Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (2006)

12. Gamera the Brave
Chiisaki Yūsha-tachi: Gamera / 
Gamera: Little Braves

The Heisei Gamera trilogy completely redefined what Gamera was for an entire generation of monster fans. The cutting-edge special effects, serious story lines, and dark and gritty content were as far as you could get from the campy silliness of the Showa period. Gamera use to be a joke but now things had, perhaps, gone too far in the other direction. Entire fandoms knew the giant turtle, not as the giddy Friend to All Children, but only as the grim Guardian of the Universe. Yet these things tend to go in cycles. Just as Christopher Nolan’s hyper-realistic “Dark Knight” trilogy made way for the awesome-for-awesome-sake’s “Batman: Brave and the Bold,” the violent and bleak “Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris” led to “Gamera the Brave.” Made just a year late for the big turtle’s fortieth anniversary, the film attempted to combine the kid-friendly spirit of the Showa age with the advanced special effects and serious storytelling of the nineties series.

In the 1970s, the original Gamera self-destructed to destroy a flock of attacking Gyaos, as witnessed by a group of people, including a young boy. Thirty years later, that boy has grown into a man, with a young son of his own. The man’s wife and the boy’s mother recently died, leaving young Toru confused and uncertain. In his loneliness, Toru finds an egg, a seemingly normal turtle hatching form it. Naming it Toto, Toru quickly discovers the turtle is anything but normal. Able to fly and breath fire, Toto is the off-spring of the original Gamera. When the town is threatened by another giant monster, the quickly growing Toto has to inherit his father’s legacy as defender of the human race.

“Gamera the Brave” does a rather astonishing thing. It roots a giant monster action movie in a very human story. Toru, who can’t be any older then nine, is introduced kneeling at his mother’s grave. The boy’s father assures him that his mother is watching them from heaven. Toru isn’t so sure. The boy’s relationship with his father is slightly strained. Toru is a meloncholey kid and his dad, struggling to run a small business, doesn’t truly know how to deal with that. The young boy seems surrounded by death as his closest friend Mai, the slightly older girl next door, is suffering from a potentially fatal heart condition. Like the best of Speilberg, “Gamera the Brave” has an acute understanding of how lonely childhood can be.

When Toru discovers the turtle egg, things change for the boy. He shares a bond with the little reptile. Toru’s mother nicknamed him Toto and he, likewise, names the turtle the same. The pet, whose friendly chirping is more eligible then your typical turtle, brightens the boy’s outlook. He keeps the turtle a secret from his father, especially when he discovers Toto can hover through the air. An attempt to set the animal free just makes their bond stronger, when Toru saves the critter from an oncoming truck. The turtle even opens Toru’s social life, giving him a reason to strike up a friendship with two other boys in town. While a normal dog or cat can’t compare to a flying turtle, “Gamera the Brave” understands how the mutual love and friendship of a pet can open up a child’s world.

As Toto grows from a palm sized turtle to a larger tortoise, “Gamera the Brave” grows with him. The three boys sneaking the growing creature out of the house to a safer location reminds me of “The Goonies,” “Explorers,” and other classic kids-on-an-adventure flicks. Toru has quiet talks with the turtle at the beach-front tree house. As he learns about the history of Gamera, how the original self-destructed, the fear of death looms again. Around the same time, Mai heads into the hospital for surgery. The two events are obviously connected. The young boy has to confront his fear of death head-on. As Toto grows into a mighty Gamera, battling a deadly foe, the story becomes about the will to survive in the face of death’s inevitability.

When images of a cuter Gamera appeared on the internet, fans of the darker ‘90s series were dismayed. Was the Gamera series returning to its sillier roots? Both yes and no. “Gamera the Brave” does indeed feature some goofy, cute turtle antics. When Mai catches a glimpse of Toto as he flies, both girl and turtle shriek in surprise. Left alone at the house while Toru plays with his new friends, the turtle goes exploring. He bounces down the stairs, a hilarious sight gag. Once in the kitchen, the baby Gamera just barely avoids being detected by Toru’s skeptical father. The turtle tests out his fire-breathing powers on a knife, a cutesy reference to “Gamera vs. Guiron.” Moments like this perhaps push things too far. Toto sliding around a buttered pan as Toru races around a skate park is too on the nose. Your enjoyment of these scenes probably depends on your tolerance for cute animal antics. As a long-life fans of turtle, I have to say I loved these moments.

With its focus on childhood and character development, you might forget that “Gamera the Brave” is a kaiju film. The script drops hints throughout the first act concerning its threat. Ships and sailors have been vanishing, pulled down into the waters by a strange force. About midway through the film, Zedus leaps on-screen. Inspired by marine iguanas, Zedus is introduced with no explanation. Where the monster comes from and his motivations are purely up to the audience. The film doesn’t waste time on exposition. In his first attack, Zedus threatens Toru and his friends. Sensing a child in peril, Toto leaps into action. Now the size of an eighteen wheeler, the young Gamera battles the greater kaiju. He is outmatched at first, tossed through the town’s buildings. However, Toto bests the other monster not with greater fire power but by outsmarting it, cleverly utilizing the surrounding buildings and his budding fire breath. As far as first fights go, it’s an exciting, if brief, encounter.

