I wasn’t planning on seeing Star Trek Beyond until Tuesday (discount day) due to my strained finances, but a fan was kind enough to make a PayPal donation as a gift to let me see the movie earlier (thanks, Linn), so I went yesterday. (Plus I needed groceries anyway, so an earlier trip was welcome.)
I generally agree with the consistently positive reactions the film has gotten. It is the best of the Bad Robot series to date (or the Kelvin Timeline, as it’s now been officially dubbed). I liked the first two films for the way they handled the characters, for J.J. Abrams’s good directorial work handling emotion and relationships, and for the superb casting — but they both had pretty major logic problems and plot holes, like Kirk’s ludicrously rapid promotion in the first film, the gratuitous Wrath of Khan callbacks in the second film, and the careless astrophysics and near-instantaneous interstellar travel in both films (justified by an implied time cut in the first film, but harder to reconcile in the second). I also wasn’t crazy about the totally unnecessary disaster porn in Into Darkness‘s climax, and I didn’t like how gray and gloomy Earth’s cities looked in the films. So I liked the films, but with reservations. In the case of Beyond, most of the problems of the previous two movies are absent, and there’s plenty of good stuff still there as well. With a different director (Justin Lin) and writers (Simon Pegg & Doug Jung), it has a different flavor and tone, and it’s one that works well, for the most part.
The first two films were meant as prequels, showing the early years of the TOS cast as they grew into the people we knew, or reasonable approximations. Beyond is the culmination of that process. The characters are now three years into the five-year mission, and they’re pretty much the mature versions of themselves at last. Chris Pine’s Kirk is more seasoned, more thoughtful. On the cusp of his 30th birthday, he’s no longer the delinquent renegade he was just five years earlier, but a seasoned commander, a Starfleet company man, serious and disciplined but with a bit of the old bad boy still peeking out occasionally — essentially just like his predecessor. Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Karl Urban’s McCoy finally get the extensive interaction they’ve lacked before, and it’s a classic Spock-McCoy interplay, albeit a bit more foulmouthed than would ever have been allowed 50 years ago. McCoy is put in a bit too much of an action-hero role at times (when did he ever show any piloting skill?), but it’s in service to keeping him and Spock together, and that’s long overdue. Spock’s romance with Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is downplayed, though not entirely absent, which allows Uhura to stand on her own as a protagonist; she handles herself well, carrying the brunt of the direct interaction with Idris Elba’s villain Krall, standing up to him, and gaining vital intelligence about his true identity and origins. Pegg’s Scotty also gets a good share of the spotlight, unsurprisingly, as he interacts with the guest alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a striking and tough alien of unidentified species, and supports her through her character arc as she aligns herself with our heroes. Not surprising that these movies would prioritize cast members as prominent as Saldana and Pegg. Unfortunately, John Cho and the late Anton Yelchin are still basically wasted as Sulu and Chekov, never really given a chance to emerge from the background, which is particularly tragic given that this was Yelchin’s final turn in the role. Chekov is pretty much just there to follow orders and be comic relief, and he has even less of an arc than in the previous two movies. Sulu is given a bit more character depth as we learn that he has a husband and daughter on Starbase Yorktown, and we see his worry about them when we learn that Krall intends to attack Yorktown, but it’s a character arc that’s conveyed almost entirely without dialogue, relying purely on Cho’s silent reaction shots — and of course Cho is more than good enough to put volumes into those wordless looks, but still, guys, he’s probably the best actor in the whole damn cast (other than Yelchin — damn it, I’m getting teary-eyed), so give him something to do! (I wonder if there were more scripted lines that got cut because the studio was nervous about focusing too overtly on Sulu’s gay marriage.)
I liked the way the film compensated for the male-heavy core cast by featuring mostly women in the supporting cast. We still had Elba’s Krall as the main villain and Joe Taslim as his sidekick Manas (who was such a minor character that I didn’t even notice him as a presence until Jaylah established in dialogue that he was her nemesis), but we also had Boutella’s standout work as Jaylah; Shohreh Aghdashloo as the Yorktown commander (Commodore Paris!); Lydia Wilson as Kalara, an alien refugee playing a significant role in the first two acts; and Melissa Roxburgh in a small but important role as Ensign Syl, an alien crewmember with a special skill that Kirk cleverly takes advantage of.
Beyond also avoids a lot of the crazy science of the previous Abrams films. Warp travel actually seems to take time (and the new warp effect is utterly gorgeous, the first one that actually looks like it’s representing the warping of space, at least in a stylized way), there’s no transwarp beaming or super-healing Augment blood, and it’s essentially the first Star Trek screen work that’s ever handled alien languages and translations in a realistic way, with aliens either speaking their own languages, speaking accented English, or speaking in their own voices while a computer translation runs parallel, in Kalara’s case. This is what we were always supposed to assume was going on when we saw aliens seemingly speaking English, but now we actually see it shown literally, and it’s refreshing, if a bit distracting. I wouldn’t have minded, honestly, if they’d emulated The Undiscovered Country‘s Klingon courtroom scene and started out that way long enough to establish it, then transitioned to having Wilson just speak English. The science of Yorktown’s outwardly spherical artificial gravity, and the weirdness that results in the center of the field, is a bit fanciful, but no more so than artificial gravity in general, and it’s the basis of a really clever action sequence at the climax. Yorktown itself is a gorgeous setting; unlike the Earth cities in the Abrams-directed films, it’s bright and inviting enough that it actually looks like the Federation should look. (Although I wish it hadn’t been filmed in Dubai, a country that I gather is prone to rather atrocious human-rights violations toward emigrant workers. That hardly seems fitting.)
As for the action overall, I found it kind of meh. It was big and frenetic and everything, but sometimes hard to follow. It was definitely clever in a lot of ways, but the execution wasn’t always there. They did find an imaginatively novel way to destroy the Enterprise, but it gets a little tiresome that deflector shields almost never seem to work in the movies. I’m also not convinced by the claim that the E was unequipped for this kind of attack, given the dozens of point-defense phaser banks it was shown to have in the first couple of films. Most of all, the destruction of the Enterprise had no emotion to it, no pathos. I didn’t feel the loss like I did in The Search for Spock or Generations, because we weren’t shown the characters feeling the loss. The Enterprise wasn’t treated as a beautiful lady that we loved and hated to lose, but just as a vehicle that was abandoned once it was no longer useful. So it was a well-made sequence and all, but rather unengaging. The emotion just wasn’t there. Say what you like about Abrams as a director, but he always focuses on the emotion of an event, no matter how big and frenetic it is. That was missing here.
Now we get into the really spoilery stuff, since I’m going to talk about Krall’s backstory. I guessed pretty early on, as soon as we saw Krall changing appearance when he drained the crewmembers, that it would turn out he was a member of the Franklin crew who’d been changed into an alien. I feel the movie totally failed to explain just how that happened, or where the transformative technology came from. I guess it was something left behind by the previous inhabitants of Altamid, the warrior race that had built the superweapon (and I’m getting a little tired of Trek movies built around superweapons), but the exposition that would’ve tied this together seemed to be absent. As for Krall really being Balthazar Edison, an ex-MACO who couldn’t adjust to peacetime, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s kind of a classic TOS-style plot, with Kirk against another Starfleet captain who’s gone rogue — there’s a lot of Ron Tracey in Edison. I’ve even seen one person express the opinion that it covered similar themes to my novel Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures, though I was actually reminded more of the debates in Into Darkness about Marcus’s warmongering view of Starfleet versus the more peaceful approach Spock advocated. And the tie-ins to Enterprise-era history were interesting. The bit about the MACOs being dissolved and folded into Starfleet meshed comfortably with my own books, although the uniform design is quite different from what I came up with. (I’m not worried about inconsistencies with ROTF, though; Simon Pegg has recently said that the Kelvin Timeline was altered in a way that allows its history to diverge before Nero’s arrival in 2233 rather than after, which is basically a way of saying that storytellers in the respective universes can operate independently of one another from now on.)
