Judge Dave Ryan is also a friend to children; however, he can't fly, and he lacks a hard, reptilian protective shell. Unless you count the emotional one.
Gamera is a friend to children!
The kaiju (giant monster) film is one of Japan's only purely native forms of cinema, dating back to the late 1950s and the granddaddy of them all, Godzilla. It isn't necessarily a good form of cinema, mind you; in fact, many of the kaiju films are godawful. But even though the genre as a whole was B-grade at best, some of these films were good, clean, schlocky fun—and most were pretty successful, at least in Japan. Many Americans have been exposed to the kaiju genre via late-night or Saturday afternoon monster movie shows on UHF stations; some may have seen the films spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000. A handful may have seen the recent Hollywood Godzilla remake…but probably not.
Godzilla, the most popular of the giant monsters, was the property of the Toho film company. Other film companies felt the need to jump on board the kaiju train after the success of Godzilla (which co-starred, believe it or not, Raymond Burr). The Daiei Company hitched its wagon to a giant turtle named Gamera, who was—of course—a friend to children. Gamera was, shall we say, a little spunkier and kid-friendly than Godzilla. If Godzilla was the Frank Sinatra of the Monster Pack—the Chairman of the Board, the guy you didn't mess with who was well-connected—then Gamera was Dean Martin. With a wink and a nod and massive amounts of collateral damage, Gamera was all about the good times, the women, and of course the children. (He's a friend to children, you see.) He was a "good" giant monster from the get-go, unlike the 'Zilla, who was a convert to goodness. The budgets on the Gamera films were even lower than those for Godzilla—the films almost flaunted the fact that their big "monster" was, in fact, a guy in a rubber turtle suit trampling poorly-constructed models.
Even though he was a friend to children, Gamera never quite got his message of child-friendly Japan-defending through to the Japanese military establishment. They just kept on shooting at him, and treating him like a pariah, even though he was repeatedly saving Nippon's collective bacon from a series of monsters who were decidedly not friends to children: Zigra and Gyaos and Barugon and such. Did this poor treatment faze the rocket-powered nuclear terrapin? Not in the least. Because he was doing it all…for the children.
After the successful revival of the Godzilla franchise (to celebrate its 30th anniversary), thoughts turned to a revival of the only-slightly-less-popular Gamera franchise. Beginning in 1995, a series of three films brought the giant turtle back to the silver screen (via a Daiei-Toho co-production, ironically) with all-new state-of-the-art special effects, an all-new state-of-the-art guy-in-a-rubber-suit, and all-new state-of-the-art children for befriending. ADV Films has brought these films to U.S. shores in DVD form, issuing all three in a limited edition (and reasonably priced) box set.
Shockingly, this is not your father's Gamera. These are three legitimately good action films that are as entertaining as any recent Hollywood blockbuster. Who would have guessed it?
Well…the children, perhaps…
Facts of the Case
• Gamera: Guardian of the Universe
A plan to trap the Gyaoses by filling the Fukuoka Dome stadium with a bunch of meat, then closing the retractable roof, is put into effect. It actually works, too—at least until the Gyaoses get spooked, and one escapes through the not-yet-closed roof. Whereupon said Gyaos meets up with a very angry 300-foot-tall nuclear turtle named Gamera. Biff! Pow! Splork! Smap! Gamera throws down with the birds, and also manages to blow a lot of stuff up. By accident, of course. One Gyaos escapes, and eventually morphs into a much larger super-Gyaos. He/she/it attacks Tokyo and builds a little nest on top of the semi-destroyed Tokyo Tower.
Now the increasingly impotent Japanese military has a choice to make: which monster should it fight first? The man-eating super-Gyaos? Or the big turtle with the conspicuous lack of comprehension of the phrase "please minimize unnecessary damage and casualties"? And why did these two show up to begin with? After all, we stopped all that nuclear testing that torqued off Godzilla so much…One person—a teenaged girl named Asagi Kunasagi (Ayako Fujitani, daughter of noted gaijin Steven Segal) who seems to have a psychic connection with Gamera—may hold the answers.
• Gamera 2: Attack of Legion
This time, it's a bunch of one-eyed spider-crab-looking monsters who are really nasty. The monsters fix themselves up a giant flowering fungus/pod thing that's about the size of a large apartment complex. For reasons known only to themselves, the Japanese soldiers in charge of staring in awe at this shebang name the monsters "Legion" after an obscure quote from the Gospel of Mark. It's a collective term, like "St. Louis Rams" or "Menudo." But Legion only manages to destroy one city block of Sapporo—so in comes Gamera to "accidentally" lay waste to half the city. He also takes care of the big pod thing. But some of the Legion crab-things escape by growing wings.