As an infant, Toto resembles a normal turtle. As he grows, he starts to look like a tortoise, with slightly wider, more expressive eyes. In his mature form, Toto gains a pair of big, anime eyes, along with stubby, incomplete tusk. The cuteness of the design is probably pushed too far in this final form. Even Showa Gamera was never cuddly. However, for the purpose of the film, the Toto design is effective. One of the film’s weaknesses is that Zedus, the enemy monster, is a somewhat uninspired design. The reptilian monster eats humans, like Gyaos, and attacks with his extending tongue, like Barugon. A “Godzilla vs. Gamera” movie, a kaiju fan dream film, has been discussed for years. “Gamera the Brave” almost plays like an unofficial version of that battle. Zedus’ reptilian appearance, lizard-like posture, and long tail certainly recalls the King of the Monsters. Zedus’ spear tongue is an interesting weapon but his second distinctive feature, a neck frill, winds up looking somewhat awkward. His brief screen-time allows for little personality. Zedus is easily the least memorable Gamera villain this side of Jiger.

Another flaw of the film is its brief government subplot. Early on, we get some brief mention of Japan having a special government unit devoted to giant monsters. This actually makes a lot of sense. However, with the focus being so squarely on Toru and his relationships, this subplot isn’t allowed much growth. When the callous scientists capture Toto for testing, it comes off like a typical plot turn. Naturally, the giant turtle escapes custody, just in time for the final fight. The military and scientists put in some token appearances afterwards but they’re ultimately an underdeveloped part of the film.

Any of the script’s problems are forgiven during the masterful last third. Zedus reappears, Toto ready to face the big lizard down. The two monsters scrap and wrestle through the city, knocking each other down with their claws and head. An especially inspired moment comes when Zedus hooks Gamera with his tail. The enemy monster swings off a building, flicking his tail through the air, catapulting Toto into a near-by sky scraper. Imagine if pro-wrestlers had tails and you’ve got a good idea of what a neat stunt that is. Even if he’s an overall uninspired design, the lizards giant stabbing tongue is certainly a dynamic weapon. The way he climbs buildings seem very natural and appropriately animalistic. Say what you will about the designs but the suit performers do excellent work.

The film’s best moment actually only involves the monsters in a background capacity. Mai holds the red stone that could give Gamera the charge he needs to win. However, she’s stuck in an emergency shelter, far away from the action. A compassionate child hears her cries and grabs the stone. She runs into the city, handing the stone off to another kid when the trip becomes too difficult. Understanding implicitly, that child continues the race, handing the prize off to another kid and another, until the stone finally reaches Toru. Low on dialogue and scored to Yoko Ueno’s excellent music, the scene plays out like a sweet, natural poem. For years, Gamera has understood children on a natural, innate level. “Gamera the Brave” shows them returning the favor. The act of bravery is enough to turn Toru’s dad around. He helps the boy up the tower, allowing him to reach Toru. Before handing the healing stone over to the turtle, the boy makes a stirring speech, letting Toto know how much he means to him and making him promise that he won’t give up, that he won’t die. The giant turtle nods, understanding. Recharged, he drops from the building, taking flight, and delivering the killing blow needed to defeat Zedus. As far as last acts in monster movies go, “Gamera the Brave” has one of the most poignant and elegantly constructed I’ve ever seen.

The film is helped by its excellent cast. For a young actor, Ryo Tomioka never falters as Toru. He doesn’t go for big, broad emotion, keeping things honest and personal. Tomioka holds the entire film together with his quiet, self-assured performance. For an actor that young, it’s an impressive achievement. Also great is the solo-named Kaho as Mai. The actress has the tricky job of playing both Toru’s older sister figure and his potential love interest. The two have a cute, believable interaction, a proper amount of concern on either side of the relationship. When Mai starts to believe in Toto near the end, Kaho really sells the emotions fantastically. Also notable is Kanji Tsuda as Toru’s father. Tsuda can never come as too harsh, keeping the balance between concern and frustration with his son. He does a great job, especially since the father holds a secret appreciation for giant flying turtles himself. Overall, the soulful script of “Gamera the Brave” wouldn’t matter half as much as it does without the excellent cast bringing it to life.

This was director Ryuta Tazaki’s first film not to have Kamen Rider in the title. He adapts well to the different material. “Gamera the Brave” was not successful at the Japanese box office, squashing much hope for a new series. Even fan reaction has been mixed, many finding the film too cute and whimsical. Yet “Gamera the Brave” is everything I’ve always wanted from a Gamera movie. It’s got plenty of well-orchestrated monster action, with all the outrageous effects and kaiju blood you’ve come to expect from the series. At the same time, the film deals with serious themes while accurately capturing the spirit of childhood. It’s cute, exciting, and poignant in equal measure. The final moment, when Toru bids the now-fully-grown Toto a strong but soulful good-bye, nearly got a tear at of me. Maybe I’m a big softie for giant monster movies but I can proudly say that “Gamera the Brave” is my favorite of the entire series. [Grade: A]

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