But I’m disappointed, because the advance word suggested that the story was going to be about how alien cultures perceived the Federation’s expansionism as cultural imperialism — a post-colonial take on Trek’s ideas, as filtered through the perspective of the Taiwanese-born Justin Lin. As a student of world history and frontiers in particular, I would’ve been very interested in a story along those lines, and looking forward to seeing that new perspective. But it turns out that was essentially all just a fakeout, or else a plan that was changed by the time the film was finalized. This was really just another story about a rogue Starfleet officer turning on Starfleet, like we’ve seen many times before — and it again echoes STID in that the villain’s true identity as a figure from human history was obscured for much of the film. I liked the theme of working for peace versus embracing war, but it was rather more conventional than what I was led to expect.
I also don’t think it sold the message of peace very well, because it fell back on the usual action-movie pattern of just killing the bad guys without remorse or qualm. The bit about using hard-rock music to defeat the swarm ships was kind of cute in a hokey way, but it involved killing thousands of alien pilots, and that wasn’t acknowledged in any way. (How many of those pilots were innocent captives transformed into Krall’s servants?) And I was hoping that the climax would involve Edison redeeming himself — to have a Spider-Man 2-style ending where Kirk would persuade him to regain his humanity and he’d sacrifice himself to stop the destruction he’d started… or better yet, work with Kirk to stop it and then survive to be rehabilitated. It’s only paying lip service to the idea of peace if your hero makes no real effort to find an alternative to killing the bad guy. This is one respect in which I have to give the higher score to the Abrams-directed movies. Kirk at least made a token effort to invite Nero to surrender (though that could’ve been handled much better), and they actually did take Khan alive (though that was mainly with an eye toward sequel possibilities).
As for the closing sequence, I think it’s a bit corny to destroy the ship just to set up an Enterprise-A at the end of the same film, although the time-lapse ending was a clever alternative to ST IV’s approach of just pulling a finished ship out of a hat. But I’m disappointed that the E-A looks basically the same as the original. I was hoping that they’d hold off on introducing the new ship and then would come up with a completely new design for its successor in the next, like the TNG films did with the Enterprise-E. Honestly, I’m not a fan of this Enterprise design. Its saucer is fine, if rather derivative of the TMP ship, but the proportions of the engineering hull and nacelles don’t work for me at all. I would’ve welcomed a completely new design from a different art team.
All in all, this is a very solid Trek movie that handles the characters and ideas pretty well, but that has a certain emotional and thematic superficiality compared to some of its predecessors. Its plot holds together pretty well except where it overlooks some things that could’ve stood to be explained. It has some fantastic action and some overly cluttered action, and some fun-but-hokey moments like the music bit and the motorcycle bit. It handles most of the ensemble well, including Jaylah, but still lets Sulu and Chekov down. I wouldn’t say the problems are quite as frustrating as the problems in the previous two Kelvin films, but there are a few things those films did better, especially when it came to emotional engagement with the characters and situations. So it’s an improvement — certainly the best Trek film of the past decade and one of the best overall — but there’s room for future films to improve on it even more.
In search of more giant-monster movies, I’ve found a pair of indirectly connected films in public domain: The 1961 British film Gorgo and the Japanese Daikyoju Gappa (Gappa, the Colossal Beast) from 1967. The latter film, from Nikkatsu studios rather than the usual kaiju suspects Toho and Daiei, is considered to be a knockoff of Gorgo, so I decided to watch them back-to-back to compare them. Now, the Internet Archive copy of Gorgo is of terrible quality, so it’s probably better to watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version available for free on Shout Factory TV, although honestly the image quality isn’t that much better there and it isn’t one of their funnier episodes. I decided to sit through the Archive version first, though, just to get a feel for the unadulterated story.
Directed by Eugène Lourié (director of the earlier stop-motion dinosaur movie The Giant Behemoth and production designer on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), Gorgo focuses on salvage-ship captain Joe Ryan (Bill Travers faking an American accent) and his first officer Sam Slade (2001‘s William Sylvester using his real American accent), who happen to be at the Irish island of Nara when an undersea volcano unleashes a 65-foot giant monster, a Godzilla knockoff with red eyes, fan-shaped earflaps, and comically oversized hands and feet. Joe and Sam prove instantly unlikeable when they shake down the local harbormaster (himself an archaeologist hoarding sunken treasure rather than studying it) to get permission to capture the beast. Ryan makes the ill-considered choice to use himself in a diving bell as bait, but just barely manages not to get killed before the crew catches the beast in a net. Joe and Sam prove further unlikeable when they double-cross the Irish scientists sent to study the beast and instead sell it to Dorkin’s Circus in London’s Battersea Park. Sean, an annoying orphan boy from the island, stows away and tries to free the creature, which he considers a legendary sea serpent called Ogra, but he fails.
There’s a big media circus around the beast’s capture, and the film utilizes a full-scale replica of the creature’s head, paw, and tail (with a tarp concealing the “body” so they didn’t have to build it) for shots of it being driven through the streets of London on a flatbed. A crewman is killed getting “Gorgo,” as it’s been dubbed, into its pen at the circus, but Joe pushes forward regardless, even as Sam begins to have doubts. Soon, the Irish scientists report, without explaining how they know, that Gorgo is an infant creature, which means mommy may still be out there. Sure enough, a bigger creature smashes Nara (and the crooked harbormaster) and follows the baby’s scent trail toward London. Sam suggests the obvious solution — let the baby go — but for no comprehensible reason, both Joe and the military dismiss the idea out of hand, overconfident that they can defeat the beast. Even when it survives all the stock footage the British Navy can throw at it and destroys an entire, err, destroyer, nobody questions this assumption.
Sam does try to free the baby, but Joe stops him. Which means Joe, supposedly the film’s hero, is responsible for the mother creature “Ogra”‘s rampage through London, which naturally destroys the obligatory landmarks (the Tower Bridge, Big Ben’s Clock Tower, the part of Picadilly Circus that isn’t live-action footage) and kills thousands under badly superimposed falling debris before Ogra finally reaches her baby and they both go back to the sea. There’s a feeble attempt to make Joe heroic when he braves the crowds and the monster attack to save Sean when the boy randomly gets swept up in the evacuation, but come on — saving one boy that’s only in danger because of Joe’s choices hardly makes up for all the horrible devastation and mass death that Joe’s greed and negligence are entirely responsible for. And yet Joe and Sam get no comeuppance and barely any closure, with some random bluescreened reporter making the final speech about man’s hubris.
All in all, I can’t say I thought much of this film. It’s very derivative, basically a cross between Godzilla and King Kong with a touch of Mothra. It’s rather dull for much of the first act, the characters are thoroughly unlikeable and morally despicable, and the monster suit is a bit goofy-looking with those big hands and feet (I think they used the same suit for both beasts, just against differently scaled miniatures). The effects aren’t too bad overall, given the era and the budget available, but there’s too much stock footage of the military stuff (which the director apparently didn’t want at all) and the London rampage goes on a bit too long and repetitively. I gather this is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film, but I come down more on the “hate” side, mainly due to the dreadfully unpleasant characters. (And as Mike and the bots pointed out in the MST3K edition, there are no women in the entire film except for a few extras in crowd scenes. And Ogra herself, of course.)
