Thoughts on GAMERA THE BRAVE and series overview (spoilers)
Wrapping up my Gamera reviews now, we come to the final film to date, Gamera: The Brave (Chiisaki Yūsha-tachi Gamera, literally Young Braves of Gamera). This film came out in 2006, seven years after the end of Shusuke Kaneko’s trilogy. It’s interesting how the Gamera films after the original series never seem to overlap with Godzilla. The 1980 revival came about midway between the end of the Showa Godzilla series in 1975 and the start of the Heisei series in 1984. The Heisei Gamera trilogy began in 1995, a year after Heisei Godzilla ended, then continued in ’96 and skipped forward to ’99, a year after the TriStar Godzilla and nine months before the start of the Millennium Godzilla series. And Gamera: The Brave came out two years after the Millennium series ended (although it’s still considered a Heisei-era film, since we’re still in the reign of the Heisei Emperor, and the “Millennium” title is specific to the Godzilla franchise).
And yet, although the Gamera revivals tend to skirt around the Godzilla revivals, they also follow their lead. The Kaneko trilogy followed the Heisei Godzilla’s precedent in being much darker, slicker, and highly revisionist, rejecting the silliness of the Showa-era predecessors and ignoring their continuity (although Godzilla reboots to date have always counted the 1954 original, while the Gamera trilogy started from scratch). And The Brave, written by Yukari Tatsui and directed by Super Sentai/Power Rangers/Kamen Rider veteran Ryuta Tazaki, somewhat follows the lead of the last three Millennium Godzilla films in disregarding the ’90s continuity and revisiting elements of the original Showa series — although in this case, the links are quite tenuous, and it’s more a spiritual sequel than anything else.
Which should not be held against it. You know how I said in my Gamera vs. Barugon remarks that being a better film and being a darker, more adult film didn’t automatically go hand in hand? Well, this is the film that proves that. Gamera: The Brave is very much a child-focused film, but it’s as different from the cheap, cheesy, formulaic Showa series as it is from the dark, sophisticated horror-drama of the Kaneko trilogy.
The film begins in 1973, with a Gamera very different in appearance than the one we know (based on a different species of turtle, with a much flatter beak, knobblier limbs, and a yellow-brown color scheme with a red pattern on the plastron) engaged in battle with three smaller Gyaos that are attacking a seaside village. (Why is it always Gyaos?) Given that this is only two years after the last film in the original continuity, it initially gives the impression that this might be the same Gamera from those films — but it’s later implied that Gamera was not known prior to 1973, making this yet another unconnected continuity. Anyway, the emphasis is much more on the villagers fleeing the destruction of their village than on the monsters’ battle. A young boy, Aizawa, watches as Gamera unleashes a final attack reminiscent of his Mana Blast from Attack of Legion, but in this case it vaporizes Gamera along with the Gyaos; he sacrificed himself to save the humans. We fade to the same spot in 2006, where the grown Aizawa is with his son Toru (Ryo Tomioka), going to visit the fairly fresh grave of Toru’s mother. Toru is sullen, unwilling to be comforted by the belief that his mother endures as a spirit rather than being simply ashes. But he has friends that he gets along with better than he does with his father, including the brothers Ishimaru and Katsuya and Toru’s next-door neighbor Mai (played by an actress listed only as Kaho), a girl who seems to be a few years older but who lets him borrow her manga. Mai’s parents run a shop that sells the distinctive scarlet pearls found at the site of Gamera’s self-destruction.
Soon, Toru follows a glint of red light from that same site to find an egg ensconced in a glowing red crystal. The egg hatches into a baby turtle that he calls Toto (his mother’s nickname for him) and secretly takes home with him, since his father runs a restaurant and doesn’t allow pets for reasons of sanitation. Toru is surprised when the turtle grows with remarkable speed — and he and Mai are quite surprised when Toto begins levitating. Toru tries to get rid of Toto before he’s discovered, but Toto follows him home and Toru saves him from getting run over. Soon he’s too big to keep, and Toru and his friends take him elsewhere and keep an eye on him, but then he disappears — just before the village is attacked by a giant frilled lizard. Toto emerges as an eight-meter giant and manages to fight off the lizard, but is badly wounded. The military shows up and takes him away, wanting their own Gamera as a weapon against kaiju. (There’s a background thread about how the government’s “giant monster council” has recently been disbanded, implicitly from a lack of further kaiju attacks until now.) Aizawa now knows about Toru keeping “Toto” as a pet, but tells his son to forget him, because he’s a Gamera now, and his lot is to fight. But Toru doesn’t want to believe that, because that means he’s destined to die.
