Friday, April 25, 2014
Series Report Card: Gamera (1999)
Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris
Gamera Surī: Jyashin Irisu Kakusei /
Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys
After redefining the Gamera series, and some would say the entire kaiju genre, with the first two Heisei films, Shusuke Kaneko took a two year break from giant monsters. When the time came to produce a third and final Gamera film, Kaneko wrote a script that brought many of the plot points first raised in “Guardian of the Universe” full circle. The result was the darkest Gamera film ever made, one that attempts to weave a very personal human story in with the epic kaiju action while bringing the series to a satisfying conclusion.
Two years after Legion’s attack on Japan, the country is still recovering. A teenage girl named Ayana, whose parents died during Gamera’s battle with Gyaos in 1995, still holds a burning hatred for the kaiju. Now, a new race of even deadlier Gyaos has appeared, putting the entire world in peril, forcing Gamera back into action. Series protagonist Mayumi and Asagi attempt to aide Gamera in defending Earth and against a military that has dubbed him a threat. Meanwhile, Ayana discovers a strange new monster, a tentacled beast that feeds on human life force. Naming the creature Iris, she teaches it to hate Gamera as well. With some assist from a pair of anti-Gamera occultists, the two mighty monsters are put on a path of violence towards each other.
“Revenge of Iris” is widely regarded as the best Gamera film, if not the best kaiju film, ever made. While “Attack of the Legion” was most ambitious in its special effects, the third feature is more ambitious in story and character. Usually, in the daikaiju genre, the human story and the giant monster story co-exist, feeding into each other, while rarely fusing into one. “Gamera 3” builds upon the connection between humans and monsters the last two films featured. The young girls at the story’s center don’t just give the giants a last minute power boost. Instead, they are directly involved in the battle, motivating the creatures, driven by the same desires. Ayana’s desire for revenge powers Iris, the occultists project their own feelings on the monsters, while Asagi and Mayumi both believe Gamera will save the world.
mana,” the Earth’s life force. Gamera and Gyaos’ reemergence is directly tied to Earth’s “mana” levels being low. None of this has much to do with the classic conception of Gamera. While the last two films mostly went off on their own stories, they at least paid homage to the original series. “Revenge of Iris,” meanwhile, is more interested in its own ideas. Swap Gamera and Gyaos out for original monsters and the story would be completely unchanged.
Kaneko’s last two Gamera films explored the kaiju genre from a deconstructive angle. Yes, if two giant monsters fought in a packed city, people would get hurt, innocents would die. “Revenge of Iris” takes this further then ever before. The entire plot is motivated by collateral damage, human lives inadvertently lost during Gamera’s heroic battles. This comes into sharp focus during the first major battle. Gamera and a group of Gyaos touch down in Tokyo. The bird monster is bloodied, an eyeball dangling from its smashed socket. In the course of the fight, Gamera sets the entire city block on fire, visibly murdering people, claiming hundreds of lives. It’s a visceral, unsettling scene. The film is doing this intentionally, making you question if having the big turtle around is even worth it. Eventually, it does answer that question, proving that Gamera does care about humanity. However, the story can’t support a topic this heavy. It becomes difficult to root for Gamera when he has so much blood on his claws.
The script is uneven. Ayane’s storyline is interesting and loaded with potential. Ai Maeda gives a fine performance, showing a secret rage behind her calm eyes. At school, she meets a boy named Moribe. Moribe’s family has protected a near-by shrine for centuries. He knows something bad lurks inside but that doesn’t stop him from showing Ayane. The two youngsters have a romantic bound. Moribe is nervous about expressing his desire, realistically so. When Ayane is swept up by Iris, he saves her, running to her aide. When the monster attacks Kyoto, the girl caught in the crossfire, Moribe tries to help her. He is out of his element though. The magical knife the temple gave him to defeat monsters winds up being completely useless, in what is either sloppy writing or a hilariously subversive joke. Nozomi Ando is extremely good in the part.
Compared to the exciting, visceral kaiju action of the last two films, “Revenge of Iris” comes up short. Throughout the film, we hear about Gyaos attacking major cities around the world, Gamera fighting them off. Bafflingly, all of these battles are kept off-scene. CGI is heavily utilized during the fights. Gamera spins through the air, colliding with the flying Iris, missiles bursting around them. The computer graphics were, no doubt, cutting edge in 1999. However, they look incredibly dated by modern standards. The action direction is shaky, making it difficult to see what is going on at times. When Gamera and Iris finally reach the ground, their battle is disappointingly brief. Most of the fight takes place inside a cramped train station. The monsters impale and claw each other in close quarters. There’s little of the theatrical kaiju action fans crave. The fight concludes with a shrug, Gamera finishing Iris off with a mostly unexplained special move.
For all its faults, “Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris” works extremely well at times. Iris is a fantastically realized monster. The creature doesn’t look like any previous monster ever put to screen. The pointed head lacks a traditional mouth or eyes, producing a truly alien appearance. The natural armor, crystalline and jagged, is very memorable. The orange tentacles, topped off with clasping pinchers, are a highly dynamic weapon. Instead of flying with rockets or wings, Iris floats on the air using a clear membrane spread between his tentacles. The relationship between the monster and Ayane is interesting. As a cute baby-thing, she feeds it. When it starts to grow, Iris wraps Ayane with its tentacles, a moment dripping with Freudian implications. The kaiju also has a bad habit of sucking people’s life force, turning them into dried out mummies. When the corpses are discovered, it provides the movie with a horrific edge. Iris’ confrontation with the military, the giant monster easily finishing off the soldiers, is the movie’s sole moment of satisfying action.
In my review of “Gamera 2,” I suggested that the filmmakers had turned Gamera into a Christ figure. I was being sarcastic but “Revenge of Iris” continues in this vain. Gamera works in mysterious ways. Yeah, thousands of people wind up dead because of him but, ultimately, he wants to protect mankind. Even those that have abandoned him aren’t above his love. Ayane’s hatred might have unleashed a horrible new threat but Gamera doesn’t care. He forgives all. Just to make the subtext even more explicit, Gamera gets crucified. Iris stabs a huge hole through his chest, nearly killing the turtle. Not long after that, the giant turtle gets a massive spike hammered into the palm of his hand. Comparing a giant turtle that flies by farting fire to Jesus is pretty funny. The subtext might also be completely unintentional. Yet it’s hard to imagine Keneko didn’t know what he was doing. Framed in this context, “Revenge of Iris” becomes a story of faith tested and ultimately renewed.
“Gamera 3” ends on a deliberately ambiguous note. After defeating Iris, a swarm of Gyaos fly towards Tokyo. Gamera, despite being seriously wounded, with no guarantee he can win the fight, marches forward into battle. It’s tempting to say the film cuts off right before its most exciting moment. Yet that ending is film’s most definitively “Gamera”-like moment to me. The giant turtle’s primary characteristic over the years has been his undying tenacity. The suggestions that he might go down fighting, or even succeed against impossible odds, is in keeping with his character. The ending didn’t satisfy everyone, as enterprising fans later produced a fan-film called “Gamera 4: Truth,” wrapping up the storyline. I, personally, like the ambiguity.