Still being in a ‘kaiju’ mood, I decided to revisit Godzilla’s cinema rival Gamera, and take a look back a Shusuke Kaneko’s epic 90s Gamera Trilogy. When Toho revived Godzilla for the 90s Hensei series to much success, Daiei Film responded by reviving their giant monster, Gamera. But, gone was the kid friendly, silly adventures of the 60s and 70s, Gamera was back in an intense and very maturely written trilogy expertly directed by Kaneko and highly regarded as some of the best giant monster movies ever made, even today. Here are the first two installments for our Saturday Night Double Feature with the third film being covered on Monday…
GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995)
The first in this new trilogy not only brought top notch SPFX to a series renowned for its cheesy models and creatures, but also revamped Gamera’s origins changing him from another prehistoric creature awaked by H-Bomb testing like Godzilla and turning him into the genetic creation of a doomed ancient civilization. A guardian, left here to protect the Earth from forces that would do it harm.
The film starts out with a ship encountering a strange floating atoll drifting across the sea. At the same time a small pacific island appears to be plagued by attacks from some new species of large predatory reptilian birds. Pretty young Ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) travels to the island to investigate this dangerous new species while scientist Naoya Kusanagi (Akira Onodera) investigates the mysterious floating island. Unknown to them, their fates are destined to meet as these vicious flying predators, the Gyaos, are the out-of-control product of genetic experiments from a long dead civilization brought out of dormancy by man’s polluting of this planet…and the mysterious floating island is actually that civilization’s last attempt to right their wrongs and keep the Gyaos from destroying the Earth, the giant turtle-like monster Gamera! But can Gamera stop the rapidly reproducing Gyaos before the misguided military blows him out of the sky?
As Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, from a script by Kazunori Ito, Gamera: Guardian of The Universe is a fun blast of a monster movie with some of the best Kaiju battles seen in quite some time. Kaneko gives the story some very strong dramatic weight and takes it very seriously, despite its far-fetched nature. But he doesn’t take it too seriously that we don’t have a good time watching the misunderstood Gamera battling his numerous winged foes while being henpecked by the military. He creates a very real and down-to-Earth Japan and then put’s monsters in the middle of it for a far more realistic approach than the Godzilla series which tends to present a more fantasy version of Japan filled with laser cannons and flying battleships. Kaneko also gives his monster stars equal personality to his human cast, and we really root for Gamera as he appears outnumbered and outmatched. The script uses the clever plot device of Kusanagi’s daughter, Asagi (Ayako Fujitani, who is 80s icon Steven Seagal’s daughter) who forms an empathic bond with Gamera and relays his motivations to us, as well as also feels his pain in battle. This connection helps us identify with the monster even more. The SPFX by Shinji Higuchi are some of the best seen in a Japanese Kaiju flick, up to this point, and the battles and the model city destruction are spectacular and fast paced. The monsters are expertly realized and look far more real than they have before, though Gamera still has a little bit of a bug-eyed look to keep him kid friendly in contrast to the scarier looking and extremely vicious Gyaos. The music score by Kow Otani is memorable and exciting and adds to the drama and atmosphere and really helps as the glue to lock all these expertly done pieces together.
The cast all create strong characters. Onodera gives Kusanagi and noble strength and conviction yet, shows his caring, nurturing side when it comes to Asagi. As Asagi, young Ayako Fujitani shows far more depth than her martial arts star father and makes Asagi a very endearing character who would appear in all three 90s films and would provide far more of an emotional center for Gamera than psychic girl Miki Seagusa in the Hensei Godzillas. Pretty Shinobu Nakayama creates an intelligent and resourceful heroine in her Mayumi Nagamine and the character’s dedication to her scientific interests never overshadow her compassion as a human being thanks to her performance. Also in the mix is handsome Tsuyoshi Ihara who makes a solid hero as Yoshinari Yonemori, a Marine Officer who first discovers Gamera and is drawn into the events. He is an honorable young man and is very likable for his committing to helping his new allies and country overcome this crisis. Also stars Zeiram’s Yukijiro Hotaru adding a touch of humor, as he always does, as Inspector Osako, a cop who can’t quite handle monsters.
All in all, this is a Japanese monster movie treat that pushes all the right buttons. It’s fun, has some epic battles, strong dramatic impact, endearing characters and a lot of respect from the filmmakers for the material. It’s one of the best examples of the genre and this coming from a rabid Godzilla fan. This series would only get better with the following two sequels…
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) Gameras.
GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION (1996)
“My name is Legion for, we are many.”- Mark 5:9
Gamera: Guardian of The Universe was fairly successful and spawned an even better sequel that upped the ante by having Gamera face a terraforming insect from space and her swarm of minions in the most action-packed entry in this new series. The story, again written by Kazunori Ito, starts off with the classic falling of a meteor to earth and strange events that begin to occur soon after. It’s not long before a bizarre and large swarm of insect-like creatures begin causing havoc and have taken up residence in the Sapporo subway system and an enormous plant sprouts from under the streets… a plant that begins to affect our atmosphere. Gamera, who has been licking his wounds from the battle with the Gyaos, rises from the sea to destroy the monstrous plant and is swarmed by the insect creatures now known as ‘Legion’ after the Biblical quote referring to demons. He fends them off in a spectacular battle and destroys the huge plant, but not before being wounded and not before the enormous Queen Legion erupts from the ground and flies off. An examination of the plant’s activities bares frightening news…the plant’s purpose is to change our atmosphere to allow the ‘Legion’ to inhabit the planet. They are organic nuclear weapons, and the space creatures plan to transform our Earth into a world they can exist in, and we certainly cannot. Now, mankind’s only hope is that guardian Gamera can destroy the massive and seemingly indestructible Queen Legion and her swarms of subjects, before she and her kind take over the planet as their own.
Kaneko and his creative team return to the series and present an even more spectacular sequel giving the heroic and noble Gamera an even more fearsome opponent in the huge and uniquely designed insectoid Queen Legion and her smaller swarm of soldiers. The human drama and characters are as strong as before with Asagi (Ayako Fujitani) returning along with some new characters, such as pretty science teacher Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno) and handsome military officer Colonal Watarase (Toshiyuki Nagashima) entering the mythos. As usual Kaneko and Ito give us human and monster characters of equal depth and strength. The drama is strong surrounding the numerous battles and once again we get the portrayal of a realistic and down-to-earth Japan battling an otherworldly threat. We get three spectacular and really intense throwdowns between Gamera and the Queen Legion and/or her swarm, including a lengthy and edge-of-your-seat final battle in the suburbs of Tokyo. Kaneko is not afraid to put our gigantic, shelled hero in harm’s way and Gamera suffers some really nasty injuries including having pieces of his shell blasted off and being caught in the nuclear explosion of one of the terraforming plants. This entry is intense and a bit darker than the last and to illustrate that this is a more serious affair, Gamera’s design has been altered to make him look more like a monster, more mature, if I may say. He is given a massive multi-armed and clawed opponent in Queen Legion, who is armed with weapons of her own to thwart the fireball-breathing turtle. She is impressive and the SPFX scenes of both creatures are once again masterfully executed by Shinji Higuchi and his staff. The battles are even better then last time and the Queen Legion is given a sense of great destructive power and poor Gamera is made to feel the effects of this power and as he is so likable and noble, we feel it along with him, much like Asagi. Watching the battles here, it’s hard to believe Shinji would outdo himself again in the following Gamera 3. Kow Otani returns to compose the music and once again gives us a strong score that highlights the already strong drama and intense action.
The cast are good here once again. Kaneko directs actors well. Fujitani gives Asagi some nice maturity and growth as she now has come to handle the responsibility of being Gamera’s link to the human race…and has come to care about the gigantic creature/hero. Miki Mizuno gives us another smart and resourceful heroine in teacher Midori. Kaneko and Ito seem to like their female characters damsel free as they are all smart and can handle themselves when the city begins to crumble around them. They are the strongest characters in the trilogy. Nagashima also makes a solid hero and gives some nice personality to a military character. Kaneko also humanizes his military characters far more than the stick-in-the muds that sometimes populate the Toho flicks. Yukijiro Hotaru returns as a retired Osako, now a night watchman who encounters the Legion soldiers in a warehouse. Poor Osako can’t escape monsters and again provides some unobtrusive comic relief.
Overall, a superior sequel to an already far above average monster movie. Kaneko transcends the Kaiju genre and delivers a damn good movie, period. A solid Sci-Fi story, strong drama and some really intense and spectacular battles make for solid entertainment. Best of all, he took a silly character in Gamera and makes us not only take him very seriously but makes him an endearing hero as well. And things would get even better in the trilogy finale Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris. Though the following film is overall the best of the series, this one may still be my favorite as it is almost non-stop action and despite it’s more serious tone, is still tons of fun.
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) Gameras.