The Internet Archive’s version of Gappa, the Colossal Beast (under the title Monster from a Prehistoric Planet) is all but unwatchable, but there’s a tolerable version (low-resolution widescreen English dub) on YouTube (under the title Gappa: The Triphibian Monsters). There is a broad structural similarity to Gorgo, but the details differ. This time, the ship we open with is on a South Seas expedition to gather animals for a theme park being built by a greedy magazine publisher, Funazu (Keisuke Inoue). A volcanic eruption draws them to an island populated by a stereotyped tribe in brownface makeup, whose members welcome the expedition but warn of dire consequences if they disturb the entity they call Gappa. The leads — reporter Kurosaki (Tamio Kawachi), scientist Tonoka (Yuji Okada), and their mutual romantic interest Koyanagi (Yoko Yamamoto) — find a giant egg that hatches into a human-sized infant creature that they take back with them to Japan. The publisher Funazu insists on smuggling it in and keeping it secret so he can get the exclusive in his magazine (which at least the English dub calls Playmate Magazine, but which doesn’t seem to be sexually themed or pinup-oriented in any way). Soon, the parent monsters, which are basically bipedal bird-lizard creatures with hands, emerge and trash the islanders, then fly off in search of baby. An American sub rescues the islanders, including the boy who had previously bonded with the heroes and who now warns the sub crew about the Gappas heading to Japan.
So Koyanagi’s upset about the menfolk being so coldly focused on their work, feeling they should release the baby creature. Soon thereafter, the adult Gappas begin rampaging through Japanese cities and going through the usual kaiju-attack beats, just in duplicate. There’s even a bit where, during a rocket attack by a fleet of jets, the Gappas take time out of defending themselves to destroy one of those traditional Japanese castles that always get trashed in these movies, even though there’s no particular reason for them to do so. Oddly, there’s a bit afterward where Funazu releases the magazine telling the story of the baby Gappa, and yet somehow nobody makes the connection with the larger monsters that just attacked. Wouldn’t he have wanted to kill the story, since it would basically be admitting culpability for all the death and destruction? But apparently nobody recognizes the link, except for our lead trio, who are aware that the baby can emit homing waves like a bird’s, thereby attracting the parents. Koyanagi again proposes releasing the baby, and this time, to their credit, the protagonists actually go along with the idea — but the greedy Funazu forbids it, because now he’s suddenly worried about admitting his culpability. Tonoka and Kurasaki are both willing to accept responsibility, though, and they overrule Funazu and airlift the baby to an airport, then amplify its cries to draw the parents. The mommy and daddy Gappas’ first meeting with their baby is actually a bit touching, as they embrace it and then teach it to fly so they can go home. In a ’60s-style happy ending, Koyanagi announces she’s quitting her job to find a husband, and Tonoka tells Kurasaki to go after her and presumably become said husband.
Well, if this was inspired by Gorgo, it’s a much better take on the premise. The protagonists are a lot less reprehensible, and they actually take action to correct their mistake. The characters overall are better-drawn, and the plot is better-structured, though I could’ve done without the stereotyped island tribe and the brownface makeup. The monster action is a bit by-the-numbers, but the nuclear-family angle, with the parents smashing up Japan together in pursuit of their baby, is a novel twist. The Gappa are a fairly interesting design, versatile in being able to function on land, sea, and air (hence “Triphibian” in the US title, although that’s an invalid construction — I think “triplibian,” tripli- plus -bian, would be more correct). This was the only kaiju film by Nikkatsu, a studio that went out of business shortly thereafter, but it’s not a bad one.
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.
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.
Continuing my review of Daiei’s original Gamera series…
Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (Gamera tai Uchuu Kaiju Bairasu) came out in 1968, not long before Toho’s multi-kaiju epic Destroy All Monsters, and indeed Viras was later released in the US under the ripoff title Destroy All Planets. (You can’t do that! Where would we keep all our stuff?) Here’s where the kid-friendly formula that defines the rest of the series is definitively set in place. We get the debut of the theme song so memorably mocked on MST3K (“Gamera is really sweet / He is filled with turtle meat”) and the mantra that “Gamera is a friend to all children,” as well as a cuter, friendlier-looking Gamera, who fights off an invading alien ship from the planet Viras before the credits. Like every movie from this point forward, the lead duo consists of a Japanese child and a white American child — in this case, Boy Scouts named Masao and Jim, who go tooling around in a mini-sub and meet a friendly Gamera under the sea. (The rear-projection screen used for the rest of the series is really scratched up, by the way. It’s incredible that they couldn’t even bother to fix or replace a lousy screen.) When a second alien ship arrives and traps Gamera using a “Super Catch Ray,” Masao calls to Gamera for help, and Gamera actually nods in response and helps the kids escape. Yes, now Gamera explicitly comprehends human language.
The Super Catch Ray lasts only 15 minutes (not so super), which the aliens use to probe Gamera’s memory — which means an unbroken 10 minutes of stock footage of Gamera’s battles from the previous three movies. Once he breaks free, the aliens Super Catch the kids as hostages against Gamera, which works long enough to implant a mind-control device and send Gamera on the attack, which is all stock footage from the first two movies, even though the first was in black-and-white and used a noticeably different Gamera suit. The kids wander interminably around the spaceship and try to sabotage it without success, due to the ship’s rules about not obeying thought commands that harm the ship — until later when they’re suddenly, inexplicably able to harm the ship and free Gamera using the same stupid prank they played on the sub earlier, reversing the polarity to make the controls work backward. (Pro tip: Nothing actually works that way.) Before then, though, there’s a bit where the kids use Masao’s wrist radio that he built because he’s really good with gadgets to contact the military and courageously express their willingness to sacrifice their lives to save Earth, but the UN will have none of that and insists on surrendering the whole human race to spare two kids who would probably die along with everyone else anyway.
So Gamera wrecks the ship, and a “harmless” caged monster the kids found onboard — sort of a gray upright squid thing — is actually the boss monster (and is literally no kidding called “Boss”), who absorbs its crew’s life energy to grow to giant size and fight Gamera. The fight culminates with Boss Viras goring Gamera clear through the plastron in what looks like an instantly fatal impalement, but Gamera is able to jet into the sky and freeze Viras to death in the upper atmosphere, despite the facts that a) cold is Gamera’s own weakness and b) Gamera has a huge gaping hole in his belly. But Gamera is fine because he’s the hero and there are more sequels coming, which would vary in little other than the setting and the specific gimmicks of the monster.
Gamera vs. Giant Evil Beast Guiron (Gamera tai Daiakuju Giron, aka Gamera vs. Guiron or Attack of the Monsters) was released in March 1969, less than a year after Toho’s Destroy All Monsters. This one opens with a halfway decent educational lecture about astronomy and the planets (aside from a misstatement about nebulae being the size of galaxies). Our boy heroes, Akio and Tom, see a flying saucer land but are unable to convince their mother. Akio’s a dreamer who imagines a superior alien civilization with “no wars or traffic accidents.” He and Tom find the flying saucer and get abducted into space, with Gamera showing up to try to rescue them (the first time since the original that he hasn’t appeared in the opening scene). But the saucer outpaces him and deposits the boys on an alien planet that turns out to be menaced by Space Gyaos — a silver repaint of the Gyaos suit from two films earlier, because they couldn’t afford another new monster — but it has its own defender kaiju, Guiron (pronounced “gear-on”), basically a giant walking knife with a face. Gamera took a whole movie to bring down Gyaos, but Guiron only needs two minutes to literally slice Space Gyaos to pieces, in a rather gory sequence including graphic amputation and decapitation (well, as graphic as it can be with a rubber monster and purple “blood”), with Guiron actually laughing sadistically.
