Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1995)

9. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe
Gamera: Daikaiju Kuchu Kessen

I can’t say for certain what Japanese monster fans thought of Gamera by the late 1990s. Perhaps some fans appreciated those films for the campy wonders they are. Others probably dismissed them out right as ridiculous kid stuff. Either way, I bet the news of a “dark and gritty” Gamera reboot was met with eye-rolling and derisive signs. How do you grimdark up a fire-farting giant turtle? Somehow, director Shusuke Kaneko and screenwriter Kazunori Ito succeeded. Not only did “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” fill the kaiju-sized void left by the end of Godzilla’s Heisei era, it has gone on to become one of the most beloved kaiju film of any age.

The film presents a Japan that has never been attacked by giant monsters before. Two strange events open the plot. First, a mysterious atoll, floating towards Japan, appears in the Philippines sea. Secondly, a giant winged creature is attacking and killing people on Goto Island. Expert Mayumi Nagamine investigates the latter, discovering a giant carnivorous bird species that grows very quickly and are born pregnant. Professor Kusangi, meanwhile, discovers a strange monolith atop the atoll. Just as the birds, named “Gyaos” by an ancient text, descends on Japan, the atoll reveals itself to be the giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle Gamera. Nagamine, Navy officer Yoshinari, and Kusanagi’s daughter, along with the rest of the Japan, are soon caught up in the battle between the two monsters, an ancient rivalry that goes back thousands of years.

As absurd as the idea sounds, “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” is indeed a dark and gritty reboot of the silliest kaiju franchise. The film, at first glance, has little to do with the campy original series. Many of the defining characteristics of both Gamera and Gyaos are removed. Gamera no longer sucks fire into his mouth. Gyaos’ undoing isn’t a stiff, unmoving spine. Even the most serious of the Showa era had ridiculous things happening on-screen. “Guardian of the Universe,” meanwhile, plays its premise with dead seriousness. That sounds like a betray of the source material but, against all odds, the film works incredibly well. “Guardian of the Universe” is a complete reinvention of the Gamera series.

The sixties Gamera series never had any sort of unifying mythos. The ’95 film corrects this, building a surprisingly deep mythology around the monsters. Gamera and his enemy are linked with Atlantis. The original film briefly mentioned that the giant turtle came from Atlantis but none of the subsequent films brought it up. Both monsters are revealed as being genetically engineered by the ancient society. Gyaos was created to protect the world from pollution. When the flying monsters became impossible to control, Gamera was created to protect humanity. It was too late though, Atlantis already destroyed. Now, rising pollution has awoken the monsters again. Linking the creatures with both an established mythology and an ecological message gives them far more resonance then ever before.

Surprisingly, “Guardian of the Universe” almost plays like a deconstruction of the daikaiju genre. Gamera is Earth’s protector but surprisingly ambivalent to the man on the street. Upon appearing in Fukuoka, he knocks a Gyaos into an oil field, starting a huge fire that claims several lives. Throughout their battle, the two giant monsters wreck buildings, sending crowds of innocent people fleeing in terror. Kaneko’s direction is stationed on the ground, looking up at the massive monsters, emphasizing their huge size. Kaiju battles have always featured plenty of collateral damage but rarely has the human danger been this accentuated.

Even though the heroes quickly recognize Gamera as a good monster, the military still decides to attack him. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a giant monster that suddenly showed up and started smashing buildings. Gyaos is a deeply visceral threat, scooping up innocent people, devouring them whole. A growing monster of that size has to eat a lot, after all. The appearance of the beasts has an immediate effect on the country. Public transportation is choked with fleeing people. The stock market plunges. News broadcaster attempt to stay up to date on the story but are quickly outpaced. The Japanese senate votes on whether or not to attack the monsters, the decision made with great reluctance. The populace mostly responds to the creatures in fear. Yet one small child seems excited and a pair of partiers, on the way from a sporting event, want to place bets on the battle. The film had this experienced kaiju fan considering aspects of the genre he had never thought of before.

The film plays with the conventions of the genre while still delivering on the giant monster thrills. Both creatures are brought to life fantastically. Gamera’s design is updated with modern effects without deviating too much from his classic look. His face is more angular, the ridge on his head more pronounced. The turtle’s shell is more jagged, appearing harsher then before. Ridges, bumps, and extra armor are added to his body, giving Gamera an earthier, more intimidating appearance. I also like the touch of giving him big, green, expressive eyes, which roots the grittier design with personality. Gyaos, meanwhile, has been completely redesigned. The bat-like creature is given a more reptilian look, its skin red and scaly. The stiff posture is ditched for a more mobile body and neck, the monster now moving swiftly and believably through the skies. The changes make Gyaos more then just a Rodan rip-off. However, the designers were smart enough to keep the monster’s trademark element. Gyaos still has a sloping, triangular crest on his head and, notably, the monster still feasts on human flesh.

Initially, the film keeps coy about both monsters’ ability to shoot projectile weapons. Gyaos appears to be a big, hungry bird at first. However, the creature’s super-sonic cutting ray is maintained, fantastically revealed when two of the monsters cleave through the bars of their cage. Gamera’s fire breathing, now shown as condensed fireballs instead of long streams, gets a similarly dramatic reveal, flying out of nowhere. Both abilities play almost like in-jokes. Small references like that are sprinkled throughout, marking it as a true Gamera film. The giant tortoise takes the time to protect a child in the heat of battle. Destructive though he may be, Gamera doesn’t fight back when the military attacks him. He’s still a good monster. When severely injured, his green blood still running from open wounds, Gamera retreats to the ocean to heal himself. Though ditching the high-strung silliness of the classic series, “Guardian” maintains at least some of the spirit of the original films.

