Movie Review: The Gamera Trilogy

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion (1996)

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999)

 

After a “golden age” in the 1950s where they produced classics like Rashomon (1950) and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Japan’s Daiei Studios began to decline; mostly due to financial mismanagement. They were forced to declare bankruptcy in 1971 – but managed to get revived in 1974. They had a modest number of releases, to decent success.

I’m guessing they were jealous of rival Toho Studios continued success, especially with their Godzilla films. Hmm… didn’t Daiei still own their own giant monster – Gamera? What if they blew the dust off the old Big Turtle (which by then had become a staple of Saturday afternoon “Chiller Theater” TV programming), and gave him new life with the latest in moviemaking technology?

The three movies really do comprise a trilogy. Though each one is self-contained and you can watch them in any order, they exist in the same universe and the second and third movies each contain references to the ones that came before (explicitly in the third). This is not like the Godzilla movies, where Japan – even though they may have a special anti-Kaiju military agency, seems to have completely forgotten even the existence of the monsters from the previous movie. Actors even play the same characters from one movie to the next; most notably Yukijirô Hotaru, who plays a nervous police official in Guardian, a security guard in Legion, and a homeless bum in Iris. Clearly, the stress of his encounters with Gamera and the other monsters got to him.

Anyway…..

In Guardian, things start with reports of giant birds attacking people on one of Japan’s many remote little islands. A team is dispatched to investigate, and finds that the “birds” are better described as pterosaurs (soon dubbed “Gyaos” by the government), and are indeed attacking and eating people….and are now heading straight for the Home Islands. Meanwhile, a Navy flotilla transporting plutonium runs aground on a tiny island where none should have been. An exploration of the island finds a mysterious runestone, and *lots* of little comma-shaped bits of a strange metal. Needless to say, the “island” is actually Gamera, the comma things turn out to allow a scientist’s daughter to form a psychic bond with Gamera, and a translation of the runestone reveals that Gamera was created by an ancient civilization to fight the Gyaos, which themselves were the result of pollution-caused mutations.

Both the Gyaos and Gamera trash Fukuoka in their first encounter – Gamera survives, but one of the Gyaos escapes and soon grows to proper kaiju size. We know that Gamera is the “good guy”; but Japan doesn’t. They battle without regard to the humans in their midst. So which one should the military support?

A year later (in Gamera 2), after the last Gyaos was destroyed and Gamera “flew off into the sunset”, meteors strike Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island. Naturally, the “meteors” turn out to be alien life forms – a fast-growing giant plant, and a group of insect-like creatures given the name “Legion”. Both cause havoc in Sapporo; it’s determined that they are in a weird sort of symbiosis. The insects collect food for and defend the plant, which grows to truly enormous sizes so it can literally explode and send seeds (and presumably insect eggs) back into space.

The military figures out a way to deal with the little insect Legions (by creating what is essentially a giant bug zapper), but it’s up to Gamera to take on the Big Plant. Seems the plant is putting out so much oxygen that any standard military attack would cause it to explode, starting a city-consuming firestorm…. Gamera shows up and manages to uproot the thing, but not before another seed pod sprouts in Sendai. A wounded Gamera isn’t able to deal with that one before a “Legion Queen” emerges and starts heading for the surviving little Legions in Tokyo – and then the plant explodes, turning Sendai into ash-covered rubble, and apparently killing Gamera.

It’s up to prayer now, since the military are helpless against the Legion Queen. Can Gamera regenerate in time?

Well, obviously, since there was another movie to follow….

Everything comes together in Iris. We’re as far on from the events of the previous movies as the amount of time since those movies came out. Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama), whom we first met as a student back in Guardian when government officials were hoping to discuss the giant flying bird-reptile creatures with her professor, is now a professor in her own right, and is Japan’s de facto expert on the Gyaos.

But she’s not the focus of this movie. That honor goes to Ayana Hirasaka (Ai Maeda), a schoolgirl suffering from PTSD after Gamera killed her parents during the first movie. Now living in a small mountain village, Ayana pokes around in a cave that local legend says is the home of a demon – and you Should Not Go In There. She finds a strange egg inside, which soon hatches into a weird mouthless creature. The thing bonds with her; she names it “Iris” for some reason, and talks to it about her hatred of Gamera…. You can tell where this is going, right? Especially after a pair of medium-sized Gyaos appear over Tokyo, and Gamera shows up to fight them….

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris really is an amazing movie. You’ve got some astonishing kaiju battles (with computer graphics helping out in an unobtrusive manner!), a story that actually brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion, and some good additions to Gamera lore. What really makes it work, though, is that it is entirely focused on the characters. Gamera and Iris are secondary! Even in the battles, we’re seeing things from the characters’ point of view. And continuing a stylistic point in the whole trilogy, the movie isn’t afraid to show death and destruction. In Guardian, we see the Gyaos attacking individual people. In Legion, we are shown the blast crater and acres of destruction in Sendai. Here in Iris, we actually see bodies flying through the air in an explosion, and a news reporter gives the estimated number of dead in the Tokyo attack.

With this trilogy, Daiei Studios saw what Toho was doing with Godzilla, met them, and raised the bar for kaiju films. They realized that you need characters that the viewer can care about because they are more than one-dimensional spouters of dialog. You need monster design that actually works – not just giant dinosaurs with the occasional odd bit stuck on them, but creatures that one could imagine might really exist. You want special effects to complement the guys in rubber suits and integrate as seamlessly as possible into the action. You want a coherent and consistent set of lore about your kaiju, not something that changes at random according the needs of the enemy monster du jour.

Daiei would bring back Gamera again for another movie in 2006. But this trilogy set a very high bar for all kaiju movies – one can argue that Iris is the best one ever – and they are still outstanding even two decades on.

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