So the boys meet two women who are the last survivors of this world, Tera, which is in the same “Counter-Earth” position as so many other sci-fi worlds, hidden on the opposite side of the Sun. (Never mind that orbital perturbations would’ve caused such a world to collide with Earth billions of years ago, and that even if they hadn’t, we could detect it by its gravitational effect on the other planets and asteroids. So much for the good astronomy.) The mighty “electronic brains” that gave them their advanced civilization (free of wars and traffic accidents!) also created monsters that destroyed their world. Okay. So is this the origin of the first Gyaos too? Anyway, the boys invite the space babes to come to Earth with them, but the ship only holds two, so the women plan to eat the boys’ brains for rations. But Gamera shows up in the nick of time. The women sic Guiron on him, and Gamera fares pretty badly, but the boys manage to escape and eventually accidentally cause Guiron to go on a rampage that leads to the bisection of the saucer and the death of one of the Teran women. (Note that Tera is now no longer free of traffic accidents.) Guiron’s rampage ultimately endangers the kids too, until Gamera returns to save them. Gamera defeats Guiron in a rather silly way (that conveniently kills off the other space babe), then he — oy — uses his fire breath to weld the ship back together so he can fly the kids back home. Akio moralizes that we must stop looking to other planets and clean up our own damn wars and traffic accidents. And 47 years later, we’re still working on it. Sorry, Akio, we let you and Gamera down.
1970’s Gamera vs. Giant Demon Beast Jiger (Gamera tai Daimaju Jaigaa, aka Gamera vs. Jiger or Gamera vs. Monster X) is the first Gamera movie to come out in a year without a Godzilla film; Toho’s only kaiju release in 1970 was the obscure Space Amoeba. However, it came out just a few months after the inane Godzilla film All Monsters Attack, which had a lot in common with the Gamera series, in that it centered on a child lead and relied entirely on stock footage for its kaiju sequences. We’re well into the doldrums now.
Jiger is built around the real-life Expo ’70, the Osaka World’s Fair. They’re bringing in a statue from “Wester Island” as part of their cultural display, ignoring warnings about a curse. Gamera tries to stop the statue from being airlifted away, but grownups ruin everything, so they shoot at Gamera long enough to get the statue away. (Evidently they forgot how he’s been saving the world annually for the past four years.) Naturally, this unleashes Jiger (rhymes with tiger), a vaguely ceratopsian kaiju that comes after the statue and trashes Osaka. Gamera comes to the rescue, but Jiger impales him with a spike at the end of its tail, and Gamera collapses, seemingly dead. The kids convince the grownups to x-ray Gamera, and they find a shadow on his lung, leading to the deduction that — eww — Jiger implanted her larva inside his lung. The tail spike was an ovipositor. Which… oh, good grief… means that Gamera has been forcibly impregnated by a monster’s appendage. We’ve just crossed over into a whole other genre of Japanese fantasy fiction…
Anyway, as usual, the adults mutter and shake their heads uselessly while the kids take the initiative, using a mini-sub (another one?) to go Fantastic Voyage on Gamera, finding a way to kill the baby Jiger and stumbling upon the solutions that the stupid adults are too hidebound to see, including how Gamera can use the ancient statue to contain Jiger using the sound it makes when wind blows across it. Although that wouldn’t be gory enough for this series, and instead Gamera just impales Jiger in the skull with it.
So anyway, the theme of this movie seems to be “Adults are stupid, kids, so just ignore them and do what you want, no matter how dangerous it is.” Such wholesome, educational entertainment for the youth of Japan.
Finally we come to Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (Gamera tai Shinkai Kaiju Zigra, aka Gamera vs. Zigra — no generic alternate US title), arriving in July 1971, just seven days before Toho’s release of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the trippiest and most Gamera-esque of the Godzilla films (with Godzilla as a kid-friendly champion of Earth against a very weird-looking monster, and with Godzilla actually flying via jet propulsion at one point). Gamera was a Godzilla knockoff from the start, and the Godzilla series started to shift to a kid-friendly mode before Gamera did, though it didn’t actually start focusing on child protagonists until All Monsters Attack. So it seems that Gamera had become popular enough by 1969 — or the Godzilla series was struggling enough by then — for the influence to begin flowing back the other way.
I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison, though, since Hedorah was freakishly experimental, while Zigra is just another by-the-numbers Gamera film barely worth recapping. There’s another alien invasion (by a ship that looks like a bowl of gumballs) with another space babe (Eiko Yanami, who’s considerably babe-ier than the previous ones). This time the lead kids are kindergarteners with gratingly shrill voices, and the American kid’s a girl. Their dads work for Sea World, and the aliens are a sea-dwelling race that fouled their seas with pollution and now intend to conquer us before we foul our seas any further, so they’re really doing Earth a favor, just like the Mysterians (although they do plan to use us for food). The villain kaiju, the sharklike Zigra, actually talks — but Viras could talk too, through a thought-translator device.
The budget’s so low that the earthquakes the aliens use to subdue humanity are all off-camera. The battles between Gamera and Zigra are lackadaisical and by the numbers. The standout moment — strictly for its silliness — is when Gamera has immobilized Zigra and uses a rock to play his theme song xylophone-style on Zigra’s back spikes, then does a victory dance. Oh, boy. (The other standout moment, from a strictly male-gaze standpoint, is when the alien woman, pursuing the kids, tries to blend in by stealing human garments — and the first people she comes across are some women in bikinis.)
There’s nothing wrong with gearing films for young audiences, but these last four relentlessly formulaic films didn’t have anything special to offer, aside from startling amounts of simulated gore and maimings in the monster fights. One consistent thread is how vulnerable Gamera is, how routinely he suffers serious, bloody injuries like impalements and deep lacerations and screams in horrible agony. There’s often an element of that in Godzilla films too, but not to this casually gory extent. Gamera’s vulnerability may have been meant to make him more identifiable for children, but the degree to which the filmmakers torture him gets kind of sadistic.
Daiei Film went bankrupt in 1971, putting a (perhaps merciful) end to the Gamera series for some years. When a publishing company bought out the studio, they made one more Gamera film in 1980, titled Space Monster Gamera (Uchuu Kaiju Gamera) but known in English as Gamera: Super Monster. Annnnd… it’s a clip show. Aside from a few shots (including a sight gag of Gamera’s foot knocking over a placard for a Godzilla movie), all its Gamera footage is recycled from the previous seven movies.
And that’s not all that’s recycled, since it opens with a space battle “scene” (in the sense of the camera literally just panning over concept paintings of a space battle) and a blatant ripoff of the opening Star Destroyer shot from Star Wars. The arrival of this evil space ship Zanon at Earth is detected by three ordinary women who are actually a team of cape-wearing alien superheroes! They transform and fly to their sky base (i.e. a blob of orange video-effect fuzz), whereupon they…do nothing, since Zanon announces that it can detect and destroy them if they use their powers, so they immediately change back to normal and give up. Wow, what a tease. Then we cut to a bunch of kids in what seems to be an extended commercial for the Weekly Shonen Jump manga, which is odd, since that manga was from a different publisher.
It’s strange to introduce a superhero team whose whole function in the story is to be ineffectual. But I quite liked the lead Spacewoman Kilara, played by a wrestler-turned-actress known as Mach Fumiake. She’s impressively statuesque, beautiful in a strong-looking way, and has a charisma that reminds me of Lynda Carter, only with better acting. The other two Spacewomen are extraneous, though. Kilara’s human disguise is a pet-shop owner who befriends the boy protagonist Keiichi, who really likes turtles and Gamera, though not as psychotically as Toshio in the original. When Zanon starts sending kaiju to attack Earth, Keiichi gives Kilara the idea to summon Gamera, but it’s unclear whether they’re summoning the pre-existing Gamera or using some superpower to fulfill Keiichi’s wish that his pet turtle would turn into the manga character Gamera. A lot of this movie has the same ambiguity as Godzilla vs. Hedorah — is this real or just the boy’s daydreams? There are even bizarre bits where the boy dreams of Gamera matted onto animated footage of Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express 999, theme music included. I guess the stock footage from Gamera’s previous fights wasn’t enough padding.