The kaiju fights are incredibly dynamic. Gyaos’ early attack on the island, a screaming man grabbed out of his car, is actually frightening, something you can’t say of most giant monster movies. Gamera’s grand entrance is exciting, headbutting a Gyaos into an explosion. The monsters encounter each other again in the forest. With a single fireball, Gamera explodes one of his enemies, monster guts flying everywhere. The film’s heroes, along with an innocent child, are caught on a bridge between the fighting beasts, raising the stakes of the fight considerably. The military attempts to shoot Gyaos down, the monster withstanding missiles strikes. He even redirects some rockets into Tokyo Tower, having the landmark. Memorably, the monster then nests on the wrecked structure. Gamera’s enters the final fight by exploding out of the ground, wrecking buildings and streets in the process.

That last battle is when the action truly shifts up. The digital effects of Gamera and Gyaos flying haven’t aged well, often looking fake. However, Kaneko’s direction is incredibly lively. The monsters race through the city, the camera flying with them. Gamera shoves his enemy into a building, the camera watching from inside as Gyaos’ head crashes through it. The creatures take to the air, flying up into the upper atmosphere. Gyaos’ wings pass before the moon before both monsters tumble back towards the Earth. Gamera crashing into another refinery, causing a massive explosion, seems to be the monster’s end. Until the film remembers the turtle’s rarely mentioned fire eating ability. He adsorbs the flames, supercharged, finishing his rival off with a giant blast to the face. That’s a satisfying moment. The final battle is incredibly exciting, one of the best in all of the subgenre.

The script is smoothly constructed. The opening minutes drag a bit, the two plot lines existing separately. The movie quickly brings them together, the characters realizing the connection between the two kaiju. A clever solution to stopping the Gyaos threat is introduced. The three bats are lured to a giant sports stadium, trapped under the dome. Actually, the plan probably would have worked if Gamera hadn’t come along, smashing the structure open. Early on, the story introduces Kusanagi’s daughter, Asagi. As a gift, she is given a strange pendent found on the atoll. This makes her a priestess of Gamera, developing a spiritual link with the monster. Now, when he is wounded, she is wounded too. When the turtle falls into a healing slumber, she does as well. At first, this subplot comes off like a clumsy device, a way to give the heroic tortoise a last minute energy boost. However, Asagi winds up being the story’s emotional heart. Gamera’s defeat would mean her death. Literally tying in the monster’s fate with one of the human cast members is a smart idea, getting the audience doubly invested in the fight. Though mostly a serious affair, Ito’s screenplay even sneaks in some humor. Comparing the flesh eating Gyaos with the Japanese ibis leads to a deadpan response. A taxi driver’s reaction to a military blockade provides a big laugh as well.

“Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” has a uniformly strong cast, something you couldn’t always say about the Showa films. Shinobu Nakayama is more then just a damsel in distress. Mayumi is motivated and courageous, devising ways to defeat the monstrous threats and putting her own life on the line to project an innocent child. Nakayama has solid chemistry with Tsuyoshi Ihara’s Yoshinari. While in most kaiju films, the military man Yoshinari would have been the hero. Ihara instead plays the love interest. The quiet moments between the two characters, such as a brief aside during Gyaos’ attack on Tokyo, really stand out. Another memorable quiet moment is when Professor Kusangi, played by Akria Onodera, pauses inside his sleeping daughter’s room to question how well he truly knows her. Onodera brings a surprising gravity to the part. As a man of science, he is reluctant at first to accept Gamera’s Atlantian origins. However, evidence piles up, forcing him to acknowledge the truth. Kusangi remains most concerned with his daughter though, which the film gets some great mileage out of in the final lap.

Aside from an ecological message that is introduced without much precedence and not commented on again, “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” works incredibly well. It’s amazingly exciting, fantastically directed, well written, and features great special effects. It successfully re-birthed Gamera, exposing a new generation to the flying turtle and completely changing the character’s public perception. [Grade: A-]


whitsbrain said...

Great review! I agree that this is a very good kaiju movie. My thoughts when I first watched this back in 2013:

The original run of Gamera films of the '60s and '70s have always been second-rate compared to the Godzilla films they mimicked. Godzilla movies are not good from a story perspective, but they have always been reasonably successful in delivering the spectacular. You always got a feeling like Japan was in danger, whether it be from Godzilla or the nasty beast he was battling. This has never been the case with Gamera. Gamera has always been difficult to appreciate. He is a jet-powered, flying turtle, after all.

Gamera protects children from harm. The most annoying part of the Godzilla run of the '70s is when Godzilla interacts with children. Turn the kid-knob up to eleven and you've got the original Gamera films. Add to that the fact that the movies have always been for made for kids and you've got lots of reasons to ignore Gamera as a respect-worthy kaiju.

Now for whatever reason, 1995 sees a new beginning for Gamera. He still has an ESP deal going with children, but this time it's with an older teenage girl. It's also free of little kids yelling "Gamera! Help us! Here we are! Gamera!" every 30 seconds. The kid thing is subtle this time.

The story is actually pretty good. Gamera's old nemesis Gyaos is back and while I'm not a Gamera expert, this time it's different. There are a number of Gyoas (plural: Gyaoses, Gyoai???). One of them does manage to survives Gamera's efforts to police them and it grows to a great size. All of this is standard kaiju stuff, but Gamera himself is an impressive beast this time around. I still chuckle at the silliness of a giant turtle with jet power, but the Gamera effects are pretty terrific. There is some unconvincing green screen, but the final battle between Gamera and Gyoas is impressively done. The explosions at the refinery are fantastic and really pop on the Blu-Ray release.

whitsbrain said...