The government names the monster Zedus (Jidasu) for unspecified reasons. I wondered if it might be something to do with the so-called Jesus lizard that can run on water — in which case we’d have Gamera vs. Jesus, of all things — but they don’t have the same kind of frills that Zedus had. Apparently Zedus’s design comes from a mix of influences, including Barugon and Jiger from earlier Gamera films, the monitor-lizard monster Varan from Toho’s hard-to-find 1958 Daikaiju Baran, and the TriStar “Godzilla”, aka Zilla. It’s a reasonably effective design, but a lot less weird and more naturalistic than most Gamera foes.
Anyway, Mai needs to go to the hospital in Nagoya for heart surgery, and Toru’s worried about maybe losing her as well, so he gives her Toto’s red crystal as a good luck charm. Meanwhile, the government tries to force Toto’s growth by feeding him the “Gamera energy” they’ve extracted from the scarlet pearls. Mai survives her surgery, but she’s somehow senses that Toto will need his crystal, so the boys head off to Nagoya to get it from her — just in time for Zedus to attack Nagoya, since Toto’s also being held there and Zedus is hunting him. Toto awakes, now full-sized, and fights back, but is rather overpowered.
Still, once again, the kaiju battle is more of a background element, with the focus remaining heavily on the characters reacting to it, particularly on the kids trying to fulfill Mai’s urgent need to get the red crystal to Toto. The film finds a rather extraordinary way to involve multiple children in this effort; I don’t want to spoil it, because it’s such a “wow” moment. But it’s a totally fresh angle on the old idea of Gamera being the friend to all the children in the world, because now the friendship goes the other way — he’s not protecting them, they’re protecting him. Ultimately, of course, it falls to Toru himself to give Toto the power-up he needs — although he’s not sure he wants to. His father has tracked him down, and Toru tries to convince Aizawa of his need to help Toto… but he’s torn, because he doesn’t want to see his pet die. Is there a way for Toto to be Gamera, to save us from the evil monsters, and yet still survive? Maybe having a boy who has faith in him will make the key difference this time.
I have to say, this is totally not what I expected from a Gamera movie, or indeed from any kaiju movie. It’s a really fresh take, a thoughtful, sophisticated children’s film operating on a very personal, human-scale level, beautifully directed with a lot of focus on the details of everyday small-town life and the beauty of the environment. Even in the midst of the giant battles, the focus stays on the human level and the drama among the characters. It’s like a live-action equivalent of a Miyazaki film. And its take on the idea of kaiju is unique. I commented before on how vulnerable the Showa-era Gamera was, how frequently he was shown wounded and screaming in agony and spewing green blood all over the place. It seemed almost sadistic at times. But this film uses that vulnerability in a very interesting way. Toru doesn’t find the idea of kaiju battles exciting. He isn’t thrilled that Gamera is here to save us. He’s a boy who’s had to cope with death and loss far too early in his life (something I can identify with), and he hates it that a good kaiju’s role in life is to fight and die in defense of humanity. He wants Toto to be his friend in a way that doesn’t require Toto to suffer. And Toto, being essentially a child Gamera forced to mature size too soon, is indeed quite vulnerable, the one that needs to be saved by the love of Japan’s youth, rather than the one doing the saving. It’s an angle that could easily have been done in a cheesy, corny way, but this film handles it extremely well. It uses the kaiju narrative as an allegory for exploring love and loss and a child’s experience with mortality, and it’s kind of extraordinary. (I’m reminded of my favorite season of the Digimon anime, Digimon Tamers, which similarly deconstructed the conceit of children bonding with fighting monsters by having lead children who saw their Digimon as friends and didn’t want to risk them in combat, and that dealt potently with the grief and depression of one child whose Digimon did actually die.)
It seems audiences didn’t respond well to this new angle, out of disappointment that it wasn’t as dark as Kaneko’s trilogy. I think that’s quite unfair. Though I’m not sure whether to regret that there was never a sequel to this. On the one hand, I would’ve loved to see this creative team follow up on this version of Gamera, to follow Toto to maturity. On the other hand, I’m not sure they could’ve topped this.