Kilara actually gets to do some superheroing when Zanon mind-controls Gamera to wage the same stock-footage rampage he waged when he was mind-controlled in Viras (good grief, it’s a rerun within a rerun!) and Kilara intervenes to free him. There’s also a subplot where Zanon crewwoman Giruge (Keiko Kudo) tries to find the Spacewomen, and it’s your pretty standard Japanese plot of the evil henchwoman who ruthlessly tries to kill the heroes, then is shown mercy in defeat, is shamed by the heroes’ kindness, and sacrifices herself to save them. It’s almost touching, but rather routine. And one wonders why this huge Star Destroyer knockoff doesn’t have more than one crewwoman to hunt their enemies. Anyway, once all the kaiju are killed (again), Gamera sacrifices himself to destroy Zanon, and they don’t even have the budget to show it — just shots of the Gamera puppet closing in on the Star Destroyer and then a bright flash of light as seen from the surface. And Keiichi asks if this means we can all live in peace now, and Kilara assures him that we can. Does that mean the Spacewomen have previously put an end to all wars and traffic accidents?
I have to admit, I actually liked this film better than the previous several, though that’s mainly because of Mach Fumiake (and because I did chores and exercised during the stock-footage fights — too bad you can’t fast-forward with streaming video). It’s really dumb and weird and contrived and cheap, but parts of it are more entertaining than most of its predecessors.
Gamera: Super Monster was deliberately made as a one-shot, since the revived Daiei wasn’t up to making a whole series. Hence Gamera’s noble offscreen sacrifice at the end. Godzilla’s own revival would be just four years away, but Gamera would have to wait until 1995 to be rebooted. And what lies ahead for Gamera could not be more different from what’s behind.
With my supply of accessible kaiju films from Toho run dry, I’ve decided to tackle Daiei’s Gamera, the most successful knockoff/rival of Godzilla. I remember seeing the Gamera films they spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and being aware that they tended to be more kid-oriented than a lot of the Godzilla movies, but then, the Godzilla movies of the late ’60s and ’70s were often quite juvenile and silly themselves. I recently happened to discover that Shout Factory TV’s streaming site has nearly all the Gamera movies available for free, and in the original Japanese, so I decided to give them a try. The only one missing from there is the last film to date, 2006’s Gamera the Brave, but that one is available through Netflix DVD rental. Thus I’m able to cover the entire Gamera series comprehensively and in chronological order, which is more than I was able to do with Godzilla or Mothra.
Daikaiju Gamera (Giant Monster Gamera), generally called simply Gamera and originally called Gammera the Invincible in English (with the second M added to clarify the pronunciation), was released in November 1965, not long after Toho’s solemn Frankenstein Conquers the World and a month before Invasion of Astro-Monster, the second film to portray Godzilla in a relatively heroic vein. So this was an era when lead kaiju were becoming sympathetic, though Gamera’s a more ambiguous monster in his debut than he would become later on. This film is something of a throwback to the early kaiju formula with only a single giant monster against humanity. Not to mention that it’s shot in black and white, the only such film in the Gamera series. (Gamera’s name, by the way, is a blend of kame, the Japanese word for “turtle,” with elements of the name Godzilla/Gojira. This series made little secret of being derivative.)
The opening is sort of a blend of Gojira and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: While lead scientist Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), his pretty assistant Kyoko (Harumi Kiritachi), and plucky reporter Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashita) are investigating “Eskimo” legends of giant turtles from Atlantis called Gameras (which is geographically questionable in a couple of different ways), a Cold War dogfight breask out overhead. (We see a US military command center whose characters speak in badly structured and even more badly acted English, with Japanese subtitles on the sides of the screen. Although they wouldn’t be subtitles if they’re beside rather than below — paratitles? Anyway, I gather the English-language version reshot these scenes with recognizable American actors, and dropped in a few other scenes with them as well.) This leads to the crash of a bomber from an anonymous country, one that builds its nukes poorly enough that they detonate on impact, awakening the glacier-entombed Gamera. The terrible terrapin destroys the ship Hidaka and his two colleagues had recently disembarked from, and there’s a bit of solemn reflection about how close they came to dying, though it doesn’t last. Hidaka is convinced that Gamera must have died of radiation poisoning soon thereafter, but there’s a spate of flying saucer sightings, and then Gamera shows up at the lighthouse home of Toshio (Kenny in the English dub), a boy who’s unhealthily obsessed with turtles, to the point that he gladly rushes toward Gamera and courts certain death, not for the last time in this film. Oddly, when Gamera smashes the lighthouse and endangers Toshio, the monster then catches the boy and lowers him to safety, convincing Toshio that Gamera is friendly. Tell that to all the people that Gamera later kills while smashing up Tokyo in order to feed on the resulting flames. (Toshio is, in fact, convinced that his tiny pet turtle Chibi has turned into Gamera. Someone get this boy into therapy, stat.)
Dr. Hidaka is less along the lines of Gojira‘s Professor Yamane — “We should keep it alive so we can study it for the good of humanity” — and more along the lines of the 1998 American Godzilla‘s Nick Tatopolous — “Why, yes, I will gladly contribute my zoological expertise to killing this unique and irreplaceable scientific discovery, no big deal.” His big plan, after discovering that Gamera feeds on fire and nuclear energy (a concept that the Heisei-era Godzilla films would later adopt), is to use a freeze bomb that the military has conveniently just invented, and that somehow only works for exactly ten minutes to the second, no matter what the environmental conditions. The freeze bomb covers Gamera with, um, a faint coating of frost, I guess, and immobilizes him long enough for the military to undermine his position and blow him onto his back, where the scientists gleefully assume he will now starve to a slow, horrible, agonizing death, hooray. Lucky that Gamera can fire jets out of his shell holes and turn into the “flying saucer” seen earlier.
So the scientists of the world get together and decide to use a mysterious “Z Plan” that’s conveniently being developed on a nearby island to deal with Gamera. (That’s twice that the authorities have just happened to have a convenient anti-Gamera technology already lying around.) They keep him contained at a burning oil refinery (after his obligatory Tokyo rampage) by sending in more tankers of oil, giving Toshio another chance to attempt to sacrifice himself to his terrible turtle god. For some reason, this convinces the heroes to adopt the boy as their mascot rather than getting him institutionalized for his own safety. Then they use… umm… a trail of fire across the ocean (lucky there were apparently no currents) to draw Gamera to the island, whereupon they lure him into the “Z Plan” — which is a shell that closes around Gamera and then turns out to be the nose cone of a rocket that blasts into space. Yes, Gamera’s the Martians’ problem now!
All in all, I was underwhelmed. It started out promisingly dark, with a bit of anti-war sentiment, but then the kid showed up and it was downhill from there. Aside from the chelonaphilic brat, it was a pretty by-the-numbers kaiju movie, with substantially cruder special effects than Toho’s work. The action sequences were shorter, the miniatures looked very toylike, the buildings in “Tokyo” looked like cardboard (ever heard of slow motion, guys?), and the cooling towers at the geothermal plant Gamera trashed were clearly made partly of chicken wire. And Gamera’s final defeat was anticlimactic. Also, I’m sorry, but a turtle walking on its hind legs just looks silly, at least with this design. I’m not impressed so far.
