, she finds an orichalcum pendant similar to Asagi’s and triggers the hatching of a weird beast with a mouthless Gyaos-like head and a shelled, tentacled body. She names it Iris (with a short I at the beginning), sensing that they share a hatred of Gamera. The movie associates Gamera and Gyaos with two of the four guardian beasts of the compass points in Chinese mythology, the Black Turtle of the North and the Vermilion Bird of the South, casting them as mortal enemies. And Iris is a self-mutating evolutionary offshoot of the Gyaos.

Gamera’s changed too, as we see when his ongoing battle with the Gyaos crashes into Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya District on Friday night, its busiest, most crowded time — with the now-homeless ex-Inspector Osako continuing his running gag of being the first one in the film to witness a kaiju attack. But his fear isn’t played for laughs this time. Gamera shows no concern for collateral damage and causes massive fatalities, with Osako as one of the few survivors. This is the most shockingly violent kaiju battle scene I think I’ve ever seen in terms of the depiction of human casualties underfoot. Gamera has evolved into a more ruthless, savage-looking form, driven only by the imperative to destroy Gyaos. In the aftermath of this, the Japanese government effectively declares war on Gamera.

Meanwhile, Iris grows and bonds with Ayana in a more literal, predatory way than Gamera with Asagi, enfolding her in its tentacles (in a disquietingly erotic, albeit consensual moment) and then encasing her in a sac inside its body. She’s rescued by the teenage boy from the family that guards the temple (sorry, I didn’t catch his name), but she falls into the hands of a couple of government employees who turn out to be Atlantis-worshipping cultists. They see Gamera as a demon, believing Iris was created as a failsafe to destroy him if he got out of control.

Nagamine convinces Osako to get back in the fight, and he has some nice moments, but he remains largely peripheral. She also reconnects with Asagi, who’s been wandering the world researching Gamera and come to the conclusion that he feeds on mana, the mystical energy of life. Apparently Japanese civilization (and others, I guess) has been depleting the Earth’s mana, triggering the rise of the Gyaos, and I think that Gamera’s Mana Blast against Legion worsened the depletion, which would answer my question of why he used it as a last resort. Also, his connection to humanity is severed, which is why he’s become so ruthless and destructive. But Asagi has no way to get it back. (I wonder why they called it mana instead of ki, the Japanese term for the concept. But the idea of mana as a depletable resource was used by Larry Niven in his The Magic Goes Away series, so I wonder if that was an influence.)

Iris’s mature form is a startlingly vast, weird, and beautiful creature like something out of anime, and its battle with Gamera comes to ground in Kyoto during a typhoon. The visuals here are fantastic, making up for some overly confusing camera work during their aerial battle earlier. It comes to a head in Kyoto Station, with Iris recapturing Ayana, which according to the male cultist (a smugly nihilistic, black-clad fellow who also seems like an anime character type) will give it the power to evolve into an unbeatable form. Averting this will require Ayana to confront the true cost of her hatred and Gamera to endure severe injury to rescue her. But the Gyaos are still out there, and the movie ends on an ambiguous note.

Wow. This was intense stuff, and beautifully made. Some of the story points seemed to lose focus in the third act, but I missed some stuff since some of the subtitles were missing. But it’s one of the best kaiju films I’ve ever seen, in terms of both story and production values. I’d even say that Kaneko’s work on GMK two years later was a step down from this in some respects.

All in all, it’s a powerful trilogy, intelligently written, beautifully made, and effectively scary. It matches or surpasses any of the Heisei or Millennium Godzilla films in sophistication, even though it was apparently made on a much smaller budget. It’s an amazing change from the juvenile, formulaic mediocrity and cheesy effects of the original Gamera series.

I can’t seem to find any information on why there was no fourth film in this series, although it could have something to do with Daiei being bought up and merged with Kadokawa Pictures in 2002. Four years after that, Kadokawa would put out a belated 50th-anniversary Gamera film, Gamera the Brave. We’ll see how that compares in the next review post.

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