Before reviewing those Godzilla films, I decided to seek out and view the modern reinventions of Godzilla’s contemporary/fellow traveler/coattail-rider, Gamera – all directed by Shusuke Kaneko (who later directed Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah), all regarded as classics of the genre. Considering that I’ve already covered three other pillars of kaiju history, it seemed imperative to get the last of them on this site as well. This was written around March 2014.
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
This is some good old time rock ‘n roll, here. My exposure to the Gamera series is pretty limited – I’ve only ever seen the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of Gamera vs. Guiron (and, actually, even without the commentary, Gamera vs. Guiron is kind of great – exhibit A, exhibit B) – but I know the trio of 90s Gamera films are supposed to be genre classics, so I thought I’d check them out, starting with the first, which sticks in my mind because of Roger Ebert’s review, the main thrust of which is that it’s a more enjoyable movie than Air Force One (as a child, I suffered through Air Force One at a drive-in so I could see Men in Black, and that’s my Air Force One story.)
First and foremost, I have apparently become a total film snob, because I had to get back into the groove of watching a dubbed foreign film, even though almost all my exposure to giant monster movies is with dubbed versions. I was able to overlook it pretty quickly, and I can see that they at least tried to be respectful to the original, but man, some of those voice choices. I mean, there’s always going to be a bit of dissonance, but it some of the actors seemed to be “doing voices” and that’s absolutely fucking distracting, even in a goofy movie like this.
It’s pretty clear that their goal was to take the stuff people liked about Heisei Godzilla (the suits, the violence, better human characters, the attempts to connect it with modern concerns) while also keeping it simple, avoiding some of the pitfalls of the later G-films. So, we got an origin story that establishes a reason for Gamera to be a good guy and to fight his by-popular-vote archenemy, then tie it in (a little?) to 90s eco concerns (speaking of which, have we had someone really try to tackle 2000s eco concerns in a monster movie? Maybe the new Godzilla will do that) – it’s all very neat and flows nicely. Weirdly, its plot is also very similar to the abandoned Godzilla film that Stan Winston was working on – the good monster created by Atlanteans to battle an evil monster in the present day, with the main difference being the bad guy monster was supposed an alien in the Godzilla movie, and is an artificial life form in Gamera. This movie would have been made at around the same time the Godzilla project was falling apart, so maybe there was some cross-pollination there – or maybe it’s just a coincidence.
Back to the borrowed aesthetics, this movie is pretty violent – blood and goo all over the place. This extends into the tone of the action as well – Gamera always seemed like the friendlier of the giant monsters, and while there are scenes of him going out of his way to protect people, he’s also shown almost mindlessly pursuing his fight, just knocking over whatever buildings are in his way. You can kind of understand why the military thinks he might be a bigger threat (though that still doesn’t explain how they can nonchalantly disregard the threat posed by Gyaos, but whatever), and I guess he’s supposed to be positioned as an anti-hero in these films, although aside from the property damage he’s still more straight heroic. The background stuff also gives this movie more an apocalyptic feeling, which is strangely not as prevalent in the genre as one would think. The human characters are pretty aware that this is a straight-up end of the world scenario, and it’s about accepting that Gamera is going to have to break some stuff in order to prevent other monsters from breaking everything. Monster movies usually come from a place of “we fucked up”, and this is a pretty pure example of that – even going so far as portraying a history of humans fucking up. That actually feels a very savvy through-line from the 50s monster movies, and the darkness feels at least a tiny bit more considered than just “let’s make the childrens’ movie more violent and shit.”
Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris (1999)
I decided to skip the second entry in the series, Attack of Legion, because the third movie sounded more interesting. This one was dubbed too, but you know what? I kind of enjoyed hearing the same actors in these voice roles again. I am quick to change my tune, I guess.
This movie is exploring the themes from the first one in a lot of interesting ways – it’s a lot more character-focused, and even more apocalyptic. There’s an air of desperation throughout the film – it’s established as a permanently monster-ridden world, with humanity accepting that it has to get involved in steering the future of the planet – whether or not that involves working with the good guy monster. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that they’re going to need Gamera around, but there’s a lot more thinking about the roles and consequences of it all, so even though it’s cliche that the government would still be gung ho to blow up Gamera even though he saves their asses on a regular basis, there’s a debate present, at least.
The whole movie feels darker, especially visually – Gamera looks a lot fiercer than in the previous movie (which helps reinforce the way some of the characters look at him, actually.) It seems like the years between the first and this last movie made a major impact on the look – not only are the designs more complicated and “modern” (especially Iris, which is a weird, very designed creature with lots of moving parts, more in line with something in a animated thing or video game rather than the usual kaiju standard), and there’s way more CGI as well, though it usually blends pretty well with the suits and miniatures. The tone and special effects seem to be of a piece, though – this very much feels like a turn-of-the-millenium movie, in the way it looks and the way it tells its story.
This movie also gets a lot more mystical, I guess in part to play up the interconnectedness of things on earth – the first movie focused on the more Science Fiction-y aspects of the monsters, but now Gamera is recognized as the fighting spirit of the Earth itself with a firm connection with humanity (though he no longer has the direct connection he had in the first film, interestingly, which might explain why he seems to destroy even more indiscriminately here), with the other monsters as his shadow. There are references to prophecies and traditional spiritual beliefs and other mystical concepts all over the movie, and while most of those specific examples don’t necessarily go anywhere, it’s sort of there to give the film a certain atmosphere. Iris isn’t just a hyper-mutating beast like Gyaos, it’s a far stranger and more threatening abstraction of the individual emotional impact the events of these movies have had on people – once again placing us at the root of our own destruction. We even get two pseudo-villainous human characters, who seem to be totally in favour of the whole monsters-killing-everyone thing, based on obscure prophetic interpretations and/or plain old nihilism. All the new characters in the movie are here to present the variety of ways people, touched or untouched by the monster fights themselves, interpret the state of affairs, and we get more time to actually understand all that stuff, as the monster fights are paced in a way that feels more intrusive, probably in the same way the citizenry view them (putting it mildly.)
All this is leading up to an ambiguous ending for the series – it’s really more of a “…and the fight goes on!” sort of ending, but Gamera’s in pretty bad shape, and that’s a LOT of Gyaos coming his way. I kind of like that it arises from what was mainly in the background – when stories provide a wider context that the main plot may or may not be directly related to, it makes it seem more like a real world of big and small stories – but it still feels tonally connected. The final scenes are all about pulling through adversity, and I think a lot of the movie is trying to drive us away from the cynicism that these armageddon situations sometimes breeds within us. I think that seems to be way this series utilizes its own grittiness, to present suffering as something we must confront, but to demonstrate the alternative to letting that darkness infect us.