The second film, Duel of the Giant Monsters: Gamera vs. Barugon (Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon, aka Gamera vs. Barugon or War of the Monsters in the US), came out only five months later, not long before The War of the Gargantuas from Toho — and just 8 months after Toho’s Frankenstein vs. Baragon, also featuring a quadrupedal monster with a nose spike. Hmmmm. Anyway, we get a quick narrated recap of the first film, ending with “…and then a meteor destroyed the rocket and Gamera flew back to Earth and destroyed Japan’s biggest dam.” Oh, well, so much for that happy ending.
But then Gamera wanders off to feed on a distant volcano — or maybe to destroy cities that don’t matter because they aren’t in Japan — and we shift to a totally separate story about a group of treasure-hunters trying to retrieve a giant opal that the brother of the lead character Hirata (Kojiro Hongo) found and hid on New Guinea during World War II. The local tribe is all “no, don’t go, it’s cursed,” but they go anyway, and the villain Onodera (Koji Fujiyama) steals the opal and tries to kill the others. Hirata survives and is warned by a local tribeswoman with the exotic name of Karen (Kyouko Enami) that the opal carries a terrible curse. Indeed, when Onodera reaches Japan, an accident with an infrared heat lamp hatches the opal, which is actually a Barugon egg, and Barugon grows to giant size in minutes and wrecks the port of Kobe before heading for nearby Osaka. Barugon’s a giant lizard with a chameleon-like tongue that shoots freezing vapors and back spines that emit a rainbow disintegrator ray, weirdly enough. The rainbow energy attracts Gamera, but Barugon freezes him (his one weakness) and gets away. Meanwhile, Onodera’s crime is found out by Hirata’s brother, but Onodera leaves the brother and his wife to die in Barugon’s rampage.
Hirata and Karen arrive and use her knowledge of Barugon lore to try to fight the beast, using a supersized diamond to lure Barugon, because he can’t resist their light. The plan is to lure him into a lake, since extended immersion in water will kill him. It doesn’t work until they figure out that… oh, boy… the infrared radiation from the heat lamp mutated him. Yup, low-energy, non-ionizing heat radiation — also known as warmth — supposedly had the same mutagenic effect as the high-energy gamma radiation from a nuclear bomb. I know we don’t watch kaiju films for the science, but oh, man. Anyway, they modify a “ruby death ray” (i.e. laser) to become an infrared diamond ray, using the infrared beam — which is blue for some reason — to lure Barugon into the lake. But greedy Onodera shows up to steal the diamond, foiling the plan. Will he pay for it with his life? Will Hirata devise another clever plan that also fails? Will Gamera thaw out just in time to save the day? Will Hirata end the film feeling all guilty about the destruction caused by human greed? Of course they will.
Well, this one’s much better than its predecessor, and a lot darker and more adult as well (not that those automatically go together, but it happens to be both). The characters are richer and more emotionally involved in the story, there’s a lot more interpersonal conflict, and we see more of the human cost of the devastation. The effects are somewhat better too, though Barugon’s monster suit is kind of crude-looking, and its powers are sort of ridiculous. Points off, though, for the stereotyped tribal villagers, who cower in fear from a helicopter, warn of offending the gods, and are all made up to be dark-skinned except for the good-looking women (especially Karen, who’s the palest person in the movie). I wouldn’t call it a great movie, but it’s not bad.
Giant Monster Midair Battle: Gamera vs. Gyaos (Daikaiju Kuuchuusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu, aka Return of the Giant Monsters) came out in early 1967, between Toho’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and King Kong Escapes. Toho’s movies were getting more kid-friendly around this time, and this film follows suit, establishing most of what would become the standard formula going forward. It once again focuses on a young boy who really likes Gamera, namely Eiichi (Naoyuki Abe), who lives in a village that’s in the path of a superhighway construction project, with the villagers refusing to sell. At first, I thought this was going to be a story about ruthless corporations vs. the noble protectors of local tradition and culture, but instead, the villagers were just greedily holding out for more money and thus impeding the righteous cause of progress. Anyway, the construction is halted when a volcanic eruption awakens a bat-winged kaiju with a weirdly angular, anvil-shaped head and an ultrasonic death ray that slices through everything except Gamera’s shell. When Eiichi is endangered by the creature, Gamera comes to his rescue, and the boy names the kaiju Gyaos (pronounced basically “gyowse”) after its cry. (A graphic identifies it as a “Rhamphorhynchoides Monster,” after a type of pterosaur, so this is Daiei’s answer to Rodan. It even has a similar destructive-wind attack, as well as the cutting beam and a vapor spray that puts out fires, since light is its weakness.) Gamera is wounded by Gyaos’s ray, and borrows a page from Godzilla by retreating beneath the sea to heal. Note that Gamera’s motives have changed: Before, he was driven by instinctual hunger and incidentally saved one boy he happened to notice while otherwise not caring how much death he caused, but now he arrives on the scene specifically to aid a threatened child, then goes to greater lengths to ensure the child’s safety.
After that, it’s your usual sequence of scientific attempts to kill Gyaos, plus the titular aerial battle with Gamera, culminating with Gyaos cutting its own toes off to escape Gamera’s jaws. (Don’t worry, they grow back.) Studying the amputated talons confirms that UV light is deadly to Gyaos — although Eiichi already figured out that the beast was nocturnal. Basically the scientists and the military are dependent on this small boy to make all their key insights and discoveries. This includes the bizarre plan of using a fountain of artificial blood (which is colored pink like Klingon blood in Star Trek VI) to lure the man-eating Gyaos onto a revolving restaurant that’s been souped up into a giant turntable to make him dizzy and immobilized until the sun comes up and kills him. (So help me, I almost remember this part from Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s kind of unforgettable.) Naturally, the plan doesn’t work, requiring Eiichi to come up with one more brilliant plan so the grownups don’t have to: Set the whole damn forest on fire to hurt Gyaos and lure in the fire-eating Gamera. Of course, Gamera wins and drags Gyaos into the volcano, where the monster’s death is shown the same way Barugon’s was, by having its beam fire into the sky and then retract. (Even as a kid, that trope bothered me. A beam wouldn’t go backward when it turned off! But it’s surprising how many sci-fi animators over the decades have assumed it would.)
The brevity of that summary should illustrate how superficial the film is compared to the last one. The characters aren’t very memorable, and the plot is basically just there to bridge the action sequences. There’s a bit of a moral condemning greed again, but less so than last time. The effects aren’t quite as good either. Gyaos is a weirdly inorganic-looking monster, with its stiff, angular head and body; in flight, it looks more like a jet aircraft in shape than a living pterosaur. (I wonder, though, if it’s an inspiration for the MUTOs in the 2014 Legendary Godzilla. They also have unnaturally angular heads, and I felt they looked more like Gamera monsters than Godzilla monsters. Gyaos must’ve been the kaiju I was thinking of.)
We’re only three films in out of the seven in the original Gamera series, but the basics of the formula are in place now, and the next four are where it really solidifies. So I’ll cover them all together in the next post, along with the 1980 revival film.
Now we finally come to the one major piece of Toho’s kaiju multiverse that I haven’t already covered, the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy from 1996-98. This was just a couple of years after Toho had concluded the Heisei Godzilla series in order to cede to what they expected to be a trilogy of American Godzilla films from TriStar — although that didn’t turn out too well. So I imagine they decided to shift their focus to their second main kaiju star, Mothra. While the Rebirth trilogy (its English title — the first was just called Mosura in Japan) came out during the Heisei era of the Japanese calendar, it isn’t in continuity with the Heisei Godzilla series featuring Miki Saegusa and G-Force, and it uses a different version of the Mythra mothos, err, Mothra mythos, than the one in Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth. This is a separate universe for a film trilogy that’s geared toward a younger audience than the Heisei or Millennium Godzilla films.