Gamera: The Brave is the last Gamera film to date, but the current owners of the series, Kadokawa Pictures, have been working on another reboot for a while now, apparently just called Gamera. It was supposed to be a 50th-anniversary project for 2015, but it’s been delayed well beyond that. But there was a trailer released at New York Comic-Con in 2015, and it can be seen here. It looks like it’s trying to go back to a darker, more violent tone like the Heisei trilogy, and indeed it seems to pick up roughly where the trilogy left off, with Gamera fighting a horde of Gyaos (why is it always Gyaos??), although with differences in the kaiju designs and the date (10 years in the past, so presumably 2005 or so, not 1999). Also it’s using pure CGI rather than suits. Perhaps it’s because I watched it so soon after GTB, but I find its action footage too self-consciously dark, violent, and flashy. Apparently, though, its director Katsuhito Ishii has said that GTB is one of his favorites and a major influence on the film, though you’d never know it from the trailer.
Anyway, the four Heisei Gamera films to date have been among the best kaiju films I’ve ever seen, in stark contrast to the general mediocrity and cheapness of their predecessors. This latest reboot, if it ever actually gets completed, will have a very high standard to live up to.
So that brings me to the end (for now?) of my Gamera reviews, a shorter series than my Godzilla/Toho reviews, but a more comprehensive one. Thanks to ShoutFactory TV’s streaming site, it’s proven far easier to see every Gamera film than it is to see every Godzilla or Mothra film, let alone some of Toho’s more obscure tokusatsu films. It’s also much easier to assess which ones are the best. Of the Showa series, Gamera vs. Barugon is the only one I’d even tepidly recommend, unless you’re in the mood for something really cheesy — and if so, you might prefer the Mystery Science Theater 3000 editions (which include every film in the Showa series except Viras and Jiger). And of the Heisei films, every darn one of them is absolutely a must-see for any fan of the kaiju genre. That includes the trilogy consisting of Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe, Gamera 2: Attack of Legion, and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris, and the standalone Gamera: The Brave.
Gamera continuity is less complicated than Godzilla’s as well, because each distinct set of films is in essentially a separate reality, although there is a bit of overlap here and there. As I did with Godzilla, I’ll list the various continuities:
1) Shōwa universe: Includes all Gamera films from 1965-71, namely Gamera, Gamera vs. Barugon, …Gyaos, …Viras, …Guiron, …Jiger, and …Zigra.
This reality’s Gamera is a member of a species of giant tusked turtles native to Atlantis, feeding on fire and other energy sources and capable of breathing fire and flying via rocket propulsion. Though he was revived from glacial hibernation by a nuclear explosion, there’s no indication that he was mutated by it. Originally, Gamera is simply instinctively driven to feed on energy sources and incidentally causes massive destruction to human life and property in so doing, aside from one passing rescue of a child that Gamera’s own actions endangered. Later, though, Gamera inexplicably becomes “a friend to all children,” motivated primarily by their protection. This change corresponds with the adults of the world suddenly becoming incompetent and completely dependent on children to tell them how to solve their giant-monster problems. (I’m tempted to count the latter five films as a distinct reality from the first two, except that at least two of the latter five films include flashbacks to the events of the first two. Although this means that Gamera causes identical damage to two different dams and attacks Tokyo twice in exactly the same way, due to the reuse of stock footage in Viras.) Gamera is one of several prehistoric monsters that are coincidentally revived within a few years of each other, including Barugon, Gyaos, and Jiger, and the Earth is subject to several alien invasion attempts in the same period, involving the kaiju Viras, Guiron, and Zigra. (The existence of Space Gyaos on the counter-Earth planet Tera suggests that Earth’s Gyaos may have been of alien origin as well, but it could also be a case of parallel evolution.)
2) Space Women universe: Includes Gamera: Super Monster (1980).
In this reality, the Earth is nominally defended by a trio of alien superheroines called the Space Women. Gamera may be either an actual kaiju who is depicted in manga or simply a manga character somehow brought to life by either Space Women technology or a little boy’s wishes or both. Or maybe the whole thing is the boy’s daydreams — it’s hard to tell. All other known kaiju in this reality (if it is a reality) are identical to the monsters fought by Gamera in the Showa series, but are weapons of the invading starship Zanon and are kept on an alien planet (identical to Tera) until they are sicced on Earth.
3) Heisei universe: Includes Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe (1995), Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996), and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999).