Yet again, the Japanese military decides that Gamera is a much greater threat to their health and well-being than the alien crab thingies. Thankfully, the heroine of this film, Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno), is, quite possibly, the only intelligent person in Japan; she persuades them to hold off for a spell. Legion goes and regroups, turning into a giant mega-horseshoe-crab-like thing that has its own built-in air wing of flying spider-crab-thingies. It's also got Gamera's number, building a new giant pod that blows up right in Gamera's face. Ouch! Can Gamera recover in time to save northern Japan from the threat of Legion?
• Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris
Meanwhile, Mayume, the intrepid ornithologist babe from the first movie, is back on the case again, because Gyaos birds are showing up in other parts of the world. Whenever they appear, Gamera isn't far behind—and he's still leaving a swath of destruction in his wake. Yet again the Japanese military decides that it really needs to shoot down Gamera, even though he has repeatedly proven that he's not just the best defense, but the only defense Japan has against monster incursions.
Speaking of monsters, little Iris grows up quickly, and attempts to physically absorb his/her mommy. (I don't think that form of "bonding" is Dr. Spock-approved.) An intrepid local teen with a crush on the girl finds Iris cocooning in its cave, and rescues the half-dead gal from an icky Iris-related goop chamber. Two mysterious government advisors—a sharp-dressed woman and a foppish Andy Warhol-like computer programmer—seek to use the girl, and her crystal, for their own obscure ends, which are assuredly sort-of evil, probably, I think. But Iris has absorbed the girl's hatred of Gamera and mean people, and goes on a destructive spree. (No word on whether Iris absorbed her presumed love of "Hello Kitty" merchandise. She is, after all, a Japanese teenage girl…) Gamera to the rescue! But is Gamera fit enough to tackle the super-powerful Iris? And what ever happened to those Gyaos birds, anyhow?
I really enjoyed the robust badness of the original '60s era Gamera films, which were meant to be a more child-friendly version of Godzilla. As such, the films always had a bit of tongue firmly embedded in their cheek, which almost offset the powerful shrillness (and exceptionally short shorts) of the children featured as the stars/heroes of them. The plots often had wild, surrealistic turns in them—sometimes, the movie would completely shift its focus in midstream, running off on wild tangents unrelated to the original plot. Sometimes Gamera himself was only a cameo player, showing up for a couple of scenes, then disappearing entirely. (I guess he was just picking up paychecks…work is work, you know.) So I was just a tiny bit excited to see that the Gamera franchise had been revived. More crappy grist for my personal kaiju mill.
Boy, was I surprised.
These three films are legitimate, honest-to-God action films, with quality special effects and—most surprisingly—well-written, cogent, and marginally sensible stories. It's therefore somewhat unsurprising to find an anime veteran, Kazunori Ito (Ghost in the Shell), behind these scripts. The films have more of an anime sensibility about them—they deal with the reality of giant monster attacks; not just the spectacle. Each film's special effects progressively improve, going from "not bad" in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe to "darned good" in Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris. No longer do we have a guy in a cheap rubber suit stomping on cardboard buildings and store-bought tank models. Now we've got a guy in an expensive rubber suit stomping on meticulously-constructed models—and it looks fantastic.
This new Gamera isn't as chummy with humanity as he used to be. He's got an agenda, and he's pursuing it at all costs. Which leads to the typically insane amount of collateral damage that follows in his wake—but at least we've got a plausible reason why he causes so much damage to those he's trying to help. For the record, the new "theme" in these movies is "environmentalism," replacing the anti-nuclear theme of all the original giant monster movies.
It's easy to evaluate acting in a Gamera film: if I believe you're actually watching a 300-foot-tall turtle blow stuff up, you've done your job. Honestly, you don't even need to do that much. If you just communicate your lines, look reasonably realistic, and act appropriately shocked at the wanton destruction in front of you, you're doing just fine. Don't come looking here for award-winning thespianism.
As for the individual films themselves…
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe has been out for some time (it was released in Japan in 1995, arriving on DVD here in the U.S. last year), and Judge Pinsky did a thorough job summing it up in his original review from last year. It's fun, and definitely a worthy film, but ultimately it doesn't achieve any measure of true excellence. It's just a solid film where it's good to see our old turtle buddy kicking reptilian ass again.
The second film is something else entirely. Gamera 2: Attack of Legion is arguably the best of its genre, ever. It's the Empire Strikes Back of giant monster films. Quite simply, it blew me away. It's not only a fast, fun, intriguing kaiju film, but it's a worthy competitor to contemporaneous big-budget action-adventure films like Armageddon, Independence Day, and their ilk. It's grippingly paced, extremely well-structured, and chock full of spectacular explosions, monster fights, and other fantastic effects shots. Mizuno actually accomplishes a bit of genuine acting, too—the scenes where her father worries because two strange men are talking with her in her apartment are humorous and realistic at the same time. Even though Attack of Legion came only a year after Guardian of the Universe, the effects are substantially better here than in the original film—the swarms of flying Legion crab-things are especially impressive, as are the several aerial combat sequences added for good measure. (Gamera also gets a set of flipper wings, so he no longer has to use his wildly unstable flying saucer method of propulsion.) Presumably the producers were given a bigger budget to work with after the success of the initial Gamera revival film, and spent it well.