The trilogy, written by Masumi Suetani and directed by Okihiro Yoneda (films I & III) and Kunio Miyoshi (film II), centers on the Elias (Eriasu), this continuity’s equivalents of the Shobijin/Cosmos, the pair of tiny, singing women who are Mothra’s heralds in the other films — but now they’re the lead characters, there are three of them, and they have more individualized personalities. The two heroines are Moll, or Moru (Megumi Kobayashi), the calmer, wiser older sibling (called Mona in the English dub), and Lora (Sakaya Yamaguchi), the more emotional younger one. The third is Belvera, or Berubera (Aki Hano), the recurring villain of the series, who rides around on a miniature robot dragon called Garu Garu and recruits various evil kaiju to destroy the human race. Moll and Lora have their own flying mount, a kitten-sized miniature Mothra called Fairy. (The first Fairy Mothra appeared in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla a few years earlier, though I’ve blocked that awful film from my memory.)
The first film involves Belvera’s attempt to free Desghidorah (or Death-Ghidorah), a life-force-sucking alien monster that sterilized Mars and tried to do the same to Earth before the Mothra race and their Elias allies were able to entrap it. Belvera wants to free Desghidorah and destroy the world, basically just for evil’s sake. But the movie takes a while to get around to explaining this, instead focusing on the dysfunctional Goto family, whose father happens to unearth the small metal seal that keeps Desghidorah contained and takes it home as a gift for his daughter, leading to an interminable aerial fight between the good Elias sisters on Fairy and Belvera on Garu Garu. It’s an interesting twist to take a kaiju battle to a tiny scale instead of a huge one, but since the premise, characters, and stakes haven’t been explained to the audience yet, it’s kind of tedious.
Eventually Belvera gets away with the seal and frees Desghidorah, who’s a King Ghidorah variant with four legs and a burlier design more suggestive of a European-style dragon, though still with three heads. Conveniently for this kid-friendly film, Desghidorah has no interest in preying on human life force, preferring to target the much longer-lived trees and thus serve as an allegory for the film’s clumsy environmentalist message.
The Elias summon Mothra with a modernized, music-video style version of the original Mothra awakening song — the musical style has a ’70s sound to me, but the visuals are very ’90s music video with the singers bluescreened over flames and whatnot. This version of Mothra is even more plush and fuzzy than prior versions. She’s also elderly and weakened after laying her egg, so she’s badly hurt in the fight, provoking her infant, known in English as Larva Leo, to hatch prematurely and come to her aid (and somehow the Elias are able to watch this even though they’re hundreds of miles away). It’s odd to see Mothra and her larva fighting side by side; in Mothra vs. Godzilla, the new Mothra larvae were born shortly after the mature Mothra died, suggesting the mythological trope of the dying and reincarnating god. I think the larvae in Tokyo S.O.S. were born before Mothra died, but didn’t actually fight alongside her. Here, Larva Leo takes quite a pounding but manages to drive Desghidorah away, and the good Elias recapture the seal from Belvera, while the Gotos deal with the destruction around them. But the old Mothra soon gives up the ghost and sinks into the sea.
Desghy goes on an offscreen rampage that drains the life from the forest of Hokkaido and makes it hard for the hospitalized survivors to breathe (huh? It’s not like people can’t breathe in a desert or something). There’s an odd misstep in the film’s environmental message here, since there’s an environmentalist protestor/journalist who’s been condemning Goto’s logging business, and here he comes off as a malicious lunatic who attacks Goto, blaming him for the whole mess. But eventually the kids leave their injured parents behind and run off to help Larva Leo, who cocoons herself (himself in the English dub) next to a really really old tree in a nature preserve and draws on its energy to metamorphose (and how is this different from Desghidorah’s parasitism, exactly?). She hatches into a bunch of little animated moths that combine into a fiercer-looking (but still plush) Mothra Leo (actually Shin Mosura, “New Mothra”), who takes on the now-winged Desghidorah in a very one-sided battle, since Leo unleashes about a dozen different attacks and Desghy doesn’t have a chance. Once Leo uses the seal to entomb Desghy again, Goto has a weird speech about how “we” destroyed the forest in minutes, even though it was the monster that did it, and how maybe, with hard work, we can reclaim the environment and build a better world for our grandkids. Which is immediately rendered moot when Leo takes the kids for a ride on its head and sprinkles fairy dust over the landscape to make it all magically bloom again. Who needs environmental responsibility when you have kaiju fairy dust? Oh, and Moll and Lora let Belvera get away because, oh, didn’t we mention she’s our big sister and we love her? Plus we need her back for the sequels.
I’d gathered this trilogy had a good reputation, but this was kind of a mess. Decent effects, and the actresses playing Moll and Lora were better than their dull predecessors in The Battle for Earth. The music was pretty good too, more lush and expressive than the usual Godzilla score. But it was hard to care about the dysfunctional clan of human heroes, the fight scenes ran too long, and the plot was unfocused.
Rebirth of Mothra II, aka Mothra 2: The Great Undersea Battle, takes place in the islands of Okinawa as a series of strange incidents begin in the sea, involving hostile starfish creatures called Barem, which turn out to be the waste products of a kaiju named Dagahra (not to be confused with Dogora), basically an amphibious dragon with manta-ray wings. It was created by an Atlantis-like civilization called Nilai-Kanai, which intended it to consume ocean pollution, but their genetic engineering was flawed and the monster produced the Barem as a waste product. Dagahra has now been reawakened by modern sea pollution, and the Barem will consume all sea life and destroy the world if it isn’t stopped.
There’s also a small, benevolent creature called Ghogo, a pear-shaped ball of cream-colored fur with eyes, chicken feet, and a single antenna atop its head. Ghogo ends up in the hands of the film’s preteen heroine Shiori (Hikari Mitsushima), who’s bothered by a couple of bullying boys that become her allies when Belvera attacks them to get Ghogo, who she says will lead her to a magic treasure that will let her take over the world (presumably by supernatural means rather than just, you know, becoming one of the one percent). So both factions compete to get to Nilai-Kanai, with Belvera recruiting a pair of bumbling treasure hunters as her allies, and when they find the sunken pyramid-city and Dagahra attacks, the Elias girls summon Mothra (this time without the cheesy music-video staging). Apparently New Mothra generally spends her time dissolved into hundreds of little Mothrae (like those that came out of her cocoon before) that only assemble into the Leo Mothrazord when summoned.
Dagahra takes a totally random detour to smash up the nearby city, but when Mothra arrives, their aerial fight is over the no-longer-sunken pyramid and a nearby forested island. Mothra Leo is not nearly as devastating as she was against Desghidorah, and the monster spins up a whirlpool that leaves Mothra helplessly encrusted in a toxic brown substance that it took me a while to realize was a coating of the Barem things. The pyramid’s defenses then drive off Dagahra, making Mothra seem kind of irrelevant to the whole affair.
Finally a holographic Nilai-Kanaian princess shows up, and we finally get some motivation for Belvera when she argues that she needs the treasure to save the Earth by wiping out the scourge of humanity, while her sisters argue that humans have the potential to save the world and that Dagahra is the real threat. The princess sides with them and reveals that the real treasure is Ghogo (big surprise) and that he must will his soul to the defeat of Dagahra — which has randomly mutated into a deadlier form with shoulder missiles. The kids and the treasure-hunting baddies save each other when Dagahra attacks again, and everyone’s redeemed and on the same side.