In this universe, the ancient Atlanteans were master genetic engineers who apparently had at least two rival factions, one which engineered the deadly Gyaos organisms and the other of which created Gamera (after multiple failed attempts) as a defender of the Earth against the Gyaos, which had the potential to breed out of control and destroy the world. The Gyaos faction also engineered the self-mutating Gyaos variant later named “Iris” as a counterweapon against Gamera. But the Gyaos destroyed Atlantean civilization before the other kaiju could be unleashed, and Gamera did not awaken until 1995, when pollution had depleted the Earth’s supply of mystical mana energy sufficiently to allow the Gyaos to thrive again. Gamera battled the Gyaos and mostly destroyed them, but his depletion of mana in fighting off the alien Legion organisms allowed more Gyaos to thrive and Gamera himself to turn more aggressive. The ultimate fate of this world is unknown.
4) Toto universe: Includes Gamera: The Brave (2006).
Gamera’s origins and nature here are unknown, but a Gamera emerged no later than 1973 and sacrificed itself (herself?) to protect a human population from multiple small Gyaos, leaving an egg that hatched into a new Gamera 33 years later. The government organized a Giant Monster Council to deal with kaiju threats, but apparently there was a dearth of such threats prior to 2006, when the giant lizard Zedus emerged. Zedus’s activity may have catalyzed the birth of the new Gamera, aka Toto, in order to meet the threat.
5) Reboot universe: Includes unscheduled upcoming Gamera film, maybe.
Possibly a loose continuation of the Heisei trilogy universe. Insufficient data to say more. But its kaiju inhabitants include Gamera, hordes of Gyaos, and at least one other, unidentified monster.
I listed these continuities chronologically rather than clustering them by similarity as I did with the Godzilla universes, since there’s no overt overlap between any of them. (The reuse of stock footage in Super Monster doesn’t count, because it’s meant to represent new events, and the monsters have different origins.) But one could perhaps cluster the Toto universe with the Showa universe, as they both feature child-friendly Gameras that were active in the early ’70s, and the Reboot universe looks like it could be clustered with the Heisei universe. But that’s tenuous at best, which is why I didn’t bother.
It’s interesting that, other than Gamera, the only monster that appears in every continuity is Gyaos. This is in contrast to the Toho films, which have revived and redesigned multiple older monsters such as Mothra, King Ghidorah, Rodan, Mechagodzilla, and Baragon. All of Gamera’s Showa foes reappeared in Super Monster, but only as stock footage, so that doesn’t really count. The other continuities all have Gyaos in them — usually smaller than Gamera and existing in flocks — yet otherwise introduce new monsters. The Kaneko trilogy adds Legion and Iris (which is a Gyaos variant anyway), GTB has Zedus, and the reboot has that unidentified monster. Outside of Super Monster, the only revivals of Barugon, Viras, Guiron, Jiger, or Zigra have been in manga stories or video games. Gyaos seems pretty ubiquitous in video games too. I wonder why it was Gyaos, instead of one of the others, that became Gamera’s default arch-nemesis. I think most of the later revivals are following the lead of the Kaneko trilogy, but why did that trilogy deem Gyaos the only enemy worthy of revival? Perhaps it’s because Gyaos can take on Gamera in the air and is visually distinctive enough from Gamera to make an interesting contrast. Perhaps Barugon was too easily confused with Toho’s Baragon, and perhaps the later monsters were just considered too silly or weird. Although Gyaos’s original design was rather weird itself, and the movie wasn’t that much better than the ones that followed. I could see most of the other monsters working in more sophisticated, redesigned forms like the later Gyaos. Barugon is essentially a horned lizard, Viras a squid, Jiger a ceratopsian dinosaur, and Zigra a shark. The most problematical one is Guiron, who’s basically a walking chef’s knife that shoots shurikens out of its temples. (And whose name, I just now found out, is derived from “guillotine.”) But maybe it could be redesigned into a more organic-looking form. Still, maybe it’s better that no other redesigns were attempted, since Legion, Iris, and Zedus were all quite effective kaiju.
But it might’ve been interesting to see a fourth Kaneko film that elaborated on the identification of Gamera and Gyaos with two of the Four Symbols of Chinese astrology, adding other kaiju to represent the Azure Dragon of the East (maybe a reinvented Barugon?) and the White Tiger of the West (White Jiger…? Nahh).
So that’s it for my week of Gamera reviews. Are there more kaiju films I can track down and comment on in the future? Time will tell.