The movie uses the wintry setting of Sapporo and Hokkaido to good effect as well. It's strikingly different from the normal Tokyo-based settings of most giant monster films, and further separates this film from the pack. Sapporo isn't a large city, and suffers greatly from the titular Legion attack. The film actually shows us how this monster crisis, if it were real, would have serious quality-of-life implications for the people of the city. It's small, humanizing touches like this that push Gamera 2 to levels above and beyond the normal kaiju template.
But most importantly, it's just a rollicking good time. The story moves along at a perfect clip—never dragging, never leaving you waiting for the next big action scene to unfold. Even though you know that Gamera will somehow get himself into a heap of trouble and just might die, but then find a way to pull out the victory—because that always happens in these films—the film keeps you guessing until the end, and actually makes you believe that Gamera just might not make it through this time. Except for a somewhat disappointing deus ex machina-like ending (which, as it turned out, was a set-up for the third film, and which makes more sense in hindsight), I'd have absolutely no complaints about this one.
Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris had some big shoes to fill when it was released in 1999. For the most part it lived up to its predecessor—but somehow, it just wasn't quite as fun. Three popular characters—Mayumi, Asagi, and Inspector Osako—are brought back from the first film for another go-round…but the story doesn't make it seem like a natural return. It's also a much darker film, with Iris representing the yang to Gamera's yin. (Or vice versa. I always forget which is light and which is dark.) Iris is definitely no friend to children; in fact, Iris is settling the grudges of one very bitter and upset child with extreme prejudice. On the other hand, Iris looks spectacular—he/she's the best looking monster of the bunch. Mainly a guy in a rubber suit, Iris also has CG-generated tentacles and diaphanous membranes swirling around it. It's a more graceful monster, too. The other effects in the film are more CG-oriented as well, resulting in a more modern and slightly more polished look for the film.
But the relentlessly dark tone, and the decidedly downbeat cliffhanger ending, bring the film down when compared to Attack of Legion. Still a quality outing, but not quite up to the level of its predecessor.
ADV does a good job transferring the films; picture and color are clear and crisp. Surround tracks are available for all three films—but Gamera: Guardian of the Universe lacks a Japanese surround track; its Japanese track is in the original stereo. The English dubbing is acceptable for the first film; better for the later two. Each disc has almost identical extras: an interview with the director of special effects, Shinji Higuchi (one for each film), footage of the press conferences announcing the production of each film, Japanese trailers and TV spots, a brief behind-the-scenes roll, footage of promotional events for each film, and footage from each film's opening. Films two and three add an "outtakes" track, which is just the ADV dubbing actors making up silly dialogue for certain scenes. Very hit-or-miss.
An extra "commentary" track is provided for the second and third films, as well. For Attack of Legion, ADV provides a track entitled "Lake Texarkana Gamera." It's a secondary English dub track where various supporting voices and certain sound effects have been replaced by actors doing Texas "redneck" voices and sound effects. It's clearly an attempt to do a little MSTing of the film in-house—and I do admire their obvious dedication to the theme—but they definitely picked the wrong film for this. Attack of Legion is a good film, and I don't see how this track adds any value to an already entertaining experience. (Do this for one of the '60s era Gamera films, though, and you've got something…maybe even a TV show.) Revenge of Iris, on the other hand, gets a faux commentary track from Gamera himself. Much funnier, and worth a listen.
Gamera may not be as good a friend to children as he used to be, but he's a much better friend to fans of the kaiju genre now. With Gamera 2: Attack of Legion, our favorite rocket-powered turtle grabs the conch and becomes the gold standard of Japanese movie monsters, surpassing King Ghidorah, Mothra (Who the hell is afraid of a moth anyhow? And who would actually voluntarily rely on a moth to save their butt?), and even old Godzilla himself. The other two films are worth a look-see as well, and they do manage to tell a somewhat consistent story throughout the three-film arc. Fans of giant monster movies, or anyone looking for a good action film with lots of stuff blowing up (and blowing up good), are advised to check this box out. Just make sure you wash your hands after handling it. You could get salmonella, you know.
Not guilty…ish, completely exonerated, and guilty of leaving me both impressed and depressed, respectively.
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Scales of Justice, Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe
Perp Profile, Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe
Studio: ADV Films
Distinguishing Marks, Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe
• Interview with the Director of Special Effects
Scales of Justice, Gamera 2: Attack Of The Legion
Perp Profile, Gamera 2: Attack Of The Legion
Studio: ADV Films
Distinguishing Marks, Gamera 2: Attack Of The Legion
• Interview with the Director of Special Effects
Scales of Justice, Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris
Perp Profile, Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris
Studio: ADV Films
Distinguishing Marks, Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris
• Interview with the Director of Special Effects
Review content copyright © 2004 David Ryan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.