Ghogo’s final sacrifice is… ugh… Okay, look. I didn’t want to get into this, but there’s been a running gag of Ghogo magically healing people by, well, urinating on them. This culminates in a sequence that it’s very hard not to read as fetishistic, as Ghogo’s ultra-pure, healing “miracle water” (just animated sparkles, but still) rains down upon the delighted Elias girls and everyone else. Seriously, who thought this was a good idea in a kids’ movie? Annnnnnyway… Mothra is healed and transformed into a new, more colorful form called Rainbow Mothra, who magically parts the sea so the humans can run back to shore (I wonder if there’s some Mosura/Moses pun intended there), then transforms into Aqua Mothra, basically a moth/flying fish hybrid that splits into a bunch of little Aqua Mothras that have a CGI Death Star trench dogfight with the Barems inside Dagahra’s body, leaving it weakened and defeated. We end with an unsubtle metaphor where the princess’s voice tells the kids their generation has been entrusted with the fate of the world, and Ghogo has left Shiori a pearl that turns into the Earth for the final shot.
All in all, a forgettable sequel. The effects and music were okay, but the story didn’t have much going for it, and the climax was kind of icky. This one could probably be skipped altogether without impact.
Rebirth of Mothra III was originally titled Mothra III: King Ghidorah Attacks, so one guess who the monster is. Now Belvera is trying to steal three triangular jeweled pins connected to the “Elias Triangle” that protects the little ladies’ species, one each for Wisdom, Courage, and Love. Moll and Lora fight her, but she escapes with the Love pin. Lora finds that the Wisdom pin fits a triangular depression in her dagger and causes it to lengthen Thundercats-style into a sword (okay, that’s not sexually symbolic at all). But the Courage pin doesn’t fit Lora’s dagger, so it must be for Belvy’s, with Lora as Love.
Our human protagonist is a teenage boy named Shota, a budding chef whose indulgent parents are letting his skip school without knowing why, though their younger kids explain that all the students hate the healthy school lunches. It’s a weirdly moralistic conversation with the kids arguing that not letting kids eat junk food doesn’t let them be true to themselves. Anyway, Shota takes advantage of his abundant free time to investigate some meteorites that fell in Aoki forest, but Moll and Lora get there first and find residue that Fairy’s antenna sensor scan (yes, apparently) identifies as dinosaur juice, basically. So Lora deduces that whatever fell to Earth was the same thing that killed the dinosaurs 130 million years ago (twice the actual figure, but no worse than the “2 million years” estimate in the 1954 Gojira). Turns out that was King Ghidorah (with a conventional roar rather than his usual high, warbling cry), who’s now flying over the city and disintegrating children when it passes over them. Shota discovers that the children have been teleported to a big squishy-walled dome in the woods, some sort of larder where they’re stored for later consumption.
When Rainbow Mothra shows up to fight KG, he gets pretty well trashed. Lora’s “gentle heart” allows her to be hypnotized by KG’s gaze and she turns evil. Then Belvera gets snatched by some earthwormy tentacles from the dome (and again I’m having trouble believing that the implied sexual fetishism is accidental). Moll hooks up with Shota (who’s totally unfazed to see a tiny woman riding a large fuzzy moth) and takes him to Mothra, while Lora arrives inside the dome and swordfights with Belvera, snatching the Love pin to sword-ify her dagger. Somehow the power of Love doesn’t cure her of King G’s evil influence.
Anyway, Moll has to sacrifice the last of her life force (turning into a crude digital-effect representation of stone) to turn Mothra into a more streamlined Aqua Mothra known as Lightspeed Mothra, who travels back in time to defeat the younger King Ghidorah — which does not immediately reset the timeline, since this movie follows what TV Tropes calls San Dimas Time, where events in the past and present are somehow simultaneous, with past events only affecting the present after we see them occur in the narrative. “While” Mothra battles the smaller Cretaceous King G in a landscape populated with stiffly animated mechanical dinosaurs, Shota gets sucked into the larder dome (which turns out to be an outboard stomach that begins spewing acid) and uses Moll’s last words to reach the hearts of her sisters, whose powers combined
summon Captain Planet help Mothra win the day in the simultaneous past, causing King G to vanish in the present — until another King G emerges, grown from a bit of Cretaceous KG that was severed in the past. And the time-travel logic is just as nonsensical as in the previous KG movie, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, but at least Belvera actually recognizes that it doesn’t make sense — which doesn’t actually help it make any more sense. Naturally Mothra returns (thanks to some Primitive Mothra larvae that cocooned her in the distant past) and gets two more ultra-gaudy transformations, Armor Mothra for the climactic takedown and Eternal Mothra at the end. Lora and Belvera use the Power of Three to bring Moll back to life, kind of like Charmed if Shannen Doherty were an evil witch bent on destroying humanity. (Although I think her co-stars might’ve believed that she was.) The sisters come to an understanding that they’ll never agree but that’s okay, and Shota has presumably gained enough courage to tackle the horrors of school lunches.
While this one has its silly aspects to be sure, it’s easily the best of the three, due to the drama among the Elias sisters. Shota is also a more effective child lead than his predecessors, a bit older and more thoughtful. The effects are pretty good except for the stiff wind-up dinosaurs in the past. I do wonder why they decided to do two movies with Ghidorah variants as the villains.
I know I’m not the target audience for these films, but overall I found them underwhelming. I believe that children deserve nothing less than the best we can offer them, so being made for kids is no excuse for a film to lack quality or intelligence. And in my opinion, these are just mediocre movies — not the worst that kaiju eiga has to offer, but well below the best. The first two Mothra films were among the finest of the Showa era, establishing Mothra as a figure second only to Godzilla in Toho’s pantheon. But few of Mothra’s later films came close. These are the only films since Mothra vs. Godzilla in 1964 in which Mothra has been the top-billed lead kaiju (that film was called Godzilla vs. the Thing in the US, but it was really a Mothra sequel with Godzilla as the guest villain), but they don’t live up to the same standard. Their effects and music are pretty good, but they’re too dominated by gimmickry, by giving Mothra various power-up transformations that were probably meant to sell new toys. The choice to center the series on the miniature women for a change was interesting; it makes Moll, Lora, and Belvera the only non-kaiju characters to be regulars throughout an entire Toho kaiju continuity. But they didn’t really get much character development until the final film, and the human children and families they connected with were never all that effective or sympathetic — especially since the boy “heroes” in both the first two films were bullies who harassed the young girl leads. So ultimately, the whole thing fails to rise above mediocrity, and feels more like an exercise in commercialism than anything else.
So that pretty much does it for the Toho films I’ve been able to track down. I’ve completed all the major Toho kaiju series — Godzilla, Mothra, Frankenstein — and a fair sampling of their other films. All that’s left are a couple of minor kaiju films from Ishiro Honda, Daikaiju Baran (whose terrible American version, Varan the Unbelievable, I’ve seen but don’t consider worth commenting on in isolation) and Space Amoeba (aka Yog, the Monster from Space), as well as a couple of non-kaiju things like Atragon and Latitude Zero, plus a couple of later, related films that may not even be worth it, like Jun Fukuda’s stock footage-based The War in Space. Maybe someday I’ll manage to track down enough of those to get another post out of it, but for now, I’m all Tohoed out, at least until Godzilla: Resurgence hits these shores, hopefully later this year.
So what does a kaiju eiga reviewer do when he’s effectively run out of Toho monsters to cover? Well, there’s really only one other major Japanese giant-monster franchise left, isn’t there? That’s right, true believers — it’s time to tackle Gamera. Brace yourselves, because from here on it’s turtles all the way down…