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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1996)

10. Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion
Gamera Tsū: Region Shūrai / 
Gamera 2: Advent of Legion

After the critical and financial success of “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe,” there was no way a sequel wasn’t going to happen. Director Shusuke Kaneko and writer Kazunori Ito wisely stuck around. The sequel, rolled out a year later, has more action and a bigger, badder threat. Unlike the previous film, “Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion” would have the giant turtle facing off against a brand-new foe, created specifically for the film. Considering Toho’s attempts to do something similar with their Godzilla series hadn’t worked out for them, could Gamera make it against a brand new baddie?

A year after Gamera and Gyaos’ battle through Tokyo, the city is still recovering. The military watches the ocean, preparing for another monster to appear. Another monster does appear but not out of the ocean but rather from the sky. While out with her students, science teacher Honami spots a star falling from the sky. Soon afterwards, strange creatures begin to appear in the city, attacking humans and consuming glass. The insect-like monsters quickly multiple, building a giant flower in Sapporo. Feeling the world is threatened, Gamera reemerges from the ocean. The new threat, quickly dubbed Legion by the Japanese military, proves a difficult challenge for Gamera, doubly so when the creature’s massive queen appears. If Gamera can’t defeat the Legion, all of Japan could be in peril.

The previous Gamera film went out of its way to distance itself from the silly shenanigans of the Showa era. “Attack of the Legion” is no different in that regard. However, the film introduces a stalwart element of the classic series: Aliens! Legion isn’t a devious invader like Viras or Zigra. It doesn’t even arrive in a flying saucer. Instead, the kaiju is a thoroughly modern alien. They arrive in a meteor as microscopic organisms. Like ants, the Legion function as a hive, with hundreds of soldiers and builders reporting to a massive queen. Their form of mass transportation, building a giant, explosive flower, is also something you’d see in nature. The alien monsters have no concise plan. They function as a mindless virus, arriving on a planet, stripping it raw, and leaving for the next. They intentionally recall the xenomorphs of the “Alien” franchise or any other parasite-style sci-fi monsters.

The comparison to “Aliens” is apt. “Gamera 2” is the first Gamera movie since the original to actually feel like a horror film. Near the beginning, security guards at a beer warehouse are spooked by an ominous shadow and a strange giant eye. Passengers in a subway are attacked by the Legion drones, human blood splattered on glass. We’ve seen plenty of kaiju blood over the course of the Gamera series but never red human blood. That’s somewhat startling. An entire tunnel fills with the crawling, snapping monsters, looking like a cross between stag beetles and spiders. Once the giant monster fights start in earnest, the film abandons any attempt at horror. Yet the sudden harsher elements still come as a surprise.

The focus is squarely on the alien threat for the first half-hour of the film. These sequences are successful but they do leave the viewer wondering when Gamera is going to show up. Luckily, “Attack of the Legion” is very good at establishing continuity with the first film. The battle between Gamera and Gyaos has left a lasting effect on Japan. The two monsters are mentioned frequently. The debate continues to rage about whether or not Gamera is truly an ally of humanity. A clever visual cue is when we spot the Tokyo Tower, still broken in two, under construction. The best nod to is when Asagi, the inadvertent priestess of Gamera from the first film, comes back. Though mostly kept on the sideline, Asagi continues to be an important character, her tear-drop medallion providing a serious plot point. When kaiju films frequently have non-existent continuity between them, “Gamera 2” being a true sequel is much appreciated.

Something that was surprising about “Guardian of the Universe” was how captivating its human story was. “Attack of the Legion,” on the other hand, can’t live up to that precedence. Honami, as played by Miki Mizuno, is fine in the role. She’s even charming, the actress rightfully playing up the character’s quiet tenacity. The problem comes when the movie creates a romantic storyline between Honami and the film’s military hero, Colonel Watarase. Toshiyuki Nagashima gives a slightly bland performance as the young colonel. Furthermore, you never get a romantic vibe between him and Mizuno. The two seem more like casual friends then star crossed lovers. When the movie attempts to play up their relationship, like the two separating at an airport, it doesn’t work. The final act separates the love birds, Honami forced to watch the kaiju battle from the streets while Watarase waits tensely in a secured bunker. The human plot is not smoothly integrated with the monster action and the characters aren’t that captivating on their own.

Despite these issues, “Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion” is successful. Watching the movie as a monster fan, it might be one of the most ambitious, effects-heavy kaiju films ever made. Gamera is given a slight redesign. The ridge on his head is more prominent, his forearms spinier. When flying, his arms extend into aerodynamic fins, like a sea turtle, a slightly silly if interesting visuals. The titanic turtle is more fearsome then ever before. The CGI, though still primitive, is integrated smoothly with the live-action suits.

