I wouldn’t blame you if a film series about a giant flying turtle who’s primary tag line in the 60s/70s was “Friend to all Children” was just a little too weird to get into.
While Godzilla’s Showa era definitely leaned into its kid friendly appeal many times, early Gamera movies full on indulged in it with some of the most ridiculous and corny moments in Tokusatsu/Kaiju film-making history ever.
The aforementioned “Friend to all Children” had some of the worst suitmation in the history of the genre while doing battle with giant sharks, literal apomorphic knifes and of course befriended a new pair of whiny, annoying kids in each of his movies. If you found Jake Lloyd’s Anakin annoying and shrill in “The Phantom Menance” get a load of some of these bizarre sequences.
But when it came time for Daiei Studios to once again re-emerge from the depths in Tokusatsu’s Heisei era (the 90s) the giant flying turtle took on the new mantle of “Guardian of the Universe” and thus began a complete reinvention of the kaiju character that arguably dwarfed Godzilla’s considerable footprint during this time.
Beginning with “Guardian of the Universe” Gamera’s Heisei trilogy, which followed up with “Attack of Legion” and “Revenge of Iris” these films could almost be described as the “Dark Knight” of reboots for a giant monster series (but with a considerably better threequel). Gone was much of Gamera’s kid friendly appeal and was replaced with a much more violent streak to the character and a grimmer, darker backstory as he faced off against equally violent rivals in Gyaos, Legion, and Iris across the three films.
(Daniel Bryan “YES” chants breakout)
It’s a credit to director Shusuke Kaneko, who directed perhaps the best Godzilla film of the Millennium era too, who treats Gamera with complete sincerity and creates an interesting giant monster mythos that keeps enough of it mysterious that it has audiences glued and interested in the story through all three films. His directing style also runs hugely counter to many of Godzilla’s best films as well. Where often times many of the G-man’s biggest movies focused more on the giant Kaiju level wrestling matches that took place by shooting the suitmation battles from the perspective of say a kung fu fight scene, Kaneko was interested in making the viewers feel small when these titans locked horns often shooting from the human level of these model sets and incorporating less set backgrounds and more real lighting and atmospheric effects.
This is probably best exemplified in “Revenge of Iris” during the battle of Kyoto between Gamera and his dark shadow Iris. The swirling typhoon rain and the real Gothic-like backgrounds of Kyoto around them all add to an effect that makes these literally larger than life monsters feel both real and awe-inspiring in the best way that few Godzilla films have ever come close to capturing.
It also helps that Kow Otani’s original musical score is just perfect for the series as well combining much of the aesthetics you would expect from a giant monster score with themes and beats that invoke the giant turtle’s mythical background.
Otani’s theme music for Gamera help’s emphasize the character’s heroic visage while also invoking a certain sense of horror at both the rivals he encounters and the monster himself. “Revenge of Iris” especially leans into this creating a haunting score for the human drama of the story that further produces the atmospheric dread of the monsters who do battle in the film.
Kaneko’s treatment of Gamera’s human characters are also a huge plus showing that contrary to popular belief monster films can and should have compelling human characters that at the end of the day will only enhance the story. While most of Godzilla’s films have been content to use their human characters as filler between the juicer giant kaiju fights, Heisei Gamera makes its humans active participants in the story and in the case of “Revenge of Iris” the catalyst of the conflict.
Shinobu Nakayama, who some kung fu fans will recognize as Jet Li’s Japanese girlfriend from “Fist of Legend,” plays an ornithologist named Mayumi Nagamine who discovers Gamera’s primary bird menace of the Gyaos uncovering their behavior, biology and the threat they pose to the human race. Meanwhile Ayako Fujitani plays Asagi Kusanagi who forms a psychic bond to Gamera as the character’s primary human connection to Earth. Together these two characters discover Gamera’s mythical background and ties to the city of Atlantis and its fascinating world building that will leave fans wanting to learn more and to dive in to this character’s complex history. The two actresses play expertly alongside a host of other characters through the three movies and provide an array of complex characteristics ranging from the dramatic, sometimes humorous and often dramatic.
In a blockbuster era that often treats anything that’s even remotely corny with contempt and bathos cough The MCU cough Gamera leans into its story with complete sincerity creating three films that can absolutely be taken seriously as art. Though there are definitely moments that may constitute as extremely corny, the Gamera trilogy is proof that if you treat your stories with earnestness and belief in what you are doing and saying nothing is too cheesy.
Gamera’s reinvention began with leaning away from its child-friendly origins and made sure to not treat his audience as such.
For much of film history, giant
monster pop culture has been dominated by Godzilla and King Kong but for fans
of the genre its time to acknowledge that the
“Friend to all Children” “Guardian of the Universe” has more than earned
his place with equal footing to the two kaiju kings.
Gamera’s Heisei era in a word is perfect Kaiju film-making that more fans need to be aware of and again proof that nothing is “too silly” for the big screen if you treat your story sincerely.
Now coughs if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to write to Guillermo Del Toro…#MakeItHappenHollywood
Also, give me what I want already, Japan!