Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1999)

11. 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.

All of that is well and good but the question has to be asked: Is “Revenge of Iris” truly a Gamera movie? The series’ investment in its own mythology has reached critical mass. Early on, we see a Gamera graveyard, the ocean floor littered with giant turtle bodies, failed prototypes made by the Atlantians. Much attention is paid to the concept of “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.

However, the teens’ storyline has to compete for screen time with the film’s other concerns. Bringing Mayumi and Asagi back into the story was a sound idea. Neither character is given much to do though, mostly forced to discuss the plot with other people as the monsters rage off-screen. Mayumi’s plot is tied in with Inspector Osako, a minor character from the previous film. Osako has become homeless, Mayumi helping to reform the man. Osako’s story doesn’t go much of anywhere. The film’s human villains, Mito Asakura and Shin’ya Kurata, are also problematic. They mostly exist as plot devices, a way to get Ayane into Kyoto before the film’s last act. Both characters’ rant about the monsters’ purposes and their mystical origins. Tooru Teduka goes way over the top as Kurata, acting like a preening hipster. Senri Yamazaki as Asakura is mostly a non-entity. The film probably should have focused more on Ayane’s struggle instead of splitting time with these other plots.

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.

“Gamera 3” works the best, not during its kaiju fights, but its quieter moments. The film’s emotional climax isn’t when Gamera banishes the evil monster. It is, instead, when Iris takes Ayane inside its skin. Falling through a psychedelic cascade of color, Ayane experiences Iris’ memories. She realizes her hatred has motivated the monster. She sees, firsthand, the creature decimating her village. For the first time, she questions her motivations. Despite doing nothing but hating him, Gamera rescues the girl, gorily pulling her free of Iris’ grasp. This moment makes it clear that the giant turtle fights for mankind, not just for the Earth. As Iris dies, Ayane is suddenly torn, the creature she’s devoted her life to hating being responsible for saving her. It’s a complex, fascinating moment, one the film needed more of.

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.

I’m ultimately surprised a film as uneven as “Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris” is so beloved. The film’s script juggles more plot lines then it can handle. Its treatment of the monsters is uncertain and the movie holds back on the action. Yet there are some amazingly serene moments and an ultimately thoughtful heart behind the messy story and tone. If nothing else, the movie introduced an unforgettably odd monster to kaiju fans. “Gamera 3” wraps up the defiantly unique Heisei era in a defiantly unique way. [Grade: B]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

You're absolutely correct about "G3". It's the weakest of the new trilogy and I don't get the fan love. More 2013 notes I wrote:

The rebirth of Gamera in the later half of the '90s was surprising. "Guardian of the Universe" and "Attack of the Legion" were two of the better Kaiju-themed movies, probably ever. There was nothing very smart about them, which is par for the giant monster course, but they had some very good special effects and a lot of Kaiju stomping action. There's fewer annoying kids ("Kennys") throughout, which means Gamera can be portrayed in a darker fashion.

This makes the third and final installment, "Revenge of Iris", all the more disappointing. The kids are back so there's a strike against it right away and the annoying "Mother Earth" themes return to excess. This is prevalent in many of Japan's giant monster flicks, but it's just taken to an extreme in "Gamera 3".

There's plenty of Gamera battles in the first act. It's immense and brings a lot of impact, as much as any I can remember in a Kaiju movie made up to that point in time. But the whole thing comes to a screeching halt in the final act, just about time that Iris matures to an adult. Iris is a terrible creation. It looks like a weird combination of Transformer and balloon animal. It floats around and settles in a stadium where it sits and has a slap fight with Gamera until it all mercifully ends in an anti-climactic mix of green blood and fireballs.

Other than the opening scenes of Gamera scuffling with Gyaos, "Revenge of Iris" is kind of dull.(5/10)