Perhaps the filmmakers were hedging their bets. If the enemy monster was going to be brand new, it had to be impressive. And, boy, is it ever. The mother Legion is massive and ornate. The design pushes the art of suitamation as far as it can go. Legion has multiple thin legs extending from its head and body, constantly thrashing back and forth. An additional set of legs extends from the monster's back, reminding me of a weta’s sharpened spurs. Legion’s head is topped with a pointed crest, his vertical jaw snapping left and right. Inside its chest, it even carries a nest of immature Legion drones. The huge insect is even taller then Gamera, towering over the hero. Never does the monster look like a man in a suit. Instead, it’s a living, breathing, bizarre creature, that carefully balances looking plausible, alien, and awesome. Even the monster’s energy weapons, blue bolts shot from its mouth or red laser whips extending from its head, are creative and convincing.

Having created an intimidating adversary, effects director Shinji Higuchi orchestrates some impressive monster battles. Once Gamera appears, his body is quite literally covered with Legion drones. Spinning through the air, he attempts to shake the bugs off. Having been wounded, he instead splatters his green blood over half the city, an unforgettable image. The Showa series focused on Gamera’s bleeding simply for the cool factor. Kaneko and Ito seem to be intentionally playing up the turtle’s vulnerability. During his first fight with the queen Legion, he is impaled twice with the bug’s massive spikes. Green blood floods from wounds. A chunk of his shell is blown off, his head is cracked, and holes are burned through his skin. The giant tortoise takes a beating.

As in “Guardian,” a particular focus is given to the damage the monsters reek on the city. Upon arriving in Sapporo, Gamera crashes through a building. We see his huge foot smashes through the roof, making a rough landing. The camera is constantly placed at ground level, puny humans fleeing from the battling giants. The military is uncertain to trust Gamera and, considering how much property damage he creates, maybe they shouldn’t. The second act turn comes when Gamera attempts to bring down the Legion flower in Sendai. Upon pulling the huge plant apart, a massive fireball consumes the city, leaving the metropolis a steaming crater. (Considering Sendai was devastated during the 2011 Miyagi earthquake, this scene plays very differently now then it did in 1996.) The last act is motivated by whether Gamera survived the blast and, if he didn’t, can the military defend Tokyo from the encroaching Legion without him.

Gamera, of course, does survive the explosion. The titanic tortoise always pulls through from whatever damage is inflicted on him at the movie’s half-way point. Always has, right from the beginning. However, “Attack of the Legion” adds a different layer to the familiar plot point. The villainous monster is named Legion by one of the soldiers, quoting Mark 5:9, the infamous “For we are many” line. This adds a religious element that was previously lacking from the kaiju genre. Where do you think I’m going with this? Gamera died for your sins. The Friend to All Children suffers an injury, is seemingly deceased, only to be resurrected by the beliefs of his followers. Reading too much in to it? Oh yeah, definitely. Yet I have to wonder if some of this was at least intentional.

For the final battle, the action moves to the outskirts of Tokyo. Gamera confronts Legion, extra-pissed off. He tears the monster’s legs and jaws off, wounding it. The two kaiju wrestle, clawing and biting at one another. Even with an assist from the Japanese military, who finally comes around to the big turtle, it’s a rough fight. It honestly seems like Legion might win, whipping the terrapin into submission with his laser weapons. At the last minute, Gamera seems to draw energy from the life force of the Earth it self. With this boost, he charges a special attack, something powerful enough to finish off the enemy monster with one shot. That’s right, guys, Gamera just threw a Spirit Bomb. The script’s biggest flaw is this last-minute Hail Mary move. Underneath his chest armor this whole time, Gamera was packing a super weapon. Why didn’t he just use that in the first place? It’s a fairly lazy move, one that is introduced with zero foreshadowing.

Even if Japan was left in ruins, Gamera leaves victorious, a hard-fought victory finally won. “Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion” ends with an interesting message. Monami delivers her belief that Gamera wasn’t fighting for mankind but rather for the earth itself. And, should we continue to mistreat the Earth, the Guardian of the Universe might turn on us. Nothing else in the film supports this eco-friendly message yet I like it anyway. The idea of kaiju as gods above humanity, indifferent to us, is a potent one. It also, in an odd way, brings the Christ metaphor full circle. In other words, guys, get your shit together or else Jesus is going to come back pissed. And this Christ-figure just happens to be a giant turtle that spits fireballs…

While not as strong as its predecessor, “Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion” remains a fantastically entertaining monster brawl. Kaneko’s direction and Koh Otani’s music remain interesting while the special effects are out of this world. For that reason alone, it’s required viewing for monster movie fans. [Grade: B+]


whitsbrain said...

Your reviews are very good. I like how you touch on the "messages" within a movie, but you never forget about the spectacle or action.

I guess my personal review of this a couple of years back was brief and lazy. Oh well, feedback from 2013 again:

Don't look now Godzilla, but Gamera is out kaiju-ing you. Hot on the heels of the rebirth of Gamera in 1995's "Guardian of the Universe", it's the second in the trilogy of what are a bunch of very good giant monster movies. "Attack of the Legion" touts some much improved and nearly impressive special effects with a truly formidable baddy in Legion.

Please remember that these are silly, corny movies overall. But they also tout some really great monster battles, cool imagery and a few moves that would play nicely in a wrestling ring. Gamera himself lacks the cool of Godzilla but his '90s movies are actually better than Godzilla's '90s output.

whitsbrain said...

Oh yeah...(7/10)